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16th Street will get another bus upgrade, but only a dedicated lane will really fix it

Metro has added more buses to the 16th Street "S" line, but ridership just keeps rising, the buses are crowded, and they're seriously bunching. A dedicated lane is the best solution, say WMATA planners, but in the meantime, they're going to add articulated (or "accordion") buses along the congested corridor.

Photo by Kishan Putta.

At a forum on bus service Wednesday organized by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, WMATA bus planner Jim Hamre said that Metro will put standard-size buses on the Y line, on Georgia Avenue in Montgomery County, in order to shorten the headways. That will free up some articulated buses for 16th Street.

(Technically, Hamre said, the articulated buses from the Y will serve the 70s line on Georgia Avenue in DC, and the "artics" which ply the 70s line now, which are based at the Northern Bus Garage on 14th Street, will now run on the S line. The Northern artics are older, so Georgia Avenue in DC will enjoy newer buses. The artics moving to 16th Street are slated for replacement next year.)

These steps could make a small dent in a big problem, but Hamre and others argued that only larger steps such a dedicated bus lane and signal priority will really make the buses move smoothly and better serve the massive numbers of riders along 16th Street.

Hamre also pointed out that DC had a dedicated bus lane on 16th Street in the past, but it and other bus lanes were removed when Metro opened. At the time, people believed that the then-new system would reduce the demand for bus service. (And perhaps it did for a time, but now it is crowded too, and many people don't live right near Metro.)

Joseph Barr from Parsons Brinkerhoff was also part of the forum, and talked about his experience with buses in New York. He cautioned that there is no perfect solution or checklist, but some small changes can go a long way. New York added some bus lanes and shortened dwell times—the time the bus sits at a stop—by adding kiosks at some stops so riders could pay before boarding.

Barr said that DC could use an off-bus fare system more efficiently than New York, since there are already better fare systems like the SmarTrip card to speed the boarding process. Sam Zimbabwe from DDOT said this was a good idea, provided it does not block limited sidewalk space or obstruct riders boarding the bus.

Everyone agreed that the bus service on 16th Street is so popular that has become very frustrating for riders. Metro, working with a limited fleet of buses, is trying to find small steps, but 16th Street really needs more significant changes to improve bus service. That requires some good planning and, most of all, political will.

Abigail Zenner, is a former lobbyist turned communications specialist. She specializes in taking technical urban planning jargon and turning it into readable blog posts. When she's not nerding out about urban planning, transportation, and American History, you may find her teaching a fitness class. Her blog posts represent her personal views only. 


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Great summary! Sounds like I didn't miss much in the Sam Zimbabwe presentation. What was his excuse?

by LowHeadways on May 2, 2014 12:50 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the summary. You can check out the speaker's presentations here:

by Cheryl Cort on May 2, 2014 1:09 pm • linkreport

I like the idea of this, but what good is it going to do if it isn't enforced? Private cars already drive in the Chinatown bus lane all the time.

by KingmanPark on May 2, 2014 1:30 pm • linkreport

@KingmanPark - one would hope that if DC installs a bus-only lane on 16th, WMATA would install forward-facing cameras on buses to capture lane violators like they have on Muni buses in SF:

But yes, they should have done this with the bus-only lane on 9th St.

by 7r3y3r on May 2, 2014 1:48 pm • linkreport

I was there with Abigail at this event. The consultant had an interesting data centric analysis of how to speed buses and stories of what they've done. The WMATA person talked about all the steps they are taking with shifting buses and service offerings. He said he's done about all he can since more buses won't help much. The consultant agreed that if you have long dwell times, adding more buses doesn't really help.

I think this is in DDOT's court. I was disappointed 3 projects have been held back (H/I, K Street transitway, and 16th). How can we get some transparency to the current status of each project and the next steps to make it happen? DDOT mentioned about 5 bus lane blocks on I think Georgia Ave going in this summer/fall, but I expect more and faster.

I look out my window on K St each day to see dozens and dozens of buses from Circulators to VA and MD commute buses to MetroBuses all getting stuck in traffic unnecessarily. Can the recent report on DC being 8th worth ozone help us get traction on this?

by GP Steve on May 2, 2014 2:19 pm • linkreport

The dedicated lane would make bus service somewhat better, but it would royally screw up things for everyone else. There are ways (streetcar, metro) to add capacity to public transit without screwing over everyone who's not on a bus. A dedicated lane won't fix a damn thing- there will still be massive problems on 16th, just different problems. Right now, it sucks equally for everyone. A dedicated lane would make it absolute hell for one group while a little bit nicer for the other. That's not the answer. I favor transit, but I find this proposal to be somewhat offensive. It's rent seeking- you're seeking to improve your own life at the direct expense of a large number of other people.

There will always be people who need to drive for various reasons, you can't just pretend they'll go away if you make a marginal improvement in bus service. Find a way that makes things work better for everyone. It's not impossible.

by Zeus on May 2, 2014 2:52 pm • linkreport


A new heavy rail metro line in north DC is almost certainly not in the cars within the next 25 years.

A street car in mixed traffic, though it could carry somewhat more volume than a bus in mixed traffic, would not have the capacity that a bus in a dedicated lane would, and as the defenders of the interests of motorists in Arlington have spent much time and effort telling us, presents its own problems for motorists. So I am not sure what solution there is that does not involve a dedicated transit lane. Will life be harder for motorists? Probably. But its a dense city, and driving in a dense city that sort of goes with the territory. Motorists won't all go away - but the ones who continue to drive will be the ones who accept what driving in a dense city at peak hours means.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 2, 2014 3:04 pm • linkreport

"not in the cards" heh

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 2, 2014 3:04 pm • linkreport

@Zeus It's rent seeking- you're seeking to improve your own life at the direct expense of a large number of other people.

Actually, rent-seeking would be continuing to profit from existing infrastructure while continuing to deny its full benefits to at least 50% of the people traveling on that road.

You don't own 16th Street. It's for everyone. And if right now - even with the abysmal service provided - 50% of all people traveling down 16th are riding the bus, imagine how much more that share would increase if buses weren't bunching or too full to board or horribly delayed.

Dare I say it might even *gasp* take cars off the road? That's what I'll never understand about reflexive opposition to even the simplest measures to improve transit - the better it gets, the more people will ride it, and that will mean fewer people blocking the way of your car.

As a protest I've always wanted to get everyone who would be riding an S bus to wear one of those car-sized boxes and walk down 16th Street, just so drivers can see what a favor the peons are doing them by riding the plebian bus.

by LowHeadways on May 2, 2014 3:05 pm • linkreport

There are ways (streetcar, metro) to add capacity to public transit without screwing over everyone who's not on a bus... A dedicated lane would make it absolute hell for one group while a little bit nicer for the other

Hey Zeus, did you know that while buses make up only 3% of the vehicles on 16th St during rush hour, that 50% of the commuters are bus riders? So they may only be one group, but they're a pretty big group.

by Aimee Custis on May 2, 2014 3:05 pm • linkreport

Uh, Zeus, everyone who takes the bus rather than driving takes pressure off of road space for other users. You've no doubt seen the classic picture of the space freed up for others by the choice to take a bus or bicycle?

Make taking the bus faster and more reliable, it'll be easier for the remaining motorists,

by Paul H on May 2, 2014 3:06 pm • linkreport

There are ways (streetcar, metro) to add capacity to public transit without screwing over everyone who's not on a bus.

The only people who have the possibility of being "screwed" are people who choose to drive on 16th. It's hard to see how anyone taking metro or driving down another street is affected.

There will always be people who need to drive for various reasons, you can't just pretend they'll go away if you make a marginal improvement in bus service.

Yes you can. This is well documented. If you make transit better, more people will ride it.

by drumz on May 2, 2014 3:07 pm • linkreport


There would still be a 16th St lane for cars. As over 50% of people move in the 3% of vehicles that are buses, they are entitled to priority. Imagine if we got the buses to move efficiently, maybe that 50% becomes 60% or 70%, so you end up with less cars that move faster. We have HOV lanes on I-395 and I-66 sometimes for vehicles that carry more people. Do people sometimes need to drive alone, of course. They just don't get to use those extra lanes.

by GP Steve on May 2, 2014 3:09 pm • linkreport

Quick question, and maybe this has been discussed before, but as a former Londoner, I wonder if the city has ever considered double decker buses?

The fit a lot of people, don't take up as much space as an articulated bus (and are safer and easier to maneuver), and you only need to pay for 1 driver (instead of two for two regular buses). Also it would distinguish DC's bus system within the US and help reduce bus stigma.

by Matt on May 2, 2014 3:28 pm • linkreport

Double decker buses are interesting, I wonder if they would run afoul of our overhanging traffic signals and low bridges though.

by BTA on May 2, 2014 3:38 pm • linkreport

I like the double decker buses but I've read(from Richard Layman)that they can take a long time to board/unboard.

I like them too but I can see that argument.

Also I don't know if double decker buses would fit in all of the current wmata garages which would be a real killer.

by drumz on May 2, 2014 3:39 pm • linkreport


I have actually asked this before (also as a one-time Londoner), and apparently the limitations are primarily that the bus garages don't have high enough ceilings, and that with the current issues with stop spacing and boarding it would have unacceptably long dwell times.

Those can be fixed, and I agree that at some point we should look into them, especially now that we're so monomaniacally focused on surface transit.

by LowHeadways on May 2, 2014 3:40 pm • linkreport

I think potentially interesting, relevant article details of what improvements to service are going to be offered riders on 16th street got drowned under how it's not silver/lead/zinc/gold standard repurposed lanes, etc.

by asffa on May 3, 2014 2:53 am • linkreport

Do we need to focus the message on this more about the data? We all know the 50% of people with 3% of the vehicles. What about saying 1) estimates of how many minutes slowed the buses are by traffic that would be sped up by the dedicated lanes and 2) how many more trips WMATA would run S buses on the route if the trip times were reduced by the aforementioned time 3) potential increases in ridership, how this could reduce cars and the benefit to them? The current argument seems to feel to some more like "We have more people taking buses, so we want priority"

by GP Steve on May 3, 2014 1:41 pm • linkreport

As an immediate capacity measure, WMATA ought to take a few seats out of the 40' buses on the existing 16th Street fleet. It won't necessarily improve trip times, but you can fit about 10 standees where there were 4 seats. If you remove the lateral seats by the rear door and 4-6 seats nearby, you'd have extra room for standees and make it easier for passengers to move to the back of the bus for speedier alighting.

This isn't to say that 16th doesn't need a dedicated bus lane, but it's one more way to increase the capacity of 16th Street buses in the near term.

by KG on May 3, 2014 3:00 pm • linkreport

When somehow the phrase "Rush hour BUS/HOV lane" gets mission-creeped into "dedicated bus lane" and "off-bus fare" (when most people already are using SmartTrip) - it's undoubted that people quit wanting to give their support.

Adding some signs about HOV bus lane hours and paint - not that much$$$ or loss. Removing lanes from driver's public use full time/all week for no good reason, changing the system entirely, changing payment systems even would undoubtedly cost millions - WASTEFULLY. SmartTrip works for local transit. Why add another fare system? it's ridiculous.

by asffa on May 3, 2014 5:52 pm • linkreport

KG if I'm picturing your suggestion right, that's a good idea.

by asffa on May 3, 2014 5:54 pm • linkreport

GP Steve How did Rush Hour Bus/HOV lane get twisted into 100% dedicated lane proposals? Or is the Rush Hour part of the proposals not dropped and people are just not stating it clearly anymore?
Mission creep is damaging- causes originally good plans to become damaging mistakes.

by asffa on May 3, 2014 6:01 pm • linkreport


I apologize for mispeaking. I think it should be dedicated for two reasons, but I did not intend to propose that in my comment. I'm concerned that other traffic will use the lane and I think dedicated lanes send a sense of importance and more permanence that show the service as quality. But again. that's not what I meant to say.

With regard to changing payment systems, I'm not sure how that came about. The off-board fare payment would still be Smartrip, just collected differently.

by GP Steve on May 3, 2014 10:43 pm • linkreport

GP Steve When you run buses, they look like buses. Buses aren't all elegant black, with columns of marble, and other than to riders waiting for them don't really hold "a sense of importance" (gravitas). Nor will putting them in a special lanes make them look "quality." It's a wildly popular bus.
The lane-taking full time would be wasteful and unreasonable - there's good reasonable evidence for rush hour/HOV lane, but the buses don't even run all the time and have abbreviated schedules on weekends. Rush hour/HOV bus lane paint/signs for 16th street makes sense because people there actually ride the bus. I think it'd be foolhardy to support additional nonsense - no giant wasting of money, mission creep, and no callous disregard of 16th street neighbourhoods.
Also when it comes to "collected differently" I keep seeing disability-unfriendly turnstiles proposed. No.

by asffa on May 5, 2014 12:36 am • linkreport

Off board payment doesn't require turnstiles. And it's wonderful being able to board any door on the bus.

by Drumz on May 5, 2014 1:06 am • linkreport

Removing lanes from driver's public use full time/all week for no good reason,

Quit repeating this red herring. This is not part of any plan that has been presented.

changing payment systems even would undoubtedly cost millions - WASTEFULLY. SmartTrip works for local transit. Why add another fare system?

Off-board fare payment wouldn't require anything more than a few machines with SmartTrip pads at the bus stops. It would not be a separate fare system. Who has proposed turnstiles? Nobody as far as I can tell.

by MLD on May 5, 2014 8:22 am • linkreport

MLD glad to hear that's a red herring, perhaps cutting the continual use of "dedicated lane" instead of being more specific Rush hour Bus/HOV would be reassuring. I have mentioned that idea before, since I am concerned about mission creep, and probably not alone. Glad to hear that use of turnstiles is considered a stupid idea, too.

Any extra financial outlay and neighborhood construction added into putting in a rush hour/hov lane, things like a few undoubtedly pricey machines, etc. (which would be under risk of being damaged) probably should be considered in the light that many bus stops don't even have a bench, because of WMATA financial concerns. Even fewer have have shelters, some shelters need repair, and fewer even than that have bike racks.
It's very like paying to install tv cable when there's no roof.

by asffa on May 5, 2014 10:47 am • linkreport

No it's not critical that we make sure other lines have X before doing anything on 16th.

There is a problem with 16th street, and there are solutions to solve it. Any deflections to what should be happening on other lines instead of 16th on other lines is sophistry.

by Drumz on May 5, 2014 10:54 am • linkreport

Drumz There are stops without benches on 16th, fewer than at many lines, but it's not sophistry when that's fact and so is that WMATA does not have an unlimited budget, nor does WMATA generally seem to be able to do everything well at once. It doesn't affect just one street.

by asffa on May 5, 2014 11:11 am • linkreport

Bus stops must have every upgrade possible before anything can be done to make the actual service better?

This sounds like an argument geared specifically to avoid any service upgrades at all. Shockingly, if you improve the service so it comes sooner, then people have less need for a bench to sit on while they wait.

P.S. Bus shelters are actually the responsibility of the jurisdiction & their contractors (DC & ClearChannel in this case), not WMATA.

by MLD on May 5, 2014 11:20 am • linkreport

Also, you can make a request for a shelter here:

by MLD on May 5, 2014 11:22 am • linkreport

/ fact and so is that WMATA does not have an unlimited budget, nor does WMATA generally seem to be able to do everything well at once.

Exactly, which is why it makes sense for WMATA to actually shorten people's trip by making the service faster than improving stops somewhere else because of some weird sense of fairness or priorities.

Let's fix the problem in front of us.

by drumz on May 5, 2014 11:44 am • linkreport

Good lord, all this nonsense about buses not needing dedicated lanes full-time. I understand that's not the proposal - but it should be.

It's high time that DC and everywhere acknowledge that the car is no longer priority number one, but rather moving people is. The reason a dedicated lane supposedly isn't justified full-time is because there aren't enough buses being run. That has the logic all backwards; WMATA needs to be running enough buses to justify a full-time dedicated lane.

In real cities with good transit service they don't force buses back into traffic just because it's become noon. It's a permanent fixture of the mobility environment. This sort of half-measure, commute-only focus is such a weird byproduct of the region and I don't understand it. VRE in peak-direction only. A single line of any commuter rail that runs on weekends. 12-minute scheduled headways are deemed acceptable. Half-hourly buses are okay.

What on earth is wrong with us? Until we start insisting that cars are secondary to vehicles that move a hell of a lot more people, we're going to be stuck in this morass forever.

by LowHeadways on May 5, 2014 1:24 pm • linkreport

Except off-peak the buses aren't really slowed down by traffic... because there isn't much traffic.

There's also plenty of mid-day bus service on 16th. Buses every 8 minutes meaning if you just show up it's an average wait of 4 minutes - that's pretty good.

by MLD on May 5, 2014 1:31 pm • linkreport

Likewise, if there isn't that much vehicular traffic, why would they need the second lane anyways?

It's the principle of the thing. The car is no longer king, and we need to implement policies that reflect that.

by LowHeadways on May 5, 2014 1:35 pm • linkreport


I agree with you conceptually, but you have to be careful how you sell it. Saying it's the principle of things evokes strong negatively response in a us vs then statement. First, there are other times when there is bus slowing traffic on 16th St. There are lots of times on weekends or during the day when buses get unnecessarily delayed. Second, the rush hour case has the issue of not being able to meet the desired demand of the riders or potential riders without bus lanes. At all times the case is that buses should not be given substandard service by being slowed by less densely populated vehicles.

by GP Steve on May 5, 2014 1:44 pm • linkreport

What second lane? 16th is one travel lane and one parking lane during non-rush hours. I'm no defender of street parking but that's not a fight I want to start if we can put in a bus lane for the hours when it will do the most good.

It's not "the principle of the thing." There's no point in pointlessly not using lanes to their fullest capacity.

by MLD on May 5, 2014 1:49 pm • linkreport

Wait, where's this HOV speak that @asffa keeps repeating coming from?

by 7r3y3r on May 5, 2014 4:35 pm • linkreport

I'm not surprised to see how quick the change in discussion is to taking lanes from drivers, even if there's no reason to do it and it'd just do harm to the neighborhood.

by asffa on May 5, 2014 8:53 pm • linkreport

drumz In comments to a previous post, someone had mentioned the top 3-4 boarding stops on 16th, that get the highest amount of people needing the bus. I don't remember what that list was. How to make those even more awesome does have potential (do they have bike racks?)
What is this smartTrip thing you think should be there?Would said addition be inexpensive, low maintenance and not troublesome/narrow, etc. for those with disabilities? if yes, yes, yes, then - it could make sense at those 3-4 boarding stops with the big demand if it'd speed things up by a lot.

by asffa on May 5, 2014 9:07 pm • linkreport

7r3y3r What do you mean? Are you against HOV?

by asffa on May 5, 2014 9:09 pm • linkreport

No it wouldn't be that hard. It's just a fare machine on the side of the street. Examples exist the world over. Look up the select bus service in NYC. Or google "proof of payment". It's not at all untested tech.

by Drumz on May 5, 2014 9:26 pm • linkreport

Drumz How much do the machines cost?

by asffa on May 5, 2014 9:32 pm • linkreport

@asffa - in general, no; for an urban bus lane, I'm not sure. But I asked only because I haven't seen it mentioned by WMATA or DDOT and was wondering if it was part of an official proposal or just something you advocate for.

by 7r3y3r on May 5, 2014 9:48 pm • linkreport


Start here.

This tech is common and thus installing it would be relatively easy. It's nothing to fear.

by Drumz on May 5, 2014 10:03 pm • linkreport

I looked at that, couldn't find what it cost

by asffa on May 5, 2014 10:08 pm • linkreport

Point is, it wouldn't be much in the grand scheme of things. It's not exactly an off the shelf product but it wouldn't be a huge public investment.

We are talking about paint, and machines that can read a smart trip and maybe print a validated ticket.

by Drumz on May 5, 2014 10:16 pm • linkreport

In New York, the first few Select Bus Service lines using off-board fare payment cost about ~4m for a line's worth of fare machines.

Total cost for implementing one of the lines: ~$10m. Add in the physical changes (curb extensions to the bus lanes) and you're talking about ~$20m.

In the world of transportation infrastructure, this is extremely low cost and highly beneificial. Each of the lines in New York has shown a double-digit improvement in on-time performance and reliability. This more efficient operation isn't just good for customers, it's good for the operator.

by Alex B. on May 6, 2014 9:19 am • linkreport

Alex B
oh, only 20 million+ Ouch. Is the double-digit improvement due to the machines?

by asffa on May 6, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

oh, only 20 million+ Ouch. Is the double-digit improvement due to the machines?

It's due to all of the changes they made, which cost $20 million.

Pretty disingenuous to slam the entire cost (including street infrastructure) and then demand to know if one piece of that cost (20%) was responsible for the entire change.

What is your alternative proposal here?

by MLD on May 6, 2014 1:25 pm • linkreport

Alex B That was an interesting link, btw. thanks.
If DC's WMATA& government can manage the Rush Hour HOV/Bus signs, the paint + machines for 20 mil for 16th street - how amazing

by asffa on May 6, 2014 1:30 pm • linkreport

MLD Why is it too much to ask what difference just the machines make when they're hardly free?
Every million means something to most people.

by asffa on May 6, 2014 1:32 pm • linkreport

What difference do the machines make?

On one of New York's SBS routes, the before and after show where the new route is faster. The delay at stops is shorter, as is the delay at red lights.

The actual time spent in motion is about the same.

The cost of the traffic signal priority and the dedicated lanes is what lowers that red light delay. The cost of the fare machines is what lowers your boarding delay.

So, about half of the travel time improvement (on that route) is due to the fare machines.

by Alex B. on May 6, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

Some of this was quantified before:

$8 million per year in extra costs because there is no bus lane. I don't think it would be out of whack to say that off-board fare payment could reap maybe 10% of those savings (because of reduced dwell time). So you would break even on your $4 million investment in 5 years.

by MLD on May 6, 2014 1:49 pm • linkreport

Oh, and that's just the savings to the transit agency, it doesn't include travel time savings of people (those using the bus or those not using the bus) who now get where they are going faster.

by MLD on May 6, 2014 1:52 pm • linkreport

Alex B. - that's a sweet amount of improvement for 4 mil!
FYI - 10% - That's the same amount of speed improvement expected out of a 150 million+ dollar proposal for buses in MontCo. that'll unnecessarily, futilely, make the roads a nightmare (and that wouldn't include said nice machine)
You won me over about those machines.

by asffa on May 6, 2014 6:19 pm • linkreport

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