Commuter praises Metrobus driver’s performance during traffic disruption

Robert Thomson
Columnist February 28

This letter-writer praises the can-do spirit of a Metrobus driver called into service because of a downtown traffic emergency. Readers will discover not only a model transit worker but also a model commuter. Each knew how to rise above the city stresses.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

I know people usually write to you so they can vent about traffic and public transportation snarls, but I don’t want to do that today.

On Thursday, Feb. 20, I was waiting at a bus stop near H and 13th streets NW to board the next 80 bus. The driver rudely blew past me. Knowing I would have to wait a while for the next 80, I changed plans and opted to hop on an S9 headed to Silver Spring.

Traffic was a real mess all over downtown on that early evening.

Minutes after the 80 bus blew past me, a Metrobus employee herded a bunch of us onto an S9 at about 6 p.m. The driver, a young pleasant woman, told us she’d been called into action from the garage because of some bus crisis. She safely juked, bobbed and weaved her way through downtown (in a safe manner) and got every rider to his or her designated stop all the way up to East West Highway and Colesville Road. That’s where she kindly told me: “This is the last stop, baby.” We were all impressed with her skills and demeanor. It bonded us.

She was cheerful, efficient and professional. I just wanted to offer kudos to her. And I wasn’t alone. At every stop, debarking riders offered her high praise.

I used to be a regular train rider but have resorted to buses for most of my commuting (when I can’t ride my bike) because I find them more reliable and I like being able to study the sights and sounds of Washington from a bus window.

— Elizabeth McGowan, D.C.

Many commuters will remember that evening, and not in a good way. President Obama’s visit to the St. Regis hotel in Northwest and the resulting police activity stalled evening traffic for many blocks around.

The Metrobus operations center detected the problem and took some emergency steps, sending four bus supervisors to the area around 16th and K to assess conditions and establish detours, said transit authority spokesman Dan Stessel.

I noticed a wave of e-mail MetroAlerts and Twitter messages from @metrobusinfo advising riders of the delays. Meanwhile, the operations center was using its internal communications system to advise bus drivers in the area.

All that was a good on-the-fly response to a sudden problem. It may have been one of those extra supervisors that McGowan saw on her way to boarding the S9. “Metro was definitely trying to make it happen that night,” McGowan said.

The transportation system works best with the active participation of the people being transported. McGowan and her fellow riders were buoyed by the skill and attitude of the bus driver. But McGowan also was part of the solution.

She knows how to navigate the city, where she has lived since 2001. And she adapted when her plan for reaching a rendezvous in Silver Spring fell through.

McGowan’s personal history is a telltale. An environmental writer, she has through-hiked the Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine. She’s also a cross-country cyclist. And as you saw in her letter, she just likes to look at people and things. McGowan used to take the Greyhound bus from Western Massachusetts to journalism school at the University of Missouri “because the characters along the way were so endlessly fascinating.”

“I’m kind of a public transportation junkie,” she said, although she’s a bit down on Metrorail travel. Single-tracking, off-loading platform crowding and unexplained delays were enough to dampen even her adventurous spirit.

She began experimenting with buses about seven years ago when commuting to Arlington, then resumed about four years ago to reach Union Station parts of downtown for work.

“My philosophy with bicycling and public transportation is to always be ready with Plan B and ‘proceed as the way opens,’ ” McGowan said, quoting a Quaker phrase.

“Yes,” she said, “sometimes buses are slow and, yes, it is irritating when an 80 bus doesn’t come for 30 minutes and then two show up simultaneously, but you learn how to navigate.”

On that Thursday night, she had planned to take the 80 to her D.C. home, then ride by car with her spouse to Silver Spring. The 80 failed her but didn’t stop her. Seeing S9 to Silver Spring on the front of another bus was all she needed, she said, “I just called home and said I’d be going directly to Silver Spring.”

She praises the bus drivers: “I’m amazed how they keep their buses going and find a way around most any obstacle.” But getting around obstacles is her formula, too, and it’s a winning one for all travelers.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com drgridlock@washpost.com .

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