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For Slow-Moving 16th Street Buses, Relief Will Also Come Slowly

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The S4 is one of the Metrobus lines that would benefit from dedicated lanes on 16th Street NW.
Elvert Barnes via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/perspective/2761370492/
The S4 is one of the Metrobus lines that would benefit from dedicated lanes on 16th Street NW.

After years of study and much prodding from frustrated commuters, the District is moving ahead with plans to designate a rush hour bus lane on one of its busiest corridors, 16th Street NW.

The project for the S line, which carries more than 20,000 passengers daily, is expected to take two to four years to complete, further testing the patience of riders who have been squeezing aboard slow-moving buses for years and of transit advocates who would like to see faster progress.

“That is hard to accept after all the discussion and study that have gone into it,” said Kishan Putta, a neighborhood activist who has led the public campaign for a 16th Street bus lane. “I understand we are a capital city and this is a historic road, but I don’t see why it has to be more than two years.”

At a time when major highway projects or Metrorail extensions cost billions, bus improvements that make better use of existing roadway space come with a significantly lower price tag, offering transportation planners an easier way to create alternatives to drive-alone commuting.

As the Washington region continues to grow, bus lanes or more ambitious bus rapid transit (BRT) systems may provide a cost-effective answer to congestion. But getting there has been slow going: D.C. presently has no dedicated bus lanes. The region’s first BRT line opened only in 2014 in Alexandria.

Dedicated lane and more coming to 16th Street

Growing ridership has forced Metro to repeatedly add more and longer buses to the S line’s route, now bursting with more than 50 buses during a typical rush hour. But congestion and uncooperative traffic lights cause all those extra buses to run inefficiently. It is not uncommon for buses to bunch, with five or 10 showing up at a stop within a couple minutes, followed by a wide gap in service.

But designing a rush hour bus lane — heading downtown in the morning and uptown in the afternoon — along a three-mile stretch of 16th Street from Columbia Heights to downtown Washington is only one aspect of the District Department of Transportation’s planning.

A bus lane alone will not solve all the problems that hold up the S line. Rush hour buses spend about half their time moving at slow speeds along 16th Street. But they also waste 22 percent of their time stopped at traffic lights and 20 percent of their time letting passengers on and off, according to DDOT research.

“The boarding takes forever, especially at crowded bus stops,” said Putta during a recent ride aboard an S2 bus. “You miss several traffic lights just because people are boarding the bus in that time.”

DDOT intends to create an off-board payment system – curbside fare machines – to speed up boarding.

“We’ve seen bus stops where we might have 25 to 30 people waiting to board. So if we can reduce that time it takes per person by a second or two, it really adds up,” said DDOT planner Megan Kanagy.

Allowing riders to pay their fares before the bus arrives may also let them board through either door, which could also shave several seconds off the time spent idling. When all the planned changes are in place, DDOT estimates commuters will save about seven minutes when traveling the three-mile stretch of 16th Street.

Lining up traffic signals

DDOT and Metro finally are ready to roll out an improvement that has taken years to design and test: traffic signal priority. Buses will be able to “communicate” with traffic lights, holding a green light for a few extra seconds so a bus can make it through an intersection. Five busy bus corridors in Northwest D.C. will see traffic signal priority by late spring: 16th Street, Georgia Avenue, Wisconsin Avenue, 18th and 19th streets and 14th Street.

Federal funding for the traffic signal priority (TSP) technology was obtained almost a decade ago, and Metro has been testing it in Northern Virginia along a bus route with 25 intersections spanning three jurisdictions, thus three different signaling systems.

“It has taken time because we’ve had to work closely with traffic signal administrations across the region to come up with an approach that works uniformly, because Metro crosses jurisdictional lines,” said James Hamre, the director of Metrobus planning and scheduling.

Long-time public transit advocate Chris Zimmerman, a former member of the Arlington County board, Metro’s board, and the region’s transportation planning board, recalled the effort to secure the funding to implement the TSP system.

“I had the chance to see what Los Angeles was doing close to two decades ago where they had already implemented traffic signal prioritization and other things to enable their bus routes to become much more efficient to carry volumes similar to rail systems,” Zimmerman said.

“That seemed to be an obvious thing we ought to be doing in this region given our limited resources. I find it quite frustrating that it seemed to take so long for us to even approach doing something like this,” he added.

The process has been exasperating for Putta, the neighborhood activist and S line commuter.

“I realize nothing happens quickly in this government,” he said. “I have been working on this since 2012, four years. Every year they say next year is the year we will do it. This is the type of delay that is unacceptable.”

DDOT plans to introduce traffic signal priority for the limited-stop S9 buses first, then procure the equipment for the S1, S2, and S4 buses over the next two to four years.

But when it comes to taking what works on 16th Street and applying it to other congested bus corridors, DDOT’s Kanagy said future projects could be implemented more quickly. She and other agency staff recently visited New York where an array of improvements have been implemented across nine of the city’s bus routes.

“Their first one took about four years from the start of the planning process to implementation. They’ve now got it down to a year-and-a-half to two years,” she said.

Is Metroway the better way?

Across the Potomac River, the region’s first bus rapid transit system opened in late 2014, the culmination of two decades of planning, studies, and design work.

Metroway runs four miles through Alexandria and Arlington, but some of the route is different from any other bus system in the Washington region. Metroway zooms down a dedicated right-of-way entirely separated from the rest of traffic.

“The justification for this was how congested Route 1 gets. If we were going to be building these new communities here in Potomac Yard, we needed to provide people with an option to travel that didn’t require getting in their cars on Route 1,” said Lee Farmer, an Alexandria transportation planner.

The city spent $20 million for its portion of the system, a fraction of the cost for the typical transportation “mega-project.”

Metroway’s current four-mile route (2.3 miles in Alexandra, 1.7 in Arlington) stretches from Braddock Road to Crystal City, and will extend another mile with a planned expansion to Pentagon City this spring for a total of 13 stops.

Covering all that ground requires only five buses during rush hour. Buses are able to cycle through the route efficiently because they don’t have to contend with any traffic for part of the trip. They run at 6- and 12-minute headways, and ridership is up to 1,500 on the average weekday. Metroway buses have an on-time performance rate of 96 percent.

In Alexandria, seven-tenths of a mile of dedicated right-of-way was built for Metroway buses, with a mile-and-a-half in mixed traffic. But once the redevelopment of North Potomac Yard is completed, the amount of dedicated right-of-way will double. And in Arlington, plans call for 80 percent of the Metroway service to run in either dedicated right-of-way or rush hour transit lanes.

Designating significant portions of roadway for buses sends a message about a city’s priorities and commuters’ behavior, said Ramond Robinson, Alexandria’s division chief of transit.

“Not only are we changing in the infrastructure. It’s also a mental infrastructure change,” Robinson said. “These [lanes] are new to most people. We are bringing in a clean, safe, reliable method of movement for people who are not just trying to get to their employment location.”

Metroway service will allow the growing Potomac Yard population to live car-free or car-light, Robinson said. To Zimmerman, who now works at the national advocacy group Smart Growth America, living and traveling without a car is no longer a tough sell.

“Our goal should be to move people,” he said, not just automobiles.

“We are not talking about making somebody take transit who doesn’t want to, or inducing them to. We now know people want to take transit…particularly younger folks want to have that option. So we need to give them better options or we simply are creating more car traffic that creates more problems for us.”

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