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Amid rail advocacy, are we neglecting bus projects?

A better transportation system in our region would comprise a mixture of heavy rail, light rail or streetcars, and rapid buses. The biggest transit campaigns going on right now focus on rail: Virginians fighting for the Silver Line, the debate over the Purple Line, and efforts to bring streetcars back to DC. But amid all this energy, are we forgetting to also advocate for our bus improvements?

Orlando. Photo by Robert Blackie on Flickr.

In Montgomery County, there's another major crosstown transit link on the books: a dedicated bus lane for the Q2 between Wheaton and Rockville. Little stands in the way except for money and political will. Yet the Veirs Mill lane has gotten little attention. In DC, the K Street Busway was just delayed seven more years. The major reason appears to be the lack of a champion. It's not at the top of any DC Councilmember's priority list, and the press and blogs have recently paid little attention to this project.

The Purple Line is indeed a higher priority than the Viers Mill lane. Getting streetcars into DC may be more important than the K Street busway. But this needn't be either-or. All of these would better improve mobility than widening I-66 or building the ICC. Even transportation funding isn't a zero-sum game. The more we advocate for all types of transit, the more political support we build, the more federal and local leaders will see the importance of improving our transportation systems.

Unfortunately, opponents of specific transit projects, like the Columbia Country Club, have turned to buses as a way to oppose rail. That's given BRT a bad name. Buses don't replace rail, but supplement it. They are the right tool on many corridors. Where rail is the right tool, like on the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, or H Street NE, we should build rail. Elsewhere, we should build dedicated bus lanes. And as transit advocates, we must maintain a strong push for all parts of a comprehensive transit system.

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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There's a cruel irony in picking a photo of Orlando for this post. Orlando is a sprawling metropolitan area, most of it low-density residential development, which has failed repeatedly to build any kind of rail system. The need for rail is so stark that even National Geographic will state it an uncontroversial fact. This despite the fact that most development has sprung up along I-4, which itself parallels rail lines. There was a real shot in 2008 to build a basic commuter rail system on existing tracks, when the federal government, local jurisdictions, and the state DOT had lined up behind it, but the legislature killed it. Given the budget situation this year, and the fact that gas prices have for the moment moderated, I wouldn't bet on it now either.

So the solution is more and wider roads (entrenching car-centric culture and development) with a dollop of buses. Even in the denser urban areas, it's hard to imagine getting by without a car. Buses help, but they don't charge the paradigm -- they don't induce transit-oriented development -- not without rail, and not in the way rail does.

by Gavin Baker on Feb 3, 2009 1:23 pm • linkreport

It's not bus vs rail. That's like highway vs freeway.

It's transit vs cars.

by Jasper on Feb 3, 2009 1:40 pm • linkreport

This is good to see - this post on buses. If you are going to be a rep on a riders' council, maybe you can think about setting up some sub-blog or something (i'm not savvy enough to know what) that acts as fly paper, and people can post their complaints, solutions and observations there sort of on an ongoing basis, or maybe you have your own idea about how you are going to (further) collect these.

by Jazzy on Feb 3, 2009 2:57 pm • linkreport

In Montgomery County, expansion of rail has been the main force driving expansion of bus service. Ride-On was originally established to provide feeder bus service to rail stations. Each time new Metrorail stations opened in the county, there was a large increase in the Ride-On budget and numerous new bus routes were opened.

Ride-On also took over some Metrobus routes, but this was not accompanied by a budget increase. (It generally happened in years of tight budgets and was touted as a cost-saving measure.)

After the Metro stations were open, the county observed the performance of the new bus routes and shifted resources out of badly performing routes and into those that performed well. Reallocation of resources in response to rider demand gradually transformed Ride-On from a feeder bus system to the stand-alone network it is today.

The point of this history is that counterposing bus service expansion to rail expansion is not just bad politics - it is wrong as a matter of historical fact in this area.

by Ben Ross on Feb 3, 2009 3:47 pm • linkreport

I don't know if I can agree entirely with you David. Yes, the mass transit ecosystem is multi-modal but buses do compete directly with rail and often its a poor comparison.

Most of the proposed silver line has a mixture of Loudoun and Fairfax buses that reach all the proposed stops (depending on the time of day). The referenced K-street transit way would compete with the M-street subway line that appears from time to time on this site. That H St streetcar will replace the X2...etc.

Rapid buses may be part of the future but our current bus system is terrible in comparison to metrorail. Some times I wonder if they are run by different agencies.

Where we really need an advocate is in heavy rail, metro expansion. David, your fantasy maps were an outstanding starting point. For such a successful system, it amazes me what a non-starter expanding it seems to be in this town.

by staypuftman on Feb 3, 2009 6:09 pm • linkreport

Maybe Don Rumsfeld could answer your question.

by MPC on Feb 3, 2009 6:24 pm • linkreport

I remain adamantly opposed to bus transit -- it does not qualify as dignified transit, and so it should not be tolerated.

I think the best possible comprehensive transit system will be something like a hub-and-spoke transit system where most people walk, bike, and/or take transit, and anyone who cannot do those things will go by paratransit (a term/idea that Mark Gorton seems to be fond of).

During the transition time we should concentrate on laying track - even if we don't have the funding for full implementation yet. Charlotte seems to be following at least the 'laying track' part of this approach. When I think of bus transit and advocating for bus transit, or improved bus transit, I think of this quote:

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

Do nothing, or advocate for improved bus transit. The problem is that too many advocates see bus transit as something that is OK/tolerable for other people. It's OK if working class and poor people are stuck riding the bus -- we'll get them a better bus shelter -- we'll even put a little heat lamp on the shelter for the winter -- whatever -- anything but get them the same exact service that we enjoy - the primarily white, middle-or-upper class, transit advocates who don't have to ride the bus -- we get rail and WiFi and a super-smooth ride and speed and class and real public spending, etc.

Side benefits of this approach -- pushing walking, biking, and rail always -- are that we begin to constrain people to living in geographic areas which are actually sustainable (i.e. not in the Inland Empires of the U.S.), we maintain open/natural/wild lands, and probably some other things.

So, should we support a K Street busway, or any busway anywhere? No. We should support big walk and bike improvements, first. Then we lay down some rail and put a super-sleek 18th generation streetcar on K Street so that even the people who participate in the real economy can travel in style with the rest of us.


by Peter on Feb 4, 2009 1:08 am • linkreport

As someone who rides the bus sometimes twice a day, your comment flabbergasts me. Do you ride the bus? Why do you say only poor people take the bus?

I like your ideas, but they don't reflect reality as it is now, and I would be a little afraid that what you're advocating might hurt lower income people since many (but by no means all) bus riders don't have a lot of money.

I love the bus. I love riding it and being able to see where I am at all times. I love not having to spend 5 minutes just getting to my stop, as one often does in the subway. (And three to five minutes exiting.) Certainly there are advantages of rail over bus. No question. But to categorically deny advantages of bus service is questionable. And also, I've been noticing this tendency lately to point out how bad the ride is on a bus. Are we all writing theses in long hand these days? This has never really bothered me. If I've got a seat, I'm as pleased as punch.

by Jazzy on Feb 4, 2009 7:23 am • linkreport

I agree with Jazzy. First of all, I've found that Metro is rarely the best option for getting from point A to point B within DC. And second of all, I've come to not mind this because I think I actually prefer riding the bus, at least during rush hour because the crowds aren't crazy, you are more likely to be able to get a seat, and it's often faster, in part because the stops are right on the street -- you don't have to walk 5 min underground to get to them. This actually also makes transferring easier and faster. During non-rush hour the bus can suck because you don't know how long you're gonna have to wait, and it can be 20-30 min or more. This especially sucks when there's no shelter.

by Lauren on Feb 4, 2009 6:16 pm • linkreport

We can't afford all the bus service we now have. Read the POST, listen to the TV.

We are in a Great Depression. We have to borrow money from China.

We have had many recent new bus routes, many express like 3Y, #31, #37, #39, #43, #79, and now maybe S-9. We have 1.3 million bus passenger-miles each weekday but they lose a million dollars a day. We can not afford more of that.

MetroRail is much different. It moves 3.8 million passenger-miles a day but loses "only" $ 750,000 per day and much of that loss is fixed costs for track and stations that cant be cut. Rail fares are higher than bus fares so can't go up without making a bad situation worse. Our politicians just have to provide more funding for Metro. There is no choice but chaos.

by E d T e n n y s o n on Feb 16, 2009 11:10 pm • linkreport

Our politicians taxpayers just have to provide more funding for Metro. There is no choice but chaos.

Fixed that for ya.

by MPC on Feb 16, 2009 11:12 pm • linkreport

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