Saturday, March 14, 2009

~Barracks Row Happenings: Circulator Logic

by: Sharon Bosworth

Shiny red Circulators are to everyday buses what shiny red sports cars are to everyday automobiles – the stuff of fantasy! With their direct route, sexy paint jobs and wrap around windows, Circulators deliver a juicy jolt to an ordinary day. They cost less to ride, and everyone looks better in one. Every neighborhood in town wants a bite of this apple!

We’ve been dreaming of a Circulator for Capitol Hill – for many reasons. We need one for the Hill staffers who arrive every year. Welcome, Class of 2009! Happily for us, most of these new DC residents come to town without cars. We need the Circulator for our local Hill residents, too, who yearn to leave the car home when they shop and dine locally.

We need the Circulator for thousands of tourists and regional visitors coming into DC through Capitol Hill’s own Union Station. They come raring to see the sights of our Capitol Hill neighborhood. Yet when they arrive there is no quick, obvious way to get to all the cool destinations they’ve read about.

And we haven’t even considered the 20,000 federal workers at the Navy Yard and US Department of Transportation who want OUT at lunch to get to area shops and restaurants. Sounds like a situation made for a Circulator. The route favored by a local citizens group would sweep in a rapid arc from Union Station past the Capitol Visitors Center, to Eastern Market Metro Plaza, down Eighth Street, and right on to M Street to Navy Yard Metro.

Presently, Circulators leave Union Station bound for Georgetown seven days a week. Meanwhile, Capitol Hill has waited politely: Our Circulator would be coming soon they said. Who are “they”? WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) has title to the Circulators; the District Department of Transportation paid for the buses, and an outside contractor operates them through the DC Surface Transportation Board.

Like so many decisions today, this one comes down to dollars. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, rising chairman of WMATA, was fair minded enough to hear out the concerns of a group of Capitol Hill community leaders and residents, who concluded (rightly, it appears) that the Capitol Hill Circulator was about to be back burner-ed. At a mid-January meeting, a compromise was achieved between Councilmember Graham, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells and the Capitol Hill citizen group. The bad news? The Circulator routes promised to Capitol Hill have been reduced to a test status. The good news? As of late March, Capitol Hill will finally get a Circulator!

What caused the Capitol Hill Circulator to be in doubt? Graham's main point of contention is the low ridership on the N22 bus. But a Metro bus and a Circulator are entirely different animals. Assuming that Circulator ridership will be reflective of that of the N22 is not a fair assumption. The plodding N22 stops countless times as it loops from Union Station to the US DOT on M Street SE – a frustrating ride for even the most committed carbon footprint types. On top of that, the buses are often in disrepair and seem to be the oldest of the Metro bus fleet. Marginally popular to begin with (partly due to lack of proper marketing and promotion), the N22 route was expanded last spring in hopes of providing another transit alternative as the Nationals’ first season in their new stadium began. But the poor old N22 was no match for suburban baseball fans. They are an in-and-out crowd at best, riding the green line, but most often they park for free at RFK and shuttle to the stadium then beat a retreat back home in their SUV’s after the game. The Circulator could prove to be useful to Nats fans, but we won't be able to tell with this initial, limited schedule trial run. We will need extended hours and weekend service to find out if we can get baseballs fans to ride.

What Circulators seem do best is get riders to the places they want to go to shop, eat and have fun – FAST. Georgetown and now Adams Morgan – a newly approved Circulator destination – have a huge assortment of dining and shopping. And Capitol Hill is loaded with A-list destinations, too. Aside from the trendy blocks around Union Station, there’s Eastern Market and its environs – the oldest and most famous commercial area in DC. Nineteen blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue SE are brimming with restaurants, bars, shops and services. Barracks Row has quickly become a hot spot on Capitol Hill boasting 37 restaurants, bars and smart retail shops within a four-block stretch. The emerging Capitol Riverfront promises to be another exciting hub of commercial offerings. The Library of Congress houses a stunning interior with docent-led tours as well as the largest library in the country (open until 9:30 p.m. weekday evenings as well as on Saturday). Tourists can’t resist this ethereal gem. And don't forget the dazzling new Capitol Visitors Center (open weekdays and Saturday).

What sets our neighborhood apart from other “Circulator neighborhoods” is that our commercial offerings are spread out among several different corridors. Herein lies the strongest argument for the Capitol Hill Circulator – to serve as a connector for all of these unique areas – both for tourists and residents.

The Circulator’s final route is, as yet, not set, but the headways (how often they run) are set at 10 minutes. These are details that matter but not the most important issue. What we must change now is the transit officials' perception that somehow the Circulator will not be a financial success on Capitol Hill because of poor ridership. That’s an idea we need to beat back into oblivion! Circulators belong on Capitol Hill – and we're all going to have to work hard to prove that during this trial phase. Now is the time for Capitol Hill to rally. When the Circulators finally arrive, embrace them. That won’t be hard; they are cute and fast! Ride one every day. Ride one twice a day. Tell your friends. Better yet, take your friends for a $1 ride! It’s up to us to prove to THEM, whoever they may be, that we need this bus, we love this bus, and we want it for keeps. Can we do this? Yes, we can!

Sharon Bosworth is events and marketing director at Barracks Row Main Street. For more information or to volunteer, call 202-544-3188 or e-mail

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