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Metro proving need for bus lanes on H and I Streets

40% of the people traveling in vehicles along H and I Streets near the White House are on only 2% of the vehicles: local and commuter buses. That makes this a perfect spot to build bus lanes, which will both save money and improve service at the same time.

For years now, Metro has been talking about "bus priority." It's now taken an important step to study how to actually make this a reality on H and I.

Buses using H and I (and K), plus traffic counts. Image from WMATA.

The District alone spends $190 million per year on bus service, 3½ the amount it spends on Metrorail and 2 times the whole DDOT budget. While much press scrutiny goes into WMATA's administrative budget items like executive travel, there are enormous opportunities to save far more taxpayer money, and provide a better service to riders, by streamlining bus service.

Bus lanes, queue jumpers and other road features would help the buses avoid getting stuck in traffic. A bus stuck in traffic not only delays riders but costs a lot of money in driver time and forces Metro to buy more buses. Metro believes that the top priority spot to try a bus lane is on H and I streets around the White House, where traffic congestion is high and there are many, many buses.

Unfortunately, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy has not made bus priority much of a priority thus far, though DDOT did agree to work with WMATA on a study. That study took a while to fund, then got stuck in WMATA procurement for even more months. But it's finally underway and generating some results. The study is looking at H Street from 17th Street to New York Avenue, and I Street from 13th to 19th.

PlanItMetro posted some findings that underscore the need for bus lanes. 50 different bus services use H and I, including Metrobuses, Circulator (where the 14th Street line turns around at McPherson), Loudoun County commuter buses, and PRTC (Prince William, Stafford, Spotsylvania, Manassas, Manassas Park, and Fredericksburg) commuter buses. They transport 40% of the people using only 2% of the vehicles, but the buses get stuck in traffic and even are only able to travel half as fast as the other vehicles, not counting the time they spend at stops.

If buses got their own lane during rush hours, the road could move even more people than it does now. The curb lanes on H and I are already devoted to parking off-peak and are travel lanes during peak, so a simple approach would be to make one of those part-time lanes remain parking off-peak but serve only buses in the peak.

There are some operational challenges to ponder. For example, what do drivers turning across the lane do? Do they merge into the lane before an intersection? If so, and if they then have to wait for pedestrians before turning, will that back up the bus lane? New York does it this way on its new(ish) 1st and 2nd Avenue bus lanes, and they have been working well.

DC actually already has some bus lanes, on 7th and 9th Streets, which don't work well at all. One reason is that there aren't that many buses on those streets, and so the lanes stay mostly empty of buses most of the time. Also, partly since there are not so many buses, people drive in the lanes all the time, and DC doesn't do anything about it.

Drivers will do the same on H and I lanes unless there is enforcement. New York has cameras, and DC probably needs to do the same. The cameras could simply look at 2 spots, one before and one after an intersection, and give a ticket to a car that appears in both spots, proving that it was in the lane but didn't turn.

As with other camera tickets, the fine probably does not need to be very high to work. It just needs to be high enough to make it more worthwhile to wait in the regular lanes. Or, perhaps the fine could even be lower, and serve as a kind of toll; you can use the bus lane, if you want to pay a few dollars.

This video describes New York's lanes. They also have protected bike lanes on the same street, but those are far wider than ours; here, the bike lanes will go on L and M, and cyclists can also use the closed Pennsylvania Avenue.

The PlanItMetro post also suggests that Metro will look at another, stranger but possibly (or possibly not) more effective option: a contraflow lane. Instead of putting a bus lane on the right side of the street, it could be on the left and buses would travel in the opposite direction of traffic. Then, left turning cars would cross the lane but not need to merge. On the other hand, if someone accidentally drove into or double parked in the lane, it would really block the buses, which can't just drive out into another lane to go around an obstruction.

London has many contraflow bus lanes:

According to Metro planning director Tom Harrington, they have now begun studying alternatives for how to design the lanes, and expect to finish 1 or 2 conceptual designs for the most promising options by December. The onus will then shift to the District government to actually build a bus lane, since it controls the roads, signs, parking, enforcement cameras, and so on.

Hopefully riders, stuck in traffic, will not have to wait even more years to see the fruit of this important project, which we've already talked about for years. It could be the biggest win for both transit costs and quality of service in a long time.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Thank you for the bus priority updates.

What happened to the earlier project on 19th?

I doubt it is 40%. Did they count pedestrians? Sidewalks are really jammed up there.

And signal priority?

The commuter buses need to be regulated more as they really jam up traffic.

by charlie on Aug 7, 2012 11:02 am • linkreport

Contraflow bus-only lanes also exist in the United States. Through the Oakland neighborhood in Pittsburgh, for example. Parked cars are never in it, but the occasional scoff-low zips down it for a block or two to make an easier turn.

I've noticed cther city vehicles use it too, such as police DPW, as well as the garbage trucks. Ambulances also used to zip down it once in a while, since it made a more direct route to the UPMC Presby ER entrance.

by Xavier on Aug 7, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

I think it was 40% of the people in vehicles, not 40% of all people. I agree the way I originally wrote it was ambiguous.

Signal priority didn't do a whole lot for Georgia Ave, actually. The problem is that the signal priority was limited to only triggering once every certain time interval, and enough buses go by that they overtaxed that limit, so most buses weren't getting a benefit anyway.

I think the study will consider whether to do it, but with that many buses on there, there may always be some bus ready to go through any light, so it might not really have an effect.

by David Alpert on Aug 7, 2012 11:10 am • linkreport

San Francisco's Muni buses are each equipped with cameras which then feed into the traffic enforcement office at SFMTA. The cameras allow HQ to fast-forward through the bus's route and find parking or traffic violations. The perps get a ticket in the mail with a picture of their car doing the violation.

A similar system for Circulators would be easy, and a parallel system with WMATA could enter into some kind of revenue sharing agreement.

by OctaviusIII on Aug 7, 2012 11:10 am • linkreport

Contraflow bus lanes are exactly the type of radical plan that would be great here if you want to have permanent bus lanes. DDOT will probably go for something less radical, but jeez let's hope there's some camera enforcement so it doesn't end up like the 7th street "bus" lane.

But with 40% of travelers in vehicles being on buses, we absolutely should be dedicating at minimum one lane to buses - there are 4 lanes on each of these streets during rush hour.

by MLD on Aug 7, 2012 11:23 am • linkreport

@charlie DDOT recently (in the past year or so) reviewed all commuter bus stops within DC and set up a permitting process for signing the approved locations.

by nevermindtheend on Aug 7, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

The reason I harp on the 40% is you've got to think about sidewalks and pedestrian crossings. I have a feeling a contraflow would not work well for them. And you've got a tricky turn around issue on either side.

In terms of the bus lanes, DC does on OK job getting parked cars out of the way on M st in Georgetown. OK. I do thnk the bus cameras might work. The real problem is double parked delivery vehicles and police.

by charlie on Aug 7, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

re charlie's point about contraflow... the same goes, unfortunately, for bi-directional cycletracks. I am ok with them, but they end up creating more expense with regard to traffic signals etc., whereas if you could just do one lane on each side of the street, you wouldn't have that issue.

by Richard Layman on Aug 7, 2012 11:40 am • linkreport

No need to study. Get an employee that can spell B-U-S out there with a bucket of paint.

by Jasper on Aug 7, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

And while that person's painting bus lanes, give him a bike-shape thingie to paint in those lanes as well. Two problems solved with one bucket of paint!

by Jasper on Aug 7, 2012 11:53 am • linkreport

So where is Coalition for Smarter Growth on this now? Their previous campaigning got potential cycletracks booted from I St. but no bus lanes materialized. The roadway was soon resurfaced making any changes unlikely in the next few years. CSG then made noise about dedicated bus lanes on 16th, but with no follow through. Where's the sustained advocacy support to make these a reality?

by jeff on Aug 7, 2012 11:53 am • linkreport

Would the bus lanes be bus only 24/7? I realize we have to combat the problem of BRT creep but it's going to be frustrating to dedicate lanes to buses at times when there are no or very few buses running on the lanes.

Also, if there's going to be camera enforcement, it needs to be far more clear that you're not supposed to drive in the lane than what's shown on 7th/9th. Painting the entire lane a different color would be one way to do that.

Also, are these the routes that the future streetcar will run on (because I thought the streetcar was going to be on K ST in that area). Wouldn't it make more sense to dedicate bus lanes on the future streetcar route and then eventually turn that lane over to a dedicated streetcar lane? It doesn't make sense to have streetcars stuck in traffic on K ST while buses whizz by on their own lanes on H.

by Falls Church on Aug 7, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

No need to study. Get an employee that can spell B-U-S out there with a bucket of paint.

And while that person's painting bus lanes, give him a bike-shape thingie to paint in those lanes as well.

That's exactly what they have on 7th/9th and I haven't seen it work well...or at all.

by Falls Church on Aug 7, 2012 11:57 am • linkreport

jeff: CSG had nothing to do with moving the I Street bike lane to M. As for bus lanes, they've been pushing it consistently, but they are a small 5-person nonprofit and can't do everything all the time; that's why I have been pushing it too, and I hope other people do as well. If someone wants to organize a pro-streetcar coalition, like Jason Broehm did with Sierra Club for streetcars, that would be great.

Jasper: I don't know if bus-bike lanes work well. Bike riders want to ride fairly smoothly with little stopping; buses go fast, then stop for a bit, then fast again. You end up with a lot of leapfrogging. I'm interested in hearing examples of places that they've worked, if there are some, though.

by David Alpert on Aug 7, 2012 12:06 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church
Would the bus lanes be bus only 24/7?
They could be or they could not. No formal plan at this time.

Also, if there's going to be camera enforcement, it needs to be far more clear that you're not supposed to drive in the lane than what's shown on 7th/9th. Painting the entire lane a different color would be one way to do that.

Agreed. Paint it a different color or with clear markings.

Wouldn't it make more sense to dedicate bus lanes on the future streetcar route and then eventually turn that lane over to a dedicated streetcar lane? It doesn't make sense to have streetcars stuck in traffic on K ST while buses whizz by on their own lanes on H.

There is a much bigger plan for K Street that is more long-term. DDOT didn't get stimulus funding for it though. The streetcar is still years away and the bus problem on I and H is more immediate and can be helped with less than a full street reconstruction.

by MLD on Aug 7, 2012 12:07 pm • linkreport

Oops, in my previous comment, I meant to say "organize a pro-bus lane coalition."

by David Alpert on Aug 7, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

Can someone post the link to information from the assessment?

I would like to see the information on the people moved on the streets in buses versus cars in more details.

by Dick N on Aug 7, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

@ David Alpert:

Better a bus-bike lane than no bike lane. It's been done elsewhere.

by Jasper on Aug 7, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

I was in Ocean City, MD this weekend and they have bus-bike lanes that appear to operate quite well

by Dick N on Aug 7, 2012 12:21 pm • linkreport

What happened to the bike lane on L Street that was supposed to get in once the weather warmed up? Seems like it's been plenty warm out there.

For buses, yes, contraflow lanes are where it's at. The Chinatown bus lanes are a joke.

by aaa on Aug 7, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport

Dick N: All that we have so far is Metro's summary. If you click the image you can get the larger version which has more data. But the details of what they found will not come out until the study is complete and they release results.

Jasper: That space looks far wider than one lane. It looks like there's a sort of lane and then a wide shoulder; the buses pull well over to the side to stop, and there is enough room for the bus to pass the cyclist without changing lanes while the cyclist is not in the door zone.

That won't be the case for a bus lane; the lane would just be a little more than the width of the bus.

by David Alpert on Aug 7, 2012 12:31 pm • linkreport

aaa: I think DDOT is currently saying they'll start next month. I saw something but now I can't find it. They're still doing to do it, but DDOT these days moves quite slowly on most of what they do.

by David Alpert on Aug 7, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

@ David Apert:the buses pull well over to the side to stop, and there is enough room for the bus to pass the cyclist without changing lanes while the cyclist is not in the door zone.

It is not forbidden for bikes to merge into traffic and pass the bus. Bus drivers also would nee do to be instructed on how to safely pass bikers.

Let me be clear. I prefer bike lanes. But in the absence of bike lanes, bus/bike lanes are better than no bike lanes.

by Jasper on Aug 7, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

Sadly, this conversation started back when the Secret Service closed down Pennsylvania Avenue...

... and all the buses and general traffic were rerouted. That would have been the perfect opportunity to execute the plan.

Question: How would H and I street buse lanes work with a K Street Transitway??

by Some Ideas on Aug 7, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

Jasper: How can the buses safely pass bikers? If the cyclist is in the lane, the bus would have to wait for a gap in traffic in the adjacent lane (which might be stopped for lights), then move over. That could delay them by minutes.

If bikes have to move into traffic to pass the bus, then I don't think that is really a bike-bus lane. It's a bus lane that bikes sometimes use, and sometimes use other lanes. And they're probably better off staying in that other lane entirely, since merging left and right over and over is more dangerous.

If it's a bus lane, the buses need to be able to proceed down the street without having to change lanes. If we tell cyclists it's a bike lane, the cyclists need to be able to safely stick in that lane without having to get out periodically. Otherwise it's not going to create the kind of comfortable bike experience that brings in novice cyclists and is the biggest value of a bike lane.

I don't agree that just painting same lane as a bike lane is better than not; if the lane isn't comfortable for the novice cyclists, it's better to encourage them to use another lane.

If you're just talking about saying "okay, bikes can use the bus lane too," then maybe that is fine, not sure; we might not need to ban bikes, but it won't be a lane that's really comfortable for biking. I wouldn't put it on the bike map as a "bike lane," for instance. Personally, I would rather ride vehicularly in the rightmost regular traffic lane as opposed to vehicularly in the bus lane.

I'd love to have a workable bike-bus lane, but I need to hear or see a real example of how that can work well in this kind of space. It doesn't hold water just to say "a bus-bike lane is better than no bike lanes" a priori.

by David Alpert on Aug 7, 2012 12:59 pm • linkreport

@ David Alpert:How can the buses safely pass bikers? If the cyclist is in the lane, the bus would have to wait for a gap in traffic in the adjacent lane (which might be stopped for lights), then move over. That could delay them by minutes.

I don't know how slow you think bikers bike, but generally, I don't think buses would win a lot of time passing bikes. Also, the blocks are so short that a delay of minutes is difficult to imagine.

Reality is that bikes will use bus lanes if the rest of traffic is stuck. To prevent dangerous situations, you might as well legalize it.

It seems to work in Philly:
Bus bike lane

I don't know the details of how they made it work.

by Jasper on Aug 7, 2012 2:30 pm • linkreport

Thanks Jasper, for making it about biking again. But seriously, I do think it's good to take all road users into account, especially if it would help to improve the rationale for a separate bus lane. I think in congested (and flat) down-town areas bikes are often the fastest mode of transport, so it wouldn't hold up the bus. As for the bus holding up the bike, that's a small price to pay for a safer ride (but please ban those old soot spewing buses off the road.).

by Thomas on Aug 7, 2012 3:49 pm • linkreport

Why are all bus routes and end points centralized downtown; every bus north of the White House takes either H & I Streets or K street for east/west traffic is there any reason why none travel on L, M, N Streets or everything ending at Franklin or Farragut Sqaures besides the X2 or the buses that just travel through the area.

There are numerous areas where buses could end between Chinatown and GW University that would have them avoid H, I or K Streets

by kk on Aug 7, 2012 8:18 pm • linkreport

I would love to see some enforcement of the bus/bike lane on 7th. It's a complete joke and some of the blocks don't even have "BUS ONLY" painted on the street.

9th works a bit better, and I think this is due in part to the lane striping. It has the "BUS ONLY" words painted, as on 7th, but the left-hand side of the line is striped as a bike lane, which I think is more eye-catching and is continuous, unlike the very very occasional "BUS ONLY." Of course, 9th is less busy and one way, so it's not 100% comparable. And there are still many cars that flout the lane on 9th, not to mention the construction and unbelievably poor state of repair of the roadway.

I never ever bike on 7th because the "bus and bike only" lane is 100% ignored; I use 9th southbound and 6th or 5th northbound. Even though neither 5th nor 6th have bike lanes, they're much quieter and safer (which begs the question why neither of them have bike lanes--5th's doesn't start until above New York).

I do think new lane striping on 7th would help. Of course, nothing can take the place of actual enforcement. Witness how well the the "no turns on H" works (hint: not at all). Cameras. For real.

by DC Denizenette on Aug 7, 2012 11:35 pm • linkreport

I like the idea of bus lanes on H or I, but how about an even more radical idea: close off H Street to private cars completely and turn it into a bus-way, with bus-only lanes running in each direction. As many crosstown buses as possible could be rerouted on the H Street busway, and buses would zip through downtown. Enforcement would a lot easier because it wouldn't be a matter of checking which lane a driver is in - drivers shouldn't enter the street at all.
Drivers wouldn't like this too much, at first, but with all the security barriers near the White House, H street isn't a very good route for cars anyway. And if it takes the buses off I street, it might make that street better for drivers.

by Mike on Aug 8, 2012 3:05 pm • linkreport


It sort of works. I used to bike down that street (Chestnut Street) and its one-way pair (Walnut Street), which has the same arrangement. The buses are pretty frequent and stop every block, so I often had to scoot around them. The lanes can also be used for right turns, so there are usually cars in them waiting to turn. Usually I get so frustrated that I just walk my bike for the last few blocks.

That said, it's better than riding down a street without a sort-of dedicated lane. And, unfortunately, it's often better than riding down a street with bike lanes, like Pine and Spruce, because people park in them with little or no enforcement from the police.

by dan reed! on Aug 10, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

Why not just paint the bus lanes completely instead of just having something read bus only; having the lanes painted bright red or yellow there would be no mistaking it for a normal lane.

Though this would not work on H or I Streets but could on wider streets such as K why not just give one side of the street (two lanes) completely separated from the rest to bus traffic and the rest on the other side of the barrier to all traffic.

by kk on Aug 10, 2012 2:18 pm • linkreport

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