Greater Greater Washington

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Transit


Get to know all the buses in the Metrobus fleet

Want to know more about your daily bus ride? Have you ever noticed how many different Metrobus models there are out there, and need help distinguishing between buses that look quite similar? Become an expert at identifying Metrobus with this handy guide!


All images by the author.

Our region has one of the most diverse transit networks in the country, and even within only the Metrobus system, there's a level of variety that you may not have noticed.

Using some of the info I collected when I started making posters of transit projects from around the country, I put together this guide to each vehicle of the Metrobus fleet.

In total, the bus fleet consists of 1525 buses of these various different types. Some of these service different purposes (i.e. articulated vs. short buses), and others are meant to expand the fleet or replace aging equipment.

According to Metro, the Metrobus fleet transported over 130 million passengers in 2015.

The buses service over 11,100 bus stops and another 2,500 bus shelters, from 288 routes and 174 lines.

The Metrobus fleet is ever-changing, as WMATA replaces about 100 buses a year to keep the fleet operating smoothly. New buses arrive every week, as part of the current five-year order with New Flyer (previously NABI).

Transit


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


The West Falls Church station got far less use after the Silver Line opened

When the Silver Line opened in July of 2014, the West Falls Church Metro station took a huge ridership hit. But overall, the Silver Line meant more people riding Metro.


Graph by the author. Click for a larger version.

The chart above is based on the ridership data released by Metro in March. The stations noted here are West Falls Church and the five new Silver Line stations, with data coming from AM peak entries during typical weekdays.

In the span of two months, from a peak in June 2014 to a low in August 2014, West Falls Church station saw its average ridership drop by almost 70% with the opening of the Silver Line! While this appears to be bad news for West Falls Church and Metro, that isn't the case if you look at all six stations.

It looks like when the Silver Line opened, West Falls Church riders immediately switched to stations closer to their homes. That, or rather than driving to West Falls Church, they started driving to Wiehle, the only new station with parking (it could be a combination of both, of course).

Changes to bus routes in the corridor probably had a lot to do with the drop in entries at West Falls. When the Silver Line opened, 62 bus routes got modifications. 11 were eliminated altogether, and major feeder routes operated by Fairfax Connector, Loundon County, and Washington Flyer moved their terminus from West Falls to Wiehle Avenue.

Overall, the Silver Line and the bus service changes that accompanied it attracted new riders to Metro. This is evidenced in the the uptick in the grand total entries among these six stations. It's likely that a lot of new riders are commuters from Fairfax and Loudoun County, where Metro was previously unaccessible.

A goal of public transit is to offer people better access to transportation. The opening of the Silver Line made travel for existing Metro customers easier by putting stations closer to their homes, and also attracted new riders by offering an alternative to driving and carpooling.

Transit


Metro's new bus prediction system is pretty accurate, but leave yourself some extra time

Metro recently swapped out its seven-year-old bus predictions system for a new one called BusETA. Last week, fourteen Greater Greater Washington contributors and staff audited BusETA for accuracy. Overall, the system performed well enough, but buses sometimes came earlier than predicted, and "ghost buses" are still real.


Image from WMATA.

Real-time departure information has totally changed bus travel, as any rider with a smart phone can now triangulate the real location of the bus. That means the ability to minimize wait times or choose a travel mode with more confidence; we're no longer reliant on a printed schedule that can be shredded by congestion, incidents, events, breakdowns, or weather.

WMATA's predictions come via a combination of real-time data from GPS transponders on the buses and computer models that predict bus arrivals using historic data about traffic patterns. Once they're made, WMATA publishes predictions on its website. The marketplace for independent prediction apps like Transit Tracker and Citymapper is also pretty crowded, as WMATA publishes tools that any developer can use.

A recent change in who provides WMATA's prediction technology means NextBus, the widely used but proprietary system, is out, and BusETA is in.


Bus lines included in the audit: F4, H8, 16G, 16H, 70, 64, P19, S9, E4, 74, 96, 52, 53, 54, C21, C22, 30S, 31, 33, 37, N2, J3, X2, 4B. Map by the author.

Our contributors recorded how BusETA did one morning

For the audit, which we did on Thursday, April 14th, each participant went to a specific bus stop and called up the prediction for the stop by the stop's unique ID number. While BusETA will also give predictions by bus line, we audited only the bus stop interface. Each participant took a screenshot of the prediction and then recorded the actual arrival times of the predicted bus(es). Our participants audited a total of 27 buses covering 24 lines at 17 locations from 6 to 9 am.

Here's how close each bus came to arriving when BusETA said it would:

A positive error value means the bus was early. The variance of the error clearly increases as the prediction time increases (the further the bus is away, the worse BusETA is at predicting the arrival time).

However, the latest bus was an F4 bus that Gray Kimbrough watched from across the street: It was nine minutes late as it passed through Silver Spring, heading away from downtown. It is notable that this bus was audited at a location near the end of its run. It could be that the further into the bus' run the stop is, the less accurate the prediction is because there have been more opportunities for the bus to encounter delays.

Buses were early as often as they were late. One contributor missed his bus because the prediction told him he had five minutes, and he actually only had three.
Anecdotally, it seems like BusETA might under-predict bus arrivals more often than NextBus did (i.e. the bus shows up 'early').

If so, this is a major problem, because when you miss a bus by only one or two minutes, you have to wait the entire headway of the bus line for the next one, which is the worst-case delay scenario. Based on the results of our audit, I'd recommend factoring in a three minute margin of error when using BusETA.

There were still ghost buses (either buses that were not predicted, or predicted buses that didn't show). Jonathan Neeley got an H8 prediction, but when he refreshed it two minutes before it was supposed to arrive, the bus had disappeared (the actual bus did arrive a moment after, however). Steven Yates read that the 74 was 11 minutes away...just as it pulled up.

Overall, though, BusETA worked more often than it didn't. Brendan Casey said that for his commute, BusETA is far more accurate than Transit or Citymapper.


BusETA prediction

The BusETA technology is different, and likely better

NextBus had a lot of accuracy problems. WMATA's switch to BusETA means it has joined the open source OneBusAway project, which is also used in Atlanta and New York City. That means that all the old apps that used the NextBus standard don't work for DC any more.

The switch to an open source standard via BusETA should promote innovation and help interested parties understand how and why various prediction apps are working. Anybody can contribute back and improve the OneBusAway project since the code is freely available as an open-source project.

This potentially makes the software quite powerful: If someone wants to write a feature in, they can pull the freely-available code, edit it, and publish it back for approval. This freedom allows the application to be more feature-rich than it might otherwise be, and be developed faster than a typical commercial application.

In the long run, an open-source standard will hopefully mean more and better apps for DC.

Thank you to Gray Kimbrough, Chris Slatt, Abby Lynch, Jim Titus, Sebastian Galeano, Steven Yates, Brendan Casey, Bryan Barnett-Woods, Ronit Dancis, Andrea Adleman, Angela Martinez, Jonathan Neeley and Sarah Guidi for participating in this flash audit.

Transit


Crystal City's Metroway BRT is open and carrying passengers

The Crystal City Potomac Yard Transitway officially opened on Sunday, upgrading Metroway bus service to bona fide bus rapid transit in Arlington.


27th & Crystal station. All photos by the author.

Metroway runs between Pentagon City and Braddock Road Metro stations. For much of its route between Crystal City and Potomac Yard, it runs in dedicated bus lanes, making it the Washington region's first real foray into BRT.

The Alexandria portion of the transitway opened in 2014. Arlington's portion through Crystal City opened yesterday, Sunday, April 17.

Through Potomac Yard, the transitway runs in a totally exclusive busway—a completely separate road from the regular lanes.


27th & Crystal station.

Stations in the busway have substantial arched roofs and attractive wall panels.


South Glebe station.

Through Crystal City, bus lanes and bus stations hug the curb.


18th & Crystal station.

Since northbound buses run a block away from southbound buses, bus stations are smaller through this section. They're more like large bus stops.


23rd & Clark station.

Crystal City is pretty quiet on Sundays, so there weren't many opening day riders, and buses only came every 20 minutes. During the week there'll be a lot more riders, and buses will run every 6-12 minutes depending on the time of day.

Head over to Crystal City and check it out! Or see more pictures of both the Arlington and Alexandria transitway sections via Flickr.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Links


National Links: Hillary talks housing

Hillary Clinton is articulating her vision to help Americans with housing, what happens when people making decisions about transit don't know what it's like to depend on it, and a look at where row houses fit into the national landscape. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Veni on Flickr.

Hillary's housing hopes: Hillary Clinton wants living near quality jobs, schools, and transportation to be easier, and she's making affordable housing part of her agenda. Her proposal would boost funding for both programs that help people buy homes as well as public housing. (Virginia-Pilot)

Get the board on the bus: Given how much they influence how people get around, perhaps transit board members should ride the busor at least know details about the system they work on. Some recent applicants for the DART Board of Directors in Dallas are clueless when it comes to transit-oriented development and taxpaying riders. (Dallas Observer)

Reliant on row houses The row house is the workhorse of dense older cities around the country, but it's becoming less popular. It's possible that row houses could be the "missing middle" that can help address the country's housing needs. (Urban Omnibus)

Questioning King Car: Cars are a large part of American culture, like it or not. But they also cost a lot of money, time, and lives. Since September 11th, 2001, over 400,000 people have died in automobile collisions. Is that a worthwhile price to pay for convenience? (The Atlantic)

Bridges of Amsterdam city: Amsterdam has far more canals and bridges than the average city, but only one bridge runs across the large river that separates the more industrial side of the city from where most people live. There is a tunnel and a number of ferries, neither of which is idea for walking or biking. But as more development happens and free ferries are overwhelmed, a bridge may be the next step. (City Metric)

Struggling city streams: In the midwest, streams in urban places are rare. Detroit, for example, has lost 86% of its surface streams. That worries ecologists because streams regulate water flow and keep wildlife healthy. (Great Lakes Echo)

Are we building boredom?: Buildings designed like boxes are bad for us. Research shows that human excitement wanes on streets with boring facades, causing stress that affects our health and psychological wellbeing. (New York Magazine)

Quote of the Week

"I think it's important to remember that these are serious crimes with emotional consequences. It's interesting nonetheless to watch how burglars use architecture, but that isn't enough reason to treat them like folk heroes." - Architecture writer Geoff Manaugh discussing his new book, A Burglar's Guide to the City in Paste Magazine.

Transit


Is The Bus "always late?" No. Not even close.

"This bus is always late." People say it so often while waiting for Prince George's County's The Bus that it's basically become a conversation starter. But I tracked my last 101 trips on The Bus, and my bus was either on time or very close to it 86% of the time. That's a lot better than what common complaints suggest.


Photo by the author.

I've been tracking each of my trips to and from work on The Bus since December of last year. For each, I noted the time I arrive at the bus stop, the time the bus left the stop, and the time I exited the bus. I compared this with the scheduled arrival times to see how much time I spent waiting, how many minutes the bus was late (or on-time), how many minutes I spent traveling on the bus, and the total travel time (the wait time + the travel time).


Graphs by the author.

Generally, transit agencies consider buses to be on time if the bus arrives at a stop between one minute before or up to five minutes after the scheduled time. For the 101 trips tracked, my bus was on time by definition 75.2% of the time (76 trips)—36 of the trips were exactly on time. On average, my bus arrived at the stop 3.4 minutes after the scheduled time.

My bus was 5-9 minutes late 9.9% of the time (10 trips). That's technically late, but the wait isn't bad. It isn't until the bus is more than 10 minutes late that using transit becomes noticeably inconvenient. Of the 101 tracked trips, there were 11 trips where the bus was later than 10 minutes.

Unfortunately, when I recall my transit trips, the longest waits are the trips I remember most easily.


Graphs by the author.

Knowing how long my commute will take is key to scheduling my day and making transit convenient. On average, I spent approximately 10.8 minutes waiting for the bus. The average time spent on the bus was approximately 29.2 minutes. Together, the average total trip time was 40.1 minutes and 80.1% of the trips were under 45 minutes, which is the amount of time I set aside to ride The Bus.

Although the length of my bus commute is less than ideal, the expected wait time and travel time is fairly consistent, and I can easily fit my bus schedule into my daily work schedule.

The Bus does not always run perfectly, but claiming that it is always late is simply not true. Based on the last 101 trips, The Bus is a generally predictable and dependable transit service. For a transit service that's outside of an urban environment and whose resources are constrained, The Bus is a solid service. Among some of its key strengths:

  • Dispatch number. All stops list a contact number you can call during business hours, and a helpful live dispatcher can find out exactly where a bus is and when it's expected to arrive. Some stops also have countdown timers, which help inform users when to expect the next bus.
  • Professional and positive bus operators. Operators for The Bus are friendly and perform their duties with a high level of care, respect, and customer service, often while responding to frustrated and discourteous riders.
I've also got some thoughts on how The Bus could get better:
  • Add The Bus to online mapping apps. The Bus is not currently on Google Maps, Apple Maps, or other transportation apps. This makes it very difficult to plan a trip on The Bus without reviewing all of the timetables. However, the County is in the process of collecting the GTFS data and it is possible that The Bus will be available on transit apps later this year.
  • Higher frequencies, especially during the peak. It's expensive for any transit service to run buses more often, and will be a definite challenge for Prince George's County. But a late bus feels especially inconvenient when the next bus isn't arriving for another half hour.
  • Early buses. These are a double-edged sword: While it's great to arrive at a stop early, leaving a stop early means passengers who arrive on time have to wait for the next bus. It's helpful when drivers wait until the scheduled time to leave.
Bus transit in non-urban areas has to serve low densities of people over long distances; making it work can be difficult. Prince George's County provides a reliable service to many areas of the county that are not easily accessible without an automobile and helps connect to the regional rail and bus services.

Transit


Meet the O-Bahn, Australia's streetcar-bus hybrid

An unusual transit system in Australia combines the flexibility of buses with the speed and smoothness of rail. In Adelaide, South Australia, the O-Bahn, a hybrid of a bus and rail system, connects downtown to the northeastern suburbs.

O-Bahn buses drive on fixed guideway bus lanes that steer the buses for the drivers. Once the buses reach the suburbs, they fan out onto conventional streets, eliminating the need for passengers to transfer to other buses. This is the O-Bahn's primary advantage over streetcars and other rail transit.

As these express buses leave central Adelaide on conventional city streets, they cross the city's historic ring park and travel a mile with general traffic until they enter the bus-only O-Bahn. The O-Bahn is a set of concrete running pads set far enough apart to carry the buses' rubber tires. The outward-facing wheels run along the guideway's curbs and steer the bus for the bus driver.


O-Bahn bus with exterior guide wheel. Photo by the author.


O-Bahn curving through suburban Adelaide. Photo by the author.

Why not build a normal bus-only road?

The O-Bahn provides a few advantages over a conventional bus lane. The automatic steering means the bus pavement can be narrower, since there's no need to account for driver error. This is important as the buses can reach speeds of 60 mph. The O-Bahn runs through a linear park along the River Torrens and minimizing the environmental impact was a significant consideration when the state government selected the mode in the 1970s.

This slightly narrower guideway will come in handy as the state government extends the O-Bahn through a proposed tunnel under the historic ring park that encircles the central city. A narrower tunnel requires less disruption to the parkland above.

Much like rail, the fixed guideway's construction provides for a smoother ride, but this is only a marginal advantage over an ordinary concrete road.

For more on transit developments in other cities and around the world, check out Greater Greater Washington's articles about Cape Town, Dallas, Hartford, Johannesburg, Oakland airport, San Diego, and San Juan.

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.

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