LANHAM, Md. (CBSDC) — It’s the busiest bus corridor in the District: the S line runs up and down 16th Street from Silver Spring to Farragut Square. The line is so busy, that passengers are routinely left stranded during the morning rush. And the solutions for fixing it could forever alter your commute, whether you take the bus or not.
Residents along the corridor brought the problem to Metro last year. Metro followed through by adding three extra buses to do three loops on the busiest section of the route between Columbia Heights and Farragut Square.
That idea worked at first, but soon enough the morning rush crunch was on again. Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Kishan Putta says there are 1,000 more riders now versus a year ago.
“D.C.’s population has just been going up and up, and more so in the core of the city. 16th Street epitomizes the core of the city,” Putta says, adding that the problem is double-edged. “We increased rush hour service so more people had the confidence to take the bus in the morning and more people are moving into the area.”
Jim Hamre, Metro’s director of bus planning, says the transit agency has been chasing the demand of 16th Street with capacity.
“It’s interesting at 11 p.m. at night, 16th Street has more frequency than the most frequent service in Virginia has during the peak of the peak,” Hamre said. “Just to put it in perspective.”
There’s no question the demand exists along 16th Street. The problem is a lack of resources — both physical and financial.
“We’ve shifted a few of our articulated coaches from Georgia Avenue over to 16th [Street], so now its evening out,” Hamre said. “That’s good for 16th Street riders … not so good for Georgia Avenue riders. It’s a matter of balancing rather than actually accomplishing what we’re trying to, which is capacity for both corridors.”
The articulated buses are the double long buses that look like an accordion in the middle. Putta is quick to agree that it’s a complicated problem.
“Only 3 percent of all the traffic on 16th Street is buses, but they carry more than 50 percent of all the people that travel on 16th Street,” says Putta. “The buses are doing a helluva job, but we just need more.”
Putta says the solutions don’t necessarily have to be complex. The addition of the three buses during rush hour is an example of something that could be done right away to alleviate the problem. Another relatively quick solution is to add more manpower to the streets to help space out the buses.
Part of the broader problem on 16th Street is the bunching and gapping of buses. There is supposed to be five minutes between buses, but because of red lights and traffic it becomes a feast-or-famine situation for riders on 16th Street.
Hamre says Metro has created a new position to try and manage the spacing of the buses. Now it just comes down to hiring and training those people.
“It can take anywhere from three to five months to recruit people, select them and get them trained and in the field,” says Hamre. “Fortunately, we have a good pool of already vested and informed employees to recruit from, so we’re hopeful it will be shorter than that.”
Putta agrees that managers on the street will go a long way to solving the problem. Ultimately though, the long-term solution is probably much more complicated, and will no doubt involve changing the habits of motorists.
One possibility is the creation of an express bus lane up and down 16th Street.
“Anyone who watches 16th Street rush hour traffic can very quickly tell that buses get held up by traffic to a terrible degree,” says Putta. “And they’re carrying so many commuters who could be getting to work 15-20 minutes faster if they had their own lane. And if they had their own lane, many of those people driving could take the bus instead.”
The creation of an express lane goes beyond just Metro. Such a lane would mean cooperation from DDOT, and political cooperation from the Wilson Building. It’s an idea that at least one mayoral candidate, Muriel Bowser, has already said is not an option. Although Dan Malouff at Greater Greater Washington has broken down how it could be possible while also noting that such lanes are in DDOT’s MoveDC plan, Hamre says the idea of dedicated bus lanes is being examined.
“The District has gone through a steady process of creating bus lanes and trying to provide a real right-of-way to get buses through,” says Hamre. “That continues to be in the study process, and it’s really important for transit riders on 16th Street to be their own advocates and let the District know how they feel about that kind of a project.”
Another long-term solution is signal prioritization. That would give buses approaching a red light the priority, allowing them to navigate through traffic lights at a faster pace. DDOT is already in the process of studying the possibility of signal prioritization, but that’s a solution still very much on the drawing board.
Putta says the issue is important because if the 16th Street corridor continues to grow, there needs to be a way to get residents where they need to go.
“These are new tax payers to D.C., they don’t necessarily deserve a plush ride to work in the morning but they deserve a ride to work in the morning,” says Putta. “They deserve to be able to get on the bus in the morning without having to wait for several buses to pass them by. They are willing to spend the money. They are willing to add even more revenue to D.C. and to WMATA and to Metro.”
And it’s important to note that the S line on 16th Street is just part of a much bigger network.
“D.C. is a bus town, we’ve got bus riders,” says Hamre. “The number of ride buses in the city is equal to or greater than the number of residents that ride rail.”
WNEW’s Kris Ankarlo contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter.