Road trip! DC Councilmembers try out the H & I pilot bus lanes

DC Councilmembers prepare to give the H & I pilot bus lanes a spin. Image by David Alpert.

DC’s dedicated bus lanes need long-term political commitment to thrive amid the jungle of competing demands for our street space. That commitment had a visible boost Monday, as a group of DC councilmembers gamely tried out the H & I pilot bus lanes, and shared their thoughts on the value of bus priority in the District.

Braving the drizzle, councilmembers Anita Bonds, David Grosso, Brianne Nadeau, Brandon Todd, and Chairman Phil Mendelson shared the ride organized by DC Sustainable Transportation, and councilmembers Charles Allen and Elissa Silverman and Vincent Gray's chief of staff appeared later to voice their support.

Phil and David’s Excellent Adventure. (Chairman Phil Mendelson and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso chat). Image by the author.

As they boarded the 32 bus and headed west from McPherson Square on I St NW, councilmembers commented on the need to focus on bus lanes as a means of making buses a more attractive option for riders. DDOT Director Jeff Marootian, several DDOT staff involved in planning and implementing the H & I bus lanes, Council staff and representatives of other DC agencies, plus the Greater Washington Partnership also joined the road trip.

“I’m really excited that we’re kicking off the new bus lanes in different parts of the District of Columbia,” said Todd. “We know that having dedicated bus lanes will hopefully encourage more commuters to use the buses, to get more cars off the road and have more efficient bus travel throughout the District of Columbia.”

Image by David Alpert.

"I think the lanes are working," added Bonds. "From what I can see, most traffic are compliant. They understand that we're trying to use this to get people to and from where they're going quickly. I'm thrilled that it's showing this kind of result."

Other participants reflected on the need to ensure the lanes were used as designed. Grosso said, "I'm just concerned that there's not enough enforcement. We have to make sure these lanes stay clear when it's appropriate for them to be clear, so that buses can keep moving. Really the whole point here is to enhance Vision Zero in the city, to get more people out of their cars and into buses to make our streets safer, and to get more people on bikes, on scooters, and on other modes of transportation."

The bus crew alighted near where the bus lane ended at 20th and I St NW, then made their way on foot to 21st and Pennsylvania to board the 30S bus heading back east on H St NW. En route, councilmembers made observations on the visibility of enforcement, how to make payment easier, and other topics.

“There’s no question that buses move more people than automobiles do,” said Mendelson. “The value of the bus priority lanes is that if you have enough buses, because I think that’s important, then it further incentivizes people to use buses, because they move quicker.”

On completion of the journey, DCST President and GGWash founder David Alpert gave a brief speech about the ability of bus lanes to move people faster, reduce delays, and increase reliability, as well as the opportunity for DC to be a leader in this respect. Making the case for the sheer numbers of people who are and can be served by better bus services, he said, “There are more people on just the buses on 16th Street, which I think is about 2% of the vehicles, as all of the people in all of the cars that make up the other 98% of the vehicles.”

DC Councilmembers, DDOT Director Jeff Marootian, and other participants listen to David Alpert speak about the impact of dedicated bus lanes in the District. Image by the author.

The Council on the bus goes tweet tweet tweet

The pro-bus lane mood on the bus was echoed on social media.

Bus lanes for whom?

Bus priority means changes—like bus lanes—that can make buses rock instead of stuck, slow, and rumbly. For DC, it reflects a vision of a mode of urban travel that works for everyone, rather than being a last resort. It should be a tool for transit equity and access for all to jobs and services. But recent debates about Circulator routes and fares and the K Street Transitway have had some observers asking: Who benefits?

The answer is: Everyone should. The bus is a public service designed to get lots of people where they want to go. There’s probably a stop within a few blocks of your home, workplace, or school. It’s a relatively affordable mode, especially in comparison to ride-hailing services, which people on lower incomes are often forced to take when they can’t rely on public options.

Councilmember Brandon Todd (ward 4) boards the bus eastward following Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (ward 1).

Nadeau later made observations about the importance of urgent action to address transit equity. “I’m thrilled to see DDOT moving more quickly with pilot projects, and I’m looking forward to upcoming installations like bus lanes on 16th and 14th Streets," she stated. "Moving forward with more transit priority projects shows that we’re paying attention to the needs of bus riders, who are more likely to be lower-income families, people of color, or those without their own vehicles.”

At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds was also keen to note the wider value of bus lanes for the commuting public.

The H & I bus lanes serve many residents who are on lower incomes, or otherwise stand to benefit from transit equity. Several of the 30-series buses traveling on H & I, including those lines the councilmembers boarded Monday, travel to and from Ward 7, where the median household income is $38,000 per year (as opposed to $83,000 for the District as a whole), and a very high percentage of whose residents identify as Black/African American.

As the graph below from the Bus Transformation Project shows, the vast majority of bus riders in the Greater Washington area are persons of color, and a substantial majority are low-income.

Bus riders in the region are more likely to live in households that do not have a car, live in low-income households, have limited English proficiency, and be non-white. A profile of Metrobus passenger demographics compared to the region overall is shown below. Source: Bus Transformation Project

The recent draft strategy from the Bus Transformation Project observes, “Metrorail currently only reaches about 25% of the region, and any rail system expansion is many billions of dollars and decades away.”

If we want to get cars off the road but still get people where they need to go, then better Metrorail services and protected bike lanes could be great and very helpful. But buses are the cornerstone of an effective, long term strategy for transit equity.

Life in the bus lane

The classic problem of bus priority is that the value of this public service can get drowned out by the demands of other road users, specifically the desire to drive or park single-occupancy cars. That needs to change for buses to get the space and tools they need to operate efficiently and contribute more to opportunity, safety and sustainability.

Bus priority gets the occasional nod from the Council—in February Todd spearheaded Bus to Work Day, and Allen is a longtime bus commuter. But it needs a broad swathe of consistent support among elected officials, and that visible and vocal support has to accelerate if we’re going to get there.