By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Residents who ride Alexandria’s DASH buses may notice some significant changes to the city’s bus network come next week. Starting on Sept. 5, DASH is not only eliminating bus fares altogether but it is revamping the majority of its routes.
The changes come as part of the city’s broader Alexandria Transit Vision Plan and after City Council approved the elimination of bus fares in its FY2022 budget. The aim of these changes is to expand the services’ accessibility for residents, particularly low-income residents and residents of color, who need and use this aspect of the city’s transit network.
For Mayor Justin Wilson, who served as chair of the DASH board in one of his first roles in the city, these changes to DASH have been a long time coming.
“The route network that is running on the streets of Alexandria right now for DASH looks very similar to what started in 1984,” Wilson said. “… Job centers have changed, where people live, where the densities are in our city, all of that has changed dramatically since 1984.”
The broader changes to DASH’s roadmap are part of the Alexandria Transit Vision Plan and have been in the works since at least 2018. With transit ridership decreasing even prior to the pandemic, the city was looking for ways to increase ridership without adding more funding and buses. DASH and the city started to explore ways to reallocate routes and resources that would more effectively reach riders who did use the service and align bus routes with future developments such as Landmark Mall and the upcoming Potomac Yard Metro station.
Overall, the city is shifting from what is called a coverage model, which aims to cover as much territory as possible, to a ridership model, which is focused on serving the most people possible.
“We have routes that covered large parts of the city, drove through different neighborhoods. They didn’t pick up many people, but we could say, ‘Oh, they cover that neighborhood. They cover that part of the city,’” Wilson said. “Quite honestly, it was more of a political consideration to say, ‘We’re covering this neighborhood’ as opposed to, ‘How do we cover the maximum number of people?’”
The new route structure involves changes, whether minor or significant, to most of DASH’s roadmap, including not only the bus routes themselves but their names as well, Martin Barna, director of planning and marketing for DASH, said.
Two of the new bus lines, Line 34 and Line 102, are significantly different from any existing routes. Six of the new lines will follow similar routes with “minor to moderate changes:” Line 31, formerly AT6; Line 32, formerly AT7; Line 35, formerly AT1; Line 36A and 36B, formerly AT9; Line 103, formerly AT3 and Line 104, formerly AT4.
Four bus lines will be identical to their previous iterations: Line 30, formerly AT8; Line 33, formerly AT10; Line 102X, formerly AT2X and the King Street Trolley. Meanwhile, the AT5, which runs along North Van Dorn Street and North Ripley Street, will be replaced by the Metrobus 7A route which has service from the Van Dorn Metro to the Pentagon via North Van Dorn Street and Seminary Plaza.
DASH is shifting service toward areas that have not historically been covered by its buses but which have become major ridership hubs since the creation of the service, areas like the West End and Potomac Yard. DASH also plans to provide more frequent all-day service, which Barna defines as running every 15 minutes or sooner seven days a week.
“That’s the threshold at which we believe bus service becomes much more useful for the average rider, and so we wanted to get more routes up to that threshold,” Barna said.
The existing system only has one route that hits that threshold, and it’s actually part of the regional Metrobus service. The new network will have three DASH routes and two Metrobus routes that provide this level of frequent service, and the service will be going toward residents who need and use it the most. According to Barna, the new network will increase the percentage of low-income residents who are within walking distance of a frequent allday bus stop from about 29% to 73%.
“We believe that that will help a lot of people who have been really hit the hardest by the pandemic and hopefully help the overall city recover since transit is such an important part of the economy,” Barna said.
Wilson acknowledged that the new network does require some tradeoffs.
“If you’re shifting from a coverage model to a ridership model, it means you’re removing service from areas that are used less, and that is a tough discussion,” Wilson said. “In each of those situations, there are people who ride those routes. It’s not a lot of people, it’s not as many people as some of the places you’re adding routes to, but there are people there.”
During the public outreach process, DASH was able to, in some cases, adjust its plans in response to community feedback. DASH shifted its plans to maintain levels of peak service in Parkfairfax and North Ridge based on that feedback.
The council-approved elimination of bus fares will also go a long way toward making the service more accessible and enticing, which could help the city achieve its environmental goals, Wilson said.
“I think it just makes the system more accessible for a lot of members of our community and, ultimately, increases transit readership, which is a good thing for our community as a whole,” Wilson said. “We reduce congestion, we help achieve some of our climate goals by making sure people can get around without single occupancy vehicles.”
Ahead of the changes that are being implemented this week, both city leaders and DASH are hopeful about the future of the city’s bus service, even in spite of the pandemic. Wilson said that although the city will “temper our expectation a bit more,” a preliminary study conducted by the city anticipates a 25% ridership increase due to the elimination of fares alone.
“This is a big deal. If you look at the combination of the two things – the new network and the free fares – this is really the dawn of a new era for bus service in the city of Alexandria,” Barna said.
For more information about the changes to DASH, including maps, a trip planner and route comparisons, visit: www.dashbus.com/newnetwork.