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Metro Adds Longer Buses To 16th Street—But Will It Help?

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Metro is augmenting bus service on the notoriously crowded 16th Street bus lines in Northwest.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
Metro is augmenting bus service on the notoriously crowded 16th Street bus lines in Northwest.

For the sixth time since 2009 Metro has augmented bus service on one of the region’s busiest mass transit routes — 16th Street Northwest in Washington, where its S line buses carry more than 20,000 passengers per day.

On Monday, Metro deployed additional 60-foot articulated coaches, replacing five standard 40-foot buses each hour during the peak travel times, in an effort to alleviate crowding.

While each long bus may carry 50 percent more passengers, they did not magically eliminate the congestion and uncoordinated traffic lights that often slow traffic to a crawl toward downtown Washington, leading to renewed calls that the answer to a better commute is a dedicated bus lane, the responsibility of the District Department of Transportation, not Metro.

Metro believes the additional capacity will provide relief through the end of the year before demand outstrips the number of available seats. At least, that has been the pattern over the past five years, starting with the introduction of the S9 “express” buses in 2009. Since then, S line ridership has increased 25 percent.

Crowding the norm

On Monday many of the old problems could be seen as S buses (S1, S2, S4, and S9) descended out of Columbia Heights into the lettered streets toward downtown. Congestion prevented buses from maintaining proper spacing. At one point, seven consecutive buses arrived at the stop at 16th and U Streets, one right after another.

At other times, loaded buses passed by waiting commuters because no one else could fit aboard. S line buses move at an average speed of less than 7 miles per hour, according to Metro.

“It is incredibly crowded in the morning. I definitely think we could use more buses on this line,” said commuter A.J. Nagaraj as he squeezed inside an S4. “I have to wait for two or three buses to go by, particularly when the weather is bad.”

“At this time it is impossible to get a bus normally. And it is even worse when it is raining,” said commuter Bianca Ingrid as a packed bus passed her by at about 9 a.m.

It is easy to understand commuters’ long running frustrations on 16th Street Northwest. They stand and wait 8 or 10 minutes for their bus, only to see it blow by the stop because it is full. Do you continue waiting in the hope the next bus will have room, or hop a bicycle, or catch a cab?

“I normally try to avoid getting the bus and take the bike instead because it is quicker and more pleasant,” said Ingrid.

The way to a more reliable commute is building a dedicated, rush hour bus lane between Columbia Heights and downtown D.C., roughly three miles, advocates contend.

Metro is already running 55 buses per hour during rush hour on 16th Street; using those buses more efficiently in a dedicated line is a wiser move than simply adding ever more buses, exacerbating congestion, according to Kishan Putta, a Dupont Circle ANC commissioner who is running for D.C. Council.

“We need to get people downtown faster, not just on buses but downtown faster and reuse those buses quicker, because we don’t have unlimited bus capacity,” said Putta.

DDOT exploring bus lane

The District Department of Transportation intends to begin a year-long bus lane study next year to determine whether giving a lane to buses only for a few hours per day (downtown during morning rush hour, uptown during afternoons) would be worth the investment.

“A bus lane in and of itself is not a panacea. We have to look at all of the range of benefits and the potential impacts and then evaluate those in a public process,” said Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s associate director of planning, policy, and sustainability.

“We think there is some merit to a bus-only lane. The negatives could be impacts to parking. There could be impacts to vehicular travel lanes. If we do things to reconfigure the street so that there is more room for buses and less room for cars, the cars may end up going someplace else.”

An internal DDOT study completed in 2013 recommended “key immediate next steps” to pursue toward installing a bus lane, but Zimbabwe noted other measures, like an off-board fare payment system and transit signal prioritization plan, would speed up bus operations in the meantime.

Zimbabwe was interviewed at the intersection of 16th and U after taking an S bus downtown from Upshur Street NW. The ride took 17 minutes, he said.

“We were stopped at stops letting passengers on and off for six-and-a-half minutes. That is something that a bus lane doesn't really help. There have to be other solutions to help people get on and off the buses faster,” Zimbabwe said.

A bus lane on 16th Street is at least a couple years away, if DDOT decides to go in that direction. Next year, however, DDOT and Metro expect to begin a transit signal prioritization system that will give S buses consecutive green lights through the corridor. Metro estimates the system would reduce commute times by two to five percent.

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