Ward 7 residents ask for safer, more reliable bus service
Many residents drove to a community forum in Ward 7 on improving bus service last Saturday, and those who took transit faced very long rides, which precisely illustrates the need for better bus service east of the Anacostia River.
Residents want to see more service on weekends and off-peak hours and want to improve safety and overcrowding on buses. But improvements could cost millions, which the District would be hard-pressed to fund in the current budget climate.
Residents met last Saturday with Councilmembers Tommy Wells (Ward 6) and Yvette Alexander (Ward 7), as well as representatives of WMATA and DDOT, to discuss ways to improve bus service east of the Anacostia River. It was the first stop in Councilmember Wells's listening tour on bus enhancement.
Just getting to the event was a challenge for those who didn't drive. Veronica Davis, one of the forum's organizers, noted that to get from her home in Fairfax Village to the forum on Minnesota Avenue, she would have had to take two buses, each of which comes only every 30 minutes.
She considered taking one bus to Benning Road Metro and using Capital Bikeshare, but there is no bike sharing station at Benning Road. Instead, she and several others carpooled. Other residents faced similar situations.
Jim Hamre, Director of the Office of Bus Planning at WMATA, presented possible improvements to bus lines serving Ward 7. They would increase connections to downtown and increase frequency of buses during off-peak times. These improvements would cost $8.4 million annually and add 18 buses on 12 routes, the U2, U8, V5, V7, V8, X3, W4, 32, 34, 36, 39, and 97.
Some residents questioned the need for additional buses, saying WMATA should use money for new service to improve existing service first, such as repairing broken fareboxes and making it easier for people to purchase or reload SmarTrips.
Wells also pushed on the idea of priorities, asking whether WMATA should focus on improving access from Ward 7 to downtown, or trips within the ward.
Ward 7 comprises parts of northeast and southeast DC and has a population of over 70,000 residents. There are 55,000 bus trips in Ward 7 on an average weekday, 29,000 on Saturday and 20,000 on Sunday. This translates to approximately 16.9 million bus rides in Ward 7 annually, creating a huge demand for better service.
Many residents of Ward 7 find north-south travel extremely difficult and frequently wait over an hour for a bus to arrive. Others complained about buses that never arrive and about the unreliability of NextBus. These inconveniences ultimately make access to jobs, grocery stores, doctors, schools, friends and family, entertainment and community events extremely difficult.
One resident specifically mentioned the possible arrival of Wal-Mart. The store will create high demand for jobs and shopping, but many residents will find it difficult to get there.
The infrequent off-peak service can also create unsafe situations. Some residents work during off-peak travel hours and must wait for buses early in the morning or late at night. One woman said she felt safer walking the mile from the bus stop to her house than riding some of the buses at night.
In addition to discussing service increases, residents discussed ways to make the bus system easier to use. Wells spoke about adding electronic schedule displays at new bus shelters. A representative from DDOT said it costs the department approximately $10,000 per shelter to install electronic displays.
Others want to see better communication of route detours and improvements to bus scheduling. Hamre said WMATA recently put snow route information online but that the bus operations staff is too small to alert riders to smaller, construction-related route detours or similar delays.
On scheduling, Hamre addressed the difference between running buses on a schedule and on a headway. Currently, buses try to meet the scheduled arrival times at various stops along a route. On a headway system, a manager at either end of a line would send out a new bus on a given interval, such as every ten minutes, as the Circulator does.
WMATA used the headway system on a large scale during President Obama's inauguration in 2009 to much success. It plans to start running this system on the 90s route and, if successful, WMATA may extend this to other routes.
Residents also discussed making SmarTrip cards easier to use. Wells mentioned the possibility of installing SmarTrip machines at bus shelters to allow riders to load their cards before boarding the bus. This could cut down on boarding times, making buses run faster. Currently, 1/3 of weekly SmarTrip additions happen on the bus.
It is also more difficult to load SmarTrip cards at CVS or Giant because there are fewer of these stores east of the river. Though there are several Metro stations, most are in the western part of Ward 7, making the bus the only option for many people to reload cards.
On safety, one mother voiced a concern about overcrowding on some buses. She said her teenage daughter is often pushed against the back door and she's afraid of the doors opening while the bus is moving. Others said they often have to stand beyond the yellow line, which is unsafe for the driver and the passengers.
In response, one man suggested using audio recordings to inform riders about bus capacity. This way, riders would understand if a bus does not make a stop or refuse to let a passenger on the bus. He suggested buses could even have an external indicator when they reach capacity.
The forum also addressed ways to increase Capital Bikeshare usage east of the river. DDOT representatives said they are working with banks to help residents finance their memberships. DDOT also has performance metrics for every trip on Bikeshare and can relocate stations based on demand. Some residents followed up that Ward 7 needs better bike trails and bike lanes, particularly through much of the NPS-owned parkland.
Residents focused most on improving the reliability of current service, improving service to allow for better travel within the ward, and addressing safety issues related to off-peak service and overcrowding. The organizers of the forum are compiling the meeting minutes and resident questions into a report. They will submit this report to Councilmember Wells and make it available for residents online.
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