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How Do You Fix a Bus Service?

The Metro buses that run the 30s routes along Wisconsin and Pennsylvania avenues are among the most popular and problematic in the transit system. As they travel between the Naylor Road and Friendship Heights Metro stations, carrying about 20,000 riders on weekdays, they make 116 stops and pass through 130 traffic signals. They do that in some of the worst traffic congestion that an urban area can provide over about 14 miles.

The 30s line gives Metro a chance to study most of the challenges a bus system can face, along with many of the solutions planners can envision. Last night, the transit authority and the District Department of Transportation held the second of two forums that drew on another source of solutions: the riders.

"What do you need this bus to do?" said James Hamre, a Metro senior planner working on the study. Isn't that a refreshing way to look at a travel problem? During the forum at St. Columba's Church on Albemarle Street NW, he talked about how a study like this can challenge conventional thinking about how to run a transit line, approaching it as a product delivered to consumers.

Just about anyone who rides one of our local bus systems would have recognized the problems idenfied by riders of the 30s lines. At or near the top of everyone's list: bus bunching, in which a person may wait 15 minutes at a stop and then see three buses arrive within 30 seconds of each other. Other concerns included crowding, safety and the quality of bus shelters.

Most people ride the line for 20 or 30 minutes, but a typical trip from one end to the other during the p.m. peak would take an hour and 43 minutes. If the driver just drove at the speed limit, made no stops for passengers and had green lights all the way, it would take 27 minutes. Here's how that time builds during a real trip:

-- Waiting at traffic signals: Add 25 minutes. (24 percent of the total trip time)
-- Getting into and out of bus stops: Add 20 minutes. (19 percent of the total trip time)
-- Boarding and exiting of passengers: Add 10 minutes. (10 percent of the total trip time)
-- Traffic congestion: Add 21 minutes. (20 percent of the total trip time)

Planners know ways to take bites out of each slice of that pie, said Hamre, who helped plan the Columbia Pike Ride when he was with Arlington County. Lights can stay green a couple of seconds longer so buses can get through, bus stops can be engineered so they're easier to get in and out of. Buses and fare boxes can be redesigned so passengers can get on and off quicker. Routes and schedules can be reworked to deal with traffic congestion.

Metro and DDOT will move ahead with the study now, but there will be more opportunities for the public to participate, including forums planned for September and later in the fall. Hamre hopes the study will result in proposals that the Metro board can consider late this year when it starts looking at next year's budget.

By Robert Thomson  |  July 25, 2007; 7:38 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  
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The 30 line is wildly frustrating - I used to take it from work (Georgetown) to a rehearsal (near the Cathedral) once a week, and finally decided it was easier to walk. Most days, the bus would have been faster, but it was just so annoying never to know if I would be five minutes late for rehearsal or 40 minutes early! When I moved recently, I would've loved to be in the Glover Park area, but finally decided I just didn't want to hand my life over to the 30 buses.

Posted by: h-h | July 25, 2007 9:17 AM | Report abuse

I used to take the 30s every day, less so now but the biggest problem is the number of stops. Some of the bus stops are so close together it's ridiculous, such as a stop at Wisconsin & N, then a couple hundred feet later at Wisconsin & Dumbarton. If they spaced out the stops a bit further it seems like they could cut out two of those categories above. Plus, the bus only misses traffic lights sometimes because of superflous stops.

On a separate note, I'd love it if DC did a campaign that encouraged people to exit buses through the rear doors. Almost everyone on my commute gets off up front, which means that people outside need to wait to get on. A couple PSAs ought to do the trick.

Posted by: CBGB | July 25, 2007 9:43 AM | Report abuse

As someone who takes a #16 "Pike Ride" bus each direction on Columbia Pike in Arlington as part of my daily commute, I hope the 30 line doesn't wind up like the 16's. "Pike Ride" has not been an improvement for this daily Metrobus rider since 1979.

Bus service on Columbia Pike, especially in the afternoons, is not reliable. My best bus choice is the 16F, which supposedly runs about every fifteen minutes in the AM and PM rush hours, yet two or three times a month I'll get in line at the Pentagon bus hub in plenty of time for the 5:02pm 16F bus, which doesn't show up, then for the 5:14pm 16F bus, which doesn't show up, then for the 5:31pm 16F bus, which doesn't show get the idea, I think.

I can understand why one bus might be late or even miss its scheduled run completely due to traffic or mechanical problems. But when two or three (and, one time, four) consecutive scheduled bus trips do not happen, there is a bigger and probably systemic problem.

Posted by: Pike Rider | July 25, 2007 10:06 AM | Report abuse

In theory I like the idea of people getting off at the back door, but in practice, if you're standing in the front (where it's most comfortable to stand) and there are standing people in the aisle between you and the back door, it would just be painful to squeeze all the way to the back door. Really, squeezing past people in the aisle is pretty unpleasant, and then there's the whole issue of having to yell at the driver to open the back door, and sometimes he/she starts to drive off before you get there - yeah, on the whole, I think getting people to use the back door is a pretty tough sell.

In Japan, where I used to live and take a lot of buses, people got *on* the back door, took a ticket showing where they got on, then paid at the front on the way out based on how far they'd traveled. When the circulator started, there was an attempt to have people get on at all the doors - remember, weren't you supposed to be able to buy circulator tickets in advance at the parking machines? - but I never see anyone do it, and I can't imagine the drivers would like it.

Posted by: h-h | July 25, 2007 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Bunching. Ugh.

The worst is I've seen it near the start of routes. Not just on heavy corridors like the 30s or 16s. I've seen routes that start at Pentagon and by the time they get to the 1st stop at Shirlington one is right behind the other. Yeah, one started late and another started early, but the supervisors at Pentagon can control some of this.

I've also seen the 2nd bus carefully sitting behind the 1st so the 2nd driver has a relaxing run. In LA, the ltd buses on Wilshire have learned to play leapfrog to even out the load. Here the drivers too often won't.

Posted by: md 20/400 | July 25, 2007 10:16 AM | Report abuse

"where it's most comfotable to stand"

What the hell does that mean? That you board, and then just stop- in the way of anyone/everyone trying to move to the back?

Posted by: Rosa | July 25, 2007 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I do hope they don't use the Columbia Pike 16 line as a template for improvements. We were supposed to see big changes as part of the Pike Ride program, but frankly, I see no difference over the service as it was 5 years ago. They claim the average time between buses is 6 minutes. Technically, this is true. What happens is you have 2, sometimes 3 or even 4, buses arriving in a bunch every 12-20 minutes. Stops are ridiculously close together in some spots, too. In the 1/4 mile between Washington Blvd. and Court House Road, there are 3 stops.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | July 25, 2007 10:36 AM | Report abuse

To echo comments on the 16 line: I waited once for 40 minutes for a bus during weekday rushhour. Then 4 showed up at once.

Posted by: Alexandria, Va | July 25, 2007 10:47 AM | Report abuse

"What do you need this bus to do? Isn't that a refreshing way to look at a travel problem?"

Uh, how about show up on time?

You could turn one lane of traffic into a bus lane, at least during rush hour. According to their numbers, this would shave 20% off the time and penalize drivers.

Or, convince your employer to provide telecommuting opportunities. Thank God I no longer need the bus.

Posted by: DC Rider No More | July 25, 2007 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Are you serious? Everyone knows the problems with the 30s! Seems this could and should be fixed by the professionals instead of spending scads of money for the big dog and pony show that feeds the egos of little government employees. Spend the money on Street Supervisors, not consultants, public meetings, meaningless surveys and websites!

Posted by: DC Worker | July 25, 2007 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I don't ride the 30s and don't claim that NYC has the best bus service, but are there Limited or Express buses? That could cut down significantly on the travel time. As a Metro subway rider, I wish they would implement Express service (I can't imagine how the Silver/Dulles train could operate without it since it would take forever to get downtown), but given the fact that the planners never added a third rail to allow such service, I guess express trains won't be coming to DC.

Posted by: NY native | July 25, 2007 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I have a friend who lives in Glover Park and works near the Navy Yard. He drives his car to Woodley Park or Cleveland Park for the Metro rather than sit on the bus (pretty much all of Upper NW is all in resident permit parking zone 3, so you can get away with this if you live on a permit block).

Here are the significant problems I see with these routes (though some of these apply to just about any bus route):

1) Georgetown. About the only neighborhood in DC that I will go out of my way to avoid just about all the time. Wisconsin Ave south of Q and M Street are two of the most awful roads in the area, and I feel like a little snail whenever I am forced to drive through there. This alone probably accounts for a significant amount of congestion.

2) The White House detour: On Capitol Hill, tour busses and trucks are banned, but Metrobusses are allowed after the drivers and Capitol Police exchange a "secret code" hand signal. Wonder why Metrobusses only couldn't be allowed on either Pennsylvania Avenue or E Street near the White House. Since everyone else is stuck detouring onto K, I & H, and Constitution, those roads from about 19th to 14th are gridlocked often.

3) Traffic lights. The traffic lights are timed for auto traffic, not bus traffic. Very often a bus will pull up to a green light, stop to let people on or off, then shut the doors just as the light turns red. Or for stops on the far side, the light turns red, and the bus has to wait just to go 20 feet across and stop to let people on and off. Allowing transit vehicle priority could significantly improve running times. This could work in one of two ways. Transit vehicles could have full priority, meaning they can call for a green light at the push of a button, or they could have partial priority, meaning they can extend the green phase by up to 5 or 10 seconds if the light is green, and if it is red, they can get the green 5 or 10 seconds early. I've seen side-by-side simulations, one with normal signal operation and the other with partial (5 second) transit vehicle priority, and the results were astounding in terms of bus time savings and did not significantly increase auto travel times either (in fact, autos on the main road benefit from this as well).

4) Fare payment. Drives me crazy to see people stuffing dollar bills into the bill reader and having them rejected while a whole line of smart trip card holders waits. For one thing, I'd let Smart Trip card holders go to the front of the line or board through the rear doors. I might even be in favor of eliminating dollar bill fare payment (NYC has done this) and instead encouraging the use of dollar coins. The coin reader is usually a lot faster than the bill reader, and if people don't want coins, they can get a Smart Trip card. Part of this relies on making Smart Trip cards easier to use (such as allowing people to add value online). Another idea is to have those paying cash purchase a ticket at the stop before getting on the bus. If there were less stops, installing these machines would be less costly.

5) Speaking of less stops...that would really help too. People might be willing to walk further if the service was of higher quality. Witness how many people walk past many bus stops to the Metro.

6) Congestion, overall: it would be nice if there were more bus lanes or exclusive transit streets in DC. New York has these all over the place, yet the only diamond lanes I've seen on surface streets in this area are in Old Town Alexandria. Of course this is space permitting, so not in Georgetown, but along other parts of the route it might be helpful.

7) Different routings. Why do all Upper Wisconsin Avenue busses have to go through Georgetown? I wonder if the Massachusetts Avenue busses are any better? Maybe some busses could go from Friendship Heights to DuPont and Farragut Square via Massachusetts, so at least Friendship Heights and Tenleytown riders could avoid the worst part of the route.

8) More routes connecting neighborhoods to Metro stations. Even FTA is starting to admit that transit riders prefer rail over rubber (or at least some kind of exclusive transit facility over one which mixes with street traffic), so why force those along Wisconsin Avenue to go via Georgetown when a short hop to a Red Line station might make riders happier?

Overall, I think incorporating some aspects of bus rapid transit and maybe stealing a few ideas from "Metro Extra" might help these routes a lot. Any word on how successful Metro Extra has been?

Posted by: Woodley Park | July 25, 2007 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I have a problem with people always trying to turn DC into NYC, London, San Francisco, Japan and Spain in terms of transportation. Yes, this system needs improvements, but it's beyond feasible reach for DC transplants to expect this town to be like their hometowns. I'm a DC metro area native, and I can tell you that this system is only a major problem during rush hour, and for those traveling from the suburbs to DC and back.

Posted by: YourStrawberry23 | July 25, 2007 1:00 PM | Report abuse

"In LA, the ltd buses on Wilshire have learned to play leapfrog to even out the load. Here the drivers too often won't."

If drivers just drove their route in a normal fashion, the leapfrogging should happen automatically. The first bus will be jam packed and the one right behind it will be empty. If both busses pull into the same stop, the second bus should leave first, since it just has to drop off one passanger and won't have many to pick up, while the first bus will take a long time to load and unload. Then at the next stop, the uncrowded bus gets there first so there won't be many people trying to board the crowded bus. Eventually the uncrowded bus gets crowded and the process repeats. But drivers who insist on staying behind the bus in front of them will only make the overall problem worse.

Even the NYC subway system does something similar to even out loads when one train is far behind schedule. They will turn a local into an express and tell people who want local stops to get off and get onto the uncrowded train directly behind them. This spreads out the passangers and allows the first train to catch up. Note that in NYC the train runs express but stays on the local tracks, just not stopping at the local stations. Therefore in theory this is even possible on the Metro, though they'd have to announce which stops are being skipped since there are no local and express stops

Posted by: Woodley Park | July 25, 2007 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Metro needs to bring efficiency up as the dominant factor and run Metro like a business. Eliminate some of these bus stops and make fare payment systems that are the best for Metro, not yokel Luddites who don't trust Smart cards or dolar coins.

Posted by: Stick | July 25, 2007 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I ride the 30s just about every day. Here's what I'd do to make it better:

1.) More supervisors. Not just at the start and end of the line. Along the route, too. Too many drivers seem to think the schedule doesn't apply to them. Oh, and the supervisors need to work late at night. Drivers on post-midnight buses right now seem not to care for the schedule.

2.) Re-timing of certain lights on Wisconsin Avenue. The light at Wisconsin and Mass favors Mass Ave. traffic far too much, meaning huge backups on Wisconsin (especially going southbound). That new light at the Cathedral isn't helping matters. The light at Q Street and Wisconsin also needs to be re-timed to give Wisconsin traffic more time to get through it.

3.) Perhaps a different route, down Mass Ave., for certain buses. Call it the "30 Express" or something. I'm sure many riders who pick up the bus north of Georgetown and are heading downtown would appreciate not having to go through Georgetown.

Posted by: McLean Gardens | July 25, 2007 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Break it into pieces! If the average passenger trip is 25 minutes, but one way running time is over 100 minutes, that tells you the line is too long. Way too long. Do it Chicago style. Don't terminate the pieces end-to-end. Have some overlap. In Chicago, on Western Avenue (longest continuous thoroughfare in one jurisdiction in the US, just under 24 miles long) the north end is served by the 49B; the middle, the 49 (and a rush hour X49 express) and the south end, the 49A. The 49 and 49B don't terminate end-to-end/butt-to-butt. They overlap for almost a mile, to prevent excess transfering to the Brown Line trains and crosstown buses. But delays at Fullerton don't propogate to Touhy (6 miles away) and only the few people who ride between the two locations have to transfer. Site coordinated transfers are not the worst thing in the world, especially if they help the greater good (the masses of riders in the middle who get more reliable service).

Posted by: perplexed | July 25, 2007 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I think having express busses on the 30 line would be great. I take a 30 bus from Farragut Square to Georgetown in the morning and have noticed that the bus gets full at Farragut and then some get off at GW and the rest get off at Georgetown. So there could be just those stops - Farragut Square, before Washington Circle, 24th St, 30th and 31st St.

Posted by: 30 Girl | July 25, 2007 2:19 PM | Report abuse

To yourstrawberry - I'm a native of the area, too, but I still think it's interesting to compare our system to the systems in other areas. We can learn a lot, even if the solutions of other places won't work here. Also, if the buses are "only" a problem during rush hour - uh - that's a pretty major problem. That's when most people need the buses. It's lovely if they work at 2 p.m. and midnight, but I'd really like them to work at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Posted by: h-h | July 25, 2007 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Some ideas (based on riding the S buses on 16th St NW but sounds similar to the problems noted here).

1. Bunching of buses - When a second bus is approaching a bus in front of them the front bus should be notified. The bus in fron should only stop at stops that are requested to get out of and skip stops where people are waiting to get on but not off. The bus behind can then stop and pick these passengers up. This will allow the first bus to get "ahead" of its late schedule, get passengers to their destination quicker and spread out the bus service. They should put a notice on the message board at the front of the bus so people waiting at a bus stop don't think they're being mistakenly passed by.

2. Encourage ubiquitous SmarTrip card use. Sell them for $1 at all Metro Stops (not just the ones in the burbs) and at select bus stops. Charge $2 for users paying in cash and only $1.25 for SmarTrip users (let the tourists subsidize a little bit of the system). Add machines (like the new green parking meters) at select (or all) bus stops to allow people to buy and add money to the SmarTrip card.

3. Encourage users to exit through the rear door.

4. Make more Bike/Bus lanes on major routes. This will help not only the buses but cars as well. There is no reason that cars should be allowed to park on 16th St at rush hour or anytime for that matter. Getting buses onto dedicated lanes will make it quicker for everyone.

Posted by: Chris | July 25, 2007 2:40 PM | Report abuse

[Everyone knows the problems with the 30s! Seems this could and should be fixed by the professionals instead of spending scads of money for the big dog and pony show that feeds the egos of little government employees. Spend the money on Street Supervisors, not consultants, public meetings, meaningless surveys and websites!]

Are you seriously suggesting that Metro not ask the public what they think? I'm pretty sure there'd be a huge outcry if Metro didn't have public meetings and try to get feedback from people who ride buses before making important decisions that affect those same riders.

Posted by: huh? | July 25, 2007 4:53 PM | Report abuse

"There is no reason that cars should be allowed to park on 16th St at rush hour or anytime for that matter. "

Actually, there are plenty of reasons to park on certain streets during non-rush hours. People actually live on those streets and need to load and unload personal belongings and other items from time to time, and it would probably exacerbate the parking problem in many areas if parking were banned at all times on major thoroughfares. Turning parking lanes into rush hour lanes serves a greater good, but in the middle of the night (or middle of the day) when there aren't as many cars on the road, a greater good is served by allowing the space to be used for parking, especially in a commercial area.

Besides, on 16th Street (at least the northern part) the number of parked cars seems to be so low that you can still use the second lane to pass in many areas.

Posted by: Woodley Park | July 25, 2007 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Transit advocates like to present roads and transit as an "either-or" issue. Knee-jerk opposition to new roads is their usual M.O.

The bus service is bad largely because they are forced to use the SAME congested INADEQUATE road network as the rest of us.

Think about that the next time you feel like opposing roads.

Posted by: CEEAF | July 25, 2007 7:54 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, because there's oh so much space to put extra roads in NW DC. Maybe we'll just put a road on top of Wisconsin Ave! We can call them Upper and Lower Wisconin Aves.

Posted by: Chris | July 25, 2007 10:18 PM | Report abuse

I have to say, the addition of the Circulator route onto Wisconsin Ave up to Whitehaven St. has made a huge difference in the crowding on the buses on that section.

Posted by: CBGB | July 26, 2007 8:41 AM | Report abuse

Metro is looking into modifying the Smartrip system including making a cheaper paper based card an making them more readily available. I'd advocate an MTA/NY style system as well then: rechargeable paper-like Smartrip cards that are cheap and can be used on buses and rail. Then we could possibly eliminate the use of dollar bills on the bus. Although we won't HAVE to do that.

I agree that we can't compare apples to oranges: DC to NY. Their system is so much more complex and massive.

Posted by: Tim | July 26, 2007 4:09 PM | Report abuse

great article brings up lots of the same problems we incountered with our system in the twin cities of Minneapolis. If things are going to get better GPS-tracking of the buses is a must.If a control center cannot see the system in real time not much will change.To compare your system with many others this site can help.

Posted by: mike | July 26, 2007 8:21 PM | Report abuse

"Yeah, because there's oh so much space to put extra roads in NW DC. Maybe we'll just put a road on top of Wisconsin Ave! We can call them Upper and Lower Wisconin Aves."
- Posted by: Chris

There ARE the rights of way between the stumps of I-395 and I-295. One consists of nothing but water. And there is the Pepco Easement which would have held I-95 through NE. And did you know that the planned I-70S through NW would have been largely underground?

Had the planned freeways been completed there would be less traffic on the streets. NW streets would be less congested even if 70S was never built. Wisconsin Avenue may never have been turned into a major commuter route.

It's a no-brainer, but judging from your myopic comment, I suppose you would think it's rocket science. DC apologists and road-haters usually can't see the bigger picture.

Posted by: CEEAF | July 27, 2007 11:25 AM | Report abuse

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