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Amanda Ripley’s article “Missing the Bus” (1/23) misses the point. To begin with, Metrorail was designed with the main intention of carrying commuters between Washington and the suburbs. Setting aside the enormous expense of heavy rail and the massive federal subsidies needed to build Metrorail, D.C.’s economic collapse gutted the commuter base. This phenomenon is hardly unique to Washington; most large cities have experienced flight to the suburbs.

Buses have two problems: slow speed and the bias that affluent people have against them. Taking a local bus that makes every stop is a very slow way of getting from Point A to Point B. They are also viewed as poor people’s vehicles, largely because for the poor they are the only means of transit. This problem is compounded by the lawlessness observed by the author (i.e., the beer drinking). Where are the undercover transit police? There would be no need for high-priced, heavily experienced drivers if the law were properly enforced. Moreover, as New York City’s experience has shown, those who commit petty crimes are very likely to commit major crimes. Another means to reduce crime is to install video cameras, as is the practice in Los Angeles.

Several technological fixes exist to speed up buses, which all seem to run up against one political problem or another. To speed up fare payments, Metrorail has been experimenting with prepaid “Go Cards.” These are smart cards that only need to be waved at a reader for use. It seems like every Metrorail station has Go Card-enabled fare gates, but I have yet to see a bus with a Go Card reader. This latter omission destroys any integration of bus-rail fares using Go Cards. Curiously, other cities have managed to find ways to prepay fares on both buses and rail. Another fix is to give bus drivers control of traffic lights, as Denver and Curitiba, Brazil, do. The driver has the ability to turn a red light green, and thus speed the bus’s passage.

One city (Curitiba) has managed to create a bus system that is fast, clean, and breaks even at the farebox. It operates its buses using a heavy-rail metaphor. Passengers enter sheltered bus stops by dropping a token into a turnstile. They either walk up or take a small lift up to the platform, which is level with the bus’s floor. (The latter detail eliminates the need for paratransit and other expensive accommodations for wheelchairs.) The city itself is laid out in a hub-and-spokes plan in which each arterial consists of three parallel roadways: a central busway flanked by two local, one-way roads. Express and local buses operate on the busway. Commuters from outlying areas take feeder buses to the express buses, with a seamless transfer.

Moreover, the buses are operated by private contractors, which must bid competitively for the routes and are paid by the mile. This keeps costs down while preventing cream-skimming: The system operates several lines at a loss in order to provide passengers for profitable lines. The Washington metropolitan area could quickly implement a Curitiba-style line from the West Falls Church Metro station to Dulles Airport using already existing roadways (the Dulles Access Road). The logical extension to this is a busway along the Capitol Beltway. This would connect to Metrorail at several locations on several lines. It would also go a long way toward easing suburb-to-suburb commuting.

Finally, a commuter tax would be an unmitigated disaster. In the short run, it could raise large amounts of revenue. However, it would also trigger a massive exodus of jobs from D.C., further eroding the tax base and lowering D.C.’s overall revenues.

Oakton, Va.

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