Circulator Buses Hit the Streets July 10
Getting from point A to point B in Washington, D.C., will become a bit easier with the July 10 launch of the Circulator, a new transit bus service that will cost riders just $1.
Beginning next Sunday, the Circulator will begin operating its fleet of Belgian-made buses that will make inner-city travel “fast, convenient and low cost,” said Dan Tangherlini, director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation. The buses, which can accommodate more than 70 people, each have three doors for entry and exit and are painted red, silver and yellow. Of the 29 Circulator buses, 24 will be in service and five will be kept in reserve.
There are 51 stops between the two routes that the Circulator will run, and the majority of those overlap with Metrobus stops. Circulator flags on black poles have been put up to let riders know where the Circulator buses will stop.
“The idea is that this is a new transit service that will last as long as there is demand for it,” said Joe Sternlieb, deputy director of the D.C. Downtown Business Improvement District.
But even as Sternlieb said the ridership goals are “relatively modest” for the first couple of years, he said he hopes the Circulator will have the same success as the Georgetown Metro Connection, which saw ridership numbers reach four times what originally was expected.
“We’ve spread [the stops] further apart” than Metrobus stops, said Sternlieb.
The two Circulator routes are Convention Center/Southwest Waterfront and Union Station/Georgetown. The Convention Center/SW Waterfront buses will run along Seventh and Ninth streets between the Washington Convention Center and the Southwest waterfront, with stops including the MCI Center, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Constitution and Independence avenues along the National Mall. The Union Station/Georgetown route will run from Massachusetts Avenue to K Street down to the Georgetown waterfront, circle back around M Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest and continue back up K Street.
Just last week city workers restriped Seventh Street to add a bus lane. Sternlieb said in time a bus lane also will be added on Ninth Street and, if the lanes help speed up bus trips and reduce congestion, K Street might see a bus lane as well.
The two Circulator routes include “locations that aren’t right on a Metro route,” said Lisa MacSpadden, spokeswoman for the National Capital Planning Commission, just one of many agencies that have a hand in the Circulator’s launch. “We really kind of wanted to connect visitors, residents and workers with attractions in downtown … with a very inexpensive, easy-to-use system that would actually encourage them to do these things.”
Part of a Legacy
MacSpadden said the idea for the Circulator was born back in 1997, when NCPC released its Legacy Plan for the District.
“We proposed a number of things to do with transportation,” MacSpadden said, referring to the Legacy Plan. “We felt Washington was very well served by trains, buses, highways and airports, but really felt that there wasn’t a great system for once people were in the city, whether they be residents, workers or tourists, to easily and inexpensively get around downtown.”
Tangherlini said the District’s transit system thus far has “been focusing on an in-and-out mobility, and we’ve forgotten around.”
“Georgetown and Capitol Hill have become almost two different cities instead of part of the same one,” he added.
Probably the easiest thing about taking the Circulator will be the schedule — there isn’t one. Buses will run on both routes from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. A handful of buses will start from staggered stops along the routes, meaning riders should not have to wait more than five or 10 minutes at any given time.
“With Circulator, we feel it’s a great benefit that you don’t have to worry about schedules,” MacSpadden said. “It’s good for visitors that aren’t familiar with [Metrobus] schedules. … It will really satisfy what we think is an unmet need.”
Also, each Circulator bus driver will have a Nextel BlackBerry, equipped with a Global Positioning System that will allow those back at Circulator headquarters to track the buses and “tell them to hold up or speed up so they don’t bunch,” Sternlieb said.
Making the Circulator a convenient transit option is important, Sternlieb said, and one of the ways to help keep things moving is that riders have the option of purchasing bus tickets before boarding. Tangherlini said the use of machines to buy bus tickets beforehand is something that, if it works, could then be expanded into the broader bus system.
“We’re experimenting with off-vehicle fare payment,” Sternlieb said. “You don’t have to go through the front door and show a ticket — loading will be much faster than a standard Metrobus.”
However, the ticketing system will rely on the honor system. Those needing a ticket can board through the front door, paying with cash or a Metro SmarTrip card. All others who already have a ticket or a Circulator pass may use any of the three doors. (Passes, which will be daily, weekly, monthly and annually, will not be available until the fall as officials are currently in the process of reviewing proposals from vendors.)
“We’ve made it really affordable for people to pay their fares, but the mantra is quick, easy and convenient — it isn’t thinking about ‘How do we collect every dime from every person?’” Sternlieb said. “If you have to wait in a line 15 to 20 people deep and you have to sit there while people load, it’s not part of a good experience of taking transit.”
In an effort to enforce the honor system, riders will be forewarned that it is in their best interest to pay the $1 rather than the steep fine they could be slapped with if they are caught without a ticket.
“We’ll have checkers out there and there will be a fine or penalty” for boarding without a ticket, Sternlieb said. “The maximum is $300, but I think we’re looking at $50 or $60.”
While there are just two Circulator bus routes to start, Sternlieb said there “is a hope that there will someday be expansion to other parts of the city.” But as of right now there are no plans made or funding committed.
“We need to find ways to make our surface transportation work better,” Tangherlini said. “Now that [the Metro is] running out of capacity we need to reinvest in the bus service. We just have to keep on the project and keep finding ways to keep people moving.”
Getting on the Road
To get the first Circulator routes up and running, Sternlieb said about $14 million was spent for capital and start-up costs. The federal government paid $1.5 million for planning and operations, and the District government gave the same amount toward operations.
The buses are owned by DDOT, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will manage the Circulator. First Transit, a private sector transit operator, will operate the service.
At an operating cost of about $6 million a year, Sternlieb said the driving force behind the operating hours is cost. The current hours of operation were chosen because that’s what is affordable right now. Sternlieb said to run the buses an additional two hours into the evening would tack on at least an additional $1 million a year.
“There is huge pent-up demand for public transit in downtown,” Sternlieb said. The Circulator is “going to move a lot of people and it’ll be an experiment in providing customer-based service that will prove you can do an honor system and that people will respond to it.”