Lessons Learned from Falls Church’s bus system

Falls Church has two Metro stations on either side of the city, plus Metrobus service – but the city was bold and obtained grants to finance additional local bus service, known as GEORGE.

GEORGE helped to stimulate some Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).  According to comments on an opinion piece in the Falls Church Times, GEORGE was a factor in the approval of City Center, which the city describes as a “landmark urban village project.”

Now the city’s contribution to finance the bus system is on the chopping block, because the costs exceeds the benefits.  (National publicity from the Washington Post calling GEORGE a “transit boondoggle” can’t help…)   GEORGE may be canceled next Monday, and Prince William can learn two key lessons from that experience.

The “lessons learned” for Falls Church include some technology decisions.  The city contracted with WMATA to operate the GEORGE buses, but since 2002 has struggled to get the right match between vehicles and routes.  The electrically-powered buses were technological flops, and the first clean diesel buses were waaaaay to big for the neighborhood routes. Prince William can easily avoid repeating those decisions, but is at risk of ignoring two others:

Lesson One: routing and scheduling GEORGE so it served primarily commuters going from Falls Church homes to Metro station was a mistake.

GEORGE provided minimal transit service to residents trying to get around Falls Church during the day without using a car.  Because routes were timed for rush hour commuters going to/from Metro stations, benefits to local businesses were minimal.  People need buses to get from home to local stores, local restaurants, and local office buildings.  Making it easier for Falls Church residents to commute to jobs located in Fairfax/Arlington/DC via Metro did not spur Falls Church commercial development or reduce property taxes for Falls Church residents.

If you want an urban village atmosphere, you need people walking on the sidewalks and going into stores/restaurants for 18 hours/day.  In Northern Virginia, we’re not as urbanized as Manhattan.  We don’t have a critical mass of residents in walking distance of retail centers.  We’ll also have to rely upon a local bus system to provide daytime/evening access for trips from home – and that is very different from a commuter-to-jobs-located-elsewhere system.  Think Local Bus, not Commuter Bus.

(WARNING:  Some projects may propose to build multi-story “structured parking” garages and encourage people to drive to a new town center.  It sounds odd, but more parking perpetuates more traffic congestion.  One way to measure if a project really reflects smart growth and Transit-Oriented Development principles: does it minimize reliance on automobiles?)

Lesson Two: local bus service is expensive.  It requires deep local support to fund the costs through the thin times… and the first 10-15 years of service will be thin times.

Even Falls Church, a tiny city of just 2 square miles, lacked a concentrated center of population and development at the start-up of GEORGE.  The Census Bureau says the Falls Church 2007 population density was 5500 people/square mile.  (In Manassas population density was about 3500 people/square mile in 2007.  Prince William population density was only about 1000 people/square mile.)

In low-density areas, buses have to make a long trip to fill up the seats.  In addition, many separate stops to collect a few riders at each bus stop make buses into a slow form of transit.

(Sorry, customers willing to walk a long way to a bus stop exist only in imaginations.   Look how people drive through shopping center parking lots to get closer to the store.   How many people do you know that walk more than 3 blocks from their car, especially in winter cold, summer heat – or on any day when it’s raining?)

So how do we get transit and development to emerge in the same place and at the same time, so buses are full from the beginning?   Without bus service, the stimulus to concentrate development on a transit route is missing.  Without concentrated development, the buses will be empty most of the time.

Commuter Bus routes can fill seats quickly, but a new Local Bus system requires integrated land use/transportation planning… and years of patience.  The smart growth model of the Rosslyn/Ballston corridor was not an overnight success; it took 20 years to blossom.

After 10-25 years, GEORGE might triggger enough Transit-Oriented Development to create an urban village, a “center” where fares and property taxes in a special TOD taxing district could cover a high percentage of the bus system costs.  For the initial years, however, taxpayers will have to finance a lot of low-volume bus trips, and elected officials will need to resist proposals to cut the funding for empty buses.


1 comment so far

  1. Bob on

    While Falls Church struggles with this decision and there are questions regarding why it has not been more successful, consider the City of Fairfax CUE Bus system. It has been in place for many years and has proved to be a successful amenity to the city serving METRO, the city and the GMU main campus. It’s a shared responsibility: fare box, the city and GMU. It’s a clean, well run service and provides a service that the city feels it needs to pay for.

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