Sydney Taylor used to have a mantra: Metro or bust.
For years, the 27-year-old relied exclusively on the subway to commute downtown from Eastern Market, a daily travail she described as “horrible and super-crowded and just a generally terrible experience.”
Then, an aunt offered her a tip. Why not try the bus? After a few trips on the D6 Metrobus, Taylor reached a few surprising conclusions: The bus was fast. It was cheap. And it was, strangely, kind of lovely.
“I got to see so much more of the city,” said Taylor, who now lives in Adams Morgan and takes the 96 every day. “It was just, on the whole, much more pleasant.”
As Metro continues to battle its myriad rail reliability problems and track infrastructure overhauls, a rare bright spot has emerged in the agency’s transit offerings: its bustling bus network.
Even as Washington-area residents malign the subway — vowing after each rush-hour meltdown that they’ll never take a train again — there is an increasingly vocal cohort of bus evangelists.
Why bother with the sturm und drang of SafeTrack, they ask, when buses are nimble, affordable and increasingly predictable with the help of mobile apps?
It’s an option that has become increasingly favored by Dan Reed, a 29-year-old who lives in Silver Spring. When he heads home from work in the afternoon, he checks the status of the Red Line. If he spots a blooming flare-up of delays, he’s quick to swap modes.
“It’s great that I can check the status of the Red Line and say to myself, ‘Oh, wait, I don’t actually have to go deal with this at all,” Reed said. “A lot of times, the buses are more predictable.”
The glowing reviews are a stark departure from long-held stereotypes about buses: capricious schedules, undependable service, plodding speeds, grubby interiors and a general “sketchy” aesthetic.
Those stereotypes persist in many other parts of the country, where transit advocates bemoan the way buses continue to be treated as a second-class form of transportation — at least by politicians and residents who don’t have to rely on bus service.
“Bus is a second-class citizen for ‘choice’ riders because it’s scary, it’s harder to figure out, it’s obtuse,” said Aimee Custis, deputy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “Trains are like public transport for beginners — there are physical tracks, so you can see where it goes. The Metro map is easier to read than any bus map I’ve ever seen.”
But in the District, that perception is shifting.
“I had a bus awakening,” said Dylan Landers-Nelson, a health policy researcher who lives in Adams Morgan. He and his wife just purchased a condo in 16th Street Heights. (Haven’t heard of it? It’s the neighborhood north of Columbia Heights and west of Fort Totten.)
When they were looking to buy a home, they prioritized finding a place near transit. But they weren’t perturbed by the prospect of buying a home a mile away from the nearest Metro station. Instead, Landers-Nelson and his wife marvel at all the bus routes that pass within a block of their home. The S1, S2 and S4! 52, 53, 54! The 70!
“The bus lines give you options in a way that Metro often doesn’t,” Landers-Nelson said. “It turns out to be a very convenient, quick way to get around the city.”
Some of that shift in attitudes can be attributed to large-scale policy changes aimed at improving the coverage and reliability of the network: fleet repairs to improve on-time performance, signal prioritization at some intersections, built-out transit centers in Silver Spring and Takoma-Langley Park.
But commuters’ openness to bus transportation also is fostered by the small, often underappreciated pleasures of bus travel that are inherent to the mode: The comforts of being aboveground, able to grasp one’s geographical bearings in the city and watch the world go by. Steady access to cellphone service, so riders can download a podcast or stream a new playlist mid-commute. No need to deal with the annoyance of an unexpected broken escalator.
And even when you’re stuck on a bus, the experience feels less fraught with gloom and senselessness.
“You can look out, you get some light, and if you’re not moving, you at least have a sense of why you’re not moving,” Landers-Nelson said. “On Metro, you’re quite literally left in the dark.”
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said some people may be intimidated by the idea of using the bus system — deciphering their most convenient route, tracking down a schedule — and that some have benefited from the extra push SafeTrack provided.
“It’s been positive. We’ve heard that from people,” Wiedefeld said. “They see, okay, that works well, too, for some of their trips, so that’s been possible.”
And the historical weakness of bus systems — its lack of a dedicated right of way — may also be one of its greatest strengths. Buses can be easily diverted and reassigned. And without reliance on tracks and tunnels, one bus breakdown doesn’t cause a ripple effect throughout the region. That’s become increasingly apparent in the past couple of years, when buses are frequently dispatched to rescue stranded riders when arcing insulator incidents and unexpected track problems strike the system at inopportune moments.
“The reality is, any time we have issues on the trains, the buses are there to save us,” Wiedefeld said.
To be sure, buses are not immune to Metro’s ridership woes: The number of trips taken by bus in the second half of 2016 was 11 percent lower than in the year before — a drop-off that is still less than the ridership decline on the rail side. The rise of Uber, the shift toward walking and biking, the low cost of gas, and the increased prevalence of teleworking during SafeTrack all affect Metrobus ridership just as they do for the trains.
And yet, there are signs that buses have become the golden child of Metro’s transit offerings. Bus reliability has increased dramatically in recent years. And customer satisfaction among bus riders remained at a modest 77 percent last year — about the same as the previous year — quite a bit better than the 66 percent of satisfied rail customers, a number that has steadily dropped in recent years.
Technology has also been a major boon for the Metrobus network. In the past, would-be riders lacked trust in the system, wondering whether a scheduled bus would in fact arrive anywhere close to its appointed time. But between apps that connect to GPS systems installed on the buses, offering fairly accurate estimated times of arrival, and LED countdown clocks installed at popular bus stops, technology has helped address that concern.
That technology has also been bolstered by the rise of Uber and Lyft, as tech-savvy riders have grown accustomed to using their phones to perform a daily mental calculus on the best option for travel based on the time of day and their intended destination.
“The ride-sharing economy made me realize that you don’t always have to subscribe to this set system — Metro, cab, or walk,” Taylor said. “When I step out the door, I’m thinking, ‘What else could I be doing that’s cheaper or simpler?’ ”