The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Planning a return to the office? The D.C. area’s transit systems want to get you there.

Bus and train service is returning to normal. Some systems are adding routes, reducing or eliminating fares, and rolling out new amenities to get riders back.

A D.C. Circulator bus near Union Station. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)

As more Washington-area residents are vaccinated and start returning to workplaces, transit agencies are getting creative to lure back riders.

Most transit systems in the region are transitioning to normal operations after reducing service 16 months ago at the onset of the pandemic. Some are adjusting or restructuring routes, while others are adding amenities and cutting the cost of riding.

Maryland commuters can bring their bike aboard MARC trains. Riders in Prince George’s County will soon have free WiFi on new buses. Getting on Alexandria’s DASH bus will be free permanently starting in the fall. And Metro riders should expect shorter waits at station platforms and bus stops.

Public transit ridership has started to bounce back, although it hasn’t returned to where it was pre-pandemic. Local bus systems are still 50 to 70 percent below previous levels, according to transit officials, while Maryland and Virginia commuter trains are largely empty — down by about 85 percent.

Transportation officials say they are hopeful for a shift favoring transit this fall as many residents who spent more than a year teleworking are back at their commutes.

The Washington commute could return by fall for many workers. It won’t be the same as before.

Metro last month approved fare reductions and service increases to go into effect on Labor Day. Maryland’s MARC trains will restore full schedules at the end of August, while the Virginia Railway Express will roll out new service.

Mask requirements continue across the board as transit systems operate under robust cleaning and disinfecting protocols.

Capital Bikeshare gears up for expansion as commuters resume pre-pandemic routines

Here are changes that lie ahead for bus and train systems in the Washington region:

Metro: Lower fares and more frequent service

Metro is rolling out service improvements for bus and rail users, as well as a reduction in fares this fall.

Beginning in September, weekend rides on Metrorail will be a flat $2, a $1.50 transfer fee between rail and bus will be lifted and the price of a seven-day regional bus pass will drop by $3 to $12.

Waits at the platform will be shorter. Trains will operate every six minutes on the Red Line and every 12 minutes on other lines seven days a week during off-peak hours. The increased frequencies will begin in September for weekday service and later in the year on weekends.

Metrobus waits will be reduced to 12 minutes or less on 20 of the system’s busiest lines, while 16 routes will see wait times cut to no more than 20 minutes. Bus service will be restored or increased on an additional 46 routes.

Train service this month was extended to run until midnight daily for the first time since Metro reduced operating hours 16 months ago. Hours will expand to 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights in the fall.

Maryland services: Full MARC train, commuter bus service to return

The Maryland Transit Administration will bring back full scheduled service on MARC trains and commuter buses on Aug. 30. Both systems have been operating on a reduced service plan.

On June 1, MARC began allowing passengers to bring full-sized bicycles aboard trains. Before June, they were allowed only on the Penn Line. All trains on the Penn, Camden and Brunswick lines now have at least one car with two first-come, first-served bicycle racks.

When the change was announced earlier this year, MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn said it would make the commuter train system a more attractive option and would allow riders to travel with their bike to get from the train station to their destination.

It “expands our rider’s first- and last-mile travel options,” he said.

MARC and commuter bus ridership is still down 90 percent compared with before the pandemic.

Virginia’s VRE trains: New round trip train on both lines after Labor Day

Virginia Railway Express resumed a full schedule on June 1 after months of reduced operations during the pandemic. More service is planned after Labor Day.

Officials with the commuter train system said plans include adding a new round trip train on both the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines after the holiday.

The Fredericksburg Line, which is operating on a seasonal schedule to mitigate delays stemming from heat orders, will revert to a regular schedule on Sept. 7.

The system removed social distancing decals that were on rail cars and platforms. There is plenty of space for passengers to maintain distance because only one of the system’s 32 daily trains has more that 20 percent of seats taken, officials said. Ridership is 85 percent below the 18,000 daily riders the system served before the pandemic.

Cities are making covid-era street changes permanent. Some are facing pushback.

D.C. Circulator: Riding is free until late September

The six-route D.C. Circulator, a popular option for downtown travel, resumed normal operations in June. Buses are scheduled to serve stops every 10 minutes.

The service is free at least through Sept. 30. City transportation officials said there are no plans to adjust service in the coming months.

Like other bus systems, D.C. Circulator ridership plummeted at the onset of the pandemic and hasn’t recovered. May ridership was 123,875, down 77 percent from the same period in May 2019, according District Department of Transportation data. May 2019 ridership was 540,144.

Montgomery’s Ride On: New bus schedules in effect, Flex service returns

Montgomery County’s Ride On — the region’s second-largest bus system after Metrobus — is operating every route. Ridership has recovered to about 40,000 daily passengers, roughly about 60 percent of the pre-pandemic average.

County officials said adjustments to schedules on 19 routes began this month to improve frequencies and address demand shifts. Riders should expect another restructuring of route schedules this fall as more people return.

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, resumed operations July 19. The Flex provides curb-to-curb service from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the Rockville area and from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Glenmont/Wheaton zone on 11-passenger buses.

Montgomery is not charging fares aboard buses at least through September, officials said. The county recently announced it plans to continue to offer free rides to seniors and disabled residents, including aboard some Metrobus routes that serve the county.

Metro board approves fare reductions, service increases in bid to lure back riders

Fairfax Connector: system takes over five Metrobus routes

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 seen robust demand for service on weekends.

The Connector, the Washington area’s third-largest bus system, restored full service last August. Commuters have access to a new express route from the Stringfellow Road Park and Ride lot to Southwest Washington (at D Street SW near L’Enfant Plaza). The route offers 10 morning trips to downtown and 10 afternoon trips to the Stringfellow Road Park and Ride lot.

The system earlier this month assumed operations of five Metrobus routes — four of which had been suspended during the pandemic. The routes provide connections to the McLean, East Falls Church, West Falls Church and the Pentagon Metro stations.

Prince George’s TheBus: WiFi and new bus arrival system coming soon

In Prince George’s County, TheBus is operating 20 of its 28 bus lines during the pandemic. Most are running every 30 minutes.

In November, TheBus launched Saturday service on 13 lines, providing weekend service for the first time in areas such as Langley Park, West Hyattsville, New Carrollton and Largo. Residents in the Fort Washington area have access to TheLink, an on-demand service that launched using the TransLoc app.

Returning passengers will notice the county’s buses are newer. TheBus put 25 new buses in service in the past year and is adding eight others in the coming weeks.

Fares for adult passengers were reduced from $1.25 to $1. Bus service is free for school-aged children, seniors and disabled residents.

Plans are to launch a new system to track bus arrivals, which officials said will give passengers a more accurate idea of bus arrivals and delays. Passengers also will have free WiFi.

Bus ridership remains about 3,000 passengers daily across the system — well below the average of 10,000 passengers pre-pandemic.

Alexandria’s DASH: New routes and free rides in late summer

Alexandria is preparing a redesign of the DASH system. The first phase, to launch Sept. 5, aims to provide more service across the city with three new routes running every 15 minutes, all-day, seven days a week. With the transition, the DASH service will be free, while the changes will increase service levels by 15 percent relative to pre-covid levels.

Routes AT3, AT4 and AT6 are on reduced schedules due to low ridership. The King Street Trolley resumed service this month.

Arlington’s ART: All bus lines to be restored in September

Arlington County’s ART is running 12 of 16 routes. ART plans to restore the remaining four routes — 53, 61, 62 and 74 — on Sept. 7, county spokesman Eric Balliet said.

The county bus system is also lifting social distancing guidelines aboard buses on Aug. 1.

Ridership aboard Arlington buses continues to be well below normal. In June, ART carried about 5,000 passengers on an average weekday, about half as many as it did before the pandemic hit.