Building a Blueprint for a Better Bus Network
Metrobus is a critical part of the region’s transit system. It can be better, stronger, faster, and more efficient than it is today. Here’s how.
As described in previous posts, Metrobus is due for a regional service update to better reflect its many and sometimes conflicting regional roles. Certainly, updates to its business model, operational scale and performance standards could go a long way towards helping the region make business- and customer-savvy decisions about the best way to deploy this service. However, alone these changes would not significantly enhance cost efficiency, nor make the buses run faster, nor get more people to use the service, nor better connect this region which is hungry for more mobility as it prospers and expands.
Unfortunately, today’s bus operating environment is unsustainable, both operationally and financially. Growing traffic congestion and longer boarding times due to growth in demand have prolonged the scheduled bus travel times, resulting in less reliable service, longer passenger wait times, the use of more fleet just to keep the same headway, and ultimately higher operations costs. As a region we can choose to just accept the service we have, or we can do the heavy lifting to create the service we need (and deserve).
Here is the beginning of a blueprint of near-term actions that can speed up buses, improve on-time performance, and better serve our customers.
- Complete the investments in the Priority Corridor Network. Buses have lost travel speed and service reliability across all providers in the past 15 years. Putting buses on bus lanes in the selected six PCN corridors in DC, MD, and VA would potentially save the region 12 buses and reduce the annual operating costs by $7 million. Implementing the whole host of PCN improvements would save the region at least $22M per year.
- Identify and fix the “low hanging fruit” problems that slow down buses. Tight-angles at key intersections. Stop bars that keep the buses from running smoothly. Places where an additional traffic control officer could keep buses and cars moving smoothly. There are hundreds of these “speed bumps” that could be easy to fix with paint and policy that could keep the buses moving quickly. Our office is working with DDOT right now to identify the ones that can be improved right now with huge impacts to bus performance. We’d like to do this region-wide.
- Create high-capacity lanes for buses. In many corridors, such as 16th Street NW, Metrobus carries the vast majority of trips. We could carry even more if our buses weren’t also stuck in traffic or bunched up as they navigate the roadways. It’s time to consider where buses and other high-capacity transit modes can get priority so that they can get beyond traffic and move customers to their destinations quickly.
- Speed up boarding times by implementing off-board fare payment. Buses in high-demand corridors sit with their doors open, loading passengers, up to 24% of their running time. That means that we’re spending lots of time and money sitting still while customers board and pay for their fares once on the bus. Off-board fare payment technology can not only get the buses moving, but also save Metro big bucks by allowing us to divert scarce resources to actually running the buses rather than stopping them.
- Create bus routes people can actually understand. S2. K9. W4. P17. No, this isn’t Battleship. These are bus routes. And while it is somewhat fascinating to have bus route nomenclature grounded in historical trolley routes, it doesn’t help the new bus user figure out the bus maps. Does the bus go north or south? To the Downtown or to Crystal City? You kind of have to be a bus know-it-all to ride the bus, and it’s high time we changed that to “democratize the service”.
- Make thoughtful decisions about bus facility locations. Past decisions to relocate facilities from the central market to outer areas have increased Metrobus deadheading hours and operating costs. Between 2007 and 2015, the total deadheading cost went up by $5M, and by 2025, another $6M. While it isn’t always possible to meet the needs of bus garages with the needs of neighborhoods, we can and should be thinking about creative approaches, including mixed use structures and full-cost accounting, so that our site selection decisions don’t degrade the efficiency of the service.
But that’s really just the beginning. The very basics of “good bus housekeeping” that give us upgraded functionality on the bus routes we already have. It stops short of the real potential for bus service in this region, which is at least threefold:
- Back to the drawing board. The region and its travel patterns have evolved significantly since the original streetcar routes were dismantled and replaced with bus routes. While bus service planners have made mighty efforts to adjust routes and service patterns over the years to keep up with growth patterns, we seem to be carrying the baggage of legacy routes and tweaking around the edges rather than re-imagining the region’s bus routes. Private companies such as Bridj and TransLoc already have the technology that can allow us to design our bus routes around customer and market demand, as well as create unique services such as on-demand or shuttle services for unique conditions. We can and should be looking to these technologies to completely redraw the region’s bus network so it can dynamically respond to changing demand patterns and customer needs. Houston and Los Angeles have already executed major overhauls of their bus route structures regionally, so the fact is that it can be done. It just takes political will.
- We need an intuitive network of bus service types. We have innovated lots of brands to try to deliver a portfolio of services to the customers. But it’s no secret that brand confusion exists. The uninitiated might wonder what the the difference is between the Circulator (run by DDOT) and Metrobus (run by WMATA)? Between MetroExtra and Metroway? Whether REX or Metroway or ART is faster, cheaper, or more direct? And with new brands proliferating in Montgomery County and potentially on Route 1 in Virginia, will we add more brands to the mix? Perhaps the right approach is to take a page out of RTD’s book (PDF) and develop functional classifications that tell the rider the type of trip they are taking. Their “Hop. Skip. Jump. Leap. Bound” classification of bus service types is pure genius and it gives customers the information they need rather than the information they don’t.
- It’s beyond time to get serious about a regional BRT network. We’ve said it before – Metrorail is a long-term solution to major capacity needs and simply can’t be built everywhere. That may bring a tear to some eyes, but fear not, because for many many instances bus rapid transit can be an appealing and effective solution! There are some BRT systems in operation today and more planned, but this region can and should be at least contemplating a regional network of BRT services that cross jurisdictional boundaries and connect communities rapidly and efficiently.
Metro’s Office of Planning will be working collaboratively with our jurisdictional partners over the next few months to address these near-term actions and to identify a path forward. What else should we be considering?