Public bus systems are a key component of transit equity. For people who can’t afford a car or can’t drive, they offer affordable transportation to jobs, schools, grocery stores, doctor’s appointments, and a full range of other services. For society, buses help reduce congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Although champions of leveling the playing field in transportation, bus systems must be constantly evaluated to ensure that they provide the extensive and frequent service that riders need.
Because regional buses are largely locally funded, fair service across counties is elusive. Therefore, these assessments are often built around access to cash, the priorities of system managers, and residents’ advocacy efforts.
In addition to the Metrobus, Maryland residents in suburban DC rely on RideOn in Montgomery County and TheBus in Prince George County. TheBus costs passengers $ 1 per trip, while RideOn has a fare of $ 2 (although this is currently on hold due to the pandemic).
With 79 different routes, Montgomery County has one of the best bus systems in the country and has received awards from the National Association of Counties (NACA) for the past four years. “Building a high-frequency, long-life transit system has been a county priority for over 45 years,” said Emily DeTitta, strategic communications manager for RideOn.
In my experience, the Montgomery County transit system provides an enhanced lifestyle for those who live near major transit hubs such as Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville subway stations.
A bus like the RideOn 48, which I take semi-regularly, starts service between Rockville and Wheaton subway stations at 5:05 am and ends at 11:45 pm Before the pandemic, it arrived every 20 to 25 hours. minutes. Current wait times are approximately 10 minutes longer. Bus 55, with much higher ridership along Route 355, starts at 4:15 a.m. and ends around midnight. Buses are spaced 12 minutes apart at peak times during the pandemic.
In contrast, TheBus’ 28 routes in Prince George operate primarily between 6 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., typically arriving every half hour. Paulette Jones, public information officer for the Prince George County Public Works and Transportation Department, said TheBus schedules “are developed with commuters, preferred and unselected passengers in mind.”
Prince George’s limited evening and weekend service, particularly absent on Sundays, hurts service workers who often work irregular hours for low wages. At a public meeting in 2018, weekend service was “the first priority of more than three-quarters of the population.”
While TheBus has added service on Saturdays since then, that’s not enough for a county that is home to two of the region’s top ten class-of-service leaflets, according to a 2013 study. This contributes to a phenomenon in which ” the class of service is pushed to the most remote corners of the metro ”. Given that housing is too expensive in areas where service workers actually work, it would appear that other jurisdictions are responsible for providing better transit.
A look at the numbers on the region’s bus systems
Montgomery County, which has a larger tax base, has a $ 132 million operating budget for RideOn for fiscal 2021, while Prince George’s operating budget for TheBus is $ 41,152,400. .
Yet Montgomery County invests a greater proportion of its money in local bus service. The comparison of tax revenues and fees, suggested by DW Rowlands, is one way to assess this. In fiscal year 2019-2020, taxes and fees were $ 4.02 billion for Montgomery County, while in fiscal year 2019 they were $ 2.03 billion. dollars for Prince George. With twice the money, Montgomery County is providing more than three times the funding.
Passenger data for the counties also differs. In 2019, Ride On made 20.6 million unrelated annual trips – eight times TheBus’ 2.57 million trips, according to data from the National Transit Database. In addition, RideOn had 1.06 million hours of annual vehicle revenue, more than four times Prince George’s 0.23 million. And RideOn’s 19.4 riders per hour versus Prince George’s 11.2 means the average RideOn bus carried around 73% more riders.
These results can be attributed to RideOn’s higher frequency, longer hours and denser network.
Connections between counties help fill the gaps
Managed by the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, Metro buses help even out transit between counties. WMATA has 13 lines operating between Prince George County and the border with or to Montgomery County, according to WMATA spokesperson Sherri Ly. Routes C2 and C4 “generally have the greatest number of riders between counties providing service between Greenbelt and Twinbrook”.
Additionally, RideOn and TheBus have buses that cross county borders. “Ride On operates 5 routes with a few bus stops in Prince George County, typically along New Hampshire Ave. and University Boulevard,” DeTitta said. The Takoma Langley Crossroads transit center is “a key hub for inter-county travel,” she added.
TheBus Route 18 also provides access to Montgomery County at the transit hub, with connections to six WMATA routes and 5 Ride On routes. Today’s buses transport people adequately, but to really increase ridership a fast and extensive network is needed.
Passenger experiences point to the social costs of inadequate transit
Monica Mische is a professor at Montgomery College and lives in Prince George County. For nearly 21 years, she and her family have enjoyed taking the Bus, relying on it and the metro to run errands and go to appointments. “My mother, who is a senior, could take the bus for free… my kids could take it for free, students could take it for free,” Mische said, describing TheBus as “efficient, economical, [and] he almost always arrived on time.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has suspended Route 11, forcing it to take Uber and Lyft often. This type of change can be crippling for low- and middle-income families.
Mische wants more express buses to serve major hubs such as Silver Spring and Bethesda. The planned bus rapid transit (BRT) network in Montgomery County could help. For example, an express bus to Wheaton, as well as the planned BRT Veirs Mill line, would provide a quick two-bus trip.
She also suggests that more frequent public transport could have huge social benefits. “What could be a 15-minute drive can take an hour and 20 minutes” for someone who relies on buses. “And if they’re working parents or caring for a loved one, it takes away family time.”
Chip Clemmer, a musician and transit activist who lives in College Park, agrees. “I would like the buses to run fairly frequently without needing to consult a timetable. The bus line closest to his home is via the No.17 bus which runs every 30 to 45 minutes between 5:30 am and 6 pm, he said. “It would be nice if it came every 15 minutes and picked up passengers at the College Park tube station getting off the last train to Greenbelt.”
Getting to bus stops can also be a danger. On Route 1 at Erie Street, for example, the bus stops are opposite each other. “To cross Highway 1 with 4 lanes of traffic and a central turning lane, you have to walk another long block north… to get to a crosswalk and a light,” Clemmer said. “If you go the other way, you have to go almost half a mile.” His solution: a pedestrian crossing with a flashing pedestrian button.
As more people move to the county, bus service will become more critical. “If you look at the infill that takes place along Highway 1 in PG, it fills up,” Clemmer said. “Public transportation needs to be at least as convenient as driving, if not better. “
The future of local bus service: technology upgrades, electric buses, etc.
Prince George County is in fact trying to improve its service. Technology upgrades like free Wi-Fi, free onboard charging and message boards began in 2019, Jones said. The county also plans to replace aging diesel vehicles with battery-powered electric buses and install charging infrastructure.
County officials are also studying the Bus Rapid Transit and could implement a line jointly with Montgomery County – the New Hampshire BRT line, DeTitta said, although the project is in its very first phase.
While Montgomery County’s flexible on-demand bus pilot program has been hampered by the COVID-19 crisis, other plans are still in place. To launch its climate change initiative, it has just received its first four electric buses, and 20 more are in the process of being supplied. “We are committed to a zero emission bus fleet by 2035 and have already started the transition,” DeTitta said.
As previously mentioned, Montgomery County has also evolved into an extensive Rapid Bus Network (BRT), Flash, with the first line currently operating on Route 29. The rest of the system is currently unfunded.
His biggest project to date: the overhaul of the entire bus system; “We are starting a Reimagining RideOn study this fall that will assess the entire route structure in Montgomery County, including MetroBus and connections to adjacent jurisdictions,” DeTitta said.
As local jurisdictions rethink their bus services and connections, it is crucial that they cooperate. A regional initiative, the Bus Transformation Project, provides a model for coordination between DC and surrounding counties. “Metro is working with our regional partners to create a more equitable bus network that connects bus customers across the region,” Ly said.
Such steps are necessary for buses to realize their full potential as agents of 21st century equity and green living.