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Bloomingdale’s afraid of the big, bad bus

9 Minutes Jul 3, 2024 1822 Words

This post was cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington

Last month, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) unveiled its proposed Better Bus Network, which redesigns its current bus routes and service levels (share your feedback here!). Like other national and international bus-network redesigns, the Better Bus Network proposal aims to provide an overall higher level of more equitable bus service with the same budget. (Last year, WMATA put out a “visionary network” proposal to show what a bus-network redesign with a 35% increase in funding could look like; that increase in funding did not come to pass, and WMATA has subsequently dropped the visionary network.)

While many people will experience the benefits of a redesigned system, some individuals will experience it as worse—there are still people riding lines that WMATA might deem inefficient or low-ridership. So, of course, the public sentiment toward the Better Bus Network proposal reflects some nervousness about the loss of existing service.

In Bloomingdale, however, the Better Bus Network’s proposal would replace the existing G2 and 96 buses with a new C55 route on five blocks of First Street NW, from Rhode Island Avenue to Bryant Street NW—thereby increasing bus service. NIMBYs, however, are throwing an epic temper tantrum at the prospect.

Proposed C55 route in the Better Bus Redesign.  Image by WMATA used with permission.

Starting at the Bloomingdale Civic Association meeting on June 17, 2024, through the ANC 5E meeting the following day, leading up to a special single-issue follow-up ANC meeting to come on Monday, July 8, and on NextDoor all in between, this modest, beneficial change has provoked a wildly disproportionate torrent of bad faith, strawmen, and red herrings from a handful of vocal individuals. The opposition has culminated in a petition to “Protect First Street” anonymously authored by “concerned residents of Bloomingdale.”

The following is a rebuttal of the most prominent arguments in opposition to a modest amount of new bus service in Bloomingdale.

The community wasn’t informed this was coming

Check off the free square on your NIMBY bingo card! The idea of a bus network redesign first made an appearance as a recommendation of WMATA’s regional bus transformation project, completed in 2019. WMATA has collected feedback on the Better Bus Network project in two previous rounds, in fall 2022 and spring 2023. Now, the reveal of the proposed new network has kicked off another round of engagement, for which WMATA is hosting all kinds of events to collect input. And, there’s still a year before implementation.

No changes have happened yet. Any complaints about not being informed are about not being informed about the process of being informed.

Better Bus Network community engagement timeline. Image by WMATA used with permission.

First Street is too narrow

This segment of First Street NW is 35 feet from curb to curb, with the District Department of Transportation (DDOT)’s standard 10-foot drive lanes in both directions. Yes, DDOT prefers 11-foot lanes for buses, but it’s not a requirement. Buses run in 10-foot lanes all over DC, including the G2 itself on 4th Street NW and the P6 on R Street NE, just across North Capitol Street. Allegations that DDOT will be widening travel lanes by “removing parking spaces, eliminating treebox gardens, and cutting back mature shade trees” is wild, unsubstantiated fear-mongering. Yes, parking spaces will be removed—a few, out of thousands in the neighborhood, on the few blocks where bus stops will be. But an entire lane of parking, for five blocks? DDOT doesn’t need to do that, and wouldn’t have the courage to, anyway.

Buses are too heavy

Opponents are claiming that First Street has a weight restriction that buses would violate, and that the weight of buses would threaten a recently constructed water tunnel under the street.

Without a citation to support the first claim, it’s impossible to know what they think they’re talking about, but it’s almost certainly baloney. Perhaps they are referring to DDOT’s weight restriction for commercial trucks? But that doesn’t apply to public buses; there’s a clearly stated exception for public transit. Plenty of other roads in the District with the same restriction are already on bus routes, including R Street NE and 3rd Street NE in nearby Eckington, which carry the P6 route, as well as 7th Street NE, which accommodates the G8.

The second claim, that a $150 million tunnel would be threatened by the weight of buses 100 feet overhead, is likewise ridiculous. The similar Northeast Boundary tunnel runs below the adjoining Rhode Island Avenue NE, with the G8 route on top.

First Street is already too congested

WMATA is proposing that the new C55 route will run every 30 minutes between 5:00 am and midnight. That’s 76 bus trips per day (opponents have wrongly calculated it as 150)—or, on a street that sees over 8,000 vehicles per day, a 1% increase in total vehicle trips. And that number will drop if any travelers trade their car trip for a ride on the C55.

The petitioners have accused WMATA of “fail[ing] to consider the nature of commuter traffic to, from, and through this neighborhood,” but the C55 doesn’t need to replace every car trip on First Street to reduce congestion. It simply needs to replace, at minimum, 77 trips per day—one more than the number of bus trips being added to First Street. The new C55 route will connect Bloomingdale with Shaw, U Street NW, Adams Morgan, Woodley Park, Cathedral Heights, and Tenleytown, among other locations. It is reasonable to expect that each new bus will carry at least one Bloomingdale resident or visitor who would otherwise have taken a car.

Buses will bring pollution

Yes, exhaust, tire particles, and noise pollution are all negative externalities of vehicles—buses and cars—which is why we need to aggressively reduce the total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in our city. I’d be thrilled to advocate for replacing First Street with a pedestrian-only park, but I don’t think that’s what the opponents have in mind. Second-best, however, is giving residents an easy way to bundle their car trips together into a single, larger vehicle that moves more people, more efficiently. Bonus: The chef’s-kiss NIMBYism here of maligning the bus as a pollutant and suggesting WMATA just put it somewhere else (see below for more on that).

They’ll cut down trees to put up bus shelters!!

WMATA has identified V Street and Bryant Street NW as the two intersections for planned stops (visible on the interactive comment map). Two of the four corners involved (both southbound locations) clearly have tree-free space a bus stop could occupy. Given that most bus stops in the system don’t have shelters, it’s unlikely each of the northbound stops would get a shelter, but even if they did, it would remove exactly two immature trees that currently provide little shade, for shelters that would provide significant shade. The two trees could quite easily be replaced in nearby treeboxes elsewhere on the street.

Buses put cyclists at risk

Bloomingdale Civic Association members previously protested strongly against the mistaken impression that DDOT was considering adding bike lanes to First Street, so it’s pretty clear that this sentiment from any of them is just concern-trolling. But a separate letter on PoPville last week from a neighborhood cyclist has put this argument front and center, though it’s clearly flawed.

While the letter-writer’s argument is ostensibly about safety, subsequent comments on the Popville post suggest he’s more concerned about buses being slowed down, and subsequently slowing down drivers—basically, that there will be less passing going on all around:

“Buses are much wider and longer than cars and most delivery trucks, and they can’t safely pass cyclists and people on scooters in such narrow street [sic]. If a bus has a bike in front, the bus would need to be circulating at the same speed as the bike going uphill on 1st St, further slowing down the street and creating more congestion.”

First Street NW has only one travel lane in each direction; it is currently illegal, and dangerous, for any vehicle to pass any other road user on it. There is no allowed “safe” passing currently; drivers who do it put everyone at a greater risk. Bus drivers are at least trained on how to safely pass cyclists, and when.