On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
As the Washington region grows, regional leaders are being called to expand transit options on the road and underground.
600,000 people in the Washington region ride a bus on an average work day. And in D.C., residents ride Metrobus 15 percent more than Metrorail. But both those riderships are slipping as bus service slows and trust in our public transit wanes.
Where do buses fit in to Washington’s larger transit landscape? And what can we do to improve the experience for new and existing riders? We discuss with a local reporter and leaders from our region’s various bus systems.
Today’s show is the second of three conversations on transit concerns facing Washingtonians. This series on regional transportation is part of our Kojo 20 coverage, a celebration of Kojo Nnamdi’s 20th anniversary on WAMU 88.5.
Produced by Ruth Tam
- Luz Lazo Transportation reporter, Washington Post; @luzcita
- Jeff Marootian Director, District Department of Transportation
- Robert Puentes President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation; Executive Steering Committee Chair, Washington Area Bus Transformation Project
- Al Roshdieh Director, Montgomery County Department of Transportation
- Lynn Rivers Transit Bureau Chief, Arlington, Va.
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Do you take the bus for your daily commute? How affordable is it for you? Do the region's buses take you where you need to go? Do the routes makes sense? You can start calling now, 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow. Email to email@example.com or go to our website kojoshow.org. Join this conversation about buses there.
KOJO NNAMDIAs part of my 20th anniversary on WAMU, we've been focusing on key issues facing the Washington region, and this month we've been paying special attention to transportation. Last week we discussed highway expansion. Today buses, 600,000 people in the Washington region ride a bus on an average work day. And in D.C. which hosts the bulk of the region's rides, the bus is more popular than the subway. But as service slows and Washingtonians turn to ride share, scooters, and a myriad of other transit options, bus ridership is slipping.
KOJO NNAMDISo, how do buses fit into our region's future transportation plans? If so, what's being done to update and improve them. Give us a call. Join the conversation, 800-433-8850. Joining me in studio is Luz Lazo. Luz Lazo is a Transportation reporter at the Washington Post. Luz, thank you for joining us.
LUZ LAZOThank you for having me.
NNAMDIOf the 600,000 people that take buses on an average day in the Washington region, Luz, what do we know about them?
LAZOWell, we have a very diverse population that uses the bus system, but there's some interesting aspects of that. The majority or about actually half of the bus riders are low income people. These are households that make less than $30,000 a year. More than about 55 percent of them also don't own a car. So they strictly, you know, depend on public transportation. There's also a lot of them, who don't use Metro rail. So they are using just the bus to get around to get to work, to school, and just anywhere in this city. So the bus is obviously a very important mode of transportation for many of these commuters, who have no other choices.
NNAMDIWe know that bus ridership is falling, but do we know by how much?
LAZOYes. There was a recent report that was presented to Metro a few -- a couple of months ago that said there was about 13 percent decrease between 2012 and 2017, so just a period of about four or five years where we have seen a very drastic decrease in ridership.
NNAMDIDo we know why bus ridership is falling?
LAZOWell, there's multiple culprits and this is not something that is just happening in the Washington region. We know there's trends all across the country where, you know, transportation ridership has gone down. But there's, you know, people say, well, there's many other options that people have these days including rideshare and by bike share. More people are biking.
LAZOThere's also -- more people are just, you know, frustrated with the bus system. And there's probably numerous reasons why. I mean, the buses are very slow. They're often stuck in traffic. And there's no -- we have very few bus lanes. So there's no way that buses can get around any faster than the regular traffic does. And actually they're usually just stuck behind most of the other cars and there's also reliability issues. You know, often times buses arrive like three at a time and then you're waiting another 20, 30 minutes for the next bus.
LAZOAnd although there's been improvements in the city and in the region in general with the introduction of like applications like Next Bus where they tell you when the next bus is coming, sometimes there's frustrations even with that system, because, you know, there's like ghost buses, like, okay, it says it's coming in five minutes. It never shows up. And then expectations, people have, you know, different expectations than they did five or 10 years ago, right? The buses stay at the bus stop too long. I mean, it takes forever for people to get on and then like there's no amenities like Wi-Fi or things that people have come to expect. So some people say, well, maybe I just should use something else.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Jeff Marootian. He is the Director of D.C.'s Department of Transportation. Jeff, thank you for joining us.
JEFF MARROTIANGreat to be with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIDo you know or do you have any ideas about why bus ridership is down? What are Metro buses's biggest challenges?
AL ROSHDIEHWell, Luz touched on a few points that I think are worth mentioning. Mayor Bowser's 2020 budget reflects some serious commitment to improving the quality of bus service across the District of Columbia. And one of the points that Luz mentioned was just the speed at which buses are able to move through our streets. One of our core initiatives in the mayor's budget is the re-imagination of K Street northwest, which is a major corridor, upwards of 40,000 bus passengers a day. And buses can't get any faster than five miles per hour based on the current configuration of the roadway.
AL ROSHDIEHAnd so what the mayor has put forward in her budget is a great opportunity for us to redesign K Street by putting a bus transit way down the middle in order to allow buses to move faster and with less traffic obstructions. And that will improve bus transit on that corridor. We're looking at similar projects along other major corridors like 16th Street, 14th Street northwest, and several others to follow.
NNAMDIBeyond Metro bus, there are a number of street level options like the circulator and the street car that are now free. It's easy to see the immediate benefits of free fares for public transit, but how sustainable are those services in the long run?
MARROTIANWell, as you know Mayor Bowser has made circulator free and we've seen significant benefit. In fact, just today we released the ridership numbers for the month of March and ridership is up significantly. Almost 75,000 rides increase over 2018 numbers, which is very significant, and shows that people are excited about free circulator. It has encouraged more ridership and that's one of the things that we're most excited about there. And we have a number of options for people to get around. And we want to make sure that bus transit remains a good option.
NNAMDISpeaking of circulator, here is Ryan Wigman in Woodley Park. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi. Good afternoon. Yes, I'm also the Executive Director of Woodley Park Main Street. And I just wanted to say that, you know, our neighborhood has benefitted greatly because of the circulator over the years. And by having the circulator free it broadens access for everyone to everything that our neighborhood offers. And I guess it's a question comment in one. Director, do you expect that the circulator will remain free through the budget negotiations? And to that I would add certainly Woodley Park Main Street hopes that the circulator will eventually come out the other side as it stands now that is free for all. And thank you so much for all of your work in making this a reality.
MARROTIANThanks, Ryan. Yes, we are hopeful that circulator will remain free. As you know it is a priority for Mayor Bowser. That's why she included it in her budget. And we're hopeful that the Council will approve that.
NNAMDISo it's likely to remain free if the Council does approve it?
NNAMDIHow do these transit options like the circulator like the streetcar factor into planning Metro bus routes? How do you access the need for Metro buses over other buslike options?
MARROTIANWell, our goal at DDot in coordination with WMATA and our regional counterparts is to make bus service more efficient across the entire District and really for the entire region. So we've been engaged in a planning study process that looks at current routes and potential future routes and really looks to maximize all of the potential efficiencies to ensure that we're serving as broad of a customer base as possible and that we're not duplicating areas where there's not a need for duplication.
NNAMDIJeff, you mentioned a plan and that gives the opportunity to bring into this conversation Robert Puentes. He's the President and CEO of Eno Center for Transportation and the Executive Committee Chair of the Washington Area Bus Transformation Project. He joins us by phone. Robert Puentes, thank you for joining us.
ROBERT PUENTESThank you. It's great to be with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIRobert, you're part of a group steering a transformation project as I mentioned for Metro bus. What is this group's goal and where are you in that process?
PUENTESYeah. Well, we know that -- as we've already heard that the bus system is critically important to the region for lots of different reasons. People already talked about the level of ridership. We've talked about folks who are dependent on it, but there's a couple of things right now that make this really the right time to be focusing on bus. We talked about the fact that ridership is falling. We talked about the fact that the bus is not moving as fast as it used to.
PUENTESBut on top of all this are the mounting pressures of the bus operating model, right, Folks need to understand -- they probably understand that bus is operated by and funded by fares. So as ridership declines, there is less revenue. But it's also supported by subsidies from jurisdictions in the region. And that has to compete with other local priorities. As well as new caps on how fast the subsidy can grow. So what Washington is doing now is doing what a lot of other regions in the country and the world are doing. Examining the role of bus, how it's provided, who provides it, and then what changes need to be made so it can really fulfil its potential and make it better for riders.
PUENTESIt's a major effort with a broad set of civic, corporate, political, and nonprofit leaders from around the region as well as input from the general public. So --
NNAMDII was about to ask about that. How do regular Washingtonians fit into this timeline?
PUENTESSo we have a draft strategy document that's going to be released in early May and hearing from the public is really important for identifying ways to make this bus network work better for riders, isn't something that's being conceived in the backrooms, in the boardrooms of transportation places. So there's several ways that people can learn more and provide input. There's going to be open houses in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia the week of May 20th.
PUENTESFolks can visit the project website bustransformationproject.com. There's lots and lots of information about it there including the timeline. There's a Facebook page called Washington Area Bus Transformation Project. And I really encourage folks to weigh in, because the input from the general public and the riding public is critically important to the recommendations that are made.
NNAMDIUltimately, Robert, who's in charge of implementing the project suggestions?
PUENTESYeah. That's a great point, because we definitely do not want this to be a report that sits on the shelf. We have plenty of those, right? So part of what's going to happen with this strategy document is that once we receive public input, we're going to develop a detailed road map that lays out specific steps that are needed over the next bunch of years to meet these strategy goals.
PUENTESAnd they can be big and broad things around redesign, things like that, funding structures, network changes, super important measures like bus lanes, but it's important because the bus agencies WMATA and the local agencies around the region usually don't own and operate the streets or may not own and operate the streets. So it has to be a combined effort.
PUENTESSo the road map is going to identify who's responsible for enacting each of these changes and setup hopefully some kind of regional coalition that is empowered to make these decisions, so that we're not spending years and months developing ideas for how to get the stuff done. We can actually act on it pretty quickly.
NNAMDIRobert Puentes is the President and CEO of Eno Center for Transportation and the Executive Committee Chair of the Washington Area Bus Transformation Project. Robert, thank you for joining us.
PUENTESThank you for having me.
NNAMDIOn now to Mike in Washington D.C. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. So I used to ride the bus to connect to Metro for a long time partially motivated by that I couldn't park. So I had a car, but I still decided to take the bus, because I didn't have a good place to park. So that's one thing that as parking gets tighter that's likely to factor. I think also it's really important that we think about using buses in a lot of places where we might not be using it especially in bus rapid transit along (unintelligible) or things like that.
MIKEBut we need dedicated bus lanes through the city so that that can stop buses from getting stuck in traffic. It will alleviate traffic for other motorists. And as people choose other modes of transportation they're not going to be bottled up. And furthermore the streetcar is essentially a bus that can't turn. So if it is stuck behind, say a broken down truck or something, it can't get out of the lane and get around it. That's a ridiculous mode of transportation. We need to not be using that. We should have put a bus there.
NNAMDIWell, we're not only using the streetcar. It's my understanding, Jeff Marootian, we're still having plans to extend it.
MARROTIANThat's right. We are extending --
NNAMDIAnd how about the point that Mike makes? It can't get around stuff.
MARROTIANWell, we are extending the streetcar to the east down Benning Road. But I think Mike is right in saying that one of the exciting things that we're working on at DDot and under the mayor's direction is expanding all of our bus transit facilities across the District. That's why the K Street transit way is an exciting project. That's why we are looking across the city at dedicated bus lanes to accelerate the speed at which buses are able to connect to bus stops and to really incentivize more transit use.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, when we come back we will continue this conversation bringing in Montgomery County and Arlington County and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think could be done to improve the bus transportation where you live? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back on our ongoing series on transportation this month. This week we're talking buses. So far we've been talking with Jeff Marootian, Director of D.C.'s Department of Transportation, and Luz Lazo, a Transportation reporter at the Washington Post. Now let's turn to Montgomery County. Joining me in studio is AL Roshdieh, Director of Montgomery County's Department of Transportation. Al, thank you for joining us.
ROSHDIEHThank you for having me.
NNAMDIMontgomery County is in the process of building its bus rapid transit program. First, what is bus rapid transit and what's the idea? How is it different from a regular bus or an express bus?
ROSHDIEHIt is quite different, Kojo. First of all Montgomery County has been working on this program. In 2013, County Council approved a countywide transit corridor functional master plan that has a 100 miles of its BRT network with nine corridors. And ever since we have been working on various projects for implementation and the one that is farthest ahead is U.S. 29 BRT. That is right now under construction and we expect to go into operation by May of 2020. And the BRT is basically -- there are certain criteria that separates it from a regular bus service. It mimics very close to light rail. You have limited stops. In most cases it has dedicated lane or dedicated guideway.
ROSHDIEHThe fee collection is off board. It's a level boarding. And actually it allows people to move in and out fairly quick so we don't have to deal with payments and things like that. And also have the benefit of if you are in a wheelchair, the bus driver doesn't need to come and help and all those other things. And also if you have a bike, you can go in. And then signal priority, also gets this bus ahead of the other cars. So these are the benefits of the BRT.
ROSHDIEHNow we have a number of other projects. For example, Veirs Mill Road BRT, Which is at least right now the -- the commended alternative was approved in 2017 and the design is already funded in our six year capital improvement program. There are two other corridors North Bethesda Transit Way, which connects the White Flint Metro to Montgomery Mall. And also the New Hampshire Avenue are both funded for planning in our six year CIP. The CCT, or --
ROSHDIEHCIP is Capital Improvement Program.
ROSHDIEHWhich is a six year job. And another project that is at 35 percent design complete which the state is managing it and has been handling it is Corridor City Transit Way, which goes from Shady Grove Metro to Rock Spring.
NNAMDIHow will bus rapid transit or BRT differ from the existing ride-on service?
ROSHDIEHWell, in terms of the bus itself, for example, we call it flash, by the way. It's not ride-on. It is our circulated bus. It is very comfortable. It is fast and right now a third of that corridor is dedicated shoulder. And we are currently working -- studying the possibility of adding a reversible lane from Four Corners down to Silver Spring to provide for a dedicated bus lane within the existing right of way.
NNAMDII'm not sure I understand. I know flash is the system that's coming.
ROSHDIEHThe flash is the name of BRT in Montgomery County.
NNAMDIAnd how will that affect the ride-on system?
ROSHDIEHWell, it affects the ride-on system in the terms of it provides the -- it's going to be the main line and ride-on will be reaching out to the community or brining to flash.
NNAMDITo flash. We got from Rob in Montgomery County a tweet. "As a daily ride-on user, both quality of service and flexibility in a arrival times for work would lead more people to utilize this service," to which you say?
ROSHDIEHWell, the reliability is very very critical, because people would like to see comfort, reliability, on time service and I think even though the ridership throughout the country has been going down. But we introduced a new service actually, Kojo, on Route 355, which we call it Ride-On Extra. This is another limited stop transit and with signal priority. This service actually has 25 percent improvement in travel time between the two points that it's traveling.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean by signal priority?
ROSHDIEHSignal priority is when the bus is getting close to the intersection and if the light is going to turn red, it may wait two or three seconds for the bus to get through. And then if the bus is waiting at the red light, it may turn the signal to green a little bit sooner. So it's not the preemption. So as soon as the bus gets to the intersection that doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to turn green. However, it speeds up the operation of the bus.
NNAMDIMore dedicated bike lanes, or bus lanes?
ROSHDIEHAbsolutely. All of these projects for example our 355 project, which is a 22 mile and we are hoping that we will complete our planning stage by this summer and hopefully we will get the funding for the design of that. That has dedicated guideway or dedicated lane and it goes from Bethesda to Clarksburg. That's a major project and it will be implemented in phases.
NNAMDIHere is Karen in Washington D.C. Karen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARENHi, Kojo, thanks for taking my call. I am a user of the entire transportation system. I take the bus quite frequently. I think one thing that would be better is -- I love the bus times. That does help, but I would also like to see maybe the systems work together. So that if you have to transfer you can get the bus times from say, Montgomery County or in Fairfax.
KARENThe other thing I wanted to bring up is I have given up my car. I do either rideshare. I do Lyft quite a bit. And I also -- I would not go to Georgetown if it weren't for the circulator, like the circulator has made me much more -- visit Georgetown much more. But I want to throw something out that I know is going to controversial. I think bicyclists should be not allowed on major roadways during rush hour.
KARENLet me tell you why. Driving through Rock Creek Park, you want to talk about traffic backing up, and you've got one bicyclist, whom I respect for wanting to bike to work, but cars are stacking up behind that person. That happens around the city all the time. My Lyft drivers are constantly fussing about it and there are also bicyclists, who refuse to use the bike lanes.
NNAMDIOkay. Let me ask Jeff Marootian, what can we do about that?
MARROTIANWell, certainly I appreciate the question and would say that we're working aggressively to deploy dedicated protected bike infrastructure across all eight wards of the District of Columbia. And certainly there are some roadways where cyclists and motorists will continue to share the road. And it's important --
NNAMDII know she's talking about Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park.
MARROTIANYes. And we want to encourage more people to ride bikes as it's an active mode of transportation that has a number of benefits. And we want to continue to encourage that. And so I would posit that what we really should be thinking about and should be doing is talking about ways that we could share the road better and really look out for each other more than anything on our roadways.
NNAMDIKaren, thank you very much for your call. We got tweet from Aaron. "Can we get an update on the 16th Street northwest dedicated bus lanes?"
MARROTIANYes. That's a great question. We have been working aggressively to build a project that spans several neighborhoods, several advisory neighborhood commissions. And that's a dedicated bus infrastructure on 16th Street. The planning for that continues and we are hopeful that that project will start around this time next year. And by start I mean that construction would happen. We have several other corridor projects, 14th Street northwest, H and I Streets northwest. Where we will also be deploying dedicated bus infrastructure. And we will be doing that on a sooner time horizon. And the reason 16th Street takes a little bit longer is because it does involve some significant construction work.
NNAMDILuz, this discussion around dedicated bus lanes is one taking place across the region. What are the issues and where are there dedicated lanes now?
LAZOYes. And it is a discussion that's been happening for many years. I think there was a recent report that said it was about 12.5 miles of BRT, bus rapid transit. I know the most popular one is the one between Arlington and Alexandria. It's really dedicated lanes. There's probably, I think, a small stretch of bike lane on Georgia Avenue is there, like, very tiny. And so, the question is, you know, people wonder why doesn't this region have a larger network of bus lanes.
LAZODC's probably the only major city in the Northeast that doesn't have a number of bus lanes in the downtown area. I mean, New York has them, Baltimore has them. I mean, there's major cities who have bus lanes...
NNAMDIAll dedicated bus lanes.
LAZO...dedicated bus lanes. And the District has not. And for years, the 16th Street bus lane, for example, has been in the works for many years. I think it will be probably appropriate to say about a decade. And so things just don't happen overnight, and they take a long, long time of planning, of just, like, design takes forever. And the buses are stuck in traffic, most of them averaging ten miles per hour. So, yeah. (laugh)
NNAMDIWell, I live off 16th Street, so let's get to it. (laugh) Also in studio with us is Lynn Rivers. She's the Transit Bureau chief of Arlington County, Virginia. Lynn, thank you for joining us.
LYNN RIVERSThank you for the invitation.
NNAMDIArlington sees a smaller number of bus commuters than in DC or Montgomery County. What do you know about your riders?
RIVERSOh, gosh. As a matter of fact, we most recently had a focus group, a number of focus groups to talk to our riders. And we know that in Arlington, there are a large number of choice riders. And that is done by design. We provide a lot of alternatives, and people are choosing to get rid of their cars. As a matter of fact, we're very much known for having a car-free diet. So, we know that we have a lot of people that could use any mode of transportation, and we intentionally do it that way.
NNAMDIIs it a county priority to expand bus service, or is there not enough demand for buses and bus rapid transit at this point?
RIVERSWell, as far as bus rapid transit, we have something -- and Luz just mentioned it -- that's similar to bus rapid transit. We call it BRT Like, and that is the transit way service that we have, transit way infrastructure that are dedicated bus lanes between Braddock Road Metro station and Pentagon City Metro station. And we're in the process now of working on the design to expand that transit way, so that it's fully dedicated. Part of it is in mixed traffic, but we're working with the city of Alexandria to make it fully dedicated. So, we are working very feverishly to do things that will make it easier for people to ride and make it quicker.
NNAMDIIndeed, one of the things you're doing in Arlington County is preparing a study on whether ride hailing companies could replace bus service in areas experiencing low ridership. What areas are you looking at?
RIVERSWell, actually, this is very, very early in the process. This is a plan that we talked about a few years ago as we were putting together our transit development plan. And part of it was to look at areas of the county where there is indeed low ridership, but also wanting to be able to continue to provide transportation for those areas. And the thought of having our TNC network to -- that's the Ubers and Lyfts, and in some cases, there are other tech companies that are actually providing vehicles, as well.
RIVERSBut, right now, we're doing a study just to see how it's working in other cities. It's still very much in its infancy, so we're learning a lot now before we make our foray into that. But we're intentionally looking at areas where there is very low ridership, and probably would not be supportive of continuing with fixed route service. But we want to continue to provide service for those who would like to have it.
NNAMDIAl, Montgomery County is running a pilot of a similar program. Instead of operating a fixed bus route through neighborhoods like Rockville, Wheaton and Glenmont, the county is working with the app Via to provide on-demand shuttles this summer. How would it work, and how did you choose this area?
ROSHDIEHActually we've been working on this for quite a while, and we wanted to see how we can actually use technology to get the ridership back up. And actually we created a zone around Rockville Metro station, and it's a fairly specific geographic area. We reviewed a number of other companies that provide this kind of application, and we chose Via because their plan to adapt their application to Montgomery County was very well. And, actually, the way it works is you can download the app in your smartphone, and if you are within that geographic area, you can request a bus.
ROSHDIEHAnd we have purchased 11-passenger, small buses that we operate, Ride On operates. And it will come pick you up and take you to your destination. And these are all virtual stops. So, it may not come to your doorstep, but we will come very close to your home. And then you can go to the Metro station, or you can go to anywhere within that geographic area.
NNAMDIWhen? When will it be available?
ROSHDIEHActually, it's going to be in operation June of this year, late June.
NNAMDIHow long will the program run and...
ROSHDIEHWell, the program is funded, at least the pilots, for one year. And we try to learn from other jurisdictions, because bus transit is nothing new. You look at the things that they have done in European countries and some of the other jurisdictions within the U.S., and we try to learn, you know, from their lessons. And what we are doing, I think, is going to be successful. And I just want to share with you, Kojo, a couple data, because even though the ridership has been going on, in regards to priority service or technology, Ride On Extra, at the same time that we had 5.3 percent reduction in, let's say, fiscal year '19 in terms of overall ridership, we have 11 percent increase in Ride On Extra.
ROSHDIEHAnd also, I want to share another good news. For the first time in so many years, in the month of March, we see 3.6 percent increase in ridership. I don't know if it's a blip, or if it's really a change in trend.
NNAMDIWell, we'll have to find out. We got an email from Laura, Jeff. Laura says: the student population of Deal Middle School and Wilson High School in Tenleytown have exploded but the city has not added buses to keep up. My children who attend Deal take the M4 between Tenleytown and Pinehurst Circle. In the afternoon, they regularly see full M4s blow past the Deal Middle School stop, because the buses are already too full with high school students to pick up the middle schoolers. My kids have had to wait for as many as four buses before they get a spot. Mornings are packed, too, and my kids have been left waiting while buses roll by.
NNAMDIThe Mayor Kids Ride Free Program is great and certainly reduces traffic when kids can take the bus. However, the kids need to be able to fit on the bus. How does the city assess capacity on the buses, and how often? Can the city please commit to adding sufficient before and after M4 bus service west of Tenleytown, so that students are not left waiting at the stops? Whew. that's a mouthful. (laugh)
JEFF MAROOTIANThat's a great question. And to the point that Rob was talking about earlier, that's why we have been collaborative in a process to look at bus transformation for the region, and to look at where there are needs for us to rethink the allocation of buses and resources. That process is ongoing as the dynamics of our region continue to change.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on bus transportation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about bus transportation in this region. And Lynn Rivers of Arlington County, we got a Tweet from Andrew in Northern Virginia: if we're going to do the gap transit service thing in Arlington, maybe we should contract with a local cab company instead of pouring money to some tech company in California.
RIVERSWell, that is one of the things -- that's one of the ways the service that we've been calling flex service that has been introduced, tech companies, local services like cab companies. So, there are a number of places around the country that are using various forms of providers in order to provide that service.
NNAMDILuz, Washington has eight bus systems, many of them overlapping with one another. What challenges does this present when it comes to planning coverage, funding and the like?
LAZOWell, just like everything in Washington, right, it's regional jurisdictional issues that sometimes slow down, you know, just things. (laugh) You know, the region -- I think that this project that they have going on right now, it's going to really show us how much the region can do together. Because a lot of the things they want to do that will bring some improvements that are really needed, or the system desperately needs, will require the jurisdictions working together. And that has been a challenge, no doubt, in just, you know, structuring of the routes, for example.
LAZOI mean, there's routes that maybe were structured 20 years ago or created 20 years ago that maybe don't make sense right now. And those are things that they're looking at now, as part of this regional effort. But it will require decisions by, you know, those in positions to make decisions, to do them together. And so it will be a test of how many bus lanes can the region approve, for example. If this report recommends a network of bus lanes, it will require the region to come together to make those decisions. And that's something that I think we'd still need to see if it's going to happen.
NNAMDIJeff, what do you want to know more of from one another's bus systems, and what challenges do you face when it comes to getting that information from Montgomery County or from Arlington?
MAROOTIANWell, to Luz's point, this process really does depend on regional collaboration. And I'm pleased to say that all of our agency and our counterparts across the region have been collaborating as a part of this study process. And I'm optimistic that that collaboration will continue as we begin to implement some of the findings from this process. And that's really the key, here. We know that there are a number of folks who start and end their trips in different jurisdictions, and we want to ensure a seamless process for them in order to continue to encourage them to choose bus transit.
NNAMDIOn, now, to the phones. Here, now, is Brian in Silver Spring, Maryland. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANYeah, thanks so much, Kojo. I have a question for Al Roshdieh about BRT on Route 29 in Montgomery County. Thank you for summing up the characteristics that define BRT. The most important is dedicated lanes. So, this BRT that's in planning for Route 29 only has dedicated lanes from Burtonsville to just north of Tech Road, and then it's in mixed traffic. So, it seems like it is lacking that defining characteristic of BRT exactly where it most needs it, which is between Tech Road and downtown Silver Spring. So, at that point, it's no longer BRT. Is there any plan to make this real BRT, with dedicated lanes, all the way?
ROSHDIEHWell, the characteristic of a BRT, one of them is dedicated lane or dedicated guideway. There are a number of other things, the signal priority, level boarding, off-board fee collections, the comfort, the frequency and frequent service. These are all what makes a BRT. And you're correct, only a third of our corridor is currently on a dedicated shoulder. However, as I said earlier, we are working on determining where we can add a single lane on Route 29 within the existing right-of-way and make this a reversible bus lane. And I think we are seeing a good result from the study so far, and I think we'll be able to improve the operation of the flash.
ROSHDIEHAs it stands right now, with only one-third of the corridor in the shoulder, it improves 35 percent of the travel time. Now, if they go over the dedicated lane further down from four corners, of course, this will improve even further, and we want to be there. That's why this project is not -- this is not the end of it. We will continue to improve.
NNAMDIAnd then we got a Tweet from James in Arlington: why should we expect any kind of ridership recovery when bus service still largely sucks, especially compared to those other transit options? Invest in better bus service to compete, and riders will return, says James.
RIVERSJames actually probably would've been a good participant in our most recent focus groups, where we were asking people -- those who currently use the system and who have moved away from the system -- what their expectations were and what their thoughts were. And we're striving every day to make sure we're providing the type of service that people want.
RIVERSOne of the things that came out of the focus group was the high use of technology, and people wanting to know, more than anything else, when a bus is arriving. And it's not just a matter of making people comfortable at the stop while they're waiting on a bus, but most people want to know when the bus is coming. And so that's why we're focusing a lot now on the technology that we can get to people, so they are able to use the service and to use it timely.
NNAMDISpeaking of when the bus is coming, here is Rachel in Silver Spring, Maryland, on that issue. Rachel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RACHELI am actually waiting for a bus, even as we speak. I don't know if you can hear me, because traffic on the East-West Highway is very noisy.
NNAMDIYes, but I'm not hearing a bus, but go ahead. (laugh)
RACHELNo, exactly. Although there have been four out-of-service buses go by so far. Yeah, I take buses everywhere, because I don't have a car, and really, the bus is more practical for places I'm likely to go from Silver Spring to Bethesda, say. The Metro is not logical. And the apps, or -- I use Google Maps. I use every possible way, including the schedule that sometimes is posted at the bus stop. And there is still absolutely no way of knowing when the bus is coming.
RACHELAnd Sunday, I had an amusing situation waiting for a 70 bus. It was supposed to come at 4:07. It was supposed to come at 4:15. It was supposed to come at 4:27, and they just didn't show up. And, you know, I always wonder, like, are they whisked away to never-never land?
NNAMDIThat's a complaint that we hear about a lot. Allow me to have Jeff Marootian respond.
MAROOTIANWell, you know, I think there are a number of things that impact bus operations. And what's important to know is that, I can't speak for my colleagues here at the table, but I know they're thinking about ways to make service improvements and ways to make buses themselves better at operating. One of the things that we're doing in the District -- with Circulator, in particular -- is moving to an electric fleet, which requires less -- those buses require less maintenance. And so we're taking steps to make the operations of buses better.
MAROOTIANOne of the things, one of the benefits of the mayor's move to make Circulator free is the operational time, the time that it takes for somebody to get onboard a bus and pay that fare. That makes a difference, and so those were some of the things that we're thinking about in improving transit service, really, across the board.
NNAMDIWell, we got an email from Mark, who said: I want to thank Mayor Bowser and Director Marootian for beginning the transition of the DC Circulator to an all-electric fleet. To the Arlington and Montgomery County transportation officials, are you planning to move your fleets off dirty diesel and toward clean, electric buses? And will your jurisdiction support pushing WMATA to do the same? First you, Lynn Rivers.
RIVERSWell, actually, our fleet is all compressed natural gas, which is a very clean fuel. And we have looked at and thought about electric buses, but our focus and our investment has been on compressed natural gas. So, we look at that as a very clean alternative. We don't have any diesel in our fleet. So, I think, definitely, electric is the wave of the future, and we've been watching what DC is doing with electric buses and around the country, as well. So, I think electric may appear in our future.
ROSHDIEHYes. Actually, our entire fleet, I think it's green, in a sense. We have hybrid C and G, and then some also clean diesel. We have, right now, 14 electric buses on order. Four is coming this year, and ten next year. And we are actually, you know, going for another couple grand for additional buses. Our plan is to transition our entire fleet to electric buses.
ROSHDIEHHowever, the challenge that we have in Montgomery County is the technology for the battery right now allows the buses to go from 150 to 200 miles a day, without charging. And, of course, this all depends how -- you know, you're going uphill or how many passengers on that bus. So, we cannot really go -- our average trip a day is about 200 to 225. So, we are exploring the technology that is out there and what kind of buses, and some of the routes that we can transition to electric. But our motive is to be all electric bus in future.
NNAMDIHere now is Cali in Woodbridge, Virginia. Cali, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CALIGood afternoon. This is Cali. I run the Slug Lines website, and we have been slugging for almost four decades now. I see a lot of study (unintelligible) other folks putting their signs for pickup along the curbside. We have been requesting a curbside pickup for slugs along Crystal Drive and nine locations in DC. But we are not having any traction. Is that something you can help us -- slugs use these locations only between 2:30 and 6:00. The rest of the time can be used by Lyft and other rideshare companies.
RIVERSWell, actually, I know that we do have locations in Arlington dedicated to those who slug. And if people understand what sluggers are, they're those who are actually doing the original rideshare of catching a ride typically into the core of the District or into Northern Virginia. I do know that that would be something that would happen through our Traffic and Engineering Division. So, if there is a way to get the caller's information, I might be able to put them in touch with the right person. I do know for Arlington, as small as we are, that curbside management is a real issue.
NNAMDIAnd Cali, you should know that next week, we'll be doing a show on rideshares, bikes, scooters and more alternative transit. So, obviously, slugs will be included in that conversation. Luz, what cities are faced with similar issues? What solutions have they implemented that we can learn from about their bus services?
LAZOA lot of cities are facing the same similar problems in terms of ridership decreases. But there's a few cities that have done some things that have worked. And the region is looking at, you know, what has worked there. I think in Portland, they did a lot with the technology of transit...
NNAMDI(overlapping) We've got about 20 seconds left.
LAZO...transit signal priority technology, something that works because it keeps buses running. In Houston, they did a complete overhaul of the routes, and it's something that the region is looking at to see if that's something that we need here.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Luz Lazo, Jeff Marootian, Al Roshdieh and Lynn Rivers, thank you all for joining us.
ROSHDIEHThank you for having us.
NNAMDIOur show on our region's bus systems was produced by Ruth Tam. Next week, we'll continue our transportation series with a show on alternative transit, rideshares, bikes, scooters and more. Plus, we'll share a video from when I spent a day tagging along with a Lyft driver earlier this month. Here's a preview.
NNAMDIOkay, hit the road. Let's go for a ride.
LYFT DRIVERLet's roll.
UNKNOWNI feel like the drivers are different.
UNKNOWNAnd the guy who picked us up had 16,000 rides under his belt.
NNAMDIThe people are also concerned about the possible effect on traffic.
UNKNOWNI do think that traffic has gotten significantly worse.
BENJAMINYeah, plus you need to learn defensive driving.
UNKNOWNThis business, it takes you all over the place.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, we'll get a preview on the upcoming DC International Film Festival, including a virtual reality film placed inside Ben's Chili Bowl, and we'll explore the history of our region's suburbs from Greenbelt, Maryland to Reston, Virginia. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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