We Had Bus Lanes a Half Century Ago and We Can Again
Despite having two million fewer people, our region used to have 60 miles of bus lanes. It’s time to revive them.
Did We Really Have That Many Bus Lanes?
Yes. In the 1960s and 70s before Metrorail was built, Washington and its surrounding inner suburbs relied heavily on its bus system to get around, with very frequent service on a number of major streets. According to our records (linked at the bottom of this post), the first bus-only lane was installed in 1962 on 16th Street NW in DC, generally between H Street NW and Florida Avenue NW [DDOT Fact Sheet, p. 6]. This was followed by dozens of miles of rush-hour and full-time installations, as shown in the map and table below. Streets in red indicate bus lanes that were implemented as of 1976, while streets in black and blue represent bus lanes that were planned but, to our knowledge, never put in place.
Why Were They Installed?
Generally, the lanes were put in place to:
- support increasing bus ridership,
- reduce traffic congestion on city streets,
- accommodate economic growth without increasing parking supply, and
- respond to new federal rules established to improve the poor air quality of the time.
How Did They Perform?
Along the two exclusive bus lanes of the Shirley Highway (I-95/395) in Northern Virgina, ridership increased 250% from 1971 to 1974 [Shirley, p. 4], beating forecasts by almost 50%. At that time, the Shirley Busway carried about the same numbers of morning rush hour commuters in the two reversible, peak-direction bus lanes as the all cars in the
3 other inbound general purpose lanes combined [Shirley, p. 5]. Along Arlington Blvd (US-50) in Fairfax and Arlington Counties, bus speeds and ridership increased by 21% and 10% [NVTC, p. 1], respectively, in just the first four months after the bus lanes were installed. The lanes cost $1.3 million, or about $6.8 million in today dollars. In 1976, the District Department of Transportation estimated that it would have taken 185,000 cars (and parking spaces to store them) to move the 277,000 people transported on 5,540 buses just during the time of bus lane operations [DDOT Fact Sheet, p. 7]. Although the benefits were clear, correspondence hints there were some also challenges involved in enforcing the lane restrictions along city streets, which can still be a challenge today.
What Happened To Them?
In some cases policy changes favoring auto travel were made which ended the bus-only lane restrictions. For example, after several years of bus-only operation on the Shirley Highway, high-occupancy vehicles (HOV4+) were allowed use of the busway. This led to a reduction in demand for service and eventually to the HOV 3+ and part time general traffic use we see on the reversible lanes today. More often, Metrorail lines were built underneath or near many the streets where high volume bus corridors operated, enabling the routes to be truncated at rail stations to feed the newly opened rail lines. In this way the gradual construction and operation of the Metrorail System allowed the new heavy rail lines to handle the higher passenger loads they were built to accommodate, which in turn reduced the demand for bus service in many corridors where bus lanes previously were installed.
We Did This Before and Know It Can Work Today
Not only did we successfully install bus lanes before, some of the same streets which need the lanes today, notably H and I Streets NW, and 16th Street NW, already had the bus lanes many decades ago. But the local DOTs, and not Metro, own and control the streets and must make the decisions to install priority bus lanes. However, it’s instructive that that every state transportation agency in the region has implemented bus lanes before, and acknowledged the fundamental efficiency benefits [DDOT Fact Sheet, p. 7] of bus lanes for riders and drivers alike [VDOT, p. 2]. With an increasingly urbanizing region, constrained street space, full buses slowed on congested streets, and an increasingly crowded Metrorail system it’s time to act now. Metro is working with its local partners through our Momentum Plan Metro 2025 Initiatives like the Priority Corridor Network, to develop bus-only lanes and other priority treatments along heavily traveled frequent service bus corridors. If you support bus lanes and other transit improvements, endorse Momentum and contact your local department of transportation.