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Modern Mobility: How Close Are We to Premium Transit on the Pike? (Part Two)

Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Back in January, I kicked off this series looking at the Pike Premium Transit Network.

This is the year that the Columbia Pike Streetcar was supposed to start running; since many folks claimed that a “Modern BRT” system could be implemented more quickly than a Streetcar, I’m examining how far we’ve come in that implementation compared to what was envisioned.

If you need a refresher, take a look back at Part 1. Here in Part 2, I’ll be looking at the key features related to improving travel time. Future installments will examine convenience, dependability and capacity features.

Fare Collection

One of the slowest and most frustrating parts of riding the bus is waiting in line to get on the bus while everyone pays their fare. Our BRT system is supposed to avoid this using “off-vehicle fare collection”, which moves that fare-payment activity to occur at the bus stop instead of on the bus. There are many ways to do this, the simplest of which is a “proof of payment” system where people pay at the bus stop, and are given a receipt. Fare enforcement officers ride the bus throughout the day and can ask to see a passenger’s receipt. If they don’t have one, they are ticketed for fare evasion.

Arlington appears to be working to make off-board fare collection happen on Columbia Pike, but has been stymied by a lack of progress at WMATA. With the majority of bus service on the Pike run by WMATA and with the importance to riders of a functioning regional fare system that allows a seamless transfer between providers, WMATA is at the center of any progress on off-board fare. Unfortunately, WMATA declared it’s “Next Generation Fare Pilot” a failure in 2016 and has made little progress in moving off the SmarTrip platform since.

Being saddled with 1990s-era fare technology make implementing off-board fare collection technically possible, but extremely challenging requiring numerous workarounds and potentially investing millions of dollars in fare infrastructure that could then become obsolete within a couple years when WMATA finally moves forward on a new regional fare system.

Arlington could try to go its own way on this, or potentially in partnership with other Northern Virginia jurisdictions in the same way that VRE has created its own mobile ticketing app. Unfortunately, without a link to SmarTrip, users wouldn’t get a transfer discount when connecting from a Columbia Pike bus to MetroRail.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the business community have been trying to push WMATA forward on this, with limited success so far — the Federal City Council did a feasibility study for off-board payment on Metrobus in Arlington & DC in 2017 and Arlington has been participating in quarterly meetings between regional partners who are planning off-board or multi-door fare collection systems.

Arlington has made little-to-no discernible progress on this front, but staff are clearly trying; we may need our political leaders to wade deeper into this issue. All Columbia Pike buses currently accept fares exclusively on the vehicle but Arlington is trying to move the ball forward.

Grade: B for effort, F for actual progress.


Once you’ve got off-vehicle fare collection and don’t need everyone to make their payment in front of the driver, you can get a great speed-up by now using more than one door to get people onto the vehicle. The more doors, the faster you can board.  Currently about 25% of a Columbia Pike bus’ travel time is spent letting passengers on and off. If you can halve that, you’ve sped up the bus by more than 12% (about 3 minutes off a 30-minute trip).

Off-board fare collection makes multi-door boarding easy, but there are some other options Arlington could consider. They could install an additional SmarTrip reader at the rear door; while this could increase fare evasion, it could also decrease costs – reduce travel time sufficiently on a bus route and you can keep the same frequency with fewer buses and drivers. They could also consider making transit free for all riders which is a notion that deserves its own post at some point given the large number of pros and cons.

With the obvious difficulty in urging WMATA into a new fare system, adding a second SmarTrip reader is an obvious area of exploration that doesn’t seem to be getting much traction at the County. No progress has been made here and there is little obvious exploration of alternative.


Stop Spacing & Amenities

Another way to spend less time at bus stops, is to stop less frequently. Our BRT system is supposed to consolidate down the number of stops so that they are 1/4 to 1/3 mile apart. Those stops are all slated to become Transit Stations with real-time arrival & departure information, higher curbs for near-level-boarding and the ability to eventually support off-vehicle fare collection. Unfortunately, construction of the Transit Stations is wildly behind the original schedule, with only four of the twenty-three planned stations expected to be finished this year. While the 16A and 16C buses to the Pentagon are stopping less frequently, the buses to Pentagon City are still stopping far too frequently.


Transit Signal Priority

Finally, a good way to speed up buses is to give them priority at Traffic Signals. Traditional Signal Priority just holds a green light a little bit longer to allow a bus to get through, while more advanced versions are starting to come out that can do additional trickery to speed buses while keeping impact on cross-streets in check. Transit Signal Priority is still included as a bullet point for a “future phase” but Transit Signal Priority is not currently in use anywhere on the Pike and no discernible progress has been made.


Travel Time

All of the above features were supposed to give us a BRT system that whisks folks from Skyline to Pentagon City in 23 minutes during the AM peak period, an improvement over the average 28 minute travel time expected under the “no build” scenario. Instead, the 16H (the bus which mirrors the planned BRT route) takes between 27 and 31 minutes, assuming it can maintain its schedule — approximately the same or worse than imagined if Arlington did nothing but what was already planned along the Columbia Pike Corridor.


In Conclusion

Unfortunately, essentially none of the travel-time improving features envisioned for a BRT system on the Pike have been accomplished at this time. The lack of progress on off-board fare collection is understandable given WMATA’s struggles over the last few years, but they cannot explain the County’s inability to execute on stop consolidation, transit signal priority or other ways to accomplish multi-door boarding. As a result, the 30% of Pike residents who rely on the bus are losing at least 10 minutes of their day, every day, sitting on the bus unnecessarily. That’s over 80 hours a year they could be spending with their families instead of waiting on the bus at a red light, or for people to board in a long single-file line. The County must do better.

Overall Travel Time Improvement Implementation Grade: F

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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