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What’s Next: Our Bus System Must Change

What’s Next with Nicole is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

As technology changes, we must reframe our mindset on public transportation, specifically our bus systems.

Metro and ART Bus ridership have continued to decrease annually while the use of rideshare and mobility services such as Uber, Lyft, and Bird scooters have skyrocketed.

This year, D.C. area rideshare revenue is estimated to be double that of Metro. Projected operational revenue for Metro in 2019 is projected to be about $830 million while the American Community Survey estimates that rideshare revenues in the Washington D.C. area will be about $1.5 billion.

I would estimate that this discrepancy is linked to a simple cost-benefit analysis for commuters. Think about it. You have two options for getting to work in the morning:

Option 1: You leave your home, walk/drive/bus/bike to the nearest metro station, hop on a train, switch lines if you have to, and then walk/drive/bus/bike the last mile to work. The minimum fare is $2.25 for the train during peak hours (not including an extra $2 if you take the bus to the station)

Option 2: You order an Uber Pool or Lyft Line which arrives right outside your home, the driver picks up one or two passengers along the route, and then drops you off right in front of your office door. Many times the cost of these ridesharing services are competitively priced as compared to Metro at around $7 and will continue to go down, especially with the advent of autonomous driving technology.

Instead of competing with these ridesharing services, Metro needs to partner with them. Contracting with ridesharing companies is already a reality in cities across the country, even just across the river in D.C. In the NE and NW parts of the city, D.C. is testing DC MicroTransit to offer free rideshare through a public-private-partnership with the rideshare app, Via. In other areas of the country, cities have piloted rideshare programs for seniors aging in place, rail users needing a lift for “the last mile,” and more.

At a minimum, Arlington should require companies like Uber and Lyft to share their metadata on rider’s routes to identify hot spots. This would allow us to understand more clearly where people are going to and from and where there is demand for transit in order to optimize our service routes.

When looking into the not so distant future, we know that autonomous vehicles are coming and must be considered for long term planning. Almost all ART bus operational costs are inflated by labor costs (80%) which will only exacerbate the fight with autonomous ridesharing services in the future. Olli, a company that operates autonomous 3D-printed buses, is already in service on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington. Olli is merely the first generation of autonomous bussing technology and at a cost of $100,000, is less than half the cost of Arlington County’s minibuses.

As we contemplate improvements to bus service along Columbia Pike and Route 1, the most heavily used bus service areas in Virginia, we must make sure costly long term infrastructure improvements consider very near term technology changes. Arlington has been at the forefront of transportation innovation and as our public transit system continues to decrease in both ridership and revenue, it is time to shift the paradigm on how to invest in our future.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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