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10 things my internship taught me about transportation in DC

Every year, thousands of up and coming leaders come to DC to intern. Knowing how to get around can be difficult at first, but if you follow this advice, you'll steer clear of lighter pockets and grumpy mornings.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

In early January, I arrived in DC with two suitcases and a small budget for transportation. Being a full time student and an unpaid intern who lives just a mile from work, I spend most of my time walking.

There are, however, a lot of times when I take Metrorail. Irvine, California, where I'm from, doesn't have a subway system, so using Metro ("Metrorail" is the official name, since there's also Metrobus, but everyone just calls the train system "Metro") has been a new adventure filled with ups and downs.

Now that I've been here for a while, I can tell you ten things about Metro that will help any intern who's new to DC:

1. Understand the map: DC is divided into quadrants that center on the US Capitol—Northeast (NE), Northwest (NW), Southeast (SE) and Southwest (SW). Be sure to orient yourself properly so you don't end up at, say, 10th Street NE when you meant to go to 10th Street NW. Additionally, familiarize yourself with the Metro map. Before your first day of work, mark the route that you plan to take so you don't miss your stop.

2. Prepare for traffic: The Metrorail crowds can be a big hassle. Go towards the ends of the platforms, as commuters tend to group towards the middle.

3. Different time, different price: The students in my internship program who take the Metrorail every day, spend around $40 per week. However, the fares vary by station and during peak times, they're more expensive. On weekdays, these are in effect from 5:30 AM to 9:30 AM, and 3:00 PM to 7:00 PM. On the bright side, the trains will arrive more frequently at this time of day.

4. Consider a Metro pass: If you use the Metro enough, a SelectPass can save you time and money. This calculator helps to determine which pass will save you the most. Even if you plan to walk or use Capital Bikeshare to get to work, there are going to be times when you'll want to use Metro, and for those, it's important to have a SmarTrip card.

5. Register your SmartTrip Card: Don't forget to register your Metro card just in case it is misplaced or stolen. This is especially important if you've loaded a large amount of money on to it.

6. Know to behave on the Metro: A lot of Metro stations have long escalators. If you're standing while riding them, stay to the right to allow room for those who would prefer to walk. Also, Metro doors do not operate like elevator doors, so putting your arm out to keep the door open will not end well.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Once you're on a Metro car, be sure to move towards the center to make room for others. If you're inside an already packed train, don't underestimate another rider's ability to force their way in too. After being shoved into the armpits of several tall strangers, I've learned to position myself away from corners in order to prepare for the "sardine can" type of morning.

7. Running Late? Metro vs. cab: During my second week of interning, I woke up 10 minutes before work started and figured that taking a cab would be the quickest option. Unfortunately, I was stuck in traffic for twenty minutes. Lesson learned: cabs and ride hailing aren't necessarily the solution when you're running late—they're expensive and can just as easily get stuck in traffic. I've found that most of the time, when you're late, the reality is simply that you're out of luck.

8. The weather can affect your commute: This past February, I experienced my first snow storm. I had often heard jokes that DC residents panic at the mere thought of snow, yet I was still surprised by how cautious the city was about transportation during the blizzard. During this time, the Metro didn't service my area for nearly a week. If you'll be in DC during the winter, frequently check Metro alerts to see if there are any operational changes to the Metrorail.


Photo by Samir Luther on Flickr.

9. Ask your supervisor for a transportation stipend: As an unpaid intern, every penny counts. Since DC has some of the highest fares of transit in the US, I suggest that interns at least ask if their work sites offer a transportation stipend. At my previous internship, I received $150 at the start of every month to cover my estimated transportation costs, which helped significantly. A friend of mine kept receipts of her fare purchases, gave them to her supervisor, and was compensated at the end of each month. Some internships, like those on Capitol Hill, do not offer this option. But it never hurts to ask!

10. Know your options: Capital Bikeshare will let you get some exercise while you commute, but it's also often just as fast as Metro, or even driving. CaBi allows you to rent a bike from over 300 solar powered stations in the DC area. You can also enjoy a view of the city and save a few bucks by riding the busif you regularly do this, definitely buy a pass. The Circulator is another great option, and riding only costs $1! However, this does not service all areas of DC. Last but not least, if you live close to where you need to go, there's one option that almost never fails: walking!

Got any transportation advice for people that are new to DC? Comment below.

Transit


Here's why the DC region has so many bus systems

There are more than 20 separate bus agencies in the Washington area. Why not run them all as part of WMATA? Some run outside WMATA's geography, but the bigger reason is money: It costs less to run a local bus than a WMATA bus, translating to better service for less money on local lines.


Photos from BeyondDC on Flickr.

With a few exceptions, essentially every county-level local government in the Washington region runs its own bus system, on top of WMATA's Metrobus. DC has Circulator, Montgomery County has Ride-On, Alexandria has DASH, etc ad nauseam. There are more than 20 in the region, not even including myriad private commuter buses, destination-specific shuttles, and app-based startups.

Our region is a smorgasbord of overlaying transit networks, with little in common except, thankfully, the Smartrip card.

Why?

Three reasons, but mostly it's all about money

Some of the non-WMATA bus systems can't be part of Metro simply because buses go to places that aren't part of the WMATA geography. Since Prince William County is outside WMATA's service area, Prince William County needs its own system. Thus, OmniRide is born. Hypothetically WMATA could expand its boundaries, but at some point 20 or 40 or 60 miles out from DC, that stops making sense.

Another reason for the transit hodgepodge is control. Locals obviously have more direct control over local systems. That's an incentive to manage buses close to home.

But the biggest reason is money. Specifically, operating costs.

To calculate how much it costs to operate a bus line, transit agencies use a formula called "cost per revenue hour." That means, simply, how much it costs to keep a bus in service and carrying passengers for one hour. It includes the cost of the driver's salary, fuel for the bus, and other back-end administrative costs.

Here are the costs per hour for some of the DC-region's bus systems, according to VDOT:

  • WMATA Metrobus: $142/hour
  • Fairfax County Connector: $104/hour
  • OmniRide: $133/hour
  • Arlington County ART: $72/hour
Not only is WMATA the highest, it's much higher than other local buses like Fairfax Connector and ART. OmniRide is nearly as high because long-distance commuter buses are generally more expensive to operate than local lines, but even it's less than Metrobus.

This means the local systems can either run the same quality service as WMATA for less cost, or they can run more buses more often for the same cost.

At the extreme end of the scale, Arlington can run 2 ART buses for every 1 Metrobus, and spend the same amount of money.

In those terms, it's no wonder counties are increasingly pumping more money into local buses. Where the difference is extreme, like in Arlington, officials are channeling the vast majority of growth into local buses instead of WMATA ones, and even converting Metrobus lines to local lines.

Why is Metrobus so expensive to run?

Partly, Metrobus is expensive because longer bus lines are more expensive to run than shorter ones, so locals can siphon off the short intra-jurisdiction lines for themselves and leave the longer multi-jurisdiction ones to WMATA.

Another reason is labor. WMATA has a strong union, which drives up wages. The local systems have unions too, but they're smaller and balkanized, and thus have less leverage.

Finally, a major part of the difference is simply accounting. WMATA's operating figures include back-end administrative costs like the WMATA police force, plus capital costs like new Metro bus yards, whereas local services don't count those costs as part of transit operating.

Montgomery County has a police department of course, and bus planners, and its own bus yards, but they're funded separately and thus not included in Ride-On's operating costs.

So part of the difference is real and part is imaginary. It doesn't actually cost twice as much to run a Metrobus as an ART bus. But for local transit officials trying to put out the best service they can under constant budget constraints, all the differences matter.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


DC Circulator may add a line to NoMa, but its circuitous routes aren't ideal

You might someday ride a Circulator bus from NoMa to Starburst. Or maybe from NoMa to U Street, Columbia Heights, or Logan Circle. DDOT is doing a study to decide.


NoMa Circulator options. Image by DDOT.

NoMa as transit hub

NoMa is one of DC's fastest-growing neighborhoods. With 40,000 workers, 18,000 residents, and huge new developments coming soon, it's fast becoming an extension of downtown, and a natural hub of activity.

But aside from its crucial Red Line Metrorail station, NoMa is a transit afterthought. While most Metro stations double as bus hubs, no public bus lines have stops directly at NoMa Metro.

WMATA's important 90s series Metrobuses pass nearby on Florida Avenue, and the X3, 80, P6, and D4 all skirt the edges.

But that's nothing like the bus service in downtown, or other downtown-adjacent neighborhoods. It's too paltry to do much to help residents of nearby neighborhoods like Trinidad or Truxton Circle reach NoMa.

If NoMa is to become the great nerve center of Northeast DC, it's simply going to need better transit connections to the rest of the quadrant.

Enter DC Circulator

With service every 10 minutes all day, DC Circulator certainly qualifies as a good bus. Making NoMa the focus of a new Circulator line will absolutely be a great addition.

As always, the devil is in the details.

DDOT planners are considering five potential routes, going in wildly different directions.

Some options eschew Northeast and connect only to Northwest destinations like Columbia Heights, U Street, or Logan Circle. Other options have a leg extending east on Florida Avenue as far as Starburst and Benning Road.

Further connections to Northeast, like extending the line up Bladensburg Road, aren't on the table.

Theoretically DDOT need not select only one option. It could pick and choose the best aspects from multiple options, and stitch them together for a final hybrid.

Proposed routes are too complex

One serious concern with all five routes is that they're too complex.

The most successful bus lines are usually simple, direct, and consistent. Straight lines are easier for riders to understand and remember, and they mean buses get to destinations faster than when they travel squiggly circuitous routes like these NoMa proposals.

This graphic comparing the most and least successful bus lines in Vancouver nicely illustrates the issue:


Image from Vancouver TransLink.

Buses in DC absolutely follow the same pattern. The highest-ridership lines in the city are virtually all straight and direct, like on 16th Street and Georgia Avenue. Meanwhile, complex, circuitous routes like the W2 don't get many riders, despite connecting multiple destinations with a lot of potential riders.

The problem is M Street

Theoretically, M Street NE is the natural spot for an east-west bus through NoMa. It offers a straight shot through the underpass below the railroad tracks. The southern entrance to NoMa Metro spills out onto it, and M's corner with First Street NE is the center of the neighborhood.


M Street NE. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Unfortunately, running a bus on M Street is difficult. Although it's two-way through the heart of NoMa, it switches to one-way on both the east and west sides. Unless DDOT reconfigures M Street to be two-way (a prospect that might wipe out the nice protected bike lane), there is simply no east-west line through NoMa that's both straight and provides a direct Metrorail connection.

Complexity is, unfortunately, probably mandatory.

But still, some of DDOT's alternatives minimize complexity, while others are needlessly circuitous. That New Jersey Avenue option is bonkers. Four blocks is too far to separate one-way pairs.

Tell DDOT what you think

DDOT will be hosting a series of public meetings this month to discuss this proposal. You can weigh in at sessions on November 10, 12, 15, 17, or 19.

You can also comment online, via DDOT's NoMa Circulator survey.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


The wheels on the bus go... not to the right

The new Circulator route on the National Mall hit a snafu this week. Three buses blocked an intersection for over half an hour by not deviating from their routes even when a traffic collision made staying the course impossible.


Buses and cars behind a collision. Photo from Jeff Sellenrick.

When two tour buses collided, they blocked cars from continuing on Madison Drive across 14th Street and toward 15th. Rather than turning and going to 15th another way, the Circulator buses waited at the intersection, blocking other vehicles from turning left or right.

When Jeffrey, a reader who told us about the situation, asked his bus driver why they didn't try to use a detour, the driver replied that making a right-hand turn to try and circle around the collision wasn't part of their route. Another driver said they were waiting for permission to make the detour.

The total delay was around 40 minutes.

Obviously, buses aren't mechanically barred from making right turns. And a number of contributors can recall times when their Metrobus drivers, whose rules come from WMATA rather than DDOT, have taken detours.

We're left, then, with this question: What's DDOT's plan for when buses arrive at an unexpected impasse?

Spokeswoman Michelle Phipps-Evans told me that Circulator drivers sometimes take detours when there are severe accidents, and that the decision to do so or not is made by the bus operator, who works for a company that DDOT contracts. Once drivers make a decision, DDOT tries to let the public know what's going on via Twitter.

To be fair, detours aren't always simple matters

Bus detours require a lot of communication between passengers, drivers, and the dispatchers that monitor bus movements. A bus needs to get back to its route as quickly as possible, both so that people can get to where they need and expect to go and so people waiting down the line aren't doing so in vain.

Another issue is that buses that need to make wide turns can't use just any road. Also, for buses using the Mall, which is much different from the regular street grid, it can be particularly difficult to find an alternate route that works: "circling the block" can mean going a mile out of the way.

Circulator drivers didn't cause the initial traffic jam. But they may have made it worse than it had to be. Hopefully, fewer traffic collisions and better training and coordination for DDOT's bus drivers can help prevent a situation like this in the future.

Transit


The Circulator will start on the National Mall on Sunday

DC's Circulator bus is going to start operating on the National Mall this Sunday, June 14th.


The Circulator and the Smithsonian Castle. Image from DDOT.

DDOT announced the Circulator's National Mall route in December along with plans to start this spring. The new National Mall route is operating with support and funding from the National Park Service, unlike the former loop that operated from 2006 through 2011. This means the buses can travel within the interior of the Mall.

The route will begin at Union Station and travel along Louisiana Avenue to loop the Mall via Madison Drive, West Basin Drive, Ohio Drive, Constitution Avenue, and Jefferson Drive. The route will operate through 8 pm in the summer and 7 pm in the winter on ten-minute headways.

There has been no public bus service on the Mall since the an earlier Circulator, which ran around the outside of the Mall, and the $27 Tourmobile shut down in 2011.

DDOT purchased a fleet of eighteen hybrid buses to meet the additional service demand. The buses feature more powerful air conditioning units, wider doors with a lower entrance for additional accessibility, and 19 USB ports for electronics charging. These new buses bring the Circulator fleet to 67 buses total.

DDOT will host a launch event for the new route on Friday at the Lincoln Memorial. The event, featuring Mayor Muriel Bowser and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, begins at 11 am.

Transit


To replace Columbia Pike streetcar, Vihstadt proposes Circulator bus

Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt, whose opposition to the Columbia Pike streetcar proved decisive in Arlington's decision to cancel that project, now proposes "Circulator-type buses" instead. Only one problem: Bus service on Columbia Pike is already better than DC Circulator.


There are already multiple special bus brands on Columbia Pike.

Vihstadt's suggestion to emulate the Circulator came last week during community discussions to develop a post-streetcar plan for Columbia Pike. Residents said progress since Arlington cancelled the line has been too slow, and in response Vihstadt suggested a Circulator-type bus as an interim measure until something more can get up and running.

Though many associate the word with bus services in DC and Baltimore, a "circulator" is just a type of transit service (not necessarily a bus) that provides frequent service for short trips, mainly within downtown or the urban core. If Vihstadt is specifically referring to the DC Circulator, what would that actually accomplish?

Vihstadt's proposal is for something Columbia Pike already has

There are two main differences between Circulator buses and regular Metrobuses: DC Circulator comes every 10 minutes, and it has its own brand aimed at making the system easy to use. Neither of those would be a big step in fixing Columbia Pike's transit conundrum.

Buses on Columbia Pike are already scheduled to arrive every two minutes, and the PikeRide brand has been around for years, telling riders bus service on Columbia Pike is unique. WMATA does something similar with the REX bus along Route 1 in Fairfax and Alexandria.

Arlington could request that Metro paint PikeRide buses in a brighter color, like in the past, or add a uniquely-branded ART bus route in addition to the many that already run up and down the Pike. But that would do nothing to solve the chronic overcrowding and bus bunching that PikeRide buses already face.

Copying DC's Circulator buses might offer one slight improvement to Columbia Pike beyond what's already there: The inside of Circulator buses have fewer seats, to make it easier for passengers who aren't going very far to hop on and off more quickly. That would add a tiny amount of new capacity to the corridor.

But we don't even know if that is what Mr. Vihstadt meant by "Circulator-like," and changes to Columbia Pike's bus system would likely be minimal.

A Circulator on Columbia Pike wouldn't address Columbia Pike's actual problems. It's not a replacement for streetcar, and it's not the kind of streetcar-comparable BRT that Vihstadt promised in his campaign. It's even a step down from articulated buses.

Vihstadt and the rest of the Arlington County Board have promised communities along Columbia Pike a real solution. Flippant comments proposing something that already exists is less than the bare minimum to meet that promise.

Transit


The Circulator could go more places and be more frequent

The DC Circulator could soon go to Howard University, Southwest Waterfront, Congress Heights, and the Cathedral. But to do that, it'll need more buses. More than that, it needs more buses now to actually deliver on the service every 10 minutes that is a key hallmark of the Circulator.


Circulators in central DC. Image from DDOT. Click for full map.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) released an updated plan for the Circulator system. That plan emphasizes that the Circulator is more than just "a nicer and cheaper bus," but it means some specific things which couldn't apply to any bus route, like:

  • It connects key activity centers that have all-day transit demand (as opposed to, say, neighborhoods of mostly commuters);
  • Buses run every 10 minutes, all day (which makes sense only because of the activity centers);
  • The routes are easy to understand
  • (Also, the bus is nicer and cheaper)
But as for "every 10 minutes," the Circulator is not really achieving that now. The wait is more than 15 minutes 20.47% of the time, according to the plan. It doesn't even say how often the wait is more than 10 minutes, because the metrics have been set to consider any wait under 15 minutes "on time." (I've asked DDOT to clarify why that is and will update the post when I hear back.)

On the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn route, "actual headways average over 11 minutes, and up to 13 in the PM peak period." 11 is the average on Union Station-Navy Yard as well. On Potomac Avenue-Skyland, the time between buses is more than 15 minutes one-third of the time.

But enough about the piddling task of actually running the existing buses efficiently—where will they go next?

The Mall: The Circulator will go on the National Mall in 2015, in partnership with the National Park Service (and thanks to some revenue from meters on the Mall). In the first year, DDOT estimates 880,900 people will ride this line.

The Cathedral: Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3) put money in the budget to extend the Circulator on Wisconsin Avenue from its terminus at Whitehaven Street to the Cathedral. On a survey, 60% of people said this was an important destination, but DDOT says, "the extension itself performs very poorly, with only 13 boardings per hour, high subsidy per passenger, and low farebox recovery ratio."

In the longer run, DDOT proposes splitting this route into two. One would go from Union Station to Georgetown alone, while another route to the Cathedral would only go as far east as McPherson Square. This would make the routes more reliable since a very long route is hard to keep on time.

U Street and Howard: The Circulator from Rosslyn to Dupont Circle would continue past the circle, up 18th Street to U Street and then in a loop on 8th, Barry, and Florida at Howard. This gives DDOT an opportunity to put a Circulator stop under 300 feet from my house (or more likely about 500), which is of course the main reason this is the best extension. But seriously, the line with the extension would serve an estimated 1,790,000 rides a year, most of which won't be me, including a lot of people who don't ride Circulator today.

Congress Heights: The Potomac Avenue-Skyland route was a political creature, started by politicians who wanted the Circulator to go east of the river for appearances' sake. While more transit is welcome everywhere, and people in wards 7 and 8 absolutely deserve great transit service even at higher cost, improving existing buses (for example, by implementing these recommendations from Ward 7 transit experts) probably would have done more per dollar to help people.

The line is very long (the longest in the system) and has low ridership (but, actually, not as low as the Union Station-Navy Yard route, which goes through a lot of areas that just don't have very high density). It duplicates a lot of WMATA Metrobus service, and most of the riders along the route take transit to commute rather than for all-day car-free activity. (The fact that the waits between buses are long can't help, either.)

The council funded an extension to Congress Heights on the southern end, which DDOT feels will help the route by offering a "much stronger southern anchor" at a current (and growing) activity center.

Southwest Waterfront: The Union Station-Navy Yard line would continue just a little bit farther along M Street to Waterfront Metro and the growing activity center there.


All planned and future Circulator corridors. Image from DDOT.

Longer-term: The plan also lists several corridors for future service some more years out. One would restore a north-south Circulator between the Convention Center and the Waterfront (at least until a streetcar maybe plies that corridor). That route was part of the original Circulator but discontinued in 2011.

Another would connect Dupont Circle to Southwest Waterfront through the National Mall. Both this and the north-south line would give Mall tourists another way to get to interesting places that aren't actually on the Mall and spend some of their dollars at taxpaying DC businesses, as well as more ways to get to and from the Mall.

Finally, DDOT wants to study a line from Columbia Heights to the Brookland Metro (via Washington Hospital Center) and then down to NoMa. The areas in the middle of this corridor, like planned development at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site and Armed Forces Retirement Home, aren't yet all-day activity centers, but in the future they well could be.

Besides these, DDOT officials considered a wide variety of other routes like Adams Morgan to H Street, Dupont to Petworth, Fort Totten to Friendship Heights, H Street to Congress Heights, Tenleytown to Columbia Heights, and the Abe's to Ben's route some Foggy Bottom and Dupont leaders suggested.

DDOT didn't advance these because they duplicate existing Metrobus service, the activity centers don't have enough all-day demand, or otherwise don't meet the criteria for Circulator in particular. See page 66 of the plan for a detailed explanation for why DDOT didn't pick your particular Circulator idea.

Making these routes happen will of course require money. Phase 1 (the Mall, the Cathedral, U Street/Howard, Waterfront, Congress Heights, and splitting the east-west line) will require 23 buses and $8.7 million in operating subsidy. This budget season, the DC Council chose tax cuts over investing in transit; upcoming budget seasons will tell us what priority the next mayor and members of the DC Council put on giving residents high-frequency, easy-to-understand bus service to connect key centers across the city.

Transit


DC Circulator is such a great brand it's expanded to Ohio

Earlier this year Columbus, Ohio launched CBUS, the Columbus Circulator. It's a special overlay bus route running along the main street through the city's densest, most urban neighborhoods. It comes every 10 minutes, has a low (actually free) fare, and limited stops. Sound familiar?

Oh, and here's a photo:


Photo by Darius Pinkston on Flickr.

Look familiar? That sweeping line, the destinations labeled on the side, "CIRCULATOR" in a modern sans-serif font right in the middle. It looks nothing like Columbus' standard bus livery, but it is all very reminiscent of the DC Circulator.

In fact, Ohio transit advocates had the DC Circulator in mind during planning for CBUS.

Columbus isn't alone, either. "Circulator" is spreading as an increasingly common brand choice for short-distance, high-frequency buses in mixed-use areas, especially near DC. There's a Bethesda Circulator, a Tysons Circulator, and a Baltimore Circulator.

Just how far will this brand spread?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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