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

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.

2020 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, Part 1 introduces what was envisioned for the Pike Premium Transit Network. Part 2 looked at progress on features to improve bus travel time.  Today, we will look at convenience & dependability features.

Hours of Operation

Our BRT system was supposed to be there, and reliable, at all hours to support a car-free lifestyle.  5:30-1 a.m. on weekdays, 6:30-1 a.m. on Saturdays, 6 a.m.-11:30 p.m. on Sundays according to the FTA Alternatives Analysis.  This is the kind of “all-day, every day” operations that people can count on for their primary means of transportation.

For some parts of the Pike, we are achieving or even exceeding this.  Where all of the Pentagon City Pike Buses overlap (approximately Carlin Springs Road to Pentagon City) there is service from 6 a.m. until 2:30 a.m. on Weekdays & Saturdays, as well as Sundays 6 a.m.-11:30 p.m. thanks primarily to the early & late night service of the 16E.  Service to Skyline, however, falls far short of this service achieving something more like 6 a.m.-10 p.m. on weekdays, 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m. on Weekends.

Grade: B

Peak Frequency

To be transit that “just works” for people, our BRT system needs to come frequently enough that you can just show up without having to consult a schedule and plan your trip around said schedule.  This is especially important during peak commuting times, with the BRT alternative to the streetcar planning a bus every two to three minutes.

Once again, the County is pretty close on the core of the Pike, but falling down a bit if you are coming from Skyline, if you are trying to get to a specific metro station, or if you are heading west from a particular MetroRail Station.  For those traveling east on the core of the Pike and who don’t care whether they’re going to Pentagon or Pentagon City, a bus comes approximately every 3 minutes and 20 seconds, but this falls if you you’re westbound or need to get to one of those two MetroRail stations and not the other.

Grade: B-

Off-Peak Frequency

To really enable car-free living, our BRT system needs to be convenient and reliable for non-commute trips as well.  The majority of trips that people make take place off-peak.  The BRT alternative envisioned a bus every six minutes off-peak and, to be honest, we aren’t every hitting that and we’re only close if you’re starting on the core of the Pike (not from Skyline), heading east and don’t care which Metro station you’re going to.  In those cases, while mid-day headways are just over six minutes, trying to catch a bus between 10-11 p.m. on a weekday you’re looking at a bus every 12 minutes, Saturdays are generally around every 7.5 minutes and Sundays every 8.5 minutes.  If you’re heading west from Pentagon or Pentagon City you’re only getting half of those buses so you can double those numbers (so every 24 minutes weekdays from 10-11 p.m.).  Same if you’re heading east but specifically trying to get to Pentagon or Pentagon City.

Grade: C

Station Amenities

The BRT system is supposed to have transit stations with a number of features to improve rider experience and service.  Near-level boarding to improve wheelchair operations and speed station stops, real-time arrival information to help customers with route decision-making, clearly delineated station lengths to aid drivers in bus placement so that two buses can service the station at a time, and the below-ground infrastructure needed to aid in implementation of off-board fare collection in the future.  The Pike’s Transit stations are coming, but delayed – one is under construction and three more are expected to be finished in the fall. The remaining four will be constructed as part of various phases of the Columbia Pike Multimodal Project.

Grade: C

Equipment & Infrastructure

If our Modern BRT is able to support the level of housing and retail anticipated on the Pike, eventually we will need higher capacity vehicles as having buses arrive more frequently than every three to four minutes while operating in mixed traffic with cars is extremely challenging.  The BRT alternative anticipated acquiring 10 articulated buses (though later plans contemplated more – possibly 16) to expand capacity on the Pike.

While we’re probably not there just yet from a ridership perspective, the work needs to be done now to support them in the future.  Articulated buses need a garage that can service them, a place where they can park and potentially, reinforcement of the curb lanes of the Pike to better support their weight.  If you live along the Pike, you have probably noticed that the existing buses already chew up the pavement pretty hard near each bus stop – even in the areas of the Pike that have already been reconstructed by the County.

The County has no plans to acquire higher capacity buses and no plans to acquire the necessary support infrastructure to provide for their storage and maintenance in the future.  The County is, however, installing concrete pads at each Transit Station to prevent that wear-and-tear on the asphalt.

Grade: F

Route / One Seat Ride

To fully replace the original vision for an Arlington Streetcar (not just a Columbia Pike Streetcar), the BRT system must provide a one-seat ride from Skyline to at least Potomac Yard, preferably all the way to the Braddock Road Metro Station.  The combined Arlington system was projected to attract significantly higher ridership than the Pike streetcar alone primarily because of this one-seat ride to more destinations.

Unfortunately, progress on a one-seat ride that continues beyond Pentagon City seems to be heading in precisely the wrong direction.  The 16H used to continue past Pentagon City Metro to connect directly to the Crystal City Metro station, but that service was axed a few years back as a budget cut.

Arlington’s plans for a 16M which would connect Skyline to Crystal City, originally promised for FY2018, got punted into a “Future Phase” when the initial “Columbia Pike Premium Transit Network” changes were made in 2018.  According to the County, implementation is currently expected in FY2022. The extension of the Crystal City Transitway to Pentagon City which would speed that 16M bus on its way to the Crystal City Metro won’t see construction on its final phase even start until 2022 under the current timeline.

Grade: C

In Conclusion

While the County continues to lag on infrastructure (Transit Stations behind schedule, Transitway extension behind schedule, not putting pieces in place for the eventual need for higher-capacity buses) they are, in many cases, delivering on the service levels that are needed.  Hours of Operation are there, peak service is largely there, though off-peak frequency is lacking making it difficult to rely on transit for meals, errands and entertainment. Transit Stations are coming.  The 16M’s one-seat ride to Crystal City should come just in time for Amazon’s serious staffing ramp up providing Pike residents a one-seat ride to jobs in Crystal City and Crystal City workers and residents a one-seat ride to the Pike for happy hours and meals.

Overall Convenience and Dependability Grade: C

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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