Officials say some systems that saw ridership plummet by as much as 70 percent are down only 40 percent. And weekend boardings are strong — in some systems, back to normal.
Montgomery County transportation director Chris Conklin said transit use patterns have changed. There is a more even distribution of passengers throughout the day and across the week. On some routes, weekends are busier than before the pandemic. There is also less demand for travel to connect with Metrorail, as fewer workers are headed to jobs in downtown Washington. There are no rush-hour crowds because of telecommuting.
“The commuting patterns have changed so much that we’re going to be in a sort of respond-and-adapt posture through at least the entirety of [this] year,” Conklin said.
Bus systems in the District and Alexandria and in Montgomery, Prince George’s, Arlington and Fairfax counties — like in much of the country — saw ridership plummet as the region shut down in March. Most reduced operations, then revamped service in late summer and the fall.
With the pandemic raging on, some bus systems have yet to restore all routes and resume normal frequencies. Even as more transit options become available, officials say it could be months, if not years, before “normal” returns.
“In the long term, [service] may not be exactly what it was before the pandemic,” said Tom Biesiadny, director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, which oversees the Fairfax Connector. “We may have more needs on some areas of our system than others.”
In Fairfax and Montgomery counties, weekend ridership is close to pre-pandemic levels, transportation officials said. In Prince George’s County, TheBus introduced Saturday service in November — the first weekend service in the system’s history — and demand has been surprisingly robust, officials said.
Across the region, transportation officials say they are looking at shifting more resources to routes with higher demand and away from once popular routes getting less use. For example, express bus routes that moved commuters to downtown office jobs continue to have low demand because most of those jobs are being done remotely. Some officials say they expect routes that mostly carried office workers with traditional hours could be the last to recover.
“I don’t think [travel] patterns will come back to the way they were before. People don’t work at home for nine months and suddenly return to where it was before. And that’s okay,” Conklin said. “That just means that the demands and [commuting] patterns are going to be different.”
Across the region, some bus systems are limiting the number of passengers to allow for social distancing. In Montgomery, Ride On bus drivers are authorized to skip stops if too many people are already on a bus. The county has buses stationed at key sections of major bus corridors to respond to crowding, Conklin said.
Bus systems in Prince George’s, Arlington and Fairfax joined Metrobus this month in resuming front-door entry and reinstating fare collection. Others are planning to follow in coming weeks.
Here are the changes that lie ahead for local bus systems in the Washington region:
D.C. Circulator: Mostly back to normal, riding is still free
In the nation’s capital, the six-route D.C. Circulator, a popular option for downtown travel, is back to normal operations with a few exceptions. Three routes — the Union Station-Georgetown, Rosslyn-Dupont Circle and Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square routes — end service at 11 p.m. instead of midnight on weekdays and about 3 a.m. on weekends.
City transportation officials say there are no plans to adjust service because of the pandemic. The Mall and Eastern Market-L’Enfant Plaza routes will not operate during Inauguration Day.
Like other bus systems, D.C. Circulator ridership plummeted at the onset of the pandemic and hasn’t recovered. Average weekday ridership since the District went into lockdown in the spring has been less than 2,000 boardings, down 87 percent from the same period a year ago, according to December data provided by the District Department of Transportation. Average weekend ridership is down 84 percent.
Circulator passengers continue to ride free. DDOT spokeswoman Lauren Stephens said D.C. Circulator is working to equip all 72 buses with operator barrier shields before fares are reinstated.
Montgomery's Ride On: Service at 20 percent below normal levels
Montgomery County’s Ride On — the region’s second-largest bus system after Metrobus — is operating every route, but overall service and bus frequency is about 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Ridership has recovered to about 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels, up from a low of 20 percent in April.
County officials said potential adjustments to schedules are likely this year, although it is unlikely service levels will return to normal.
Passengers board using the rear doors unless assistance is needed that requires the front door ramp.
Despite the health crisis and low ridership, the county last fall launched a Bus Rapid Transit system, branded Flash, that connects downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville. The new service launched with new buses offering amenities including WiFi, USB ports and bike racks while traveling part of the route in dedicated lanes.
Still suspended is the Ride On Flex, an on-demand transit service that allows people to request a ride via a smartphone app for travel within a defined zone in Rockville and the Wheaton/Glenmont area. Officials said it is unclear when the Flex will return because of concerns about virus transmission aboard the 11-passenger buses.
Moving into the next fiscal year, Montgomery transportation officials say budget constraints and low demand could prompt changes to bus schedules, but they expect service levels will be kept at about 80 percent from what they were before the pandemic.
Fairfax Connector: Weekend service is back to normal
Ridership is down 40 percent on the Fairfax Connector, which before the pandemic carried an average of 30,000 riders on weekdays. But Virginia’s largest bus system has recovered from an initial 70 percent drop in ridership.
The Connector, the Washington area’s third-largest bus system, restored full service in August. Fairfax County funds and oversees the 91-route system.
County transportation officials said weekend demand is back to normal, a sign that residents are using the service for more casual trips.
“The routes that haven’t recovered as much are those routes that typically serve office workers, particularly [those going] downtown,” said Biesiadny, the county’s transportation director.
Fairfax Connector is holding public meetings and an online survey open through Feb. 19 on a review of the county’s bus operations that could guide changes.
Biesiadny said there is no specific plan to change service for now, but budget pressures and low ridership could lead to a realignment of routes.
Prince George's TheBus: New Saturday and on-demand service
In Prince George’s County, TheBus is operating 20 of its 28 bus lines during the pandemic. Sixteen are running every 30 minutes, while the other four are on 45-minute intervals.
Despite the pandemic, TheBus in November launched Saturday service on some of its routes, providing weekend service for the first time. Saturday service is available on 13 lines serving Langley Park, West Hyattsville, New Carrollton, Largo, Forestville, Camp Springs, Upper Marlboro and Brandywine, every 30 to 45 minutes.
As of early January, bus ridership remained about 3,000 passengers daily across the system — well below the average of 10,000 passengers pre-pandemic. The Saturday routes are serving nearly 2,000 passengers.
The bus system also recently launched TheLink, an on-demand service using the TransLoc app for residents in the Fort Washington/Oxon Hill area. The service costs $2 a trip.
The county’s transportation department had planned to launch TheLink before the pandemic to fill a void in low-density communities with limited fixed routes, officials said. Its launch was delayed during the health crisis, but officials now say the service is critical to the travel of essential workers in southern Prince George’s.
While general-purpose trips on fixed routes have declined during the pandemic, demand has increased for the county’s Call-A-Bus service, a curb-to-curb service available to seniors, people with disabilities and those not served by fixed routes or Metro.
Officials across the region say they are monitoring service levels and demand to adjust schedules. As Prince George’s enters budget discussions, county spokeswoman Paulette Jones said the Department of Transportation expects a leaner budget in the coming fiscal year and potential changes to bus operations.
“Alternative service delivery models are being explored, such as microtransit, in areas with sustained low ridership levels,” she said.
Alexandria's DASH: Likely to resume fares in March
In Alexandria, DASH is averaging 4,500 daily boardings, down from 12,000 before the pandemic.
Buses are operating on a modified weekday schedule, also at about 80 percent of pre-pandemic service levels. All routes, with the exception of the King Street Trolley, are in service.
Unlike Metrobus and other local bus systems, DASH has not resumed fare collection. Spokeswoman Whitney Code said the city is working to add driver barriers by the front door to create a separation between the operator and riders before it resumes fares. It also wants to see the number of coronavirus cases in the region and state become more stable.
“As it stands, DASH could begin collecting fares as early as March,” Code said.
No service changes are planned, she said.
Meanwhile, DASH officials said they are preparing for major budget shortfalls in the next fiscal year that could lead to service reductions barring new funding.
Arlington's ART: All bus routes will run by summer
Arlington County’s ART is running 12 of 16 routes. ART plans to continue operating the 12 routes through the spring and to restore the remaining four routes ART 53, 61, 62 and 74, by summer, county spokesman Eric Balliet said.
Ridership aboard Arlington buses continues to be well below normal. In November, ART carried 103,000 passengers, down nearly 60 percent from ridership in February before the pandemic hit.
ART buses resumed front-door boarding and fare collection on Jan. 3, coinciding with the reinstatement of fares aboard Metrobus.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Montgomery County’s Ride On had resumed front-door boarding. Passengers board using the rear doors unless assistance is needed that requires the front door ramp. The story also had an inaccurate subhead about the level of operations of the county’s bus service. Service is at 20 percent below normal levels.