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Bus cuts aren't always bad

In this spring's WMATA budget debate, transit advocates asked for and won a budget that contained "no service cuts." But the actual ideal resolution would have been "almost no service cuts," because in a few spots, bus service needs cutting.

P1 route around 4th Street. Image from NextBus.

One example is the P1 bus, which makes a one-block loop to stop in front of Federal Center SW Metro on its way down 4th Street across the Mall. Reader Tom Leonard writes,

I just moved to Southwest (from Upper Connecticut NW) and while I usually ride my bike to work, I occasionally ride Metrobus's P1 line.

The areas of concern for me are where the bus turns up 10th St from Constitution to Pennsylvania and where the bus drives down 4th St and does a loop (on its way to Anacostia) just to make a stop at the Federal Center SW Metro station. It just seems to be such a waste of time and money, especially the loop because I have only seen one person get on the bus at the Metro station and no one got off.

I was hoping that you all could help me figure out why exactly Metro designed the route in this manner and whether they have data that supports its continued operation.

I asked Metro. Bus planner David Erion explained the rationale for these two diversions from the most direct path:
The P1 route in the PM rush travels east on Constitution Avenue, turns left on 10th Street and right on Pennsylvania to 4th Street where it crosses the Mall, and it has done this for many years. Mr. Leonard's point is why doesn't it just go straight on Constitution to 4th Street. The reason for the existing route is to have a common stop on Pennsylvania near Federal Triangle for P1, P2 and P6, so that riders going to Anacostia have access to all routes at the same stop.

The loop via D, 3rd and C Streets SW was created to serve Federal Center SW Station and to provide for bus-to-bus transfers when many Maryland routes terminated at 3rd & D. Now it serves very few riders. I had planned to eliminate the loop along with the 70-Line change as proposed last winter. Currently, I am reviewing new ride check data to develop a revised proposal for restructuring the P routes.

The Federal Triangle diversion could make sense or might not. What do you think?

But it's fairly clear that the Federal Center SW diversion isn't beneficial. And one consequence of the decision to avoid all service changes of any type was that this and other similar pieces of bus routes stayed.

Unfortunately, the DC Board members negotiated for no service cuts whatsoever at the expense of other needs, and in the final accounting DC riders got a bit of a bad deal. In the staff budget proposals, most Metrorail fares went up by 15%, but the maximum fare only went up by 12%. The last staff budget proposal also had a late-night $4 flat fare, which DC didn't want because it was unfair to short-range riders, and increases in the parking fees.

Fairfax wanted to keep the maximum fare low and eliminate the parking fee. DC wanted to get rid of the $4 flat fare. In the end, they both got those, but on top of that, the Board decided to increase the minimum fare another 5¢ beyond what had been proposed, but the maximum fare didn't increase at all. Therefore, short-range riders ended up paying more, but long-range riders were kept harmless.

Why would DC's representatives, Jim Graham and Neil Albert, agree to this unfair set of final changes? Since the negotiations went on behind closed doors, we don't know the dynamics, but when I asked in an email why the DC reps agreed, Neil Albert wrote in an email that it "got all service cuts off the table."

Albert was also not present in those final negotiations. I have long wondered whether, had DC had its team at full strength, if it could have pushed for a fairer balance in the budget.

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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Buses riding short loops are a massive waste of time, and lead to a massive reduction in average speed from begin to end point. It should be avoided. People can walk a block.

by Jasper on Sep 15, 2010 4:08 pm • linkreport

The think that you need to keep in mind is that even the smallest change to the bus system can be very expensive. While you save the agency money and people time by cutting service, you have to reprint all the schedules, system maps, route maps, etc., update all the data systems (next bus, voice annunciator, etc.), post signs, send out crews to remove stop flags and shelters, etc. I doubt that a good basket of these small changes would be worth the expense.

by Michael on Sep 15, 2010 5:23 pm • linkreport

@ mIchael: Short term pain for long term gain no?

If a bus route uses 5 drivers, say at $60000 each total cost, and that fuel is another $80000 a year, but cost of Buses, say $ 40000 dollar a year depreciation, that is whopping $ 420000 saved!

I know I'm pulling these numbers out of a hat. But Roughly speaking all the changes u mention hardly acost 1/10 of what it costs to maintain a bus line.

by Vincent Flament on Sep 15, 2010 5:40 pm • linkreport

I couple painful loops on my own commute: the T16/17 through Beltway Plaza and The Bus 11 in and out of each address' parking lot along Ivy Lane. I don't even bother with the 11 and I can just walk to Crescent/Ridge faster than the T16/17 can drive there. Granted, Beltway Plaza at least generates a good amount of trips -- some carrying groceries -- though I often wonder how many could be served well enough at the stops adjacent to the shopping center.

Fortunately the New Carrollton R12 works well enough in the AM... but the Deanwood R12 rarely shows up in the PM; or when it does it usually drives right past Crescent/Ridge without stopping since the curvature blocks view of the bus stop. But I digress...

by Bossi on Sep 15, 2010 5:52 pm • linkreport

@ Vincent Flament

Just because you shave one minute off of a bus doesn't mean you can add up all those minutes and translate it into operating cost savings. In order to save any money by making a bus go faster, you need to save one entire headway's worth of time, so you can remove one bus from service on the route and maintain the same level of service. If the bus runs every 15 minutes, you need to save 15 minutes.

Otherwise, you simply have the same number of buses driving relatively the same number of miles, resulting in the same operating costs.

For future reference, $100 per hour for operating Metrobus is a good figure to use.

by Michael on Sep 15, 2010 8:26 pm • linkreport

I thought the 10th street pause was so that the bus drivers could socialize with each other. We just don't see mobs of riders waiting on 10th street for any bus. It is a rather lonely place to stand outside of business hours. That entire block could be better utilized (think car parking) .... and it should have a southbound bike lane to continue the bike lane from the previous block.

by Tour guide on Sep 15, 2010 8:43 pm • linkreport

The meaning of "no service cuts" was never that individual routes should not be adjusted. The idea was that the total level of service should not be reduced. Within a framework of no service cuts, it is appropriate - and indeed necessary - to move service from where it is less needed to where it is more needed.

Also - for michael - in the long run, shortening a bus route by a few minutes will save money. Schedules are adjusted from year to year due to changing ridership (more or less time needed to board the bus) and changing traffic congestion. Perhaps now saving 3 minutes on a route that runs every 15 minutes only means that the driver waits 10 minutes instead of 7 minutes at the end of the run. But next year traffic will be worse and the route will take 5 minutes longer to run. Two minutes is not enough buffer time between runs, so an extra bus would be needed if we had not saved 3 minutes.

by Ben Ross on Sep 15, 2010 8:52 pm • linkreport

I know locally, there's many bus loops - but it's mostly so that one bus can stop in a safer location, and allow transfers to other busses. The bus system literally doesn't have the money to purchase major-road front property and develop it. Wish it did, but it doesn't. The ones that do, save it for investing in connections or developing rail if they're allowed.

Now, the express busses skip these loops or only serve the endpoint of the loops and nothing along the route, which makes the loops a safe spot to hang out instead of standing by the freeway. Having been trapped in one during sleet and snow making the city come to a halt once, I was glad to be off the main road at one of the loops.

But they do need to be checked against when routes change in major ways like above.

by Crissa on Sep 15, 2010 8:52 pm • linkreport

I'm all for loops to transfer. But please make the place I wait safe and inviting. 10th street is not. Now the transfer points at 7th and Pennsylvania (both NW and SW corners) feel much better. Open spaces. High visability. The Circulator bus does transfers here. The 70 express bus loops and transfers here. The 30's/54's do transfers here. The commuter motor coaches load on the south side of PA avenue. Shade. Places to sit. Why not loop the P's, the S's, and the early morning 13's?

by Tour guide on Sep 16, 2010 6:54 am • linkreport

My unfavourite dipsy doodle is the ridiculous looping that the Metrobus 96 and 97 and the Navy Yard/Union Station Circulator lines take from 1st Street NE to get to Columbus Circle and Union Station:
- W on Constitution Avenue NE and NW,
- NE on Louisiana Avenue NW,
- E on D Street NW and NE,
- N on 1st Street NE,
- W on Columbus Circle

This circuity appears to have been inflicted by the apparent closure of 1st Street NE between Constitution and C Streets, presumably in the name of national security as it runs between the Russell and Hart Senate Office Buildings.

Why not run these lines to the E of the blocked-off segment, up and down 2nd Street NE? The loopy detour doesn't seem to attract any ridership along its path but sure as heck incurs unnecessary delay while consuming capacity on streets it doesn't need to use.

by intermodal commuter on Sep 16, 2010 10:44 am • linkreport

I know the politics behind this must be byzantine, but i have often wondered why WMATA could not eliminate a few stops along its routes, especially in places where there are stops on two adjacent blocks (or even two on the SAME block!)....

reducing the number of stops would increase route speeds, decrease fuel use and idling, and lower frustration levels of riders who are anxious to get to their destinations!

by danvironmentalist on Sep 16, 2010 1:31 pm • linkreport

@ intermodal commuter

It doesn't get any riders because they only have two 2 new stops 2 blocks from Union Station while no where else.

I bet that if they put a stop at 1st and Constit./Louisiana where the check points start would gain riders or well at least some people who work west of there would get on/off there since there is currently no bus service over there at all.

by kk on Sep 16, 2010 6:58 pm • linkreport

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