Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Tim Wright, 41, lives in Carver/Langston. He owns a tour company but also blogs and tweets as “The X2.” Wright doesn’t have a car and mostly gets around using the bus. “I love these routes, the long ones, like the 90s, the 30s, the X2, because you can really see the city,” he says.

But Wright notes that unlike Metrorail, Metrobus doesn’t have any slogans or public presence. “You only know it if you ride the route,” he says, and points out that Metrorail has an iconic architectural style and map. “They have T-shirts. They have a store that sells Metrorail branded stuff.” 

Metrobus, not so much.

The D.C. area’s bus system is not in great shape: Metrobus ridership has declined 13 percent since 2012. Average bus speed is down to around 10 mph, the speed limit for scooters. Buses are arriving on or near schedule only about three quarters of the time.

There’s a ton that only the bus could accomplish with its flexibility, ubiquity, and relative affordability. (Metrobus costs about half as much as Metrorail to operate for each hour of service.) Few tools are as effective as a busy bus system at reducing traffic, crashes, and climate-changing emissions. 

If D.C. wants more bus riders, maybe it should look to Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, with a metro region population of about 1.2 million, saw a 17 percent jump in ridership just last year.

Before last June, Richmond had the same problems with their bus system, the Greater Richmond Transit Company, as so many other places. According to the National Transit Database, bus ridership in the U.S. declined 5 percent between 2016 and 2017. Overall, numbers are at their lowest level in 30 years. 

In Richmond, many areas were difficult to reach and service on nights and weekends was skeletal. The bus was slow and hemorrhaging riders—losing about a quarter of its ridership since 2010.

Then, armed with projections of a rapidly growing region and prominent success stories from Seattle, San Francisco, and Houston, Richmond embarked on a two-pronged effort to modernize its bus system that would take effect all on the same day, June 24, 2018.

The first part is the Pulse, a still-rare-for-North America bus rapid transit, or BRT, system. Thanks in part to a transit grant awarded during the Obama administration, Richmond built a bus-only lane that runs down Broad Street through Richmond, about 35 minutes end-to-end. 

The system uses signal prioritization and off-bus payment technologies to keep the Pulse fast and frequent. The average Pulse bus goes at about 12 mph. D.C.’s X2, the crosstown route that Wright often rides, averages around 9 mph. 

Tyler Fisher, a high schooler, uses the bus every day. They like the Pulse. “Riding the bus as a teenager is scary,” they say, “but riding the Pulse is more idiot-proof.”

Along with the Pulse, Richmond commissioned a system redesign from Jarrett Walker + Associates, a firm that has worked with many cities around the world to streamline their bus service. The map transformed from many lines that branch out of a central node to something more like spokes on a wheel.

These successes, though, came with some ugly failures. Residents and researchers found that the new system put some longtime and African American riders at a disadvantage, and GRTC admits that the system makes service worse for many elderly and disabled residents who can’t walk to new, farther stops. Richmond is now playing catch-up. 

A draft of the new map initially sparked debate about whether the redrawn routes would disproportionately disadvantage lower income and African American residents, especially in Richmond’s East End. JWA made changes, but it was too late: Some Richmonders, aware that the city devotes very little to transportation funding compared with similarly sized American cities, saw the Pulse and redesign as choices intended to bring in new, white riders instead of improving service for black riders. Then in December, months after the change-over, a Virginia Commonwealth University study charged the new design with cutting off thousands of disadvantaged riders. 

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Six months later, JWA produced a rebuttal twice as long as the VCU study, which had obviously touched a nerve. It took issue with the study’s methodology, but at the same time offered this defense—the city decided that that even if riders now had to walk a little farther to get to the new stops, the total travel time would be shorter because buses run more often. For Richmonders who feel their access to the bus is now worse, that’s just not good enough.

“In certain parts of the city there aren’t enough stops,” says Fischer, specifically Shockoe Bottom east of downtown. 

GRTC Director of Communications Carrie Rose Pace says that now the East End receives more service than was initially recommended. “The goal was to still cover everyone that we covered, and we did that,” she says. “We’re not leaving anyone behind.” However, says Pace, disabled and elderly riders have difficulty walking farther and the GRTC is developing strategies to meet their needs, including paratransit options.

Rich Hoffman, 50, lives in Highland Park in North Side Richmond. Hoffman likes the Pulse but says that the rest of the buses are often late and in disrepair. “They run extremely slow,” he says. “Makes you wish you had a car it’s so bad.”

Could D.C. pull off as significant an increase in ridership as Richmond has—without sacrificing equity? 

“The existing bus system doesn’t work for anyone,” says Joe McAndrew, director of transportation policy at the Greater Washington Partnership, a self-described “civic alliance of CEOs.” “We are devaluing the bus rider and we’re also creating a very inefficient, costly system as a result.”

Two different, but not necessarily exclusive routes for improving bus service in D.C. are moving forward right now.

WMATA is working on the express route—the Bus Transformation Project, a $2 million study about the future of the bus in our region. 

In an email statement, WMATA Media Relations Manager Sherri Ly says the Project is bringing together businesses, nonprofits, and transit agencies across the region to “explore the challenges and identify opportunities to create a world class bus system that will make bus the transportation choice in the region.”

In its current form, the Bus Transformation Project recommends changes that range from prioritizing buses on roads to free transfers between rail and bus to optimizing back office administration. Make no mistake, it is explicitly not a Jarrett Walker-style redesign.

However, the project may eventually lead to a redesign, says Executive Steering Committee Chair Rob Puentes. “The region has changed tremendously since some of these routes have been laid out,” he says. “There’s new challenges, there’s new concerns and there’s new technologies. We should certainly be looking at that, but it’s not happening right now.” 

And, because it is not a redesign, the Bus Transformation Project is able to sidestep, or delay, some of the controversial choices Richmond faced. According to the Greater Washington Partnership, “Black residents in the Capital Region are almost three times as likely as white residents to live in areas with poor transit access to jobs and low vehicle ownership rates.” 

But Puentes does not hesitate to explain that equity is a priority for the Project regardless. “While we want the bus to be broadly accessible to all segments of society across the region,” he says, “we have to make sure, that if nothing else, it does no harm to the folks who really depend on it, and it also enhances their service.”

The final Bus Transformation Project report is expected late this summer says Ly at WMATA.

And although it won’t include a redesign, that doesn’t mean the Project won’t be important or useful. 

“If we implemented all of the recommendations that are in there, it would radically transform our bus service,” says McAndrew. The project, or what follows it, could be an opportunity to bring attention to buses and rebrand them. It could be a chance to win new riders as well as those scared off years ago by a poor experience.

But change is never easy—especially at large institutions with so many stakeholders. Many of the comments on the project’s draft report are from local governments and transit agencies that are deeply skeptical of shifting responsibilities or funding. Asked whether he thought there was sufficient political will to implement the project’s recommendations, McAndrew took a long, thoughtful pause before answering simply, “one would hope.” 

The other approach, the local route, involves making one’s own political will, one small victory at a time. Led by District Department of Transportation Director Jeff Marootian, with support from his boss, Mayor Muriel Bowser, DDOT is moving forward with its own innovative bus projects to improve service.

Larger, more traditional bus projects are in the works, including dedicated lanes on 16th Street NW and the long-awaited K Street Transitway downtown. But before heavier construction can begin on those, DDOT has started several “quick-build infrastructure” projects that can be rolled out faster. 

According to Marootian, they are a unique opportunity to collect data and build momentum. “It’s a focus on quicker implementation—being more open to innovation and also iteration,” he says. 

One of those pilots began in early June on H and I streets NW downtown. The agency painted the rightmost lane bright red and changed signage so that during rush-hour, only buses are allowed. It’s too early to judge the results, but the speedy completion of the project has impressed many. 

There will be more pilots, as well as significant changes to the Circulator Bus, which DDOT operates. “We’re looking at several other corridors across all eight wards of the District of Columbia,” says Marootian.

DDOT exchanges information and ideas with groups around the country, including the GRTC. And Pace confirms that her agency is closely watching how the Metropolitan Police Department is enforcing D.C.’s red lane pilot. 

Richmond isn’t finished working on its bus service. GRTC plans on doing a lot more with the bus, including expanding service with more routes, upgrading stops into shelters, and eventually creating up to four more BRT lines. Richmond took big, bold moves with its bus system and is now trying to build on that growth with incremental changes. It remains to be seen whether D.C.’s bus system will follow a similar route.

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