Commentary

The Wheels of Change Turn Slowly

The Washington Post recently trumpeted an innovative new way that D.C. area residents are getting to work: taking the bus! It’s just the contrarian, old-is-the-new-hip take that’s bound to make the kids start buying morning newspapers again; never mind the fact that bus trips are down 12 percentin the last year.

Like much of the dreck that’s in the paper these days, there’s a little bit of truth wrapped up in its banal perspective—taking the bus probably does work for more people these days, especially given Metro’s troubles over the last year, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) could do more to help people use it.

However, it’s far from a panacea. The area’s bus service has as many problems as the Metro, and the biggest one is true for both: WMATA has been dreadfully slow at improving its bus service.

WMATA has been dreadfully slow at improving its bus service.

When I first got to town 15 years ago, I lived a block from a bus route that went directly by my place of work—a perfect arrangement, it seemed to me. I faithfully took the bus to work every day for my first month until I discovered one day that it was, in fact, faster to walk the 2 miles to and from work.

The problems with the bus route I took were numerous and self-evident to anyone who rode the route regularly. For starters, the stops were way too close together—less than a city block apart in many instances.

Exacerbating the time cost of each bus stop was the fact that many stops gave the bus little room to navigate in and out of traffic. The people in my neighborhood are adamant about protecting every single conceivable parking spot: Since the city charges a pittance for residents to store their car on the street, there is a vast excess demand for street parking, and the powers that be are willing to slow a few thousand commuters by 30 seconds a day to save even one spot.

And while Connecticut Avenue, the main corridor for my bus route, ostensibly limits parking during rush hours, such rules were (and remain) haphazardly enforced.

The traffic lights didn’t do buses any favors either: the lights flowing with rush hour traffic seemed to be timed so that a bus having to make stops usually hit each one. The one respite from these lights—going under Dupont Circle—was something that buses inexplicably never did until a decade ago, which meant that each bus had to navigate a circle choked with parked cars that would take a good five minutes during a rush hour.

To its credit, WMATA eventually figured out some of these problems. Buses now go under Dupont Circle during rush hour, and for those that do remain on the circle some parking has been removed and a new traffic pattern eased bottlenecks there. A few bus stops have been consolidated, although not enough.

And there seems to be a little less tolerance for errant bus driver behavior. In my initial months of commuting via the bus I had one driver stop the bus to feed a parking meter, and another driver stop to try to get a woman’s phone number. One afternoon a driver kept our bus at a traffic light for five full minutes without moving or responding to any entreaties from the passengers before moving on—a bit extreme but not especially so: Bus drivers go out of their way to hit red lights in this town.

It also appears that WMATA and D.C. have become more diligent in fixing a broken system. Last weekend I found myself in Georgetown and was amazed to observe traffic flowing normally—a feat usually achieved only during the overnight hours. The reason was that the city had blocked parking on a stretch of M street and used fences to give the lanes to pedestrians. The absence of drivers trying to get in and out of parking spots on an exceedingly crowded road fixed what had seemed to be an intractable problem.

WMATA’s new management seems to genuinely want to improve Metro’s safety and performance—the previous managers no doubt did as well, but didn’t seem willing to upset as many apple carts to achieve it as the current crew. These days the bus beats walking to my old job most days, sometimes by a fair margin. Here’s hoping it keeps getting better.

Ike Brannon is president of Capital Policy Analytics, a Washington consulting firm, and a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute.