The new D.C. Circulator buses offer quite a contrast to the other transit buses that ply Washington’s streets. Unlike typical Metrobuses, which are white, battered, and on average 10 years old, the Circulator buses are clean and new, with picture windows and predominantly red exteriors. Nothing disrupts their sleek lines—including, on some runs, the shape of a single passenger.

Although ridership has increased since the service began July 10, the Circulator is still averaging only about five passengers per trip. Most

riders use the Union Station to Georgetown line; the other route connects the Convention Center and Southwest Waterfront. (Both run every five to 10 minutes from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and cost $1 a trip, 25 cents less than Metrobus.) Average weekday ridership has risen to about 3,745, a figure that dips to 3,255 daily when weekends are included. The Circulator’s principal architects insist that these numbers are fine.

“We’re very comfortable with where we are,” says Joe Sternlieb, lead planner for D.C. Surface Transit, a nonprofit organization composed of seven local convention, planning, and business groups, including four business improvement districts (BIDs). Those organizations contributed $600,000 to underwrite the buses; the rest of the $6 million annual operating budget comes from city and federal funds. The 29 buses and such incidentals as signs were purchased with $12.5 million from a bus rider’s fund, a kitty that resulted from a ’60s lawsuit against a long-defunct private transit company.

Sternlieb estimates that the Circulator, boosted by upcoming marketing campaigns and bulk ticket sales to conventions and hotels, will carry 10,000 to 11,000 riders daily by 2008. That may not seem very many, compared with today’s approximately 700,000 weekday riders on Metrorail, or 450,000 on Metrobus. It’s also less than a fourth of the ridership projected by the D.C. Circulator’s bible, a 2003 consultants’ report. But then that document anticipated two additional routes, which were supposed to provide the bulk of the passengers.

Those lines, the Monuments and Capitol– White House routes, may commence later, but not before (again) 2008. That’s the earliest the National Park Service, which currently has an exclusive contract with Tourmobile, could authorize the Circulator to serve the areas it controls. This is one of those strange-but-true moments in D.C.’s troubled marriage with the federal interest: The city is not allowed to run shuttle buses on public streets in the realm that’s been ceded to Tourmobile.

The three-year interval before the possible introduction of the other D.C. Circulator routes prompts one of several nagging questions about the concept: Why start Circulator service in 2005 if major ridership isn’t expected until 2008? Sternlieb concedes that the Convention Center– Waterfront line won’t attract significant ridership until it links with the two proposed lines. And while the Union Station– Georgetown line is drawing more passengers, it crawls across congested K Street, a thoroughfare to which D.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) Director Dan Tangherlini hopes to add dedicated bus lanes. “We will start preliminary design this fall or winter,” he says—which means the busways might be aiding the Circulator sometime around, say, 2008.

The Circulator also raises other concerns. Is it appropriate to a congested center city like Washington’s? Is it the best use of a multi-million-dollar annual subsidy? And are its planners, who never held a public hearing on the service, running a government-funded bus service with private-sector standards of accountability?

The Circulator is an off-the-shelf concept modeled on bus shuttles in other cities, including Milwaukee, Dallas, and Chattanooga, that aren’t very much like Washington. Of the nine other cities whose shuttles were analyzed in the consultants’ report endorsing the Circulator, most are smaller than D.C., and all are less dense. Only one of the nine, Los Angeles, has underground rapid-rail service, and its single subway line and sprawling “downtown” are not similar to Washington’s Metro and center city.

Many of the nine shuttles run on transit malls or less heavily congested streets; four are free, and most of the others charge 25 or 50 cents. According to Sternlieb and Tangherlini, the D.C. Circulator’s fare was pegged at 50 cents during initial planning seven years ago, but ultimately rose to $1, in part so as not to undercut the Georgetown– Metro Connection “blue buses.” (Those, like the Circulator, are partially underwritten by the Georgetown BID.)

One of the consultants’ premises is highly dubious: that Metrorail and Metrobus are designed for in-and-out travel and “are not efficient at moving [people] around the downtown and the Monumental Core.” Metrorail doesn’t go everywhere, of course, but it’s been used as a downtown shuttle ever since the first snippet of Red Line opened in 1976, for good reason. In the areas it serves, Metrorail is generally faster than bus or taxi—and, now, the Circulator.

The new red buses divert money that might be spent on improving Metrobus service, expanding information about routes and schedules, or rectifying fare inequities—for example, restoring the short-trip bus-rail pass, which offset the 100 percent bus-to-rail transfer penalty until it was eliminated in 2003. (Short-trip pass users paid a flat fee to ride bus or rail and so were not affected by the fact that Metro charges another full fare to people who switch from bus to rail; there’s still a long-trip pass, but it’s no bargain for people who don’t commute from the outer suburbs.) Most of both Circulator routes are redundant with existing Metro service, suggesting that they will divert at least some of their riders from transit rather than the automobile.

In a two-hour conversation in a DOT conference room, Sternlieb and Tangherlini dance around many of these questions, insisting that the red buses are, as the former puts it, “working great.”

Rather than address specific queries about the Circulator, they talk mostly in broader terms. “We’re trying to change people’s behavior,” Sternlieb says, by which he means using the Circulator to lure them out of their cars and into transit vehicles, including older, clunkier Metrobuses. Those vehicles, he says, “appear to the person who took Metro [rail into downtown] as not of the same class. You take that as you will—this is a common thing you get back from people.”

These new passengers may use the Circulator to reach shops and restaurants in downtown and Georgetown, which is one reason that four BIDs are subsidizing the service. Yet Sternlieb says he’s just as interested in getting upscale, civically involved people on Metrobus, because they’re more likely to agitate for better service. “If we get more and more people to advocate for the bus system, improvements are going to be made citywide.”

But it’s not just potential bus riders whom Sternlieb and Tangherlini want to affect. One of their recurring themes is using the Circulator to goad the U.S. transit industry in general, and Metro in particular.

The 29 Belgian-built Circulator buses have big windows, three rather then two doors each, and low floors running most of the length of the bus. Tangherlini contrasts them with multipurpose American-made vehicles designed to travel highways as well as city streets. Such heavy-duty buses, he contends, lack “friendliness” and “curb appeal.”

“The Circulator is an opportunity to test different ways of making buses more popular, and a more attractive alternative,” he says. “And actually kind of challenging Metro and the region to improve the quality of the service. I see it as a way to really push the envelope and challenge existing orthodoxies and methods. And force them at least into a dialogue.”

Tangherlini’s frustration with Metrobus is easy to understand. Since Metro grudgingly accepted the job of running a regional bus system in 1973, it’s shown little enthusiasm for improvements or innovations. In June, a panel of transit-bus managers from systems in four North American cities told Metrobus that its equipment, operations, training, and maintenance were all inadequate. But Metro still runs the city’s buses, and establishing a small-scale alternative that might someday carry a tenth of Metrobus’ ridership seems merely a distraction from reforming or expanding the larger system.

Tangherlini responds only that “we are proud of our record of promoting bus service’’ and that “the Circulator is just the first of many upgrades to the quality of the actual service. These are compatible, not competing goals to provide better public transit in the system.’’

Organizationally, the Circulator is a hybrid vehicle, funded mostly by taxpayer money, marketed by the nonprofit but semiprivate D.C. Surface Transit, and operated by First Transit, a private Ohio company. Everything beyond the basics of getting the buses up and down the streets, however, is managed by Metro, which Sternlieb hopes will be transformed by the experience. “Nothing would make me happier,” he says, “than if the general bus system was to improve to be better than the Circulator system a couple years from now.”

Metrorail and Metrobus have always coexisted awkwardly, and Tangherlini suggests that the Circulator could show Metro how to better integrate the two. “We’ve seen some thawing in that glacier,” he says. “We think the Circulator is kind of challenging them to think more creatively about that.”

He also sees the red buses as defrosting another bureaucracy: “I frankly think that as a result of all this stuff on the Circulator, we’ve forced the National Park Service to take a look at how they are serving mobility on the Mall. So they’re actually doing an Environmental Impact Statement [on Mall bus service].”

According to Sternlieb, an agreement with the Park Service would dramatically alter the Circulator’s finances. The Monuments and Capitol– White House routes “could generate enough revenue to help cross-subsidize the entire system so that we could reduce the public investment. There’s a different economic model down there than there is up here.”

The Circulator also involves a different model of accountability. The bulk of the Circulator’s annual operating subsidy comes from D.C. or federal funds, but some information about the service is apparently not meant for the public. Despite frequent promises that a Circulator budget was forthcoming, it took D.C. DOT almost three weeks to release one. And Tangherlini seems surprised when asked if his department has ever conducted a public hearing on the service. “We definitely talked about it in the public hearings we had on the K Street busway,” he says. “Did I ever have a Circulator hearing? No.”

Dismissively, he compares such a possible hearing to one on the Navy Yard shuttle line. “Did we ever have a N22 public hearing? Maybe we did. I would love to see how many people came.”

Confident as he clearly is of his vision—which includes numerous possible streetcar lines, including ones that will perhaps someday supplant those new red buses—Tangherlini cautions that he’s not wedded to the Circulator’s current incarnation. “I think the point is, it’s not done,” he says. “It is in many ways an experiment.”

Yet Tangherlini defends the lightly patronized Circulator by saying that, on a cost-per-passenger basis, it already compares well with more expensive rail projects. He suggests that the New York Avenue Metro station, which cost $104 million, “is actually boarding and alighting less people a day than the Circulator.” The apples-and-oranges comparison may someday flatter the red buses, but not yet. The station generated 4,180 trips daily in August, well above the almost 3,000 the Circulator did the same month, according to information provided by Metro spokesperson Lisa Farbstein.

Lower costs and higher flexibility, Tangherlini says, make the Belgian buses a minor risk, even if they never meet ridership projections or if the complementary routes fail to materialize. “These things have tires and can drive away,” he notes. “We’ve always said, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen? That I hand over 29 buses that Metro has to paint from red to white.’”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.