If you stand at a bus stop on 16th Street NW south of the U Street intersection after 8 a.m. on a typical weekday, there’s a good chance the next S line bus heading downtown will not stop to pick you up. It’s nothing personal. The driver simply cannot fit any more passengers on board.
More buses, same problem
Despite the recent addition of buses to augment service in the busiest part of morning rush hour — more than 40 S line buses travel the route between 8 and 9 a.m. — supply still does not meet demand on 16th St., now the busiest bus corridor in Washington D.C., with more than 21,000 weekday riders. The ridership explosion of 25 percent since 2009 has been fueled by the growing population in Columbia Heights and Dupont Circle, two neighborhoods in a city where forty percent of households are car-free and thus dependent on transit.
The inadequate service is not caused by a lack of buses. Traffic congestion continues to slow down the S line no matter how many more buses Metro adds to the mix (the transit authority currently runs 27 to 42 buses per hour during morning and afternoon rush hour), causing not only crowding but also eliminating spacing between buses. It is now common for commuters to watch two or three buses pass them within seconds of one another.
“Three S1s will pass by and I will be out here for 45 minutes waiting for one,” said Emma Kelsy as she stood at the bus stop at 16th St. and Corcoran St. Her commute only takes 20 minutes once she boards a bus.
New calls for bus lane
Commuters’ frustrations are prompting neighborhood representatives and transit advocates to call on the District Department of Transportation to act on the recommendations of the agency’s own studies and implement a rush hour bus lane on 16th Street NW from Columbia Heights all the way downtown, a total of 2.7 miles. DDOT has yet to fully commit to the idea, although agency planners say they will continue to study how the bus lane would work without significantly affecting car traffic or parking.
“Peoples commutes’ are just unpredictable now. They have to wait 5 minutes or 20 minutes or longer for a bus and it’s just becoming untenable for them to get to work,” said Kishan Putta, a Dupont Circle ANC commissioner who has been lobbying DDOT and the District Council since last year. In response to public pressure, most of the D.C. mayoral candidates have come out in support.
One morning this week, Putta asked commuters waiting at bus stops along 16th Street to sign a petition calling on officials to move ahead on the project. As he spoke to this reporter for about 45 minutes in the heart of rush hour, as many buses failed to stop as did stop at 16th and Corcoran. Each one that blew by was bursting with commuters. Some of those left standing on the sidewalk simply gave up and hailed a taxi.
“If you were to add more buses to this already congested route it would just add to the congestion, so we should also have a quicker way for them to get to work. The idea of dedicated bus lanes is new to D.C. but it’s not new in the world or in America,” Putta said.
DDOT study cites benefits and drawbacks
An internal DDOT study completed in 2013 recommended “key immediate next steps” to pursue, including starting the environmental impact process under NEPA, but it remains unclear when the agency will move.
“That study found there were potential benefits to bus lanes going downtown but there were also some big trade-offs. We felt the benefits were worth continuing to pursue. That doesn’t mean we are going to go out tomorrow and start installing them,” said Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s associate director for planning, policy and sustainability. “I can tell you it won’t be by the end of this year that we’ll have a dedicated bus lane.”
The internal study said the environmental process should begin after “DDOT’s long range transportation plan confirms high level goals.”
“We are looking at what will take us to the next stage in the process,” Zimbabwe added. “It will take us completing our long-range plan and understanding how this fits in to our priorities city-wide.”
Transit backers to DDOT: get moving
Transit advocates would like to see more urgency at the agency.
“DDOT needs to push. They have looked at this and talked about it for a while, but they need to hear from the public that we need to deliver better transportation service in this corridor,” said Cheryl Cort, the policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “With half of all 16th Street travelers on buses [during rush hour] we need to use these resources more efficiently. We just can’t keep adding more buses.”
According to the internal DDOT study, “Peak-hour Peak-direction Transit lanes are estimated to have the following benefits: increase transit travel speeds by 30-percent; and accommodate up to a 10-percent increase in person demand.”
The study also determined the bus lane could cause an “increase in vehicular delays at critical intersections along the corridor, including U Street, the Columbia/Harvard/Argonne intersections and R Street; and an inability to reduce crossing distances and vehicle exposure for pedestrians.”
The layout of 16th St. south of U St. is another obstacle. Although the road remains the same width (about 50 feet), it narrows from five painted lanes to four. Cort said 16th St. would have to be restriped to allow one bus lane and two lanes of mixed traffic in the rush hour direction (downtown in the morning, uptown in the afternoon), while keeping the off-peak side the same with one lane for traffic and one for parking.
“We don’t have to take away any parking,” Cort said.
Bikes and right-turning vehicles would be allowed in the bus lane, but a more detailed study is necessary to determine if taxis would interfere with operations, Cort added.
Metro supports bus lane
Metro, which has added more and longer buses to meet the demand in the 16th St. corridor, also supports a dedicated bus lane.
“We have recommended a bus lane be considered for implementation, but that is a DDOT decision,” said Jim Hamre, Metro’s director for bus planning and scheduling. “There are some physical challenges, but most of those can be overcome through thoughtful design and the little nip and tuck of a curb line here and there. The biggest challenges we face are policy and pragmatism.”
Meantime, Metro has chosen a contractor to begin testing traffic signal prioritization in five bus corridors in Washington, including 16th Street NW. Woodbury, New York-based Clever Devices is tasked with designing, testing, and implementing technology that will allow buses to keep consecutive traffic signals green. Hamre said the goal is to start implementation by the end of the year in collaboration with DDOT, which has the final word on the schedule.
DDOT is close to beginning construction on a dedicated bus lane on another congested corridor in Northwest: Georgia Avenue from Florida Avenue to Barry Place. The lane would be in effect from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Construction is expected to begin late this year. The 70 bus line carries more than 21,000 weekday riders, the second busiest bus corridor in D.C. behind the S line on 16th Street.