Shirley Highway Busway/HOV System

Shirley Highway runs from US-1 north of the Occoquan River just north of Woodbridge to the D.C. border with Arlington, and today the portion outside of the Capital Beltway is I-95, and the portion inside of the Capital Beltway is I-395.

This article discusses the establishment of the busway/HOV roadway system on Shirley Highway. As the following article points out, the concept originated in 1964, was implemented in 1969 as the first exclusive bus facility on a U.S. urban freeway, and was completed from Springfield to downtown D.C. in 1971 albeit via a temporary one-lane roadway through the northernmost several miles of the highway in Virginia. In the summer of 1975, the 10-year-long staged reconstruction and expansion of Shirley Highway was completed, and the full 2-lane express reversible roadway was completed, and the express traffic uses the center bridge of the 14th Street Bridge to cross the Potomac River into the District of Columbia. When the design of the reconstruction and expansion was first conceived in 1963, a three-roadway design was conceived with a pair of directional general purpose roadways with 3 (or more) lanes each, and a 2-lane reversible roadway between the general purpose roadways. The reversible roadway was to be open to all vehicles in the direction of peak traffic; so that would provide 2 lanes of traffic in addition to the directional general purpose roadway; providing 5 or more lanes in the direction of peak period traffic (northbound into D.C. in the morning, southbound out of D.C. in the evening). As the following article points out, before the reconstruction got underway in 1965, plans were already underway to use the reversible roadway for bus rapid transit.

"The Shirley Highway Story", by David F. Erion, Acting Deputy Director of Technical Services, Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), from a talk presented at the midyear meeting of the American Transit Association on May 23, 1974, published in Virginia Highway Bulletin, Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation, July 1974. Verbatim copy of article follows, in blue text, by permission of VDOT:

The Shirley Highway (I-95) is the main road link between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, but during rush hours it is the main commuter link between home and job for thousands of Northern Virginia commuters.

Since September, 1969, high-speed buses have been traveling on the Shirley's exclusive bus lanes, providing for many commuters an alternative to the daily time-consuming, rush-hour drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic. An increasing number of these former motorists are leaving their cars at home or parked in the suburbs and taking the bus, because the bus gets them to and from work much faster.

The project goes back nearly 10 years. Starting in early 1964, discussions were entered into by the District of Columbia Highway Department, the Virginia Department of Highways, two bus companies, a transit regulatory agency, the transit authority, and the Federal Highway Administration. As a result, proposals for express bus service were incorporated into reconstruction plans for the Shirley.

The reconstruction called for rebuilding the existing controlled-access route, which had two lanes in each direction separated by a median, into an eight-lane freeway with three lanes each way and two reversible lanes in the median. Interagency discussions led to the redesign of three interchanges to allow exclusive bus access to the reversible lanes. Previously, access to only the outer directional roadways was planned at these interchanges.

Without the provision of the added people-moving capacity that buses would offer, the planners knew it would only be a matter of time before congestion again overtook the reconstructed facility. They also knew that downtown Washington, the principal destination of 51 percent of the Shirley's automobile users, has an ever-growing shortage of parking spaces and that these have high parking rates.

Against this background, and with the issuance of a Federal Highway Administration policy statement in 1967 recommending reserved bus lanes, an incentive was given to consider making provision for preferential or exclusive bus lanes on the Shirley.

The same agencies again got together, and an agreement was reached in early 1968 on proceeding with a detailed "Feasibility Study of Bus Rapid Transit in the Shirley Highway Corridor". A steering committee was established, consisting of a member and an alternate from each of the following agencies: the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Virginia Department of Highways, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, the AB&W Transit Company, and the WV&M Coach Company (the two bus companies are now part of the WMATA Metrobus System). The Federal Highway Administration and Urban Mass Transportation Administration [UMTA today is the Federal Transit Administration - SMK] were represented in an advisory capacity.

In September 1969, a plan was put into effect whereby buses were permitted exclusive use during the morning rush period of 4.5 miles of reversible lanes which already had been constructed. This meant that each bus saved between 12 and 18 minutes on the morning run. Almost immediately bus ridership increased by 15 percent and continued until an increase of about 35 percent was realized. The bus company pressed more buses into service, but even so most buses had standees. Unfortunately, the company lacked the capital to expand its facilities.

In November, 1969, a major milestone of the study was reached with the presentation of details on how to provide bus rapid transit service during completion of the highway reconstruction. The most feasible plan was to construct a temporary bus roadway through the remaining four-mile section from the point where the already-constructed reversible lanes ended to the Potomac River. This provided an additional 15-minute time saving for buses in both the morning and evening rush hours. With this roadway, buses were able to have a 30-minute time saving over automobiles for the Shirley portion of the trip. The Virginia Department of Highways revised its contractual arrangements to make provision for the temporary bus roadway in the area which was already advertised for construction.

In September, 1970, the first portion of the temporary bus roadway, a 1.5-mile section extending from the end of the reversible lanes that had been turned over to buses a year earlier, was opened. This gave buses an additional 5- to 8-minute time saving and provided a time saving for an additional 50 buses that enter the Shirley at a point where the exclusive bus lanes had previously ended.

The final 2.5 miles of temporary bus roadway was completed in April, 1971. This section connected the previously completed section of temporary bus roadway with a new bridge which had been constructed across the Potomac River, thereby completing a continuous 11-mile exclusive bus roadway between Springfield, Virginia, and the Potomac River. Within Washington, the District of Columbia Highway Department established peak-period bus priority lanes and turn advantages for buses, extending the bus priority system into downtown Washington.

The feasibility study estimated that peak-period transit ridership on the Shirley would increase by about 5,000 passengers a day each way. This required an additional 90 buses.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission worked with UMTA to develop a grant for additional equipment, facilities, and management for new bus service once the roadway was fully opened. This demonstration grant was approved by UMTA in September, 1970, and provided funds for the purchase and operation of the first 30 buses. These buses were placed into operation in June, 1971, on eight new routes which were designed to relieve overcrowding on existing buses, as well as to serve new residential developments in the Shirley corridor. Within a month, some of the new buses were already operating with loads in excess of capacity, and all available reserve buses were put into operation to provide additional capacity. Subsequent amendments to the demonstration grant have provided funds for 60 additional buses, bringing the total project fleet to 90 buses as recommended in the feasibility study.

The new buses have special features that enhance passenger comfort and increase service reliability: air conditioning, seats and aisles wider than in most buses, and carpeting on floors, sidewalls, and ceiling for visual attractiveness and to reduce interior noise. Two-way radios have been provided to enable dispatchers to communicate with drivers in the event of breakdowns or accidents, and to direct route changes where warranted by traffic conditions. In addition, all of the buses are equipped with antipollution devices to reduce exhaust emissions, and some are powered by eight-cylinder engines (typical urban transit buses have six-cylinder engines).

A third project element, in addition to the roadway improvements and new transit service, is the provision of fringe parking lots, which were coordinated with the new bus service for park-and-ride patrons. In June, 1971, the NVTC obtained permission from two shopping centers (Springfield Plaza and Shirley Plaza) to designate portions of their lots for all-day free parking for bus riders. Other shopping centers are also used for parking by daily bus riders, but are not officially part of the demonstration project.

A permanent fringe park-and-ride lot was opened in October, 1972, on Backlick Road near the Capital Beltway. This lot, the location of a future Metro rapid rail transit station, was leased by the NVTC for the duration of the demonstration project. The five-acre, lighted lot has 400 parking spaces, an area for passenger boarding and alighting, a kiss-and-ride staging zone, and a bike rack. Use of these three lots has increased steadily to a current level of 700 cars daily.

To evaluate the success of the Shirley Highway project, it is helpful to review the objectives of the demonstration project. These are: (1) to divert auto commuters to the bus service; (2) to promote the economic visibility of transit operations; (3) to reduce traffic congestion during peak periods; (4) to increase the people-moving efficiency of the Shirley; (5) to reduce auto air pollution emissions and gasoline consumption; (6) to reduce travel time for motorists and transit users, and (7) to improve the reliability of bus service. All of these objectives have been attained.

Since the inauguration of the project in 1969, morning peak-period bus ridership in the entire corridor has increased by 8,700 passengers to a total of 21,000, and the number of those who travel by bus rather than by car has increased from 27 percent (prior to project implementation) to more than 40 percent today. This significant increase has been accomplished even though half of all auto drivers in the corridor park free at their place of employment. The busway has stimulated substantial patronage growth for those routes experiencing the greatest time savings. The increase of 8,700 bus riders far exceeds the 5,000 estimated in the feasibility study.

As a consequence of the shift of automobile commuters to the bus service, approximately 5,000 automobiles have been removed from the daily peak-period traffic streams on the major corridor highways. However, it appears that newly opened portions of the reconstructed Shirley Highway have been more responsible for reducing congestion and automobile travel times than have the diverted automobiles. Nonetheless, had large numbers of express bus riders not been diverted from auto travel, the highway system would have been more congested, and all auto users would have been subjected to additional delays and longer travel times.

The reduction of 5,000 automobiles during the peak period has had a corresponding effect on air pollution and gasoline consumption. It has been estimated that since June, 1969, carbon monoxide emissions have been reduced by 1,950 tons, hydrocarbon emissions by 300 tons, and nitrogen oxide emissions by 150 tons. Total gasoline conservation during this time was approximately 2 million gallons, which was especially significant during the fuel shortage this past winter.

A dramatic example of how the busway has improved the people-moving capacity of the Shirley is the fact that over 50 percent of those traveling on the Shirley in the one-hour peak travel on buses. During a recent traffic count, 7,700 bus passengers were observed on the bus lanes, while only 7,100 car passengers were observed on the three auto lanes of the highway. The bus lanes still have a substantial additional capacity, while the auto lanes at this volume are at the capacity of the roadway.

There have been two recent developments of interest. On December 10, 1973, automobiles with four or more occupants were permitted access to the previously exclusive bus lanes at a few selected access points, thereby encouraging formation of car pools in an effort to reduce traffic congestion, pollution, and fuel consumption. During March of this year, 750 cars each morning used the express lanes on the Shirley, each carrying at least four people, with no effect on bus ridership. Previously fewer than 100 car pools were using the Shirley Highway auto lanes.

The other recent event occurred on April 29 when WMATA added another 14 peak-period buses to the existing Shirley Highway routes. This was the first service expansion since the last of the 90 project buses were put into operation in February, 1973. These buses have provided some relief to the severely overcrowded buses on the Shirley. Nine more trips will be added this summer. However, this additional service will still be insufficient to meet the demand for bus service in this corridor.

The Shirley Highway project has demonstrated that an exclusive bus roadway and greatly expanded transit service can cause a dramatic shift in the mode of travel of commuters. The growing interest in this concept among officials in other cities in this country and around the world is evidence of the high degree of success of this innovative project.

[end of verbatim copy of article]

Lead article Henry G. Shirley Memorial Highway

Copyright 1999-2002 by Scott Kozel. All rights reserved. Reproduction, reuse, or distribution without permission is prohibited.

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By Scott M. Kozel, Roads to the Future

(Created 5-27-1999, updated 11-3-2002)