The bread-and-butter charter and tour work into Washington, D.C., that keeps many motorcoach operators in the black, or at least out of the red, is being jeopardized by a plan to “manage“ tour bus congestion in the nation‘s capital.
The object of concern is a 100-page report called the Tour Bus Management Initiative. It’s sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation for five organizations, including the D.C. Department of Transportation, the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District and the National Capital Planning Commission.
Prepared by the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, the report concedes that tourism is vital to the D.C. economy and that tour buses serve as many as one-third of the visitors to the area’s historical and cultural attractions, but it adds that the benefits related to tour bus operations “come at a significant cost.”
What costs might those be? According to the report, tour buses create traffic congestion and consume large amounts of parking supplies and emit diesel fumes. In addition, because they’re long and tall, tour buses obscure the views for tourists and residents alike.
They also bring millions of dollars into the local economy.
The tourist trap
Therein lies the dilemma. How do you minimize the negative impact of tour buses but, at the same time, protect the economic interests of the city and the motorcoach operators who deliver the tourists? This is an especially pertinent question for D.C., which has seen its tourist appeal diminished in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
One strategy mentioned in the report is to require tour operators to transport their groups to one of several staging areas. From those points, the tour groups could either walk or ride downtown circulator buses, perhaps operated by the local transit agency, to the attractions.
Unfortunately, this plan has several drawbacks. It would compromise the convenience that tour buses currently offer (i.e., door-to-door service). In addition, it would make it more difficult for tour groups to stay together while traveling from the staging areas to the attractions. This is especially important when dealing with security-conscious seniors and student groups.
As you might expect, this downtown circulator plan has not gone over well with coach operators.
How other cities cope
This dilemma isn’t exclusive to the D.C. area. Tour bus management is an ongoing concern in several cities in North America.
To its credit, the report offers “best practices” for 10 cities in the United States and Canada. Each city, of course, has its own distinctive challenges in regard to tour bus management.
For example, Charleston, S.C., requires operators of buses 25 feet or longer to obtain a touring permit. This gives the city the ability to control the number of permits at any one time. In addition, the city restricts operation of large buses to two perimeter routes and designates drop-off and pick-up locations.
In Baltimore, tour buses are required to load and unload passengers at designated on-street locations only. Illegally parked buses are fined $77 per citation. However, coaches can park in lots that are centrally located to the main tourist attractions.
In Boston, meanwhile, the city transportation department issued a parking map that identifies locations for tour bus drop-off/pick-up and for layover parking. It also designates bus routes and includes detailed information on tour bus regulations.
There are reasonable alternatives to the peripheral parking strategy. Transportation officials in D.C. should look closely at what’s being done in other cities before taking any rash actions. The challenges facing the tour and charter bus industry are plenty without this additional burden.