Washington Intercounty Connector? Wilson Bridge renovation? Purple Line construction? Light rail in Northern Virginia? Hardly a day passes in the Washington region without a major news story focused on local transportation issues and potential responses. That’s why last month there was a regional transportation conference at the University of Maryland for planners, policy-makers and private transportation companies from Virginia, Maryland and the District to seek solutions that can be implemented fairly quickly.
While the conference addressed many complex issues, we all recognized the need for integrated solutions that incorporate the world’s best practices in traffic management, bus and rail service. The problem is that many of the solutions we seek, such as bridge and highway construction and new rail lines, are both politically contentious and time-consuming. A good-sized rail project like the Purple Line could take 10 to 15 years to complete. Meanwhile, the commuting public will face greater delays, the region’s air quality will deteriorate, and the costs of transportation will rise exponentially. Is there anything we can do now, quickly and relatively inexpensively, to apply solutions to today’s problems?
The answer is yes. Rapid- deployment solutions to today’s congestion will draw on two resources our region has in abundance. First, we will require new ways to use information technology and marketing. Second, we will have to recognize that the once-lowly bus holds the greatest promise for rapid improvements.
Most Washingtonians know Europe’s approach to mass transit is different from that of the United States. Europe’s older, more crowded cities, with narrower streets that pre-date motorized transport, require public agencies to look at traffic management and mass transit much more creatively and aggressively than in the United States.
To attract and maintain ridership, Europeans have upgraded the quality of all transit services, including bus as well as rail, because high-level service is crucial to continued passenger satisfaction. Customer-driven changes include online access in stations, real-time information throughout every stage of the transit process and new amenities such as in-station shopping and day care. Using online and digital technology, for example, offer demand-responsive small buses in some cities that use GPS, or global positioning system, to provide nearly door-to-door service to off-peak riders by directing a bus to their nearest stop. Also, redesigned bus interiors offer flexible seating to accommodate greater numbers of riders during rush hour and smaller numbers in greater comfort during off-peak hours. The result ridership is climbing and fewer people make solo trips downtown by car.
At the transportation conference, traffic planners agreed information management can improve conditions on and around the Beltway. There needs to be more coordination of emergency services between jurisdictions, allowing accidents and other problems to be removed from the roads with greater speed. Solutions include standardizing emergency radio frequencies, creating a “511” number for drivers to report delays, and developing online information and roadside signage that will alert commuters to conditions ahead.
Of course, we need to constantly upgrade the mass transit experience. Metro has already taken an important step in this direction with its new signs that tell riders, for example, that a “six-car train will be arriving within three minutes.” Such information can be applied to commuter and Metro bus routes. Imagine alerting commuters via strategically placed digital signage, mobile phone and pagers as they crawl along I-95 with information that says the next bus for downtown leaves the upcoming park-and-ride in seven now six minutes.
In addition, we need to re-examine the role of the bus in a multi-modal transit system. Feeder buses such as the Montgomery County Ride-Ons and the Fairfax County Connector (whose Huntington Line contract was recently awarded to our Washington-area-based subsidiary, Yellow Transportation) must be timed to provide hassle-free, on-time connections with Metro trains. The new Georgetown Shuttle bus system (also operated by Yellow for the Georgetown Partnership) connects shoppers and commuters to Metro stops at Rosslyn, Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle. Such intermodal connectivity must become a feature of all area mass transit.
So how do we create more capacity and upgrade bus services to attract new riders? By learning what those riders want and providing it to them. Listening to customers is not a new concept in transportation, but it is crucial. Riders typically want schedules that meet their real-world needs, buses that are comfortable, attractive and above all, safe. They want on-board amenities such as Smart Card ticketing. And they want accurate information about their commute times.
All this can be provided today the technology and systems know-how are already well-established and, compared to the cost of new construction, relatively inexpensive. All Washington commuters and transportation managers need is the vision, the will and the public/private partnerships that can make the existing regional transit network more inviting and productive. By working together, counties, cities, states and private-sector providers can take these steps almost immediately to start easing the congestion that already makes too many mornings a nightmare in and around Washington.
Antoine Hurel is CEO of Connex North America.