Q and A on Articulated/Bendy Buses on Columbia Pike

Hey Pikespotter,

You seem to have some strong opinions on these articulated buses.  Do you have time for a few questions?


OK, what the heck is an articulated bus?

An articulated or “bendy” bus is a four-wheeled bus that contains a joint (or two) in the middle of it to allow it to be longer (and thus have a higher rider capacity) while still being able to turn (and thus operate) on normal city streets.  WMATA already operates a small fleet of them in DC for the busiest bus corridors there, and they are popular in other cities in the US and abroad.

Why do you think that these types of vehicles are a good fit for the Columbia Pike corridor?

Compared to the current buses used on Columbia Pike, bendy buses can offer much greater capacity per vehicle.  Current Metrobuses are crowded at peak times, and there are only so many vehicles that can fit on the road at any given time.  Metrorail, frankly, would be wonderful under Columbia Pike, but no elected official in Virginia is working to that end.  So the choice is among transit vehicles that will ride in the same lanes as cars (i.e., no exclusive right-of-way).

Because bendy buses would not operate on a “fixed” right of way, but instead operate in mixed traffic, the vehicles could continue to operate when a lane becomes obstructed by a stopped motorist (whether because of accident, police stop, etc.).  In other words, articulated buses can pass stopped vehicles.  On that metric alone, bendy buses are more reliable than fixed-track alternatives.

The other cool thing about articulated buses is that they have the potential to be used on most of the current buses/routes on Columbia Pike.  That’s because current Pike Ride buses serve either Pentagon or Pentagon City on the eastern end of the Pike, and a multitude of destinations on the western end.  While it’s an open question whether every Pike Ride route could be replaced, it’s fair to say that articulated buses could serve a good chunk of current Pike Riders (especially when compared to the alternatives).

Wait, exclusive right of way, fixed right of way…you are confusing me.

OK, Metrorail operates on an exclusive right-of-way, which just means that the transit vehicle does not share its path with other (non-transit) vehicles.  Montgomery County Maryland’s planned new bus network is another type of fixed-right-of-way: the vehicles will travel in their own lanes that are adjacent to existing roads.  For transit experts, an exclusive or dedicated right of way is the holy grail because it divorces transit from local traffic problems and is thus more reliable.  A fixed right-of-way just means that the vehicle has to stay in a given lane or track.  Metrorail is also fixed right-of-way.  A fixed right-of-way is rather unimportant for transit performance, and for vehicles that have to share the road with cars, it’s a negative because the vehicles are unable to pass obstructions in the roadway (which happen frequently because the lane is shared).

But an articulated bus wouldn’t fix the problem of bus delays caused by riders paying the fare (and loading SmarTrip cards) on the bus.  I mean in DC, articulated buses operate at regular bus stops and boarding/fare payment is the same.

True, but your question confuses things.  You are right that closed stops where riders pay the fares at the stop, then board using all the doors (like the County’s under-construction “Super Stops”), speed up trip times on public transport.  But that has nothing to do with the vehicles.  Some trolleys in the world have on-vehicle payment, some articulated buses have pre-boarding payment.  Like trolleys, articulates buses can have multiple sets of doors.  So there is no reason that the Columbia Pike Super Stops couldn’t be used for articulated buses and deliver the same benefits – in fact, they should be.

Also, keep in mind that an upgraded Pike transit system may not be operated by WMATA.

But a streetcar can do all of the things that an articulated bus can do, no?

Theoretically, for the most part, yes.  However, right now, officially the Arlington government is conducting an “alternatives analysis” as part of its plan to request Federal Transit Administration funding.  The options on the table are the Board’s streetcar+bus plan that would serve only Pentagon City, with the same old buses serving the riders of Pentagon buses (despite the fact that today, more Pike Riders currently ride Pentagon-bound buses).  So practically speaking, articulated buses remain a better option if we are looking to upgrade the capacity and rider experience for the highest number of Pike Riders as compared to the other alternatives under consideration.

And the streetcar would be immobilized were any obstruction to occur (such as a traffic stop) in the curb lane.  Also, because the streetcar alternative under consideration would leave buses for Pentagon riders (and DC-riders), those remaining buses are another potential obstruction that could stop a streetcar in its tracks, while a bendy bus can pass it.

C’mon, trolleys are cute!  Would people really ride a long bus on Columbia Pike? 

Trolleys are cute and they are pleasant to ride.  And all things being equal, some riders are more likely to try a trolley over a bus.  The thing is though, all things are not equal.  The Columbia Pike bus corridor is the busiest in the Commonwealth, and among the busiest in the region.  The corridor already has a capacity problem – it is very popular!  The region has some of the worst traffic in the nation.  Providing a fast, frequent reliable transit network is critical to a region in desperate need of more transit options.  Further, there is mounting evidence that the young people flocking to the region for its rich job market don’t need to be induced to use transit – they are already predisposed to it.  Fortunately for Arlington, we don’t need to induce people to use transit on a cute trolley; rather, we need to invest in a 21st century transportation network with a high-capacity and service level.  If you build that, Arlingtonians will ride it, and riders and non-riders will benefit from less traffic.

Really. People are going to choose to ride the bus?

More and more are, both in the DC area and around the county.

I read on some other blog that streetcars are cheaper than buses.  That true?

Not sure about other places, but on Columbia Pike, the answer is no.

What do you mean when you talk about the “trolley+bus” plan? 

The County Board’s preferred plan is to replace two of the dozen or so bus lines that currently ride up and down the Pike with a streetcar, leaving the majority of current riders (and routes) on the same buses that are in use today.  The Board’s officially endorsed plan will not – and is not designed to – replace most of the buses that ply up and down the Pike.

Supporters of the board’s trolley+bus plan say that many other communities in the US have revitalized corridors by installing trolleys.  Isn’t a streetcar needed to do that here?

This is a complicated question to answer.  Comparing other communities’ revitalizations is difficult and will never be apples-to-apples comparison.  But first, a dedicated right-of-way transit line will always be faster and better to ride, and that is not under consideration for Columbia Pike.  Thus, comparing those transit lines to the Board’s plan (or for that matter, bendy buses)  just isn’t going to be a similar enough comparison to be useful.  Further, experts disagree how much streetcar lines are responsibly for increased development because they have been invariably done in conjunction with zoning and other regulatory changes – the classic correlation vs. causation problem is endemic here.  Finally, keep in mind that if we are going to cite to other streetcar lines as examples, you have to compare both the winners (say, Portland) with the losers, like Tampa (whose ridership has been declining recently).

One should also consider this BRT line, which also is not a great comparison but shows how a community has used a new, simple bus line to revitalize a corridor.

Also, when comparing other communities’ streetcars, remember that the Board’s plan will not replace buses on the corridor.

But most importantly, Arlington is just different from other places in the US – it has Metrorail, terrible traffic, already popular bus routes, plans to increase density, a strong labor market: all of these factors are somewhat unique to the corridor and suggest that quality transit will be utilized.

To sum up, it’s possible that a streetcar would have the more of the desired effect (whatever that is) than articulated buses would for Pike development, but there really is no compelling data to support that view.  It’s a hope really, rather than an argument.

Can you give an example of the kind of corridor you think that Columbia Pike can be with articulated buses?

Wisconsin Avenue NW in DC is a pretty good example.  Vibrant, off-Metro, nice choice of businesses with a busy bus corridor.  (As noted above, all comparisons are imperfect, but this is close in location and in the same job market.)

The point to remember is this: streetcar backers have simply not made the necessary argument that the Board’s streetcar+bus plan is a necessary tool to get the sort of revitalization they want.

You have yet to mention costs…by the way, is this some sort of Tea Party blog?

For the reasons mentioned above, articulated buses are a better transit option for Columbia Pike – regardless of costs.  But yes, the overall costs of articulated buses for the Pike are significantly lower than streetcars.  So not only would bendy buses make transit better for many riders, but they would free up money for other County transit needs.

As for bias, Pike Spotter is an urbanist blog: a $250+ million investment in better transit for Columbia Pike is a great idea!  Articulated buses should be a centerpiece of this investment.  But spending $250 million when $53 million will have better results should offend Democrats, Greens, Republicans, Socialists, Libertarians and Independents alike.

But the streetcar is a long-term investment in the Pike. Shouldn’t that make the cost more understandable?

Streetcar backers who point out that the trolley is an investment are right!  But like any investment, it must be judged based on the alternatives.  What is the relative return on investment of the alternatives?  Articulated buses will deliver nearly identical service and capacity results as the streetcar, according to the Columbia Pike Transit Initiative.  And they can be put in service more quickly, at a lower cost, and serve more riders.  As noted above, this blog encourages a big dollar investment in the Pike – it just wants one that delivers the most benefits, especially to transit users.

The concern over the cost of the streetcar (at least on this blog) is that it will cannibalize the County transit budget ans thus delay other urgent priorities, like ART expansion (especially on weekends and on North-South routes).

I read on another (more interesting) Arlington blog that the Pike should have double decker buses, like in London.

That’s an interesting idea, but unfortunately the Columbia Pike Transit Initiative has not formally considered it.  Nevertheless, if the idea is to have a “cute” or “unique” (yet high-capacity) transit vehicle, it’s worth considering.  You can suggest it here.

Your blog talks too much about the darned trolley.

Is there a question in there?  Anyway, Pikespotter, like you, wishes there was a more robust local blogosphere.  But the links on the right offer the musings of other Pike bloggers, as well as other Arlington bloggers.  Check them out.  Also, the Twitter feed is a little more diverse, and you can check it out at right (even if you are not on Twitter).

I’m a Pike bicycle commuter.  Why do I care about bendy buses?

Because articulated buses don’t require tracks built in the street, you could still use the curb-side lane of Columbia Pike when riding your bike.  If a trolley is built, there will be no route (on-street or off) from Pike Town Center to the Pentagon because the Columbia Pike underpass of Washington Boulevard will not have an eastbound bike lane (other than the sidewalk).  The planned trolley will directly and negatively impact you, more so than any other commuter.  You should care.

You’re an idiot.  I want my trolley.  How do I voice support for it?

OK, if you read this all and still support the Board’s plan, you can comment here.  Hopefully someone out there agrees with some of what is stated here, and you also can comment there.

The County Board has endorsed the streetcar+bus plan already.  Aren’t you whistling past the graveyard?

Possibly.  Maybe even probably.  But the last County board election had all three candidates as trolley-skeptics; same for the upcoming fall election.  It’s important to articulate a positive, alternative vision for transit along Columbia Pike, including the utility of bendy buses, so that the question for voters and policymakers isn’t a binary choice between a poor plan and no plan.  Hopefully, over time, we can have a County Board committed to all of the Pike’s transit needs with bendy buses as a key part of a fast, frequent, reliable transit network serving many destinations in Arlington and beyond.

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4 Responses to Q and A on Articulated/Bendy Buses on Columbia Pike

  1. Chris Slatt says:

    Can you expand on this sentence “If a trolley is built, there will be no route (on-street or off) from Pike Town Center to the Pentagon because the Columbia Pike underpass of Washington Boulevard will not have an eastbound bike lane (other than the sidewalk).” because it doesn’t jive with my understanding.

    I know the 10′ sidepath isn’t most people’s ideal solution, but what is it if not a off-street route from the Town Center to the Pentagon? And what does that have to do with whether the underpass has a bike lane or not? Especially if you’re already saying you can’t bike in the curb lane because of streetcar tracks.

  2. Pingback: Morning Poll: Streetcar vs. Articulated Bus | ARLnow.com

  3. pikespotter says:

    Chris – that sentence was overbroad, should have said no “safe, reasonable” route, especially when compared to the status quo. The sidepath (apparently) is just a wide sidewalk to be shared with pedestrians. The National Association of City Transportation Officials recommends that two-way cycle (only) tracks be 12 feet wide – this will be 10 feet and shared with peds. For slower bike riders who currently ride on the sidewalk, it will be an upgrade for both them and pedestrians. But for riders (especially commuters) who currently ride on the street, it’s a disaster.

    For an eastbound (uphill) rider, it could work OK (as long as it’s being used only by pedestrians and eastbound cyclists). But for the westbound rider, the planned sidepath is more dangerous because vehicles turning onto/off the Pike from sidestreets are less likely to be looking for a bike on the sidewalk than they are looking for cars in the street; in other words, riding on the sidepath make cyclists less visible.

    The other problem is that there still isn’t a connection from the southern Bike Boulevard to the wide sidewalk, leaving that Bike Boulevard sort of useless for anyone trying to get toward the Pentagon.

    Thanks for commenting.

  4. Baja says:

    Thanks so much for your informed, thoughtful discussion of the streetcar vs. articulated bus debate (as well as the FBC/affordable housing issue). I agree with you 100%! In addition to the flexibility of articulated buses relative to streetcars, the fact that there’s not need to rip up the streets means we could alleviate existing transit issues *years* faster than a streetcar, with much fewer disruptions to area residents and businesses. Moreover, I’m skeptical that Arlington could obtain federal and state funding to support a streetcar, particularly since we have few fans in Richmond these days.

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