The Circulator is now free. Why just the Circulator? It’s complicated.

DC Circulator with “new bus” sticker by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Following two months of free rides on DC’s Circulator bus in February and March, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that Circulator rides will now be free, permanently.

Citing the need to make DC affordable for families, a key theme of her State of the District address on Monday, Bowser is clearly framing this move in terms of equity. Bowser spoke about lower-wage earners approaching her at grocery store checkouts to say that making Circulator free had eased their financial burdens. “And so we went back to our budget books to see what else we could do,” she continued, “and I’m proud to say that we will make the DC Circulator free from now on.”

What will it cost? WAMU’s Jordan Pascale reported that the Circulator took in $843,000 in fares in 2017, though DDOT told Martin Austermuhle, also of WAMU, that the free February and March Circulator cost nearly $400,000. More cost details should become clear when Bowser releases her budget Wednesday.

The two-month trial period of free Circulator service prompted celebration — free bus service is great for several reasons! — as well as questions and some criticism. Why is the Circulator free, and not Metrobus? What’s the difference anyway?

With no Circulator routes serving Wards 4, 5, or 7, is this really an equitable move? How could it be made so? Is the answer to expand the Circulator to more wards, or do something else?

Is making transit free the best, or a good, way to improve transit? Is the cost of free service going to be worth it in terms of making DC more “affordable”?

To get to the bottom of all this, first we need to understand why we have a Circulator.

From one bus service to nine

All of the buses in the Washington region used to be run by WMATA (and before WMATA, a set of private companies). In 1975, Montgomery County established its own independent bus service, now called Ride On. The others followed: ART in Arlington, DASH in Alexandria, Fairfax Connector, the City of Fairfax’s CUE, and The Bus in Prince George’s County. Independent control allowed jurisdictions to choose where and how to operate their buses, sometimes more cheaply.

Regional bus systems by Foursquare ITP for Bus Transformation Project.

Meet the Circulator

DC created its own jurisdictional bus, the Circulator, in 2005, as a hop-on, hop-off all-day service meant to be "a simple, inexpensive, and easily navigable surface transit system that complements Metrobus and Metrorail."

It had some similarities with the others and some differences. Similarly, it gave DC more control, and DC wanted to pilot better ways to operate a bus, like running service every ten minutes (the original idea was five) instead of much less frequently at off times, and managing buses to a “headway” instead of a strict schedule, where if one bus is early then there’s a big gap before the other ones.

The Circulator was also particularly a downtown bus, meant for casual riders including tourists. It started out with just two routes, one east-west and one north-south, and then a Mall loop. It had distinctive-looking buses and a simple $1 fare, making it easier for tourists and other casual riders to pay.

Early Circulator map.

Things have shifted since then. The Circulator was initially very popular, leading to demand to extend it and add routes, including one east of the Anacostia River, initially to Skyland and then moved to Congress Heights.

Evolution of Circulator service from the 2011 Circulator Transit Development Plan.

Unfortunately, perhaps in part because of the expansion and just an aging fleet, the Circulator also ran into difficulties. The contractor, First Transit, wasn’t able to keep the buses maintained and get them out on the road. Changes in routes and operators became a pain in the neck for riders when they weren’t clearly communicated. Reliability dropped, and the Circulator abandoned the headway management, switching back to a schedule.

The $1 fare wasn't that different from the $1.35 Metrobus fare at the time, but since then, the gap has widened as WMATA raised the cost of bus trips while the Circulator did not. Drivers, also unionized but in a different local than WMATA's, were getting lower pay and worse benefits than Metrobus drivers, and DC responded to advocacy to increase Circulator driver compensation.

This chart shows the key differences between Metrobus and the Circulator today:

  Metrobus Circulator
Fare $2.00 Free ($1.00 until recently)
Number of routes Lots Six
Market Primarily residents and commuters Tourists, residents, and workers moving within the center city
Offering Extensive network of services operating throughout the region Buses every 10 minutes along a simple network, mainly focused downtown
Controlled by WMATA DDOT
Stroller policy Folded only Unfolded umbrella strollers ok

This post from December 2018 summarized findings of a recent bus transformation project report that identified key issues in regional bus services to be addressed.

Who wants to ride? It won’t cost you a dollar (depending on where you live)

So Bowser decides to do something for transit riders (thanks!). She doesn’t control WMATA or Metrobus, but she controls Circulator. Plus, making Metrobus free would be way more expensive than making Circulator free.

This change could have implications outside of affordability. The two-month trial of free Circulator rides led some riders to observe (anecdotally) an immediate impact on demand for parallel Metrobus services. Making the Circulator free may undermine the Circulator's role as a complement, not competitor, to Metrobus.

It’s hard to ignore the limited service of the Circulator, which is a key part of how it manages to make the service frequent and regular.

Circulator map by DDOT.

Many have pointed out that residents of Ward 7, and many other parts of the District, don’t benefit from this free bus since they don’t have Circulator service. This discrepancy doesn’t really fit with the Mayor’s comparing free Circulator service to removing the tax on diapers as striking a blow for equity.

Why did the bus cross the river? (And why doesn’t it do that more?)

DC definitely needs better, faster bus service in Ward 7 as well as 8 (really in all wards!). A large number of people (many of whom live on lower-than-median incomes and could benefit from great bus service) live in these areas, and need access to sites all over the District. Already, people spend the most time traveling to work from east of the Anacostia and DC’s far northern areas.

It would be a good idea to give people in the entire city better, faster, more frequent bus service. Doing it cheaply or even free is good too, though free or cheap service isn’t necessarily as important to riders — at any income level — as fast, reliable, frequent service that gets them where they want to go.

In response to the mayor’s free Circulator announcements, a conversation followed about the role and value of the Circulator, which will no doubt be expanded on as we process the latest announcement.

Some expressed the view that DC’s bus services should be rolled into one that serves the entire city, rather than separately branded services.

Others wanted to see Circulator routes extended to Ward 7.

GGWash Founder and Executive Director David Alpert had previously argued that bring better and more frequent buses to Ward 7 residents is important, but extending the Circulator may not be the best or most achievable way to do that.

The Circulator was designed and branded with a particular purpose and message. Beyond the low floors (for which I, hauling a stroller, am thankful in rare moments when we happen to cross paths) and the big windows, high ridership on a small number of routes (mostly downtown) allow the Circulator to justify service every ten minutes. If the Circulator service is extended anywhere, a route would likely need to be found with sufficient potential ridership to fit that frequency of service.

Expanding the Circulator could also strain the system. Already, DC has insufficient parking and maintenance space for its Circulator fleet, and doesn’t own enough buses to add service. Meanwhile, WMATA has enough buses to add service today and space in its garages.

It’s a valid question, then, whether the symbolic value of having a Circulator service in every ward is worth the expense of running ten minute headways when rider numbers almost certainly won’t justify them and when DC would struggle to run more service while WMATA can. One route through Ward 7 (or 5, or any ward) may also not make a substantial difference as Circulator will be a small fraction of DC's bus service no matter what happens.

Improving Metrobus services in, to, and from Wards 7 and 8 could do a lot to increase accessibility and make life more straightforward for residents all over the District, without losing the effective brand of the Circulator. The issue with that approach is that now it’s the Circulator — more likely to serve affluent and tourism-oriented parts of the District — that’s free, on top of being more frequent, more stroller-friendly, etc.

Is free even the right goal?

Evidence suggests that free isn’t as important to riders as fast, reliable service is. A January 2019 report by TransitCenter said,

Most low-income bus riders rate lowering fares as less important than improving the quality of the service. This suggests that if a transit agency had to choose between devoting funds to reducing fares or to maintaining or improving service, most riders would prefer the latter. The idea of making transit “free” turns out to be less appealing to the public than making improvements to transit.

Maybe there’s a bigger win in doing things that will make taking the bus a good choice for more people, especially people living on lower incomes. Circulator founders say they had hoped the bus would demonstrate new innovations, like operating on a headway with higher frequency, that Metrobus could then implement itself; that hasn't particularly happened. Meanwhile, transportation observers will be keenly watching the progress — especially enforcement — for pilot bus lanes on two of the most heavily-trafficked corridors in DC this summer.

It’s great that Bowser wants to make transit better. As residents and the DC council mull over the budget, there will be many discussions to come about how to best help people in all parts of DC.