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Adding 15-minute Circulator routes would dilute the Circulator brand

What makes the DC Circulator different from "a regular bus"? Is it just that it's red? The lines are a little straighter? Or is the only difference that the DC government controls it instead of WMATA? If DC officials don't have a clear vision, they might wreck the success they've built.

Photo by on Flickr.

The Circulator is a great bus because it runs on short headways of no more than 10 minutes, on easy-to-understand routes that connect key activity centers. You don't have to look at a schedule. You can just know you wait at a stop for a little while and a bus should come. And you can probably keep in your head where the stops are.

Unfortunately, transit planners at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) are considering adding some Circulator routes with a 12-15 minute headway, Bob Thomson reported. That would be a bad call. Everyone wants the Circulator in his or her neighborhood (here's an example), but they want what the Circulator means. Water it down too much, and it stops meaning much.

In fact, according to Joe Sternlieb, the Georgetown BID director who was deeply involved in the original Circulator when he worked at the Downtown BID, the first proposals were for a bus running every 5 minutes. That changed to 10, and now the Circulator aims for a 10-minute headway but often gaps between buses can stretch much longer.

If there's a place that would support a 12-15 minute Circulator route but not a 10-minute one, DDOT would have to have a very good reason not to just make it a Metrobus route. If every neighborhood had a Circulator route, but some routes ran every 15 minutes, some even more, some not very long hours, then the brand only means it's DC's bus system and not WMATA's, like Ride On or ART. Good bus branding tells the consumer something, not about the government but about the service.

One complicating factor is that the Circulator has a cheaper fare than Metrobus. This is because DC has been willing to spend some money to keep the fares low, but not for the whole Metrobus system. That distorts transit planning, because many communities understandably want a cheap bus.

We need more routes that run frequently, not more routes that don't. The Circulator aims to connect activity centers, but it could be that the Circulator, as a brand, is not for every route in every neighborhood. Maybe we need another brand for a different type of route.

DDOT is also considering taking over "non-regional" bus routes from WMATA, which are routes that don't run in Maryland and Virginia, don't serve large numbers of Maryland and Virginia residents transferring from rail, and don't get any money from Maryland or Virginia. But some of these are low-ridership, low-frequency neighborhood routes. The Circulator wouldn't be the right brand for those either.

Not every bus has to have the same name. Let's have the Circulator keep doing what it does well, and where that can apply elsewhere, do it there also. Let's also expand and improve bus service, but without diluting what the Circulator means.

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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Agree completely. Do we have a frequent network map yet?

by Michael Perkins on Mar 10, 2014 10:27 am • linkreport

I couldn't agree more.

Thanks for highlighting the issue - hopefully DDOT will take heed.

by nativedc on Mar 10, 2014 10:35 am • linkreport

Much of the appeal of the Circulator "brand" is that its routes serve a more affluent clientele than many Metrobus routes. Ride-On had a similar image when it began -- it was going to go into single-family neighborhoods while leaving main corridors to Metrobus -- but it lost the image as the county wisely reallocated service to the areas with the highest demand.

This kind of branding is counterproductive to the transit system as a whole -- new bus routes gain prestige at the cost of labeling the majority of bus service as second-rate. And with two separate bureaucracies running bus service, with their own route and driver scheduling practices, you inevitably have a lack of coordination. (For an example, look at the tangle of bus routes in downtown Bethesda.)

by Ben Ross on Mar 10, 2014 10:38 am • linkreport

Adding a new "non-circulator" brand could be tricky too and raises a lot of questions operationally. Would the fleet for "Circulator Lite" require unique branding? This would make it tricky to have two separate isolated fleets. Would fares be uniform across DC Operated routes? Would there be any equity issues that would need to be substantiated?

It is very true that not every route or corridor in the district can sustain solid ten minute headways, but I do wonder if a new brand will only add to the confusion and complexity of operations for the sake of keeping the Circulator standards intact.

by A. P. on Mar 10, 2014 10:39 am • linkreport

I love Denver's 16th Street shuttle. It doesn't cover route anywhere as large as any of the Circulators and operates on a dedicated lanes, but has pick-up times that as little as 1.5 minutes between buses.

The rapid pick-up is really something else. Increasing Circulator to 15 minutes will, I totally agree, kill the concept/brand. But more importantly: There's a real need for rapid pick-up, especially if you want to continue to discourage car ownership and do things like sweep away on-street parking to create dedicated bus/bike lanes. Anything longer than 10 minutes, is a tremendous mistake.

by kob on Mar 10, 2014 10:48 am • linkreport

I'd argue that frequent headways are both the most underrated and at the same time most important aspect of any desirable transit system.

by Fitz on Mar 10, 2014 10:48 am • linkreport

This is kind of like the initial debates on how to implement bike share. The answer on that is clear that it's better to have a smaller/more effective network than a broader more diluted one. The same is true for circulator apparently. It's unfortunate for those who have to wait for those incremental improvements, especially if the expansions stall out but it's more effective in the short and long term.

by Drumz on Mar 10, 2014 11:03 am • linkreport

"Good bus branding tells the consumer something, not about the government but about the service."

This is so crucial to the success of the Circulator. The 10-minute headways and the low, simple fares are defining characteristics of the service. Expansion plans put them all at risk and DDOT is going to need to resist community and business pressure to grow too rapidly.

by Robert Thomson on Mar 10, 2014 11:12 am • linkreport

@Fitz +1 million

Even 10 minutes for the existing circulator routes isn't enough. They're more often than not delayed anyways, so setting the headways at something more like 5-8 minutes would allow actual wait times of roughly 10 minutes.

by LowHeadways on Mar 10, 2014 11:15 am • linkreport

I speak for myself and my perspective but I think that the low fares are not really a defining characteristic. The low headways are. Low headways change it from a bus service where I have to figure out where to get the schedule and figure out when to catch the bus, to a service where all I have to know is where I can catch it and where it goes. The fact that it's $1 instead of $1.65 or $1.75 does not matter as much to me because they accept Smartrip.

I know there's a large contingent that likes the $1 fare though.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 10, 2014 11:32 am • linkreport

The popularity of the Circulator highlights the problems with Metrobus service. As other commenters have mentioned, these include infrequent and/or unpredictable headways, frequent stops that slow service, uneven fares. Additionally, I'd argue that many people are afraid to take Metrobus because they don't recognize the destination. I consider myself fairly familiar with the DC area, and I still see many bus destinations that I have no clue where they are.

Rather than giving every neighborhood its own Circulator, DDOT and WMATA need to figure out how Metrobus service can coopt the successful features of the Circulator.

by Rebecca on Mar 10, 2014 11:47 am • linkreport

There is next to no bus service in major cities that charges a dollar. It might have been appropriate 10 years ago but inflation has cut into revenues. That holds back DDOT's ability to add more service.

@Rebecca, absolutely agree.

by MLD on Mar 10, 2014 11:53 am • linkreport

Whether true or not, to me the value of the Circulator brand is as a transportation option focused entirely on local residents and visitors. What I mean by that is its primary purpose is not (or should not be) to shuttle commuters in and out of town along long radial lines, but to 'circulate' people within the city in an efficient manner. Efficient means short headways and relatively quick turnarounds.

Someone in a previous story commented that the Circulator could be seen as a proving ground for where to lay streetcar lines, and I completely agree because I also see the streetcars as being organized to move people within DC, rather than in and out of DC.

Any move to extend headways, lengthen lines, or any other action that blurs the lines between what I perceive to be an efficient people mover and an overburdened, overscheduled regional transit system must be avoided. They serve very different purposes, and therefore should have different operational goals. People want circulator because it works the way it's operated, not because they just want some bus, any bus, and circulator happens to be talking expansion.

by Chris on Mar 10, 2014 12:30 pm • linkreport

Baltimore's Circulator is free.

The Circulator is about the only dependable service we have on mid-14th for short trips in-between downtown and Columbia Heights. For 150 years this has been a major transit route of DC but it's neglected by other transit.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 10, 2014 12:41 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris
except for the 50s on 14th, the S on 16, and 60s and 11th...

by guest1 on Mar 10, 2014 1:00 pm • linkreport

guest1- Getting onto S's and 50's below Columbia Heights is a problem.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 10, 2014 1:03 pm • linkreport

The Circulator should be replaced by streetcars on the most popular routes. Use the Circulator to determine where the demand is and then build permanent tracks .

by caryoreilly on Mar 10, 2014 2:30 pm • linkreport

well, I would argue that the way that GGW has promoted the expansion of Circulator service in myriad past blog entries, without calling for the creation-imposition of significant metrics about what justifies that level of service/headways and advocating for their use in making such decisions has contributed to this situation.

by Richard Layman on Mar 10, 2014 2:30 pm • linkreport

Yes Circulator service is great and serves an important role. But it is unwise to try to block DC from adding additional DC-funded, neighborhood-serving bus service because it doesn't match the Circulator brand. Invent a new name, paint all DC buses a generic color and run them everywhere in DC as frequently as possible for lower costs than WMATA service. Problem solved. Low headways, express service and low fares are (in that order) great features for any bus service so we should advocate for those aspects on any new route. But it seems unwise to stall new bus service by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

by Dan on Mar 10, 2014 4:23 pm • linkreport

yep, Circulator is a mess. Everyone wants one, nobody knows why. it was a great experiment, but if you plan on making it bigger you need a better plan.

I waited 20+ minutes on Saturday for a georgetown bound circulator. So much for 10 mintue headways.

by charlie on Mar 10, 2014 6:36 pm • linkreport

What DC should do is have two types of Circulator Buses. If they gave the routes names instead of just destinations it could be done. For example the current routes give them names instead of noting the route via the terminals that run every 10minutes designated with A-something, and any routes that would run 15 minutes B-something, 20minutes C-something and so on.

@ Charlie

I have also waited for buses 20 minutes and more sometimes; once on a Sunday I waited 25 minutes for a Circulator. I waited so long that I assumed I missed the last one going from Union Station.

@ Rebecca

“Additionally, I'd argue that many people are afraid to take Metrobus because they don't recognize the destination. I consider myself fairly familiar with the DC area, and I still see many bus destinations that I have no clue where they are.”

Is it so hard to go on the WMATA site and look at the bus routes map or google maps and look at the route there? I have been in numerous cities in many countries and knew nothing about the transit there I learned to get around by reading the maps, schedules etc.; I’m certain that you could also do that. Most of the bus routes in DC have destinations that are old Forts, Neighborhoods, Metrostations, and Circles it would be easy to Google any of them to find out where the route goes.

by kk on Mar 10, 2014 11:30 pm • linkreport

wrt to Dan and kk's comments, I have argued for a development of a transit framework plan for a long time. The circulator is merely a form of intra-city transit (like the Baltimore Circulator although there the MTA doesn't have lines that serve Baltimore City only, while Metrobus does) that fits into the proposed hierarchy.

by Richard Layman on Mar 11, 2014 9:41 am • linkreport

Sounds like Circulator might end up like LADOT (City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation) DASH, which started out as a simple Downtown shuttle, but has spread out to most neighborhoods in the City--supplementing the LA MTA bus service:

by cph on Mar 12, 2014 10:36 pm • linkreport

@Michael Perkins: the new WMATA bus maps distinguish between frequent and regular bus services.

by Payton Chung on Mar 17, 2014 12:16 am • linkreport

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