“They hurt so much,’’ she said, as a dozen people waited. “We don’t get good service here. Everyone complains.”
Hours after most white-collar workers have settled in their homes, a second evening rush crowds the region’s bus system. Between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m, conversations commence in Spanish, Thai and Amharic among bus riders ending shifts downtown as security guards, cleaners, servers and busboys.
That is, if they can get on the bus.
After 7 p.m., the 16th Street routes, known as the S2 and the S4, are the city’s most crowded. Bodies squeeze up against the exit doors by the time the bus hits 16th and P, the ninth of 51 stops between the Federal Triangle and Silver Spring Metrorail stations. Bus arrivals are erratic, waits are long and patience is a necessity.
“What can we do?” asked Ana Ramirez, 24, who cleans offices before returning home to Columbia Heights. “You adapt to the system.”
Reyes had to wait another 20 minutes before a third bus approached. From a distance, the S2 looked like a Picasso painting — tangles of raised hands and palms, grasping for something to keep them steady, lighted by the bus’s orange glow.
This bus actually stopped. Passengers started to file in. Then the doors abruptly closed.
Reyes and about a half-dozen others were left behind again. Her total wait time before she got on a bus? Forty minutes.
When Metro surveyed passengers in 2008 about bus routes, it received the highest number of responses from riders of the S2 and S4, who cited unreliable schedules and overcrowding.
Jim Hamre, a Metrobus planner, said officials are working on the problems. Metro added an express bus route along 16th Street, but it ends by 7 p.m.
Planners want to add more extra-long buses at night, which have almost twice as much seating capacity. But officials say there’s not enough space at the 16th Street line’s depots to accommodate the extra-long buses.
Another proposal to stagger bus departures, akin to the Circulator lines, has not happened.
“We’ve seen pretty substantial growth’’ on the 16th Street routes, Hamre said. “While it was satisfactory a couple years ago, it’s getting kind of tight now. We could use more buses out there in the evenings.”
A spike in ridership
Citywide, overall bus ridership has climbed by 6 percent this year. But ridership on the 16th Street route grew by 11 percent, fueled in part by nighttime riders. In May, one in every five of the 16th Street routes’ 14,330 daily riders boarded between 7 p.m. and 4 a.m.
Along the 16th Street routes, the vast majority of riders from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. are among the estimated 8,000 office cleaners and security guards who use public transportation after finishing their jobs between 10 p.m. and midnight, said Jaime Contreras, capital area director of the 32BJ, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union. They prefer the bus over Metrorail because it costs less and gets closer to home.
More and more, they are being joined by young professionals who catch a bus after sweating at a gym or eating nearby, Metro officials said. They wait alongside their servers, who feel largely underserved by the bus system.
“This is something people never talk about,” Contreras said. “Why? Well, they are the invisible workforce.”
When a proposal to allow later working hours for custodial workers arose during union negotiations, Contreras said many pushed against it. They worry about catching a bus even later.
A long night at the stop
Here’s how the quest to get back home played out at the 16th and P bus stop one night this month, when buses are supposed to arrive about once every 10 minutes:
One bus stopped at 10:02 p.m., another at 10:04. Between them, the two buses picked up a total of four people.
Eight people arrived at 10:06. No buses showed up for almost a half-hour. By 10:30, 30 people were waiting on the sidewalk.
A full bus flew past at 10:31. Another full ride came two minutes later. The driver let off one passenger, but the bus was too full to take on new riders.
Two waiting women just walked away. Another took to her cellphone, begging a friend to pick her up. Others checked a mobile app that promised a bus was coming in one minute. It took 12.
The same pattern emerged after 11 p.m., following another influx of passengers.
“By the time I get to the bus stop, I am so tired, I am wishing I will find a seat,” said Marlon Cruz, who works from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. as a cook.
It took 25 minutes for him to get on a bus. But all the seats were taken, so Cruz stood, struggling to keep his eyes open.
The bus driver considered these riders lucky.
“Today was a light day,’’ the driver said. “Usually, I can’t pick people up by the time I got to P Street.”
If you have an idea for a story about Washington at night, e-mail Robert Samuels.