D.C.’s underperforming Circulator bus service has found a way to increase ridership: Swallow the competition. As of March 26, the Georgetown Metro Connection “Blue Buses” that run from Foggy Bottom to upper Georgetown will cease operation, and passengers will be directed to a rerouted Union Station-to-Georgetown Circulator route.
This is officially a “six-month pilot project,” but don’t expect the blue (or sometimes white) buses to return to that line, regardless of the experiment’s outcome. Georgetown Metro Connection’s Dupont Circle to Rosslyn route will continue, at least for now.
The Circulator revamp offers one enhancement but several drawbacks. The bus will not stop directly at the Foggy Bottom Metro stop—-Metro passengers are advised to catch it at Farragut Square—-and will no longer use K Street to enter Georgetown. Since buses will now travel on congested Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street, and then up Wisconsin Avenue as far as the Georgetown Safeway, the trip will be longer and slower. (More vehicles will be added in an attempt to maintain 10-minute headways.)
The principal improvement is that service will no longer end at 9 p.m. Buses from Georgetown will run to Farragut Square until midnight on weeknights and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The after-9 buses will not continue to Union Station.
The blue buses are underwritten by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, which also contributes a small subsidy to the Circulator. Other BIDs also fund the Circulator, but most of the money comes from D.C. and federal funds.
According to Erik Linden, spokesperson for the city’s transportation department, the Circulator’s east-west route is averaging about 5,000 riders per day. Total ridership for the entire three-route system in February was 142,000, which means 5,071 a day. That number indicates that the Union Station-Georgetown line is providing the bulk of Circulator riders, and yet the buses traversing K Street are rarely even half-full.
Passenger levels should increase on the Mall loop with warmer weather, but the 7th Street line is irredeemable; it would be approximately as useful to halt the buses and just burn the taxpayer cash it takes to run them.
In a e-mail providing the ridership numbers, Linden wrote that, “We are thrilled with the response to the Circulator thus far” and that “We think the ridership numbers are growing at a healthy rate.” Yet the number of passengers doesn’t seem to be growing at all.
February is a slow month, but at its peak Circulator ridership isn’t much higher than 5,071 daily. In April 2006, during prime tourist season, the Circulator carried an average of 6,062 people a day, a number that dipped to 5,899 in May.
In fall 2005, Circulator planner Joe Sternlieb predicted that daily riders on the first two routes would reach 10,000 to 11,000 by the end of 2008. It will take a lot more than sidelining a few blue buses to hit that number.