Public transportation projects are most effective when they’re designed to improve connectivity, rather than to popularize a specific mode of transit.
Accordingly, transit corridors need not be restricted to a single mode. Rather, different modes of transit – most frequently, a combination of bus and rail service – can combine to more comprehensively connect destinations along a corridor, giving people freedom and flexibility.
Seoul, South Korea, where streamlined bus routes operate in dedicated lanes on arterial roads with subway tracks beneath them, boasts numerous successful dual-mode transit corridors. Stateside, Seattle, WA. – with its booming transit ridership – sees buses (which, as of March of this year, operate on surface streets with dedicated bus infrastructure) and light rail trains (which traverse the city’s transit tunnel) effectively parallel each other through its downtown.
U.S. cities that have treated one transit mode as a replacement for another instead of a complement, however, have experienced more sobering results. For example, Los Angeles Metro, which has reduced bus service while aggressively expanding its rail network, has seen ridership fall despite its infrastructure investments. And the Washington, DC region eliminated a 60-mile network of dedicated bus lanes on its arterial roads as its Metrorail system expanded; today, the District’s car-delayed bus system averages just 9.5 mph, among the country’s slowest.
But Metroway, a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) bus route that began service in August 2014, has demonstrated to DC-area officials that high-quality bus and rail service can work in tandem on the same corridor. Metroway monthly ridership has risen substantially, from about 30,000 in September 2014 to nearly 55,000 through the first 26 days of September 2019.
The route, which runs on upgraded infrastructure paralleling a section of Metrorail’s Blue and Yellow lines, serves portions of Arlington and Alexandria, Va. Buses run on headways of 8 to 12 minutes on weekdays and 10 minutes on weekends, making them useful for a variety of mobility needs.
Metroway initially operated between Metrorail’s Crystal City and Braddock Road stations, and service was extended north to Pentagon City in 2016. The 6.8-mile route includes sections of dedicated lanes in the center of U.S. Route 1, shielding bus riders from the harmful effects of car congestion on speed and reliability, though there are also some mixed-traffic segments.
Average U.S. city bus speeds fell to 12.7 mph in 2013, a decline of 6.6 percent from 2000. Accordingly, Alexandria Transportation Planning Division Chief Christopher Ziemann emphasized the importance of giving buses their own lanes.
“Dedicated lanes are important to avoid impacts from congestion and to maintain fast and reliable service and the attractiveness of Metroway,” Ziemann said.
Metroway connects activity hubs located between rail stations
The parallel Metrorail route’s stations are as far as three miles apart, facilitating fast rail service but leaving numerous residences and businesses along the corridor outside their half-mile walk shed. Metroway’s stations, however, are situated around a half-mile apart. The route’s stations feature level boarding, and local officials hope to add off-board fare collection in the future.
Metroway’s station spacing is close enough to put people within easy walking distance of important employment centers, including offices of the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defense, as well as vibrant residential areas. But the separation between stations, along with the route’s transit signal priority, helps maintain swift travel times.
Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) executive director Stewart Schwartz described complete streets upgrades along the Metroway corridor that have made it easier for people to get to the route’s stations.
“They kept Route 1 to two lanes each direction for vehicle traffic, and were able to keep the road relatively narrow and safe for pedestrians,” Schwartz said. “They also lowered the travel speed to 25 mph, so it’s very comfortable as a pedestrian walking across to the median station.”
According to Schwartz, who regularly uses Metroway, riders travel between a variety of origins and destinations situated along the linear route – a key trait of a well-functioning transit corridor. Schwartz explained that, though most riders do transfer to Metrorail, a significant number of people are taking trips that start and end within the bus corridor.
Many of the origins and destinations predate Metroway, making the route’s alignment consistent with the best practice of identifying activity hubs and drawing lines between them, though the route has also catalyzed additional development since it opened. For instance, a mixed-use, walkable development at Potomac Yard, with apartments, offices, and retail, was built with Metroway as an integral component.
During rail construction projects, Metroway has helped sustain Northern Virginia mobility
While Metroway and Metrorail work in tandem during periods of normal rail service, Metroway has also provided much-needed redundancy and helped alleviate the impact of disruptions.
As part of WMATA’s increased emphasis on maintenance over the last several years, the Blue and Yellow Lines have experienced several extended service disruptions during major construction projects, most recently a shutdown from May-September 2019 that closed six stations situated in Alexandria and points south. During the 2019 project, Metroway ridership rose more than 60 percent, suggesting that a substantial number of displaced Metrorail riders found the route met their mobility needs more effectively than the shuttle bus service WMATA implemented as a direct replacement for the suspended trains. (WMATA officials decided not to route the rail-replacement shuttle buses via Metroway’s dedicated lanes, citing a variety of technological and infrastructural limitations.)
Arlington Transit Bureau Chief Lynn Rivers explained how the rail maintenance projects, though disruptive for riders, have helped expose people to the convenient connectivity bus routes like Metroway provide on dual-mode corridors.
“When SafeTrack happened…when people had to look for alternatives, a lot of eyes were opened as far as Metroway is concerned,” Rivers said.
With more development coming to Metroway’s corridor, further improvements are on the way
Amazon’s planned HQ2 facility in Crystal City will add another major employment center to Metroway’s corridor. A number of planned improvements to service – including an extension of the route’s dedicated bus lanes, new bus stations, and construction of a new Metrorail station at Potomac Yard that will add another bus-rail transfer point – will improve connectivity to that complex.
Arlington and Alexandria officials did not specify whether Metroway influenced Amazon’s decision to locate its facility there, but Schwartz believes the bus route and the development projects surrounding it played a substantial role in the decision.
“I have no doubt that the reason this location in Arlington won out against more suburban locations…even those near transit, was the degree to which Crystal City and Pentagon City have made progress on transit-oriented development,” Schwartz said.
Additional dual-mode corridors are coming to the DC region
While the DC area has been relatively slow to re-embrace bus prioritization, evidence suggests that Metroway started something of a renaissance.
For example, in the District proper, officials recently made pilot bus lanes on H and I Streets through downtown – paralleling Metrorail’s Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines – permanent. Also, Montgomery County, Md.’s Ride On ExtRa, which parallels Metrorail’s Red Line from Bethesda to Shady Grove and continues up to Gaithersburg, saw a 12 percent ridership increase from October 2017 to May 2019.
Planned future investments in bus infrastructure will expand the reach of frequent, reliable transit service, and some of those new routes will feed into the existing dual-mode corridors.
For example, in Alexandria, two planned transitways will create a triangle of dedicated bus infrastructure – anchored by Metroway – that will cover much of the city. In DC, bus lanes on 16th street planned for implementation next year will improve travel time and reliability on WMATA’s heavily-used S-series routes, which also use the H and I street lanes. And Montgomery County has begun construction of Ride On’s Flash network, beginning on U.S. 29; the planned MD-355 and Viers Mill Road routes will feed into the Bethesda-Shady Grove corridor currently served by Ride On ExtRa.
Dual-mode corridors could help build support for a better regional bus network
Metroway has benefitted from the support of residents and businesses along its already transit-oriented corridor. The lack of burdensome opposition made the corridor an ideal place to introduce the DC region to higher-quality bus service.
“We had private developers that literally deeded over land to us so we could start this service,” Rivers said.
Unfortunately, such support is not universal, even within the DC region. For example, Maryland officials recently withdrew funding from the Corridor Cities Transitway, another proposed Montgomery County bus route that would have featured substantial dedicated infrastructure and fed into the dual-mode Bethesda-Shady Grove corridor.
But as the region develops and extends more dual-mode corridors like Metroway, the economic and quality-of-life benefits will become more apparent, generating momentum that will weaken opposition and build better connectivity for all.