WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- When Metro adds buses to its S line on 16th Street Northwest, the commuters come.
Since 2009 the transit authority has augmented service six times to one of its busiest routes, yet rush hour buses are still bursting with riders. On their way to downtown Washington in the morning, the S buses often pass by waiting commuters because they simply cannot fit anymore aboard.
Since the S9 "express" service was introduced five years ago, ridership has increased 25 percent and now tops more than 20,000 daily passengers.
Metro's latest move took effect Monday: the addition of 60-foot articulated coaches to the S line, replacing five standard 40-foot buses per hour, each capable of carrying 55 percent more passengers.
Metro estimates the additional capacity will provide relief through most of the rest of the year before demand begins to outstrip the number of available seats again. That is why Metro and transit advocates continue to call for the construction of a rush-hour bus lane between Columbia Heights and downtown Washington, a 2.7-mile stretch.
The problem is not a lack of buses; Metro runs 55 buses per hour during the peak travels times along the route. The problem is more complicated: traffic congestion that slows down however many buses are added to the mix, the time it takes to offload and board commuters at each stop, and uncoordinated traffic lights.
"We need to get people downtown faster, not just on buses but downtown faster and re-use those buses quicker, because we don't have unlimited bus capacity," said Kishan Putta, a Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner and D.C. Council candidate who has been lobbying the District Department of Transportation to study and build a bus lane.
Metro says its S line buses average less than seven miles per hour on 16th Street, and the combination of a transit signal priority system and dedicated bus lane could shave 10 minutes off an hour-long commute from Silver Spring to downtown D.C.
"It is incredibly crowded in the morning. I definitely think we could use more buses on this line," said a frustrated A.J. Nagaraj as he squeezed inside an S4 bus Monday morning. "I have to wait for two or three buses to go by particularly when the weather is bad."
An internal DDOT study completed in 2013 recommended "key immediate next steps" to pursue toward installing a bus-only lane running downtown in the mornings and uptown in the afternoons, and DDOT intends to begin a year-long study next year.
In the meantime, DDOT cautions against thinking a bus lane will solve all commuters' problems.
"A bus lane in and of itself is not a panacea. We have to look at all of the range of benefits and the potential impacts and then evaluate those in a public process," said Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT's associate director of planning, policy, and sustainability.
"We have done some internal looking at this and we think there is some merit to a bus-only lane. The negatives could be impacts to parking. There could be impacts to vehicular travel lanes. If we do things to reconfigure the street so that there is more room for buses and less room for cars, the cars may end up going someplace else."
A 16th Street bus lane is at least two years away from being realized, if DDOT goes that route. A transit signal priority system, now being tested by DDOT and Metro, could be ready for operations by next year. Metro estimates configuring intersections so buses could receive consecutive green lights will reduce current S line commute times by two to five percent.