Metro's chief planner Nat Bottigheimer

Transcript: December 4, 2009

Metro's chief planner Nat Bottigheimer photo

Metro Assistant General Manager of Planning and Joint Development Nat Bottigheimer will respond directly to questions about bus service and bus planning during an online chat this Friday, December 4, when he hosts "What's the Plan?" - a live hour-long chat from noon to 1 p.m. As many questions as possible will be answered during the hour-long session.

Metro's chief planner Nat Bottigheimer:

Metrobus riders make about 450,000 trips a day, and local systems around the region carry about another 250,000. Together, that's almost as many as the 750,000 passengers each weekday carried on the Metrorail system.

Around the region, there is increasing recognition of the bus network's significance, and expectations for what the system delivers today - and can deliver in the future - is growing correspondingly.

I'm looking forward to your questions.

Nat

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Palisades Washington, DC: Dear Nat: I have noticed that your small Orion IIs have not been in service for some time. For example, my local route (M4) used to use the Orion IIs, but have now switched to the Orion Vs. Where are they now? Please explain.

Reply: Hi Palisades. The Orion IIs were retired because they were at the end of their useful life. They have been replaced with 30-foot mid-sized buses.

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Arlington, VA: What's Metro doing to convince local departments of transportation to dedicate more of the roadway to buses? Dedicated lanes, Queue Jumpers, even transit signal priority and bus bulb-outs would help improve transit's operating efficiency, lower Metro's costs and get passengers where they're going faster.What's Metro doing about this?

Reply: Hi Arlington. We are doing studies. We are working more closely with local highway departments and we are briefing local elected officials around the region on the issue. As far as the DOTs go, we are working with them to find locations where bus priority treatments are feasible. As far as legislation goes, we are trying to work with elected officials to raise this issue and to establish more formal policies for how highway departments prioritize transit in corridors where transit riders are a big percent of total travellers.

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Arlington, VA: There are examples in DC of bus stops at both ends of the same block, three stops each within a block of one another, etc. In a suburban environment when a bus doesn't necessarily stop at each one, that might make sense, but in a dense environment the buses have to stop at each, slowing down the line. Isn't it more efficient to eliminate some stops but provide better amenities at the ones that are retained?Is Metro working on a plan to rationalize the spacing and placement of bus stops?

Reply: Hello Arlington. You're right! This is an important issue for us, both for the quality of our service and the cost of operations. Bus stops that are spaced like this add time to our schedules, which adds cost to our budget. In this economic environment, we are looking at every way possible to reduce the cost of operations while providing the same level of service. We have identified routes that have the most stops per mile and we will be looking to make changes on those routes in time to make an impact on the FY2011 budget year, which begins in July 2010.

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Arlington, VA: At each stop, I often see the boarding passengers wait while everyone alighting gets off through the front door. Then, processing fares takes a long time per passenger.What can Metro do to improve the efficiency of bus boardings? Maybe something as simple as a sign reminding them to use the rear doors when able, and encouraging faster methods of payment like flash passes or Smartrip through discounts?

Reply: That's an excellent idea, Arlington -- reducing boarding and alighting times is another way we can improve the reliability and quality of the trip and potentially reduce operating costs. Not that this is always the cause, but I'll point out that this is sometimes a local traffic enforcement issue as well. If a car is parked in a bus stop, sometimes the rear exit isn't available. This is just one more plug for the "owners" of the roadway thinking like transit operators and enforcing traffic rules that Metro can't currently enforce.

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Washington, DC: This is entirely to do with Bus Service. I'm a regular user of NextBus (thank you!), particularly for short trips across neighborhoods. Something I notice quite regularly is the clear absence of some buses from the schedule. If a bus is scheduled to arrive in 2,12,66,80,98 minutes, there's definitely something missing there. Usually that bus missing from NextBus is on the printed schedule and does actually come through but not always on schedule. The hard part is deciding whether to take that chance. This has to be an easy-to-detect red flag for you - a little program that sorts out these 'ghost buses' is trivial to implement. There's a really big failure if buses are actually missing at the frequency that NextBus reveals. Please fix this, for the sake of all transit users. NextBus just has to work every time for it to be a dependable part of city life.

Reply: Good observation, Washington. To make our goal of 95% predictabililty, a number of links in a chain need to hold, starting with operators logging on to the system when they pull out to antennas, fareboxes, radios, and a GPS system all working together right -- if one of those links is broken, you'll see the kind of gap you're seeing. We continue to work through the kinks and bugs in the system and are seeing improvements in predictability. Ongoing training with our operators as well as fine-tuning equipment should help us achieve our goal of 95%. Customers will enjoy more reliability as the system matures.

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Washington, DC: Are the proposed changes to the D6 bus line ever going to take effect? Specifically, changing the route to get rid of the horrifically inefficient situation around North Capitol and Mass Ave. It's obvious to anyone who rides that route on a daily basis that westbound buses should be turning left on E Street from Columbus Circle instead of onto North Capitol from Mass Ave, and that eastbound buses should take E Street to Columbus Circle instead of turning left on North Capitol and right on Mass.These simple changes would improve the reliability of the D6 immensely.

Reply: Thanks for the comment, Washington. Some of the recommended changes from the recent D line service evaluation are being implemented December 27th, 2009. One of the lesser-known facts about transit service is that transit agencies are limited to making service changes generally every six months, when operators get to "pick" the routes they'll run for the following time period in accordance with labor agreements. As a result, Metro may adopt a new service plan with new service elements, but it may take some time for it to be reflected in the operators picks. But as to your specific point, rerouting the D6 would greatly streamline the operation. However, that rerouting is not being implemented now because we need to identify where bus stops in the vicinity of Union Station would be placed. E Street is under the jurisdiction of the Architect of the Capitol, and we don't have agreement yet that permit parking in that area would be relocated to allow a bus stop.

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Washington, DC: You have to release NextBus feeds in an open manner. I use the iPhone app and my computer to look up bus schedules, but there are countless more ways in which I can imagine that information being displayed in a meaningful manner. I'd be very interested in getting my little digital picture frame to run bus times. I think every downtown office lobby in town should run these feeds on their monitors. Please don't ring-fence that data to drive people to your website. WMATA needs to focus on getting people on buses, not driving web traffic to your site.

Reply: Good thought, Washington. We're aware of the kinds of open processes that other transit agencies have initiated, particularly the MBTA, which recently hosted a developer conference for the kind of purpose you're talking about. Trying to benefit from that different approach, we're exploring other NextBus applications and will release information and instructions as they become available.

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Washington, DC: Can the Bus Priority Corridors more aggressive measures be implemented sooner to help save money and stave off service cuts?

Reply: Similar to the last question -- making a "business case" can sometimes take a long time when there are obvious low-hanging fruit options. We're planning on having a working group get together for an afternoon shortly to just make a list of the biggest transit bottlenecks in the region that have workable transit priority solutions -- whether a lane, a queue jump, or what have you -- and then we'll put that list "out there" so advocates such as yourselves can help make the case for these improvements.

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Washington, DC: I live in DC and work in Tyson's. The 5A is a BRT line that stops at L'Enfant, Rosslyn, Tysons, Herndon Dulles. But it skips Tyson's during rush hour. If it didn't skip Tysons, DC and Arlington would have a BRT link to Tysons. I for one would take it every day. How do I advocate for this small change?

Reply: Hi, Washington! Metro used to operate a route 5B from L'Enfant Plaza and Rosslyn to Tysons Corner-West Park. The route was discontinued a few years ago due to low ridership. Diverting the 5A to stop at Tysons during rush hours would add a lot of time to the route with little expected ridership increase, so this change wasn't one we were looking at. One way to make the case for this reroute could be for us to get better information on ridership potential that we might not be aware of.

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Washington, DC: On certain routes in DC (80 and X2 in particular) bus service is often slower than walking during rush hour due to traffic and frequent stops. Why don't Metro and DDOT use more dedicated bus lanes to speed up service? This doesn't seem like it would be very expensive. It's hard to justify riding the bus when it is so slow during rush hours. Also, requiring everyone other than elderlyhandicapped to exit from the back doors would reduce the boarding times at each stop. This is done in other cities.

Reply: Hi. A little glitch in previous answer/question and we'll get the tech guys to fix that, but in the meantime . . . Hello Washington. You're right, I often walk from 5th Street to North Capitol along H Street for the same reason. One of the things we're trying to do is prepare "business cases" for the kinds of prioritizations you're describing: if you make a given investment in an intersection, how much money will you save in operating costs over the lifetime of the investment, and do the savings justify the capital investment? It's not a strictly "business case" because it's public policy, but it's a new way of looking at this to make the point you're making and to help persuade the "road owners" to make the kinds of changes that are needed to speed transit along.

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Washington, DC: Dear Nat,Some of the most popular bus lines experience a problem where 1 or 2 buses get delayed causing 2 or 3 buses to bunch together. Customers then wait 20 to 30 mintues for 3 buses rather than 10 minutes for 1 bus. Has metro considered schedule adjustments for buses? Alternatively, has metro considered running a bus through half the route or the busiest section of the route to fix this problem? For instance, the S2S4 lines on 16th St. are extremely heavy from K St. north to Spring Rd. However, since the route runs from Constitution up to Silver Spring, buses are more likely to bunch together. Running a bus in a loop from K St. to Spring Rd. might fix this problem for the busiest section. Thanks for your time.Sincerely,Jonathan Manning

Reply: I get to be specific this time...Hi, Jonathan Manning from Washington, DC! Many of the S route buses do make short trips between Missouri Avenue and I Street during peak periods. Buses are prohibited from using many residential streets, such as Arkansas Avenue, which limits our flexibility in designing routes. We're working with the District Department of Transportation to see what kinds of improvements for transit are possible south of the bridge over Piney Branch -- it's really important, because buses are 1% of the vehicles on 16th Street, but carry 30% of the total travelers on 16th Street.

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Washington, DC: Dear Nat: Has MetroBus ordered any new buses for the 2009-2010 Year? I know that there have been the articulated NABIs, and then the other New Flyers, but will there be any other new brands?

Reply: Hi, Washington. We're expecting to take delivery of about 200 New Flyer hybrid electric buses during this fiscal year.

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Washington, DC: Are Metrobuses getting wider? More and more city streets seem to have buses that are too wide for their lanes, which is intimidating to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Many cities have narrower buses. Do we really need such wide buses that don't fit?

Reply: Yes, Washington, the buses have been getting wider, and the mirrors are protruding more. This is definitely an industry trend, but you're also right that there are impacts on the urban environment, and the space available for bikers, pedestrians, bus shelters, street trees, and so on. One part of this is due to efforts to meet accessibility standards. However, an important question to ask is whether our manufacturers are thinking more about buses in more suburban settings than the kind of spaces we want to support in the DC region.

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College Park, MD: In regards to the upcoming changes for the Q line, is the new structure supposed to provide more frequent service along the main portion of the line along Veirs Mill Road while keeping the general service frequencies within the same ones as the Q2?

Reply: Hi, College Park -- you're essentially correct. The greatest volume of ridership on the Q2 is between Wheaton and Rockville along Veirs Mill Road, as you point out. By designing overlapping routes, we've developed a plan that provides better service along the middle stretch. That approach yields service levels for the ends of the line that are appropriate for them, because they overlap with Red Line rail service and other bus routes.

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Washington, DC: When Metro started, bus routes were changed to bring people to Metrorail to ensure ridership. Now many lines are extremely overcrowded. The 16th St express bus is a great success. Why not do it on all the main arteries, particularly some to alleviate the crowding on the blueorange lines from Virginia.

Reply: Great thought, Washington. In fact, we've been working for the past few months on a regional transit plan that would help to implement the vision of the Council of Governments Region Forward document, and we'll be evaluating the potential of bus service on the main arteries to relieve pressure on the rail lines. A forthcoming study from the Transportation Planning Board has found that with good service and priority treatments, 100,000 riders per day would shift from rail to bus in the year 2030!!

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Alexandria, VA: I utilize the 16 bus line daily (Columbia Pike line). The morning service (16A and 16D) between 6 and 7 a.m. has not been on-time in over 10 months (at least those busses I ride). I am located within the first 10 minutes of a 45 minute run. I have voiced my sentiments to Metro on-line many, many times re the tardiness, suggesting at times it might be a scheduling problem. With the winter season again approaching, customers have better things to do than arrive at a stop two minutes before the bus is scheduled to depart only to consistently have a bus arrive anywhere from 3 minutes to 8 minutes late, standing in the elements all-the-while. Why does it take so long for Metro to analyze the scheduling on its bus lines? Why concrete efforts does it make to address problems being reported? What employee accountability is there?

Reply: Hi, Alexandria -- thanks for your dedication in keeping this issue in front of us. We've recently assigned two bus service operations managers to closely monitor this line and to utilize NextBus and other tools we have to manage the schedule more effectively. Now that we have NextBus in place, can I encourage you to check that before leaving the house in the morning to avoid the winter weather? This is something I do before leaving my home in Silver Spring, and it helps me choose whether to walk to Colesville Road or Georgia Avenue for my bus...

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Metro's chief planner Nat Bottigheimer:

Sorry for the glitch in the middle, folks! There were lots of good questions, and more I wanted to get to, so I stayed a little longer.

See you next time, and please keep your fingers crossed for the US soccer team’s draw in the World Cup…going on as we type! Best wishes, and have a safe weekend.


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