Is making surface transit free the best transit investment DC can make?
In Greater Greater Washington, DC Councilmember David Grosso suggests that DC should take control of bus service within the city and make it free.
Note that while the title of the piece is "Let’s take back DC’s buses and make them free," technically DC Government never had control over the bus system.
It was privately run, then went bankrupt, and WMATA took it over while they were still building the first segment of Metrorail, before the subway system even began operating.
I wrote a paper on integrating transportation and land use planning in 2007 and one of the things I discussed was the possibility of making surface transit in the city free.
One of the models was the "Fareless Square" in Portland, Oregon which provided free transit of all types (light rail, streetcar, bus) in the Downtown area, to discourage people from operating motor vehicles. (But that service ended because of budget cutbacks, although Salt Lake City still has a similar service.)
However, note that cost isn't the biggest barrier to transit use more generally, although it is a barrier for people of limited means.
While I think that Downtown free transit services are justifiable on the basis of transportation demand management goals, there are equity issues raised about providing free transit to people who can afford to pay for it.
How the city provides bus service. Basically, the city has four types of bus service. (1) high frequency service on major arterials, like the bus service on 16th Street NW (S bus) or H Street-Benning Road (X bus), serving major activity centers and transit stations, and usually not extending beyond DC's borders, with the exception of the 70s bus line, which terminates in Silver Spring;
(2) neighborhood bus service between various activity centers and transit stations (like the 62 bus between Takoma and Petworth Stations);
(3) the Circulator service downtown and in some neighborhoods; and
(4) private shuttle services between subway stations and campuses, mostly for the universities like Georgetown and Howard, the Washington Hospital Center, although many federal government agencies run shuttle services also.
To better serve the differing needs of communities, based on transit station proximity, density, and need, I have argued that the city needs to redefine how it provides transit, including the provision of intra-neighborhood service in certain neighborhoods.
I am hoping to track down data that can help us zero in on where such services might be useful (see by contrast a similar study that was done for Baltimore, "Larry Hogan’s “BaltimoreLink” Fails to Deliver for Transit Riders," Streetsblog).
I've written about this too in the context of my various "transportation wish lists," ("Transportation Wish List: 2015 edition, part one, the original list" and "Part two, new ideas"), which I suppose I'll update sometime after the beginning of the year.
While I no longer think that DC's transit planning priority should be making surface transit free, the proposal by Councilmember Grosso should spur us to think about what outcomes do we want from the city transit network and its surface component. and how and what kinds of investments should DC be making concerning improvements in surface transit service.
Free transit is expensive. As an intellectual exercise, I think it's worth considering free transit. But as an op-ed in Planetizen shows ("Why Is Fare-Free Transit The Exception Rather Than The Rule?") it works in places where overall there isn't that much demand for transit, and in small, constrained places, such as in resort towns. In larger cities, where transit is heavily used, the cost is considerable and difficult for local government budgets to absorb.
Whereas most communities do not have free transit service for primary and secondary routes, some cities like Tempe and Scottsdale in Arizona or the Town of Friendship Heights in Maryland have free intra-neighborhood services that move people from neighborhoods to activity centers and transit stations, but these services complement the broader transit network.
San Francisco considered it (but they have refused to release the final report), but found the increase in the amount of equipment required was beyond the budget. See "Free ride? Fat chance: Muni fares will stay," San Francisco Chronicle.
Note that the free weekly in the Vancouver, BC region, had a nice series on free transit. See "No Fares! Series," Tyee.
Instead we should be discussing how DC can invest in improving its bus transit system
In the metropolitan area, DC generally has the highest ridership buses (although one of those lines originates in Silver Spring, Maryland) with multiple lines having daily ridership between 13,000 and 22,000 riders. But just because we have many high ridership lines it doesn't mean the system is perfect.
Here are some ideas.
Double deck bus in Blackpool which prominently markets the bus service as cool--"I'm on the bus." Image from the Mattybuzz blog.
1. Double deck buses as a repositioning device. In the entry "Making bus service sexy and more equitable," I suggest using double deck buses, at least on certain routes, as a way to rebrand transit service as hip and forward. After all, a key element of how we think about London (part of its brand) are the distinctive double deck buses there.
Double deck buses are used extensively in the UK and Asia, but not so much in North America, although Ottawa, Ontario uses double deck buses extensively, and some other systems use the buses on a limited basis.
2. Creating a system of priority bus lanes. In the core of the city and on the major arterials, more people are moved more efficiently on buses than they are in motor vehicles. The use of traffic lanes should be reorganized to prioritize bus service and speed it up.
Bus lanes on Georgia Avenue NW.
Note that since the time this was written, DC has done a form of priority bus lane on Georgia Avenue around Howard University and is going to do it, some day, maybe, on 16th Street NW.
There are a couple ways to do this.
One, such as in Minneapolis with the Nicolett Transit Mall or the 16th Street pedestrian and transit mall in Denver, is to eliminate other motor vehicle traffic by the creation of a transit mall. But transit-exclusive malls can be pretty uncongenial and are not necessarily recommended.
The other is to create a set of prioritized bus lanes, even to the extent of providing curbs and other separators, with the traditional road network. Doing this in London, along with other improvements to pedestrian crossings, installation of safety cameras, and enforcement, found that waiting times for passengers reduced by about 33%; ridership increased by 20%, and reduction in trip time variability for both buses and motor vehicles.
Nicolett Transit Mall.
A priority lane network, especially east-west, where the bulk of the transit service is provided, should be created to the extent possible, in Downtown DC especially.
-- Draft Bus Priority Treatment Guidelines, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments
-- Shared-Use Bus Priority Lanes on City Streets: Case Studies in Design and Management, Mineta Transportation Institute, San Jose State University (includes case studies from many cities such as London, Paris, Los Angeles, and New York City)
3. Create intra-neighborhood transit (bus) services so that people can get to and from local services, commercial districts, schools, libraries, and to and from transit stations without having to drive. This includes delivery services of "freight" such as groceries.
In my transportation and land use paper, I call this "tertiary" service/tertiary transit network (based on the Arlington County framework in their transportation plan, which defines a primary and secondary transit network). And it's not like we don't have a form of this now, at least within the city. Most neighborhoods have access to some bus service, although many people may not use it because it is circuitous or because they feel that the bus service is beneath them.
There are many models for what I consider intra-district transit service: including various tourist oriented transit services in places like Savannah or Laguna Beach; the Tempe In Motion bus services in Tempe, Arizona, which serves residents; the Baltimore Circulator which complements metropolitan bus service to Downtown by MTA with intra-district bus service; the FRED service in Downtown San Diego (a similar service already runs in Santa Monica). TIM and Baltimore Circulator focus more on servicing residents, as do the neighborhood circulators in DC.
While I no longer recommend making all surface transit free, I do see the value in making tertiary network transit services free. That would take people to and from major transit stations, commercial districts, supermarkets, etc., and home, but wouldn't be free for outside of the neighborhood travel. See "Intra-neighborhood (tertiary) transit revisited because of new San Diego service," for a more complete discussion.
4. Add Night Owl bus service on subway routes during the periods when the system is closed. This issue has come up more recently in the face of late night service cutbacks on Metrorail. For decades, other transit systems have offered formal "Nite Owl" or late night bus service, operating when their rail transit system is closed.
This includes Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago, and London, among others ("Slight revisiting of the issue of overnight transit service: San Francisco."
An integrated map of all the late night bus services available in the San Francisco Bay Area has been created.
Late night service is also an issue with the region's airports, which don't have 24 hour metropolitan transit service ("More on transportation to DC area airports").
Note that DC does have almost 24-hour service on some of its major bus lines, but the suburbs don't.
That means we should be distinguishing between DC and the suburbs in terms of consideration of the provision of overnight transit service when the Metrorail system is closed. Still, even within DC, parts of the city have way better overnight transit service than others.
Inset from a 1946 Capital Transit map.
Note that the old Capital Transit system had a similar program in the 1940s and 1950s and presumably thereafter, mixing both streetcar and bus service.
5. Discounting transit for low income residents. Rather than providing free transit to a lot of people who have the means to pay for it we should prioritizing subsidizing transit service for people of limited means.
While WMATA provides discounted fares for seniors, but not on a means-tested basis, and both DC and Montgomery County provide free or reduced price transit passes for schoolchildren, the DC area does not have a systematic program reducing the cost of transit for the impoverished.
I am embarrassed to say that in my various "Transportation Wish Lists" I never specifically listed this as a priority. The subsidized fare program offered by SF MUNI is called the Lifeline Pass, and it's half the cost of a regular monthly pass (their regular fare monthly pass is still very very cheap compared to peer systems), and people must be income qualified to be able to get the pass.
King County Metro in Seattle has a similar program. Hubway, Boston's bike share program has a similar framework for their low income access program.
I am in favor of creating such a program, but it should be funded locally, not by the transit system, and separately and as an addition to monies for the transit system currently appropriated by the jurisdictions,
6. Line extensions/creations. One example would be the extension of the 30s line from its terminus at Friendship Heights on the DC/Maryland border northward to at least Friendship Heights. Another would be service on Connecticut Avenue and Rhode Island Avenue that is more comparable to the trunkline services on major arterials such as 14th or 16th Streets, H Street, or Georgia Avenue. Both of these services should extend some distance into Maryland.
7. Other improvements. An extensive list of other improvements, such as to bus stop waiting environments, is discussed in the entry "Making bus service sexy and more equitable."