Wednesday, July 07, 2004

COMMUTING: The 30s — The Crucial Guide to a Critical (Condition) Bus Line

I’m not sure what I did to anger an older homeless woman Tuesday morning. But sure enough, I did something beyond standing at the bus stop reading the paper, to get “You mutta-f***ing creep” verbally hailed at me.

But such things happen on the 30-series buses. It’s Washington’s version of the F train. Throw a mass of humanity together on a slower-than-molasses public transit line and you get conflict, general annoyance and inefficiency. Despite being easy to fault, the 30s — also known as the Pennsylvania Avenue line — is a critical District bus line (running from the inland highlands of Anacostia, clear across town through Georgetown and up Wisconsin Avenue to Friendship Heights) that has high ridership.

Critical Identifiers. The 30s are technically five separate bus lines (30, 32, 34, 35, 36) that run from its western terminal at Friendship Heights. The 30 bus stops at Archives and the rest go to various terminals across the Anacostia River. The 30s, like the 42/Mount Pleasant Line, can be easily identified because they often travel in twos and threes and one-time, I saw four 30s in a row. This is not by choice, but by chance. The 30 buses perfect the accidental art of bus leap-frogging.

The 30s can be incredibly slow since they must pass hundreds of stops, roughly one block apart, going across town through some of the District’s most congested traffic corridors. One will catch up with another. Then when one is stopped to pick-up and drop-off passengers, the other will pass it. Then a few blocks later, the roles are reversed. This awkward dual slalom — involving large multi-ton buses — is a pure symbolic representation of transit inefficiency, a callback to the days when 30-series streetcars would get bunched up on their crosstown routes. (Most of the numbered Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority bus lines are all that remains of the former numbered Capital Transit streetcar network, dismantled in the late 1950s and early ’60s.)

Another interesting aspect of the 30s is the Wisconsin Avenue Bus Rally. This is when at least three 30s are lined up in a row after breaking out of Georgetown on their way to the Friendship Heights terminal. Once they clear Macomb Street, the 30s will sometimes race each other between Newark and Van Ness streets, where they can pick up considerable speed. Other out-of-service buses on their way to the Jenifer Street Western Division bus garage will sometimes join, creating a group of five buses, hauling ass uptown. While this may not be intentional, I don’t blame the drivers, who are probably off schedule and stressed out after coming through Georgetown, letting off steam by participating in such road rallies.

Colorful Characters. While any bus line can attract its colorful characters, the Pennsylvania Avenue Line provides an extra special environment to experience humanity. My most favorite experience is from February 2002 after the big blizzard, when a quirky Glover Park personality boarded the extremely overcrowded bus and started singing a McDonald’s ad jingle about their premium salads (“I want a salad, with lots of stuff, just plain lettuce is never enough …”). The 30s run slow enough, but with slushy snow drifts, clogged traffic and hot crowded quarters, the 45-minute bus journey to Foggy Bottom with an oddball singing a fast food salad jingle seemed like an eternity.

Bus drivers, like mental ward orderlies, can have a difficult time dealing with unruly passengers. Once this past spring, I was riding on a 34 bus near the National Cathedral when one man started yelling gibberish, complaining that a woman across the way was laughing at him. When his protests became too much for the bus driver to handle, she pulled off to the side of the avenue, and went back to knock some sense into him.

“Nobody’s laughing at you,” she said. “Where are you going? Those big towers near Naylor Road?”

“She’s talking about me,” the man said, pointing to a twenty-something across the aisle.

“She’s not talking about you, she’s not doing anything to you,” the bus driver said, pointing at the woman in question. (The woman looked as if she were surprised, but perhaps a little too innocent.)

Everyone on the bus was of course had focused their attention on the incident, pretending to not actually be listening. (My strategy: I unfolded my newspaper and turned it at a 45-degree angle to watch.)

And then the woman in question, who had done her best to maintain composure, started to quietly snicker, confirming the man’s assertion. But he was not taken seriously, and eventually quieted down, occasionally muttering indiscernible protestations under his breath.

Making the 30s Better. WMATA has taken a good first step in improving the 30s: marketing them. I was pleasantly surprised to come across a brochure for 30s from the transit agency’s marketing department, saying how the 30s will get you where you want to go since it goes clear across town. While Georgetown’s “Blue Buses” are a good way to connect Georgetown-goers to various subway stations (a glorified shuttle bus … something more mentally soothing to those with bus-phobia), the 30s already serve a majority of the Blue Bus routes. And they go elsewhere across town, and are probably the best sightseeing bus line in the city (Eastern Market, the Capitol, the Mall, Pennsylvania Avenue, White House, World Bank, Georgetown, National Cathedral).

Regardless if WMATA can successfully promote the 30s to attract more riders, there is one stumbling block: they’re slow. The main culprit is Wisconsin Avenue between R and M streets. The congested corridor, currently under construction for the Georgetown Project, can significantly reduce the efficiency of the line. Whether it is pedestrians in front of the Benetton, a car with New Jersey plates parked in a bus stop, or a rented limousine dropping off a Fairfax County socialite for ice cream at Thomas Sweet (I saw this on Saturday), the buses can get easily off schedule. Of course, the buses can run into similar problems on Capitol Hill, Anacostia or downtown, but it seems that the problem is particularly acute in Georgetown.

Residents of Burleith, Glover Park, Cathedral Heights, McLean Gardens and Tenleytown know full well of the problems they can encounter with the 30s. To avoid the frustration of getting stuck on their way downtown, some will go uptown to Tenleytown and then head back downtown on the Red Line.

In the District’s current plan to increase neighborhood interconnectivity by running light-rail lines through certain corridors, Wisconsin Avenue is left out. While the routes, if ever built, will extend as far west as Georgetown and Woodley Park, the corridor will have to continue to rely on the sometimes unreliable 30s. It might be smart to reconsider this corridor — between M Street and Tenleytown — as ridership would most likely be high and the need is already great.

One interim solution, that wouldn’t cost as much as reconfiguring city streets for light rail, would be to designate one line one the 30s as a limited-stop bus. For instance, the 30 bus between Friendship Heights and Archives, could have stops at Jenifer Street/Friendship Heights, Harrison Street, Albemarle Street/Tenleytown Station, Van Ness Street, Macomb Street, Massachusetts Avenue, Calvert Street, S Street, Q Street and then either continue with limited stops through Georgetown and into downtown. Or it could then run on a reconfigured route that would bring it to Dupont Circle and Farragut Square (via Q Street and Connecticut Avenue) and bring direct bus service between the upper Wisconsin corridor and the northern portions of the Central Business District. That bus could then charge an express rate. Slap up some novel “Wisconsin Express” signage in a flashy fluorescent color, or something similar, and the route would be very successful. Similar things could be done with other routes across the city, making the bus more accessible to all, don’t you think?


At 1:18 PM, Blogger Michael said...

The 30s were both my almost-only means of escaping McLean Gardens in highschool, and the bane of my existence. For a while (still?) they ran 24-7, which helped, but the irony being it took about the same ammount of time to get home at 3am (waiting 55 minutes for a bus) as it did during rush hour (stuck in traffic).

But, if you want really fun delays and crazy nasty co-passengers, the H2/H4 is your bus. Try Irving St. to the VA hospital at 7:30am, and Kenyon/Columbia Rd. to Mt. Pleasant at 5pm.


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