Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

DDOT is eying the Circulator for cuts and/or fare increases. The Circulator has been very valuable and should continue to expand, including fixing problems with the Navy Yard route, but equalizing fares between Circulator and Metrobus addresses a basic inequity while raising needed revenue.

Circulator routes have provided some valuable transit service where demand has recently grown. For example, the Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-Columbia Heights-McPherson Square route has supplemented busy buses on 14th Street and connected neighborhoods with significant new housing and retail.

That route quickly became the Circulator’s 2nd busiest within months of its launch in April of 2009, serving 126,000 rides in January. It is also the cheapest, only costing $2.28 per ride in November compared to $2.92 for the next cheapest, Georgetown-Union Station and $3.18 for the system overall.

The new Rosslyn-Georgetown-Dupont route, which replaced the old Blue Bus, became the Circulator’s 3rd busiest as soon as it launched last September, and provided almost 68,000 rides.

Circulator ridership per line, 2006-present. Image from the Circulator dashboard.

Other lines are not faring so well. The The Mall Circulator is a great idea, but as long as it’s restricted to run on outer loop roads and the Park Service refuses to even publicize it, it’s limited. In July, it served 3,463 rides in 54 hours of service, or 64 riders per hour, while the 14th/Columbia route served 124,465 rides over 562 hours of service in the same month for 221 riders per hour.

The Union Station-Navy Yard-Ballpark route is the most costly, at $4.66 per rider in November. At last week’s DDOT hearing, representatives of the area BIDs suggested that this route is hamstrung by very limited hours, an inconvenient pickup location in the Union Station garage, and a circuitous route through the Capitol complex.

Costs$511,744 $194,725 $253,712 $146,734 $214,706 $1,321,622
Revenue$121,951 $24,017 $67,350 $22,959 $45,877 $282,154
Subsidy$389,793 $170,709 $186,362 $123,775 $168,829 $1,039,468
Cost/rider$2.92 $4.85 $2.28 $4.66 $3.68 $3.18
Farebox recovery24%12%27%16%21%21%
Revenue/rider$0.70 $0.60 $0.61 $0.73 $0.79 $0.68
Subsidy/rider$2.23 $4.25 $1.67 $3.93 $2.89 $2.50
Preliminary Circulator performance statistics for November 2010 from DDOT.

This route may be worth expanding in hours if the route can be modified to take a straighter and more understandable path. Simple routes are one of the strengths of the other lines, especially the original east-west route on K and M Streets and north-south on 7th and 9th.

DDOT therefore is considering cutting the Mall route and using the money to extend the Navy Yard route until 9 pm except Sundays. Despite the Circulator being originally designed in large part around tourists as well as DC residents, 80% of riders live in DC.

The other debate will center around raising the Circulator fare. Right now, the $1 fare is simple and certainly affordable, but it’s also far less than the $1.50 with SmarTrip and $1.70 cash on Metrobus.

This creates equity issues and strange political pressures. It does indeed seem unfair that riders at 14th and L can choose a cheaper bus if they’re going no farther north than Columbia Heights, but have to take the pricier bus if going to Petworth or Brightwood. The cheaper bus takes a left turn through generally more affluent areas than the pricer bus. Why should this be?

If a simple cash fare is a goal for the Circulator, raise the fare to $2 for cash and $1.50 for SmarTrip.

The BIDs argued against raising the fares beyond $1 at last week’s hearing. According to Karyn LeBlanc of the Downtown BID, the Georgetown Blue Bus, predecessor to the current Dupont-Georgetown-Rosslyn Circulator route, originally charged $1.50. When they changed it to $1, the ridership jumped so much that total revenues increased, LeBlanc said.

It could be that some of that came from the added publicity around the change, though there surely is some elasticity of demand. However, it’s simply hard to justify charging a cheaper rate for this bus between two of DC’s richest neighborhoods and Virginia than all the buses east of the river.

Speaking of east of the river, pressure began to mount last year to bring a Circulator across the Anacostia. In fact, Councilmembers all over the city started wanting one in their own wards. Maybe more routes in all wards including east of the river are the answer, or maybe the money would be better spent improving existing bus service.

That’s a decision that DDOT, WMATA, and the Council should make in consultation with residents based on people’s real mobility needs. With the Circulator being newer, sexier, more frequent, and most of all cheaper, the gut desire to get a Circulator at times has outshone more sober transportation planning. Equalizing the fares will remove most of this perverse incentive.

DDOT will present their plans for the Circulator at a public forum next Thursday, March 17th, 6:30-8 pm at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel, 140 L Street, SE near the Navy Yard Metro.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.