- - Thursday, June 6, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The D.C. Council has voted to end free rides on the Circulator bus, which wasn’t worth the price. Good riddance. While dropping the already low $1 fare (regular bus trips cost twice that) may seem at first blush to have been a bargain for its riders, the reality is that the bus was needlessly slow and unpredictable, rendering it useless for anyone who needs to go anywhere in a timely matter. Incidentally, that population includes both the poor and the wealthy.

The biggest problem with the Circulator is that riders cannot track when the next bus is coming: For reasons I do not understand WMATA does not have data on where these buses are, preventing apps from predicting when the next bus will arrive. What information apps do provide on the Circulator simply reflects a set schedule with no bearing on bus location.

To some degree this lack of data could be overcome by diligent bus drivers who endeavored to arrive on time, but the lack of a GPS allows Circulator bus drivers to take it easy, which they fully exploit. In Woodley Park, a terminus for one of the Circulator routes, it is common to see two buses parked there while the drivers sit in McDonald’s. With one or two buses almost always off the route, a Circulator appears much less often than the promised every 10 minutes.

And the Woodley Park-McPherson Square route isn’t the only one with suboptimal performance. Last month I sat in a Circulator in Rosslyn for more than 20 minutes waiting to depart. After 10 minutes, I tried to rouse the bus driver to ask him the status, but he took offense, and we remained there until another bus pulled alongside us, no doubt with a bus driver ready for his nap. 

This sort of behavior used to be common on the non-Circulator buses (a decade ago I was on a bus when its driver pulled over to get a woman’s phone number), but the GPS tracking that allows riders to (sort-of) know when the next bus is coming also allow WMATA to keep tabs on wayward drivers, and bus drivers now largely endeavor to complete their routes on time. 

Making the Circulator free may seem magnanimous, but it represents a  condescending bargain offered by the city: We’ll offer you lousy service but you don’t have to pay for it.

Almost everyone has an opportunity cost to their time. For the parents who try to take the Circulator from Mount Pleasant to Oyster-Adams school in Woodley Park to pick up their kids before after-school child care ends, a pointless delay can cost them pricey fines if they’re late. 

Instead of taking the chance of the Circulator causing them to be late, people must rearrange their schedules, or take different buses, or find a new mode of transportation. If people can’t depend on the bus, it’s largely useless to them. 

While making the Circulator free should have boosted ridership, there’s little evidence it went up all that much because it is a lousy service. Tourists are the last group that would be deterred by a lousy $1 fee, and that’s often the explanation for the move.

If the city truly wanted to help people for whom the Circulator should be their choice of bus it would charge a normal $2 fee like any other bus and install GPS tracking devices on the buses so riders know when the bus is approaching and WMATA can tell when its riders are slacking.

I’ve got my suspicions that no one in the city really cares about speeding up mass transit, given that it allows parked cars to greatly slow bus traffic both in residential neighborhoods and downtown as well.

But pretending that the “free” Circulator was a boon for bus riders amounts to a sham. 

Ike Brannon is a senior fellow at the Jack Kemp Foundation.

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