Favorite Transit Cities – Washington, DC

Washington, DC.  The Nation’s Capital.


(c) 2012 C. Walton

Washington, DC’s WMATA Metro transit system is not only extensive, but it also features many red-and-silver (Metro Local) and blue-and-silver (Metro Express or Metro Extra BRT) low-floor hybrid, diesel, and CNG buses.  Some of the fleet are in the previous Metro colors (white with red stripes and blue along the bottom of the bus) and were acquired in the 1990s and early 2000s.  There are routes that travel along the main roads such as Georgia Avenue (70/79, Y5, Y7, Y8, Y9), Pennsylvania Avenue (30/32/34/36/37/39), Columbia Pike (The 16’s-Pike Ride), and H Street (X1/X2/X3/X9).  Other routes travel from Metrorail stations to remote parts of the region (such as the NH1 to National Harbor, 5A to Dulles Airport, and the Z11/Z13 to Burtonsville).

WMATA’s bus route naming is derived from the old days of DC Transit and Capitol Transit up until their demise in the 1960s.  Since many routes intersected each other and were named or numbered similarly, a system was devised that would attempt to simplify the routes and make it easier for current riders to adapt and new riders to understand.  Even though there are exceptions, the route designations are basically the following:

  • Number-only routes primarily serve the District of Columbia and may run into Maryland, such as:
    70 (7th Street/Georgia Avenue), 79 (7th Street/Georgia Avenue Metro Extra), 52/54 (14th Street), 80 (Capitol Street)
  • Letter-number routes primarily run from Maryland to DC or strictly Maryland, such as:
    Y5/Y7/Y8/Y9 (Georgia Avenue), Q1/Q2/Q4/Q5/Q6 (Viers Mill Road), X1/X2/X3 (H Street/Benning Road), X9 (H Street/Benning Road Metro Extra)
  • Number-letter routes primarily run from Virginia to DC or strictly Virginia, such as:
    9A (Pentagon to Huntington), 16Y (Columbia Pike to Washington DC Metro Express), 38B (Farragut Square to Ballston)

While the Nation’s Capital is mainly served by WMATA, there are other systems in the surrounding cities and counties.  Montgomery County, north of DC, has Ride-On, with more than ample service in Silver Spring, Bethesda, Friendship Heights, Gaithersburg, and Germantown.  Prince George’s County, east of DC, has PG County-The Bus, with service to Seat Pleasant, Marlboro, Largo, and New Carrollton.  Arlington County, south of DC, has Arlington Transit, a growing transit system serving the Ballston, Clarendon Hill, and Rosslyn communities.  Fairfax County, west of DC, runs Fairfax Connector, a very extensive commuter and local transit network serving Reston, Herndon, Falls Church, Huntington, Springfield, and Tysons Corner.  Other transit properties include DASH for the City and County of Alexandria.  All have connections to Metro stations and all have service to major shopping centers, residential complexes, corporate parks, and recreational venues.

WMATA Metrobus and most of the other systems have a fare of roughly $1.25 to $2 (or more depending on the type of route, express, commuter, or local), with WMATA routes in the Anacostia section of DC being heavily discounted (roughly 50 cents).  All buses in the region accept SmartTrip, WMATA’s smart card which allows multiple rides, discounted rides (as opposed to paying with cash), and the ability to refill your card on the bus at the farebox.  Transfers between Metro and other systems are discounted from the regular fare, but Metrobus-to-Metrobus transfers are unlimited within a three-hour period (even if you take Metrorail in between bus trips).  This was done to offset the financial burden that came with the elimination of the Metrobus Day Pass (Metrorail still has one, go figure).

Metrorail fares are distance-based and time-based.  This means that the further out you go or the further down a line you go, the higher the fare.  In addition, your fare is higher if you travel during the rush hours, and even more so during the “Peak of the Peak,” which is when EVERYONE is rushing to work in the morning and coming from work en masse in the evening.  Peak hours are Monday thru Friday, 6AM to 9AM and 4PM to 7PM, with the “Peak of the Peak” between 8AM and 9AM and then again from 5PM to 6PM.  So, if your ride from Union Station to Silver Spring is, roughly, $2.10 during most hours of the day and all day on weekends, your peak fare could be $2.85 and your “Peak of the Peak” would be closer to $3.50 or even $4.  To save money, either use SmartTrip where fares could be 25 to 75 cents cheaper, or simply use Unlimited Ride farecards.  Just don’t try to use them before 9AM; you will have to pay full fare or the SmartTrip fare.

So why do I like DC as a transit city?

  1. First, there’s frequent service on all the major trunk lines.  What Metro does is it groups several lines together along a corridor but distinguishes between the routes by giving them a different route towards one end of the line, giving them different terminals on one or both ends, or by allowing each route to more closely serve a particular cluster of development and still retain high frequency throughout the corridor.  The Y5/Y7/Y8/Y9 all serve Georgia Avenue between Silver Spring Metro Station and Montgomery General Hospital, but the Y5 might serve a senior-citizen complex off-route while the Y9 might serve a particular shopping plaza (just shown as an example).  Each route runs every 60 minutes during weekdays, but altogether service on Georgia Avenue is every 15 minutes.
  2. Metro’s rail system, even in the 1970s when the first section of the system was built, is very modern and before its time.  With automated train operation in use most of the time, stations with high vaulted ceilings, a uniform grey and brown appearance to match the unique look and feel of the Nation’s Capital, and trains that are lightweight and accelerate at very high rates to whisk government employees to the interior of DC and to the Pentagon.  Platform edges that light up when a train is approaching the station, countdown clocks to tell passengers how long until the next train and which line it is, a tap card that works everywhere, and some of the best views of the city and its major monuments (among my favorite is the Yellow line over the Potomac between L’Enfant Plaza and Pentagon stations and the Red Line between Rhode Island Avenue and Union Station).  Train cars from different eras with different traction sounds and different electronic destination signs, quite often all on the same train taking off in unison.  For a young urban rail buff, it is musical decadence.
  3. Access to the monuments, access to the Pentagon, the ability to go from Gaithersburg to Springfield and from BWI Airport to Reagan Airport to Dulles Airport without driving.  Though Metro is expensive as far as fares goes, it is one of the quickest ways to explore the city and its suburbs, home to many government officials, workers, politicians, and their families.
  4. Transit centers, a foreign concept to many New Yorkers but very commonplace in cities where car is king but transit access is still necessary particularly during peak commuting hours, at nearly every Metrorail station outside of central DC.  Buses galore for those who wish not to drive or cannot afford to drive, park and ride lots for those who have cars but wish not to drive all the way to work.  Most Metrorail lines follow the highways, so you can see the traffic crawl as your train whisks by it all.  The Orange Line follows I-66 in Virginia, and several Metro Lines cross or run along portions of the Capital Beltway.  Most transit centers are beehives of activity for municipal buses for Ride-On, DASH, Arlington Transit, PG The Bus, Fairfax Connector, and even buses from other neighboring counties like Prince William County (PRTC-Omniride system) and Baltimore/Columbia/Howard Counties (MTA Maryland).  The most active examples of transit centers in this region are the Pentagon Transit Center (at least 30 different bus routes from at least 6 different transit systems congregate here); Silver Spring Transit Center in Silver Spring, MD; and the West Falls Church Metro Station (Fairfax Connector and buses to Loudoun County and Dulles Airport).
  5. Scenery accessible by transit, which includes tourist attractions like the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building; typical townhouses and condominium residences such as those in Alexandria and Arlington; access to regional and intercity transit such as the airports and the architectural marvel known as Union Station for Amtrak and commuter rail services; and access to trendy neighborhoods for food, drink, clubbing and atmosphere such as Adams Morgan and Georgetown (accessible by a small DC-owned bus system called the DC Circulator).  You can take it all in without having to rent a car, you just need SmartTrip and a Metro system map, found at select Metrorail stations.

Only once or twice have I ever needed to rent a car in the DC area, since everything I needed is by a Metro stop or accessible by the other transit systems in the area.  I have found that just by looking at system maps and actually exploring these areas, I can get a sense of the city and its charm without having to find a place to park or pull over to do my sightseeing.

Which city should I talk about next…?

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