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Silver Line opened transit troubles for bus riders

posted Aug 31, 2014, 5:55 PM by Info@ Transiters   [ updated Sep 1, 2014, 7:41 AM ]
Published in the Washington Post on August 31, 2014, and online on August 29, 2014.

With the opening of the Silver Line, it seems that we need transportation experts with a holistic view. Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent misinformed statement from Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution that Tysons was transforming from an “exclusively auto-oriented ‘edge city’.” The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and Fairfax buses have served Tysons extensively for years. This service, however, has been disrupted by a new focus on serving the interests of rail riders more than those of traditional bus riders.

The Post reported that Fairfax Connector weekly ridership fell 6.8 percent and 5.9 percent during the second and third weeks of Silver Line service, compared with the same weeks a year ago. Transit officials say that it’s too early to tell what caused the decline.

One of the first things to understand about local public transit is that the demographics of bus riders are different from that of rail riders. According to WMATA surveys, while more than 50 percent of rail riders are white, only 25 percent of bus riders are .

I am a bus and rail rider — I sold my last car four years ago — and though I haven’t done a thorough study of system changes since the Silver Line opened, I rode the length of the Silver Line on its opening day, attended quite a few public meetings about the changes and had numerous discussions with Fairfax County and other transportation staff about those changes. Here are a few comments and observations about them.

First is that the demographic differences seen between bus and rail riders is, in part, because of the fact that middle- and upper-income workers tend to use rail to commute to jobs downtown, while lower-income workers tend to use buses to get to suburban service jobs. One of Fairfax County’s stated objectives when the Silver Line opened was to deploy existing buses on new routes to take as many riders as possible to rail stations.

Second, until recently, 11 routes converged at the Tysons Corner Shopping Center bus stop so that a rider could arrive on one route and easily transfer to another. However, with the opening of the Tysons Corner Metro Station bus stop, some routes now terminate at the Shopping Center stop and some terminate at the Metro station. It is no easy task to get between these two stops — according to Google Maps, it is a 13-minute walk of 0.6 miles through the mall.

Third, a four-mile trip I frequently make between the West Falls Church Metro Station and the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Old Courthouse Road has more than tripled in cost. The trip used to entail a single bus that I could ride to my destination and a different single bus that I could ride on my return within a two-hour limit, for $1.75. With the new routes, this trip now costs $6.20 and involves traveling on the Orange Line to East Falls Church, transferring to the Silver Line to Tysons Corner Metro Station and then transferring to a bus.

A simple improvement the transit agencies could implement is to connect all the routes somewhere in Tysons Corner.

Fourth, Fairfax Connector has begun a new route weekdays during mornings and evenings between the West Falls Church Metro station and the McLean Metro station. An official with Fairfax Connector said that the policy is to have four to five stops per mile. The Transportation Research Board has found that 70 percent of bus riders walk a quarter-mile or less to their bus stop, and 100 percent of bus riders walk a half-mile or less . Despite that, the first stop after leaving the West Falls Church station in the morning is more than 1½ miles away, at Westmoreland Street and Kirby Road. Fairfax Connector is investigating the placement of these stops.

I celebrate the opening of the Silver Line and the tremendous opportunity to increase the use of local public transit, and I encourage transit agencies to focus their efforts to serving the transportation needs of the entire community. Continued service improvements should increase ridership and make all of us better off.

- Stuart M Whitaker.