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Starting every morning at 7 o’clock two lanes are expanded to three on 16th Street NW heading south to downtown D.C., and the slow crawl begins shortly afterward.
In one of the most congested north-south commuting corridors in Washington, buses and cars squeeze through Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, past Meridian Hill Park, and into the lettered streets east of Dupont Circle on their way downtown. When it’s really backed up, pedestrians are able to keep the vehicles’ pace.
“It can be really slow at times,” said commuter Ian Wilson as he rode an S2 bus Wednesday morning. “I’d love a bus lane, absolutely.”
Metro says its buses carry 20,000 people per day on 16th Street NW. During morning rush hour, Metro buses haul 50 percent of all commuters heading downtown on 16th St. even though they make up only three percent of the vehicles, according to data compiled by Metro planner Jonathan Parker. Demand for buses so overwhelmed available seats that Metro expanded S line service in March to carry 400 to 500 more passengers by adding rush hour service on 16th St. from Harvard Street NW south to I Street NW.
Despite adding service, Metro buses are not getting commuters to their downtown offices much faster for one simple reason: the buses have to share the same congested space as cars. But that may begin to change next year.
The District Department of Transportation is using federal TIGER grant funding to study a traffic signal prioritization program that could be implemented on 16th St. as early as late 2014. DDOT and Metro are talking about additional changes to the north-south corridor, including creating dedicated bus lanes for morning rush hour as well as extending parking restrictions past 9:30 a.m.
“You don’t necessarily need bus lanes when you are up around Military Road, but when you get down past Harvard Street as you are closing in toward downtown, it would be greatly advantageous for buses to be able to pass the queued up cars, and that would allow us to not only serve our customers better but get more trips out of the same buses,” said Metro’s James Hamre, the director of the transit authority’s office of planning, schedules, and customer facilities.
Commuters say such improvements are long overdue. “It’s so slow that I think the express bus is just as fast as the regular S4 or S2,” said Terrell Bowen as he rode an S2 Wednesday morning.
The challenge of catching up to the times faces DDOT and Metro across the District. As the population soars in a city where already forty percent of households are car-free, the demand on both public transit systems and existing road space will intensify. 16th Street seems to exemplify the opportunity for progressive transportation policies to move people more efficiently. But changes that seem simple to implement – like adjusting traffic signals so buses can zoom through one green light after another – take time and money to test.
A DDOT spokeswoman says changes to traffic signals on 16th Street could be implemented as late as mid-2015. TIGER grant funding is available through 2016. Possible technological changes range from giving bus drivers the ability to change traffic lights from behind the wheel to the more advanced “predictive priority,” where the traffic signal can detect the level of crowding in an approaching bus before “deciding” whether to change the light.
Meantime, Hamre says more and larger buses may be added to the S line fleet to meet the growing demand.