Opinion: How to Save GEORGE the Wayward Bus

There are lots of problems with our City’s GEORGE bus service, and as budget crunch time approaches, trail balloons are rising to suggest maybe we should just junk it. After all: divide this past year’s cost by the number of riders and you get $6.50 per passenger, per ride.

Sad to say, starting from the best of intentions, GEORGE has pretty much been a disaster. This past year the City paid out almost half a million dollars to run mostly empty, oversize buses along routes that largely duplicate Metrobus. Sure, some folks do ride GEORGE — either because the 50-cent fare is a bargain compared to Metrobus, or because they can save a block or two walk compared to the Metrobus stop.

Yet just across the City line, Arlington enjoys great success with a similar bus service known as ART – even though they charge a full $1.35 fare. Why?

PROBLEM #1: We bought the wrong bus. From the beginning, the City was carried away with experimental high-tech, gee-whiz machinery, when we should have been studying what already worked in similar municipalities. First we wanted electric buses, and when those weren’t ready for prime time we got saddled with expensive, huge, clean-diesel, voice-emulation wheelchair-accessible vehicles twice the size they should be. When these empty behemoths started prowling neighborhood streets and shaking the bric-a-brac, residents raised a squawk, and GEORGE was banned from Broadmont, to cite the most prominent case.

PROBLEM #2: Unlike a real bus, GEORGE runs a nonsensical circle route in one direction only. So, for example, if you live near Grove Avenue, you might find it convenient to ride the 26W straight to the West Falls Church Metro. But how do you get home? Not the way you got there. GEORGE only goes from Haycock Road to Broad Street to West Street to Poplar Drive to Seaton Lane to Sherrow Avenue to Virginia Avenue back to Broad Street to Oak Street to Lincoln Avenue to West Street to – Grove Avenue. Faster to walk – or in the real world, park your car at the Metro.

PROBLEM #3: The GEORGE schedule is, to use the kindest word I can think of, idiotic. It’s divided into two segments: peak hours and midday hours, “midday” being defined as 10 a.m.—4 p.m. During midday, there’s only one bus route instead of two. Fair enough, since almost everyone who rides GEORGE does so during rush hour. But why would anyone devise a “midday” service that goes places you can’t get to during rush hour? That’s right, from 10-4 GEORGE makes extended runs out to Eden Center and Wilson Boulevard. Before and after those hours, when someone might actually be on the bus, GEORGE stays away from that area. Worse, during the midday run GEORGE abandons almost any effort to provide unique service. With the exception of the link from EFC Metro to Eden Center, it’s all on Broad and Washington streets, same as Metrobus.

Can anything be done? Not if the City continues to choose band-aids over major surgery. Saving GEORGE essentially means starting over:

— Narrow its purpose. The vision of happy residents taking GEORGE to do their shopping and dine out is a pipe dream. Residents will only ride GEORGE to get to the Metro to go to work. So run GEORGE during rush hours and park it the rest of the time.

— Keep away from Metrobus. GEORGE should never run on any streets served by Metrobus. Instead, run it through City neighborhoods off the beaten path (and no, running on Park Street instead of Broad Street doesn’t count).

— Lose the Big Bertha bodies. We need mini-buses costing a fraction of the current model. And forget about expensive frills such as the high-tech voice emulation calling out street names. GEORGE is for City residents going to and from the Metro – we know where we live, for crying out loud.

Run the bus in both directions, and skip the circle routes. Instead, run back and forth between WFC and EFC Metro stations. One bus could run through neighborhoods north of Broad and the other bus south of Broad.

— Mark the bus stops to clearly show what time GEORGE will arrive. Alexandria did this with its DASH bus and ridership immediately rose dramatically. (Of course it only works if the bus actually comes when the sign says it will.)

— And (here’s a ringer) make GEORGE free. What? That’s un-American! Right, it’s more like what they do in Australia – and Old Town Alexandria. At last year’s ridership level it would mean a loss of some $35,000 – minus the cost of collecting that $35,000 (which, with the high-tech Smartcard readers, probably cost close to $35,000).

— And finally: don’t change the name. I like it.

(Photo: Adam E. Moreira)

March 6, 2009 


6 Responses to “Opinion: How to Save GEORGE the Wayward Bus”

  1. Gordon Theisz on March 7th, 2009 10:59 pm

    This discussion pretty much nails the GEORGE issue for me. Great work!

  2. Barry Buschow on March 8th, 2009 11:55 am

    We must remember the environmental savings associated with the GEORGE. For instance, convert the number of trips to carbon saved.  For example, if we assume the average length of the ride is 1.5 miles, and that cars in Falls Church average 20 mpg in city driving (rough estimates), then use of the George has saved (70,000 X 1.5)/ 20=   5250 gallons of gasoline.  Since each gallon of gasoline adds about 19.6 lbs of CO2, then use of the George has prevented approximately 102,900 lbs., or 51.45 tons of  CO2 from going into the air. 

    Using Metro has also added to the costs of the system. It should be combined with an independent system such as ARTS to reduce the costs and extend the service from West FAlls Church to Rossyln…There are many ways to enhance the system while reducing costs. The question now is, is it too late……….????

  3. The Falls Church Insider » The GEORGE Bus Situation on March 10th, 2009 3:35 pm

    […] week George Southern (no relation to GEORGE bus) wrote over at the Falls Church Times that the City of Falls Church GEORGE bus system was potentially on the chopping block.  At last […]

  4. Save GEORGE Bus, Says Village Preservation Society : Falls Church Times on March 13th, 2009 9:04 pm

    […] See also: “How to Save GEORGE, the Wayward Bus” […]

  5. Jim Breiling on March 14th, 2009 11:31 am

    There are less expensive possibilities.

    Here’s one:

    What about seeking a contractor that would use a van (like those used by the Shuttles to the airports) to provide “George” service per schedule and route BUT with service triggered by request by phone, e-mail or twitter at least (say) 20 minutes ahead of the time on the schedule. For example, if I wanted the George service from East Falls Church Metro that was on the schedule to leave there (if reserved) at say 6 p.m., I would have to request that service no later than say 5:40 p.m. George would follow the prescribed route and schedule from EFC Metro to my stop. George would then (a) continue on the route to drop off any other passenger(s) or to pick up any other passnger(s) on the route, or (b) return to base until resuming the next “on call” run per scheduled availability.

  6. Dan Maller on March 22nd, 2009 11:38 am

    Thank you for this forum. I am determined find a way to preserve the system so we can make a decisive transition to something that would work and be a better representation of our community values. I believe that these 40 passenger diesel city buses are absolutely wrong for our needs, so once we get beyond the immediate crisis we need a medium and long-term plan that provides service using smaller vehicles powered by CNG, electricity, hydrogen, compressed air, horses, dogs, strapping Ukranian lads, or whatever.

    There appears to be a strong consensus that Falls Church can not afford to operate the GEORGE system in the current fashion, and that the value added for residents is far less than the cost. My opinion is that we should be able to come up with a plan that provides the bulk of the benefit at a fraction of the cost, or we have no business in the transit business. I am actively working to come up with the outline of a plan and I would welcome any feedback on this site or by email to [email protected]. I would hope to have at least one brainstorming session (formal or informal) including George users prior to recommending anything formally.

    The short-term options are terminate the program entirely at 6/30/09 or to find ways to reduce the subsidy to a number that the community would support [a tax increase for or alternative program cuts]. My starting suggestion is a 1/2¢ property tax increase which would provide ~$175k, combined with a very serious and decisive look at the structure of the program.

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