"Priority bus" a valuable part of the transit mix when done right
Regional planners have been focusing their efforts recently on improving transit by creating better and faster bus service. Metro is working hard to develop "priority bus corridors," with express buses that run more often, more quickly, and more reliably than existing service. And a committee at the Transportation Planning Board has been developing a priority bus proposal for a stimulus grant. According to recent drafts, they are considering a wide variety of projects, including freeway buses on I-66, Metro corridors such as on Viers Mill Road and 14th Street, Metrorail station access at Rosslyn and Medical Center, and the K Street transitway.
As the list makes clear, "priority bus" can mean a lot of things. Is a simple limited-stop bus a priority bus? A point to point commuter route that skips intermediate communities via freeways? A service that runs only four times an hour? Do priority buses need low-floor vehicles? Fare prepayment? Separate branding?
What we do know is that priority bus is not a real replacement for rail transit. New busway projects in recent years have fallen short of the ridership estimates by 33 percent, while rail projects have exceeded them by 22 percent. Bus lines don't generate the same level of transit-oriented development as rail lines, and can accommodate fewer riders.
However, rail doesn't belong everywhere. Buses are an important part of the mix of transit options for the region. In areas with lower density and lower ridership, bus systems give us needed transit without the capital investment, though also without the expansion potential. In particular, where we already have high-ridership bus lines, speeding up those buses and improving service to riders can meaningfully improve transit choices.
"Priority bus" lines in the Washington metropolitan area should provide service frequency and reliability comparable to that of rail lines, if not entirely comparable speed. A Metrorail rider can arrive at a station during almost any service hour confident that the wait will not be very long. Our priority bus corridors should mimic rail headways, including middays, evenings, weeknights, and weekends.
Likewise, a Metrorail rider has access to accurate information about next arrivals and a comfortable, weather-protected place to wait. So should priority bus riders. A rail train boards quickly, since riders need not individually pay as they board. Priority bus corridors should implement fare prepayment technologies. Finally, Metrorail trains rarely wait in traffic. A priority bus line might not reach the same travel speeds, but should include signal priority and right-of-way improvements needed to significantly reduce delays.
With such a wide range of improvements that we could call "bus priority," it's too easy to make small and incremental improvements and call those priority bus. Such improvements are welcome, but won't truly entice choice riders to forego car-dependence and rely on transit. To achieve the economic development and build the walkable communities so many residents desire, we need transit equal to the task. It's hard to pick and choose, and ideally every corridor would get top-notch service, but we should focus limited resources on creating a number of high quality, true priority bus corridors.
Just as our region's rail lines sometimes run along freeways and sometimes along developed corridors, so can "priority bus" systems run through corridors or use freeways. In the Metrorail system, we have the clear comparison between the Orange Line in Arlington, which runs underneath a commercial boulevard, and in Fairfax, which runs in the median of I-66. Arlington achieved remarkable economic development thanks to its choice of alignment, and while Fairfax has benefited enormously from Metrorail, it has not reaped the same rewards.
Likewise, a priority bus system that uses freeways to connect a series of park-and-ride lots to jobs is the bus equivalent of the median-running Orange Line. It may move passengers, but won't revitalize retail corridors or stimulate new development. With limited transportation dollars, our region should focus on building priority bus lines in existing mixed-use corridors. We have many in need of quality transit service in Maryland, Virginia, and DC.
Based on the TPB list, it appears that WMATA, the District, and Arlington and Alexandria are indeed focusing on these types of corridors. Maryland projects submitted by WMATA include priority bus on Viers Mill Road, University Boulevard, and Addison Road. DC has numerous individual corridors, and DDOT submitted the K Street Transitway. Arlington submitted projects on Arlington Boulevard, Glebe Road, and Lee Highway extending into Fairfax County, Fairfax City, and Falls Church, while Alexandria proposed lines along Route 1 and from Kingstowne to Shirlington to the Pentagon via the Mark Center (though both projects probably ought to use rail instead of bus). The TPB list, at least, contains no submissions from Fairfax, the State of Maryland, Prince George's County, or, except for Medical Center improvements, Montgomery County, though it's not clear whether those jurisdictions participated in the submissions from WMATA, Arlington, or Alexandria.
And if that list reflects juridictions' actual priorities, then the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation's priorities are way off base. Their only submissions are for freeway ramps and parking to create park-and-rides on I-66, and in-line stations and ramps to create bus lines right along the freeways on I-95 and I-395. These projects will bypass Fairfax's existing commercial nodes and historic downtowns to foster even more auto-dependent development surrounding park-and-ride transit use. That's not the rapid bus our region needs.
Priority bus corridors could significantly enhance transit service for relatively low cost. Our region will reap the greatest rewards when we build bus services with equivalent frequencies and convenience to rail, choose routes that complement rather than supplant needed surface rail lines, and route them along existing corridors that maximize the housing, office, and retail within easy walking distance of stations.
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