Our regional bus system serves as a vital link to communities and workplaces that our fixed rail systems do not reach.  Those residents, many of them lower income or underserved populations, rely heavily on the bus network for their daily commutes and general sustainability.  However, in recent years, WMATA and other bus network providers have seen a steady decline in ridership.  What are the reasons for this decline?  There are many factors involved, but business leaders in the region are starting to take note and have developed a briefing paper with recommendations on how the region can improve its bus service.

In September, the Greater Washington Partnership published a briefing paper titled Rethinking the Bus, a thoughtful examination of the
problems and possible solutions to improving bus service in the greater Washington Metro area.  The Greater Washington Partnership is comprised of business leaders throughout the metro region. Therefore, they are keenly aware of the economic importance of having a reliable and efficient bus network.  Their recommendations for improving this network are outlined below.

1. Optimize routes to improve service and better match demand

In the Capital Region, as in many parts of the country, one can still find bus routes that are not well-matched
with riders’ needs. Some stop short of major employment centers. Others, designed to serve 9-to-5 commuters, are ineffective for those who work less traditional schedules. Land use policies that encourage development in far-flung suburbs have forced transit agencies to stretch some routes past the point of being cost-effective. Years of one-off tweaks and adjustments have led to routes that serve stops off the main road, slowing travel for everyone aboard. 

While transit agencies regularly tweak bus routes, several regions (including both Baltimore and Richmond) have taken a more comprehensive approach: a complete overhaul of their bus networks. This process starts with a simple premise: ask the community what they value in bus service, and develop routes and schedules that serve these goals. In some cases, existing routes may already effectively serve those needs, while in others, new or modified routes must be created. There will always be trade-offs involved: buses that arrive frequently mean people spend less time waiting, but they cost more to operate. Providing service to the neighborhood on the outskirts of town increases access for those residents, but could mean less service in denser areas where more people would ride. The following tools are some of the ways that routes can be optimized to help communities serve more riders within existing resources. 

Tools: Connect Major Destinations; Match Frequencies with Ridership Demand; Redesign Indirect Routes; Break Up Long Routes; Optimize the Distance Between Bus Stops; and, Utilize Non-Traditional Buses and Routes.

2. Make space for the bus on the region’s roads

Buses use the same roads as many other vehicles: cars, trucks, bicycles, and motorcycles. In some places, there is enough space on the roads to easily accommodate everyone. In others, road space is in high demand, leading to traffic congestion and slower travel. For buses, these capacity constraints not only reduce speed, but also reduce reliability and increase operating costs. 

Improving bus service in these conditions requires local and state governments to make sure buses have the space they need to move quickly on the region’s roads. There are a number of ways to give
priority to buses in order to move the greatest number of people as quickly as possible through an area with limited capacity.
By increasing the speed of bus travel, total trip times are reduced. Research has shown that when travel times decline by 10 percent, bus ridership tends to increase 4-6 percent.  The tools to help buses move faster on shared roads are generally low-cost and flexible, in that they can be targeted to specific locations and removed if conditions change. Jurisdictions that implement these changes must be committed to enforcing them if they are to have the desired effect. 

Tools: Dedicate Lanes to Buses; Install Bus Bulbs and Boarding Islands; Optimize Traffic Signals for Buses; Use Queue-Jumps; and, Allow Bus-on Shoulder lanes.

3. Make boarding faster

Those who regularly ride the bus would not be surprised to learn that from one-fifth to one-third of buses’ travel time is spent waiting for people to board and pay. On most bus routes, people must line up at the front door, walk up several steps, and then either show a pass to the driver, tap a card on a reader, or feed dollars and change into
a farebox. A person paying with cash will take about three times as long to pay as someone paying with a mobile phone, so the more cash consumers a bus has, the more time will be spent on boarding. Transit agencies are beginning to address this issue with both physical and technological changes to the boarding process. 

Tools: Use Off-Board or Tap-And-Go Fare Payment; and, Allow All-
Door Boarding.

4. Make buses easy to use

The harder it is for consumers to get information about a particular transportation option, the less likely it is that they will choose that option. Buses are susceptible to a host of challenges in this area, including, among other things, hard-to-read maps and confusing fare policies. Buses also face physical issues that can make them difficult to use, such as bus stops that are hard to get to due to lack of sidewalks or crosswalks. Addressing these issues, particularly when coupled with service improvements to increase speed and reliability, can improve the experience of existing riders and attract new ones. 

Tools: Provide Real-Time Information; Simplify Schedules; Improve Wayfinding; Establish Bus-Friendly Fare Policies; Connect Buses With An Integrated Mobility Platform; Improve Physical Access to Bus Stops; and, Provide a Safe and Comfortable Trip.

5. Measure and report on bus performance

Publicly reporting performance data serves two goals. When performance is strong, data can help to counter misperceptions about the bus system. When performance is lacking, data can help to identify particular issues
or bottlenecks, the first step in correcting them. Performance reporting should focus on how well the region’s
bus systems are contributing to the four mobility priorities: connecting the super-region (e.g., percent of jobs accessible by transit within 45 minutes), improving the customer experience (e.g., how often buses and trains arrive on-time), ensuring equitable access (e.g., percent of jobs and services accessible to low-income residents by transit within 45 minutes), and integrating innovation (e.g., percent of riders paying with mobile phones). 

Tools: Publish Regular Performance Reports; and, Institute Open-Data Policy.

The entire report adds context to these recommendations by providing data and examples from other regions that have optimized their bus services.  

You can download the entire report from the Greater Washington Partnerships website at greaterwashingtonpartnership.com.