Rugiatu Jalloh placed her algebra textbook on top of her bulky purse and got comfortable in what looked to be the last open seat in the bus shelters on Campus Way South in Largo.
It was 3 p.m. and the benches were packed with students from Prince George’s Community College. Many listened to music, some thumbed their cellphones and a few hopeful ones watched for the next bus.
“Most of the time I have to wait,” Jalloh, a 22-year-old physical therapy student, said as she flipped through her textbook after a morning of classes.The wait for the C26 that afternoon was 30 minutes. She was lucky. Other days, she can sit on the bench for as long as an hour, she said.
Such waits are common for midday Metrobus riders on the routes serving Central Avenue in Prince George’s County.
Outside of rush hours, the buses, serving a corridor that stretches from the Addison Road Metro station eastward to Upper Marlboro, are scheduled to run every 60 minutes (and every 30 minutes during rush hour).
It’s a timetable that can make commuting a grind for students, whose class schedules are unlikely to correspond to traditional rush-hour travel pattern times, and who in many cases are also juggling jobs and family responsibilities.
Even as bus ridership has been rising, service levels have largely remained the same.
Each weekday, about 3,000 people use Metro’s Central Avenue buses, up by nearly 1,000 riders in three years, Metro statistics show. The Prince George’s transit system — the Bus — also serves the community college on weekdays, but Metrobus remains a preferred option for many riders, especially those connecting from Metrorail’s Blue Line.
The effect of the growing ridership is obvious to Metro officials.
“That probably says, yes, there needs to be more service out there,” said Jim Hamre, director of Metro’s Office of Bus Planning.
But Metro and the county say they do not have the resources to increase service as much as needed. And in the case of Metro, the Central Avenue line is one of many in need of more service. Systemwide, Metrobus’s average weekday ridership has risen to 438,352 passengers from 416,148 in 2010, according to the transit agency.
Job losses, high gasoline prices and increased activity downtown may be factors in increasing demand for bus service, transit officials said. Increased ridership in the suburbs also reflects population shifts in many metropolitan regions as jobs migrate out of city centers, and low-income householdsmove to the suburbs, said Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution.
“People aren’t always just going downtown for their jobs during the rush hours,” said Puentes, a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. “They are going in between suburbs, they are going at different times, they are going for different purposes, like school or jobs at night outside of rush hour. So transit agencies, in some cases, are finding themselves challenged to address those kinds of trips and to adapt to these rapidly changing trends.”
Along the Central Avenue corridor, for example, ridership has been driven by recent development and the promise of additional growth. With the county envisioning more mixed-use and transit-oriented development in the area, Metro officials say an investment in bus service will be needed.
The area also has distinct factors that drive some of the demand. Large groups take public transit to Six Flags America, and growing enrollment at Prince George’s Community College has translated into more bus use.
Of the 44,000 students at Prince George’s this year, 30 percent take the Central Avenue buses to the flagship Largo campus, college spokeswoman Mona Rock said.
Many transfer from the Addison Road or Largo Town Center Metro stations, where Washington office workers also board the buses to reach their homes in areas such as Largo and Upper Marlboro.
“The infrequency of the service line has been an issue,” Rock said. “If you only have a few opportunities to get there and the schedules are infrequent, then everybody has to choose one of those [opportunities], so that leads to overcrowding.”
Unlike some local colleges and universities, Prince George’s Community College, just two miles from the Largo Town Center Metro station, does not offer a shuttle service.
Metro in the past few months conducted an assessment of the bus line.
“People would like to see more bus service in the corridor,” said Julie Hershorn, Metro’s manager of bus planning. “Like many of our Metrobus routes, the ridership is growing on the Central Avenue line. We are trying to meet the demand for service, but we are constrained a bit by funding.”
A report of the findings with recommendations for bus service improvement will be available in mid-September, Hershorn said. But it is unclear how many, if any, of the recommendations will be carried out in the near future.
Similar studies have been done on other lines, and those lines are still waiting for improvements, Metro officials said, noting that Metrobus is funded through contributions from the states it serves.
“There are a lot of competing interests. It is not a matter of taking a bus away from folks in Cheverly,” Hamre said. “The people in Cheverly need the bus just as much. You have to grow and expand the resources; you can’t just realign them.”
Riders said they know that more buses mean more money, but complain that service has remained the same while fares have increased. Some said they take the bus to avoid driving to the station and paying the $4.50 parking fee and to take advantage of the transfer discount. For some, though, that monetary savings carries a considerable cost in time.
“A lot of people can’t afford to drive,” said Joan Travick, an Upper Marlboro resident who takes the C22 to the Largo Town Center station, where she catches the Blue Line to her Judiciary Square office. “I don’t have a car and I’ve got to get to work.”
On a recent evening commute, Travick ran from the train platform to the bus stop, missing the 6:08 bus by a minute.
“Now I have to wait at least another half an hour,” she said as she sat on an empty bench. As more Blue Line trains arrived, the number of people waiting for the C22 grew. By the time the next bus arrived at 6:40 p.m., 35 people were waiting to board.
“They charge too much for us to be frustrated,” Travick said. “I am just so stressed by the time I get home.”