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Amid exciting innovations, DDOT neglecting bus priority

DDOT is moving forward with many exciting transportation projects that will improve DC, from bike lanes to streetcars. However, their plans for these projects fail to also consider the vital task of making our existing bus service more efficient.

Photo by Ghost_Bear.

There are a few key places where lots of buses use a single street, and get slowed down by traffic. According to data from WMATA, the number one such area is H and I Streets between Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street. That's the the key crosstown bottleneck created when Pennsylvania Avenue and E Streets were closed to traffic.

DC has plans for a K Street transitway, but K Street can't also handle the 32, 36, 37, 39, 42, 43, G8, L2, S2, S4, P17, P19, W13, X2, 3Y, 11Y, and 16Y (am I missing any?) that use H and/or I Streets crosstown. If DC does the K Street project, it'll be even more important to accommodate buses on parallel streets during the construction as well.

We've been writing about the importance of bus priority treatment for years now. Speeding up buses is the biggest opportunity to both help riders and restrain the growth of transit operating costs. Unfortunately, despite WMATA's dogged promotion of the concept, so far it has encountered little response from many local DOTs.

DC should embrace bus priority. DC has the highest public transportation mode share in the region and a very congested downtown. Metrorail is at capacity in the core. The faster DC residents can get to jobs, restaurants, or sporting events by transit, the more people can work or shop downtown and spend money. The more commuters from other states get there smoothly by bus, the lower the wear and tear on streets and the more competitive DC employers become.

DDOT should be eager to put bus lanes on every downtown street where buses run and make riding downtown by bus almost as fast as by Metrorail. However, buses get scant attention from DDOT's Action Agenda.

This omission becomes a particular problem when DDOT plans projects on key bus streets without considering all modes. The proposed cycle track on I Street, in particular, could foreclose the opportunity for a bus lane.

Plans for I Street lane. Photo by Matt Johnson.
The current plan places the bike lane on the south side of the one-way westbound street and moves all loading to the north side. Buses can't use the south side, and a future bus lane on the north side would mean no loading on I.

Maybe they can coexist. Maybe DDOT can make the rightmost travel lane a bus lane and put in bus bulbs, while trucks pull across the bus lane to load. Maybe there are other solutions. From talking to folks at DDOT, however, it doesn't appear this was even considered. The bike people aren't talking to the transit people. They haven't formulated a more comprehensive downtown mobility plan. They're just putting in facilities wherever there's room. We shouldn't plan our streets based on a "land grab" of who can snag the curb lane before the other division gets around to it.

At Thursday's public meeting, WABA's Henry Mesias said they actually prefer a bike lane on M Street. The bicycle master plan calls for lanes on L and M Streets, not I and L. M Street is longer in both directions, provides a route past busy Mount Vernon Square, and could connect to the 9th Street lane. I've put in some calls, but DDOT hasn't yet explained why they chose I over M.

There's another excellent candidate for an east-west bike route: Pennsylvania Avenue. The portion past the White House is already in effect an enormous cycle track. Pennsylvania Avenue west of the White House is underutilized because its many lanes now just dead-end at 17th. DDOT could create a cycle track on Penn, past the White House, and then connecting to the 15th Street lane, potentially a lane along New York Avenue toward Mount Vernon Square, and the existing bike lane on G.

Here's a potential strategy for crosstown mobility:

Purple: Cycle tracks. Blue: Existing bike lanes. Red: K Street Transitway.
Orange: Bus lanes that also allow bikes, or bus lanes as well as bike lanes.

I'm excited DDOT is pursuing these innovative projects. When we discussed K Street, I pushed hard for DDOT to start considering crosstown cycle tracks on parallel streets. We shouldn't delay all projects a year just to ensure there's a detailed plan. At the same time, there should be such a plan. For now, it can be a rough vision, and then we should turn it into a real plan. With individual divisions planning transportation projects without context and without talking to the other divisions, all we get is chaos and the danger of bad choices.

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! A bit of sanity.

I think you are missing the 38B on K, Circulator buses, and also the Loundon County/Maryland commuter buses as well which clog up during rush hour. I'm sure there are more.

Timing the signals so buses can get through a yellow light would also be helpful in this part of town.

More militant parking enforcement to get double parked trucks out of there during rush hour (heavier fines?) would speed things up quite a bit as well, and be good for cars.

by charlie on Mar 23, 2010 12:56 pm • linkreport

I commend the District on many of its transportation initiatives, but I have to say that its "Complete Streets" plan has been completely without any regard for bus utilization.

It is my understanding that more than 50% of travelers on H & I Sts NW during rush hour are riding buses--but they're doing it at 3-5 mph--absurd!

There has to be a better plan to integrate all modes of transportation into the city.

by kreeggo on Mar 23, 2010 1:02 pm • linkreport

How about the J2? Why isn't MD working on making that corridor/future Purple Line a bus priority?

by Redline SOS on Mar 23, 2010 1:48 pm • linkreport

I completely agree with the "land grab" critique of DDOT's "complete streets" approach. Won't DDOT have to implement bus priority at intersections in the next 2 years per the Stimulus money we received though?

by Ken Archer on Mar 23, 2010 2:30 pm • linkreport

I realize it's outside DDOT's direct power, but has there been any discussion of re-establishing bus-only service on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House? Park Row in Lower Manhattan, which runs right by One Police Plaza and has been closed to auto traffic since 9/11/01, is open to MTA bus routes.

by Josh B on Mar 23, 2010 3:00 pm • linkreport

Yes, there has been talk about adding bus service on Penn. And it was close to happening before 9/11. The new street was designed to make it possible. But, these things tend to not be reversed. I can't even think of an example where it was.

by David C on Mar 23, 2010 3:09 pm • linkreport

Without real consideration of transit needs, DC is not following a complete streets model. This is yet another reason DDOT needs to develop and implement a complete streets policy that will break down the silos.

by Stefanie on Mar 23, 2010 3:49 pm • linkreport

I bike all over this city and bike lane network remains laughable. Every time a 'bike lane' gets added, it goes about 8-10 blocks (see the latest 5st NW or 15 st NW examples). They are always cars in them - even the cycletrack on 15 st NM, going northbound. Why put more of these in?

Different modes of transportation need different ROW. The reason metrobus is so terrible and metrorail so much more enjoyable (to me at least) is ROW. If metrobus had ROW like metrorail does, it would move like metrorail. I doubt the light priority would do much in the core - those roads are already gridlocked during rush hour and don't move when the lights are green anyhow. Maybe it would help in the burbs but K st barely moves now.

Likewise, if bikes had some infrastructure instead of painted bike lanes, you would have a real network. Maybe physically separated lanes - with concrete/granite curbs cars can't climb are the answer. I look forward to the metropolitan branch trail, whatever century it is finished, but the rest of these paint-the-streets-with-bike/bus-lanes projects just do not cut it.

by staypuftman on Mar 23, 2010 6:44 pm • linkreport

People seem to be forgetting about DDOT and Office of Planning's aggressive Tiger Grant application that was only funded for the rapid bus improvements....?

by DC Bus on Mar 23, 2010 6:59 pm • linkreport

This is a good point.

It's not that DC doesn't do complete streets planning (as some people aver in the thread), but it, like in most jurisdictions, can be incomplete. I think this is an example of bus transit not being considered very sexy, while bicycling is particularly hot these days.

It does also illustrate an internal organizational flaw within DDOT. See, the transportation planning division is not responsible for transit planning. Transit planning falls under the mass transit administration division of DDOT.

SO you can see that since TP has a more robust planning capacity and leadership, that they are focusing on bicycle planning, while MTA is not pushing bus priority. Yes, I recognize that the TP division still pushes bus priority, but you see how the bike and ped unit at TPPA can be prioritized at the expense of bus.

I happen to believe that transit planning should be merged into the Transportation Planning and Policy Adminstration unit of DDOT.


The priority bus lanes on 7th and 9th don't work very well, but that is because there are hardly any buses (70s, Circulator) using the lanes.

K Street and I Street bus priority lanes make a lot of sense. Especially because so many different bus lines would be using the lanes, demonstrating the need and demand, and increasing significantly the likelihood of success.

Obviously the K Street lanes have been planned, but the plans were crippled because they intend to prioritize some transit over others (e.g., the commuter buses weren't supposed to be allowed to use them, etc.).

by Richard Layman on Mar 24, 2010 6:02 am • linkreport

oh, and wrt your line:

DDOT should be eager to put bus lanes on every downtown street where buses run and make riding downtown by bus almost as fast as by Metrorail. However, buses get scant attention from DDOT's Action Agenda.

Which unit do you think wrote the Action Agenda? TPPA (Transportation Policy and Planning Administration). Not MTA (Mass Transit Administration).

by Richard Layman on Mar 24, 2010 6:06 am • linkreport

The 16Y already uses K St, not H or I. I take this route as a commuter and I'd say one of the greatest reasons for slow progress is simply having so many stops. In some places, it's every block. This increases the odds of getting stuck at every light. In general, though, I find the progress up 18th St to be slower than the progress across K.

I agree with the person who said that Metrobus has much lower appeal than Metrorail because of ROW. On the other hand, ROW simply provides the opportunity for steady progress. A much cheaper way to achieve this might be fewer stops.

by Josh S on Mar 24, 2010 9:39 am • linkreport

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