The X2 Metrobus is jam-packed with riders as it snakes through traffic in one of the city’s fastest-changing neighborhoods along H Street and Benning Road NE.
“My man, can I get a ride?” a would-be rider with carry-on luggage asks the driver, slowing down the long line of passengers waiting to board. “I ain’t got money, bro!”
“Uh-huh,” the skeptical driver says, waving at the others to board.
“I’m just going to Union Station, man,” the rider insists.
“All right. All right ,” the driver says, avoiding confrontation — as he has been trained to do. It’s just after 3 p.m., but judging by the crowd of passengers, it looks like the peak of the rush.
It’s the same route where a woman went into labor last year, where a couple once met and later married, and where a rapper has delighted riders for more than 20 years with Washington-inspired music.
The same bus where Rochelle Nelson, 39, of Northeast Washington, once sat, stunned, as the man seated behind her snorted cocaine in plain sight.
“I heard somebody sniffing so I turned,” she said. “He did it in front of everybody.
“I turned around, and I’m like . . . ‘O-kay?’ ”
At 8:15 one morning, the extra-long bus slinks around the Minnesota Avenue intersection onto Benning Road, as a boy wearing a Spider-Man backpack peeks out the window. Farther back on the crowded bus, a young man in a light blue school uniform pulls out his algebra book and catches up on the previous night’s homework. It’s a quiet departure from the normal pandemonium of the X2.
Safety is a constant concern along the route — for drivers and passengers. The X2 has the highest number of reported incidents of crime among Metro’s 328 routes. On a screen behind the driver’s seat, a video feed shows everything: security footage of the cabin, the pavement below, the traffic piling up ahead on H Street.
The route is five miles long and takes riders from one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods to the tidy sidewalks of Lafayette Square. It begins with an urban wilderness of greenery and concrete, with the bus trundling over the Anacostia River, scooting past Benning Liquors, Hip Hop Fish and Chicken, and Wings N’ More Wings, and emerging in the developing H Street corridor, where passengers can get a glimpse of the new Ben’s Chili Bowl.
The X2 crosses over North Capitol Street, and the U.S. Capitol glints in the morning sunlight. It whizzes by the new Wal-Mart, where five riders carrying grocery bags will step aboard later that afternoon, and disappears into the urban density of downtown.
And then, the District’s most dangerous bus line terminates in front of the White House.
Ervin Haltiwanger, 67, says he has ridden the X2 all his life, boarding at Minnesota Avenue. He wears a stocking cap and a flannel shirt on this brisk fall afternoon, and points to his waist. Riders nowadays, he said, have to “stay strapped” to be safe. The violence is endemic. And the fault lies with Metro and the city, he said.
“In comparison to the lines that run uptown, you can see the difference,” he says. “This is just a don’t-give-a-f--- type attitude” from city agencies, he said.
Washingtonians of every walk of life ride the X2, from the Minnesota Avenue Metro station, east of the Anacostia, along the developing H Street corridor, past Union Station and Gallery Place to downtown.
“You have the opportunity to see people and see people in their rawest form,” said Jackie Jeter, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most Metro workers. “You get on and you see some, you see the happiness in their faces, you see the desperation in some, you see the need, you see every emotion that you can think of in a human being.”
Haltiwanger said the bus is the lifeblood of the communities it spans. It’s been that way all his life, he said. Haltiwanger himself has a criminal record, most recently a three-year prison sentence in 2006 on a felony conviction for selling heroin.
This July, he sued Metro. alleging he was injured when the bus he was riding collided with a vehicle. In his suit, Haltiwanger said the collision was because of the bus driver’s “failure to pay full time and attention.” Metro settled the suit last month for an undisclosed amount, court records show.
The X2 “is a need for everyone that lives in that part of the city, to give them some mobility,” Haltiwanger said. “This line is predominately black, poverty-stricken people. Low-income people. People that have a need, who receive very little attention.”
Many of those riders are schoolchildren headed to class and workers headed to jobs downtown, who say the violence leaves them on edge during their trip. Along with the 70 bus, the X2 is one of two routes that have been in Metro’s top five of the most crimes reported each year since at least 2010. Still, the crimes reported through September amounted to about four cases per million riders, according to Metro.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. In January, two passengers — ages 21 and 47 — were shot aboard an X2 bus near Union Station. About 45 people were on board at the time.
In August, a man was stabbed and killed after an argument over his bag, which accidentally hit a small girl on a crowded X2 bus, police said. The violent altercation Aug. 10 shortly before 4 p.m. was witnessed by at least 10 people and involved fighting that spilled from a sidewalk in the 800 block of H Street into the roadway.
That same month, Metro began testing the use of video surveillance on the X2, where riders frequently evade fares and sometimes take their frustrations out on drivers. The transit agency said it hopes the new video monitors, being tested on 22 X2 buses, will enhance the safety and security of Metrobus employees and riders. The change also is in response to a report by federal transportation officials who said Metro had not adequately addressed the rising number of assaults by passengers on drivers.
At least four X2 drivers have been assaulted this year, Metro said.
Metro declined several requests to make Transit Police Chief Ronald A. Pavlik Jr. available for an interview about safety concerns and the X2. But at a separate Metro event Monday, Pavlik said factors such as the location and ridership of bus routes have to be taken into account when considering bus crime. He said it’s too early to tell whether the pilot security camera program is working, but that it serves as an alternative to uniformed police officers.
Overall, there have been 12 criminal cases reported on the X2 this year, including four assaults — three with a deadly weapon — and seven robberies, Metro said. Force and violence were used in three of the robberies. A bicycle also was stolen.
Twelve cases might not seem like a lot, but it’s double the number reported for the next-most problematic route, the W4. And more troubling, the criminals appear to be becoming more violent: Whereas previously crime was primarily driven by theft, pickpocketing and snatching in 2011 and 2012, it is now being driven by crimes such as forceful robbery and aggravated assault, Metro said.
Daily riders say encounters with unruly teens or fare evaders are exacerbated by other chronic problems of the bus line. At any time of day, dozens of people wait for the bus at Minnesota Avenue or Gallery Place, two of the busiest boarding points. Although Metro runs the system’s longest buses on the line (articulated 60-foot vehicles), the buses are often crowded. Crowding means short fuses and tempers that flare more easily, riders say.
“The seats are always taken. The buses could run more frequent so they aren’t too crowded,” said Teresa Rosas, 33, a single mother of two who has been riding the X2 for more than a decade. “People are more likely to get on each other’s nerves when the buses are overcrowded.”
The buses also often run late. The poor on-time performance is no surprise for Metrobus, which struggles with some of the nation’s worst traffic, and Metro admits the route suffers from such chronic delays.
Last year, Metro added street supervision and more buses to improve service on the line, increasing frequency of buses to every 8 minutes. With the improvements, however, came an increase in riders — from an average weekday ridership of 12,700 in October 2014 to more than 13,300 on the average weekday last month. At one point this year, ridership nearly reached the 14,000 mark, according to Metro. And, as the corridor continues to grow with new development along H Street, the X2 remains one of Metro’s busiest routes.
On a recent morning, an X2 departing from the Minnesota Avenue Metro station just after 8 a.m., is standing-room only. When the next bus arrives, just a minute later, a couple of dozen passengers are waiting.
One passenger refuses to pay the fare and a few teenage boys enter through the back door to avoid paying. A woman hands a McDonald’s breakfast burrito to her school-age daughter. A young man eats a breakfast bar and throws the wrapper on the floor.
“Sometimes teenagers go all the way to the back to smoke marijuana or drink beer,” said Rosas, who takes the bus daily to get to work and to her children’s day care in Northwest Washington. “They offered my son a drink. It was scary.”
In spite of the long waits at the stop, the crowded rides, the unruly teens, the X2 remains the preferred ride for Rosas. Getting to her kid’ daycare by 8 a.m. takes her 90 minutes, a long ride on the X2 and a transfer at 14th Street. The scary moments, she said, she gets over with prayer.
“It takes me where I need to go,” she said. “And it’s cheaper than taking Metro.”
Keith Alexander contributed to this report.