Metrobus riders
The system alerting riders about delays has been in use since 2012, but only 8,258 had signed up by the end of 2013. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

My column for Sunday’s Washington Post is about a traffic jam in downtown D.C on the evening of Feb. 20, and how a bus driver and a bus rider reacted to it. They did things right, but I also learned that transit riders generally could do one thing to help themselves: Sign up for the electronic alerts that Metrobus sends out when the buses are delayed or detoured.

Metro launched the alert system for bus riders in February 2012. By the end of 2013, 8,258 people had signed up to receive them by e-mail or text. Considering that there are 448,000 trips taken on Metrobus during a typical weekday, the number of people signed up to be notified about transit problems is tiny.

Signing up for the service doesn’t mean your account is going to get flooded with every single notice every time a Metrobus in the D.C. region has an issue. During the sign-up, you can adjust the settings to cover the routes you use.

Me, I get them all — and there are a lot of them — because it helps in understanding weather-related problems, or in spotting a developing traffic jam. That was true on Feb. 20, when President Obama’s visit to the St. Regis hotel at 16th and K streets NW stalled traffic, including many Metrobuses, for blocks around.

Besides getting more supervisors to the scene and using its internal communications system to reach bus drivers, the Metrobus operations center sent out 16 alerts and updates via this MetroAlerts e-mail/text system and the Metrobus Twitter feed, @metrobusinfo, which has nearly 4,000 followers.

The Feb. 20 situation was a major mess, so e-mail alerts read like this: “3Y, 16Y, 32, 36, 38B, 42, 43, 80, D1, D3, D6, S-Line: Police activity near 15th & I St, downtown buses & routes along K St are significantly delayed.”

Seeing that doesn’t get you home, but at least it gives you a clue. One follow-up message read like this: “16Y: Due to major congestion downtown, buses will depart from 19th & H St NW en route to Barcroft.”

Or you might have decided to walk out of the congested area and use another means of transport. Walking to the Metrorail stations at McPherson Square, Farragut West, Farragut North or Metro Center was among the possibilities.

Don’t rely on any single source of information to plot your course during a disruption, but it would help to add the Metro e-alerts. Use this link to reach the sign-up page for Metrobus alerts.