On July 13, the anniversary of the D.C. Circulator’s first run, the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) issued a press release labeling the bus service the “Coolest Ride in Town” and calling it an “ongoing success.” But what’s the definition of success? Well, there isn’t one, which is why boosters of the shuttle-bus operation can claim to have achieved their goals.

The original consultants’ report that endorsed the Circulator concept projected 40,000 daily riders on four lines. But in an interview last fall, Circulator godfathers Dan Tangherlini and Joe Sternlieb explained that those numbers were obsolete—and had not been replaced by any new ones. (At the time Tangherlini was the director of DDOT, which provides most of the Circulator’s $6 million annual budget, and Sternlieb was deputy director of the Downtown Business Improvement district, one of four private organizations that kick in a total of $600,000 a year. Tangherlini has since become acting director of Metro, and Sternlieb has gone to work for local developer EastBanc.)

Currently, the system is said to be carrying 7,000 riders daily on three lines, with a goal of 11,000 daily by the end of 2008. But the claim of 7,000 riders a day appears to be overstated. While detailed ridership numbers are available only through the end of May, those statistics indicate that in its best month, April, the Circulator attracted an average of 7,176 passengers per weekday. Overall, daily ridership was only 6,062, a number that declined slightly to 5,899 in May.

In addition, according to DDOT spokesperson Karyn LeBlanc, the ridership studies do not address how many Circulator riders have switched from Metrorail or other Metrobus routes. It’s possible that much of the Circulator’s paltry ridership is being diverted from other services—and thus decreasing Metro revenue. Some unmeasurable, but perhaps significant, percentage of the Circulator’s funding is simply increasing Metro’s need for subsidy.

One aspect of the D.C. Circulator has been an unqualified success: the public relations campaign. Aside from my skeptical feature on the service in City Paper last fall and a July 24 article in the Common Denominator, the local press has greeted the bus service mostly with puff pieces. The Washington Post has been particularly flattering, perhaps because—as Sternlieb testified at a June 7 roundtable before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment—”so many Circulator riders were not bus riders until they were attracted to the new service.” In other words, the Circulator has snob appeal.

Only one person testified against the shuttle bus service at the lightly publicized June 7 roundtable (which was supposed to be a public hearing, but had to be downgraded because insufficient notice was given for it to be a legal hearing). Kerry Stowell, who lives near a K Street Circulator stop, argued that “the numbers just do not work.” Noting that she had never seen more than five riders per bus, she calculated that based on fuel costs alone the Circulator costs “$42,336 per passenger per month.”

The estimate of five riders per bus is a little low, at least on the Union Station to Georgetown route, which is the most popular of the three. But even the Circulator’s supporters admit that the buses are nowhere near full. The Post’s new Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, inadvertently damned the buses while offering much more than faint praise. On Aug. 13, he wrote that he had tried the service and found it “a model” with a “distinctive” look that offered “a swell trip.” He rode for the first time on July 28, when the Circulator offered free rides all day to commemorate (a little late) its first anniversary. Thomson noted that he later took several more Circulator journeys, on all three lines, and reported happily that “it’s never been crowded.”

And that’s the story. Not that the Circulator is innovative, cool, or swell. It’s that ridership is low, well below projections, and—to judge from the latest available numbers—no longer growing. The 7,000 daily ridership that the transportation department touted in July shows no increase over April.

Of course, different lines are performing differently. In May, the Union Station to Georgetown route carried 128,599 passengers, while the 7th Street line carried only 42,049. (Ridership on the Mall loop was a mere 12,222, but that service had just been introduced in March.)

Sooner or later, the ridership figures will sink in, and much or perhaps all of the service will be cancelled. For the 7th Street route, that can’t happen soon enough. Almost entirely redundant with the 70/71 Metrobus line, the 7th Street Circulator is an unmitigated flop. It’s a favorite of the BIDs, because it’s supposed to move Convention Center visitors to other parts of town, but it is clearly not doing that.

Logically, the Circulator “brand” would be redefined for tourist areas that have little transit service. Thus the Mall loop should survive, and perhaps be expanded. (Currently, it goes only as far west as 17th Street NW.) Maybe the proposed fourth line, the White House–Capitol Hill loop, should be given a tryout, although it would cover areas that already have substantial Metrorail and Metrobus service.

And what about the 5,899 (as of May) daily riders on the Union Station–Georgetown line? They can be accommodated with some juggling of Metrobus service, which would likely produce higher ridership overall. The D2 and D6 lines could be rerouted to run the Circulator’s more direct route: from Union Station via Massachusetts Avenue and K Street to Wisconsin and K, then up Wisconsin and onto to Q Street to complete their current routes to Glover Park and Sibley Hospital. Of course, the new routes would have to be adequately publicized and marked, but that’s an enduring problem with all Metrobus routes. And there’s no reason that the buses’ electronic signs can’t provide more information: “Glover Park via G’town and K Street,” say.

The re-routing leaves parts of the D2 and D6 lines unserved, but that can be fixed by expanding two lines that were cut back years ago, principally for budgetary reasons. Frequencies should increase on P Street’s G2, offering better service from Dupont and Shaw to Georgetown, and compensating for moving the D2 and D6 off Q street east of Wisconsin Avenue. And the 42 should be restored to Stadium-Armory either via its old route through downtown and across Capitol Hill, or via the roughly D6 parallel route.

Would these changes be as cool as the Circulator? Perhaps not, but they would carry more riders, which is one reasonable definition of success.