A quick, cheap and relatively equitable mover of the masses, bus rapid transit is increasingly hailed as the unlikely future of city transportation. But Virginia’s new BRT Metroway borrows from the region’s past. First constructed around 1962, bus-only lanes were once an integral part of the capitol’s infrastructure — a first attempt to prioritize the humble bus. Their eventual disappearance shows just how difficult that proved to be.
Metroway is take two. The blue buses, which run from Pentagon City to Alexandria on the west side of the Potomac, travel a dedicated bus lane for part of their route. Eventually, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) plans bus-only lanes for nearly the whole trip, which, along with off-board fare collection, will speed things up. True BRT systems are a train-like cousin of the sluggish city bus and, like protected bike lanes, their success depends on the often-controversial re-allocation of street space. They need dedicated right-of-ways, preferably near the center of the street instead of the curb where pedestrians and right-turning vehicles slow everyone down.
D.C.-area planners identified the need for dedicated rights-of-way in 2004, according to the agency’s Head of Bus Planning James Hamre. But they were actually borrowing from decades-old blueprints. As Metro’s blog pointed out in July, the capitol and its suburbs once had 60 miles of bus lanes, with the first installed on 16th Street NW in 1962. The map below shows functioning bus lanes in red, as of 1976, and lanes that were planned but never actually built in blue and black. The Shirley Busway on I-95 (also below) was a particularly ambitious example, including two reversible, peak-direction bus lanes from Springfield to Franconia Road.
Shirley Busway, when it was a busway (Source: PlanItMetro)
Congestion and newly implemented air quality laws motivated planners, according to a COG document from 1971-72, which asks, in bold, all caps “CAN CLOGGED STREETS BE UNCLOGGED?” They were apparently giddy with the buses’ potential. A new fleet was ordered that included “such passenger conveniences as air conditioning and carpeting, along with air-pollution control devices.” Downtown, bus-priority lanes were painted, traffic signals were retimed, and cars were even banned from turning right at several intersections.
“The experiment is now being considered by other metropolitan areas in view of its success here,” the document states.
Bus lane on 14th Street in the 1970s (Source: PlanItMetro)
So what happened?
According to Metro’s blog, several things. For one, motorists’ political pull was just too strong.
“In some cases policy changes favoring auto travel were made which ended the bus-only lane restrictions,” it states.
One example: After several years, HOV vehicles were allowed on the Shirley Busway, which had previously been bus-only. On the Greater Greater Washington blog, Dan Malouff describes the route as being “systematically downgraded by being opened to cars, reducing the quality of bus service.”
As HOV vehicles were admitted, Hamre says that many of the routes suffered from delays, snags and compromises common to bus-priority lanes. They crawled along the curb, stuck behind HOV vehicles turning right onto streets and into parking garages.
And then came Metrorail.
Washington, D.C. was the region’s dominant employment center and many workers lived in the suburbs, Hamre says. As more commuters entered the city in the morning and exited at night, street space became tight — and an underground train seemed the obvious solution.
“Metrorail eliminated the need to provide all that space,” Hamre says. “Planners had this utopian idea that everyone would get on a station in Maryland and not bother anyone living there.”
Train ridership cut away at bus ridership. According to the blog post, the “gradual construction and operation of the Metrorail System allowed the new heavy rail lines to handle the higher passenger loads they were built to accommodate, which in turn reduced the demand for bus service in many corridors where bus lanes previously were installed.”
Without numbers or fares to justify special lanes, signals and expressways, those carpeted, air-conditioned symbols of futuristic transportation became, once again, slow city buses.
“Now our railroad is very full and suffering age issues,” Hamre says. “It just can’t handle the continued growth.”
And migration has reversed. Hamre says that Washington, D.C. now has about 30 percent of the region’s total jobs while the city center is pulling residents away from the suburbs to live.
Plus there are gaps. The new Metroway, for example, fits into an area between train stations with few other transportation options aside from cars.
“They couldn’t expand the highway network,” Hamre says, so they needed a way to “reliably, quickly and efficiently distribute people within a growing community and tie between these planned developments.”
The Metro blog echoes planners’ excitement from the early ’70s. “We Did This Before and Know It Can Work Today,” a headline states optimistically, concluding that with “an increasingly urbanizing region, constrained street space, full buses slowed on congested streets, and an increasingly crowded Metrorail system it’s time to act now.”
The humble bus is making a comeback. Maybe this time bus-only lanes will be here to stay.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.