When the Metro subway extended its service to Silver Spring in February, Montgomery County decided to expand its Ride-on bus system from four to 20 routes. In the four months since, ridership on Ride-on has tripled from daily average of 4,000 to 12,000.
The expanded system, which covers Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Langley Park, White Flint and Wheaton Plaza, operates with the Silver Spring subway station as a focal point.
"It's great. I walk two blocks from my house and usually have to wait five or ten minutes for a bus to the subway station," said James parker, of Silver spring. "It cost me a quarter to the station and 60 cents to get to my job downtown. On the way back, I get a transfer (from the subway) and take a Metrobus for free and walk four blocks home. It never takes me more than 40 minutes to get downtown. It takes me 25 minutes to drive and that doesn't count parking."
The Ride-on fare is 25 cents for everybody, including senior citizens and children, and a passenger may transfer to different lines for free.
A Metro transfer is good for free passage on a Ride-On vehicle, and similarly, a Ride-On transfer is good for a 25-cent credit on a fare when transferring to a Metrobus. Subway transfers, which are valid on Metrobuses, are not accepted on Ride-On buses.
Most Ride-On buses pass each stop every 20 minutes; others come every half hour. Most routes operate from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, though some run later, and six routes run on Sunday.
The system, which opened April 14, 1975, through the efforts of County Executive James Gleason, originally was designed "to service areas in Takoma Park and Silver Spring where Metrobuses couldn't go,"said Bruce Carter, supervisor of operations for Ride-On.
Ride-On has been more efficient, economically, than other public transportation. The system loses about 45 to 50 cents a passenger, according to Mark Weiss, transit operations manager for Montgomery County. By comparison, Metrobus, which has phased out nine routes in favor of the Ride-On service, loses about 61 cents per passenger in Montgomery County, said John Fularz, a transportation cost analyst for Metro. Ride-On buses are less expensive than their larger Metrobus counterparts. The original 19-passenger Ride-On buses, which are being phased out, cost $21,000 apiece; 23 to 27 seaters cost $30,000 and the larger, 35-passemger models introduced with the subway cost $35,000, Weiss said.
Fularz warned that Ride-On costs could skyrocket if drivers become unionized. Metro drivers are paid, $8.16 per hour compared with a $4.67 starting wage for their Ride-On counterparts. He also noted that Ride-On buses, which are paid for totally by MOntgomery County, require more service and do not last as long as Metrobuses, which receive 80 percent funding from the federal government.
Ride-On was given a $2.2 million appropriation from the county for fiscal year 1978, which ends June 30, and has returned $700,000 in revenues so far.
The Ride-On system has been initiated in Gaithersburg recently, handling 500 to 600 passengers a day, and routes are also planned for Bethesda, Carter said.
Even though the system has been well received, some customers say there are a few drawbacks. For instance, if you're looking for comfort you won't take Ride-On; but if desire courtesy and convenience, it likely will fill your needs. The buses, most with diesel engines, vibrates, take bumps hard, have squealing brakes and emit noticeable fumes. The seats are made of hard plastic with minimal cushioning. The drivers must crawl across the transmission hump to get in and out of their seats and change their destination signs.
"You know, they say it's a man's world. Well, these buses are design for men," said Diana Rozier, 23, a driver from Takoma Park, "The diesel fumes and the noise - I can't stand them. And they say they will get worse in the summer. Sometimes I get nauseated, faint. And I can't hear myself talk. But I got used to it."
The drivers are instructed to be courteous, Carter said, and if there are any reports of rude behavior by drivers, "I'll be on them right away,"
"I think its pretty good. It will expand. People like it. They can go any where they want for 25 cents," said Joe Otts, a driver from Silver Spring, who try to be "courteous, try to be as easy as you can. If there's any discrepancy, you gave the customer the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it's hard. Some of these hardheads act like 25 cent is a million dollars."
Drivers must be able to get Class C licence, pass physical and written exams, have a good driving record and take a Ride-On driving course. After drivers are hired, they must learned to handle the vehicle and learn all 20 routes and major destinations, such as schools and hospitals.
Though the majority of more than a dozen passengers interviewed at the Silver Spring subway station and on buses favored the system, some voiced complaints.
"I hate this system. I have to walk so far. I wish they still had the old system," said an elderly woman from Takoma Park who refused to give her name. "Since they changed all the buses, you have to get up early in the morning to hunt where you're going. Since this new system started, I've walked more than I've ever walked in my life."