Mastering Metrobus, or, S.T.R.E.A.M. (SmarTrip Rules Everything Around Me)

Photo courtesy of

courtesy of ‘Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie’

I’ve been participating in the Zipcar Low Car Diet challenge this month, and something that I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten more transit-dependent is that a lot of intelligent, resourceful people are completely confounded by any bus that’s not the Circulator. If their destination is not close to a Metrorail stop, they drive to it. I humbly submit that this is completely ridiculous; the bus is just not that hard.

However, it IS true that Metrobus lacks the navigational simplicity that Metrorail has. The Metro map gives you a nice sense of the finite nature of Metrorail: there are only 5 lines, and they’re, well, lines; they go to all the stops in order one way, and they go back along the same stops the other way. That’s it. Have you seen the full Metrobus system map? It’s a freaking mess. It’s not even one map; they had to split it into three.

So with the goal of making it all a little less daunting for the novice Metrobus-rider, here are a few things you need to know:

1. Don’t panic! All the bus routes include at least one Metro stop, and frequently more than one. Know that even if you ignore the rest of my advice and find yourself on the wrong bus going somewhere you had no intention of going, you always have the option of riding it until it gets to a Metro station. There is always a way home.

2. One SmarTrip is good; two are better. Cash is pretty much the worst possible way to pay for the bus. The cash fare is higher than the SmarTrip fare, and you can only take advantage of transfers (unlimited transfers for 2 hours!) with a SmarTrip card, which means you have to pay full fare for each new bus ride if you’re paying cash. That means my typical two-bus commute from home to office costs $1.50 if I have a SmarTrip, and $3.40 if I left it on the kitchen counter. I made that mistake exactly once, and now I keep a spare SmarTrip with a few bucks on it stashed in my purse just in case.

3. The Internet is your personal transit concierge; carry it in your pocket if you can. Yes, I know. Smartphones are expensive, and their data plans are practically confiscatory. Plenty of DC residents who have depended on the bus for years manage to navigate the system just fine without smartphones. We are not talking about them. We are talking about you, whose willingness to explore DC is limited to what’s in a 5 block radius of a Metro stop. If you can swing it, get a smartphone with that money you are no longer spending on your car. You just need something that has GPS, can browse the web, and ideally open PDFs. Why? Because you can use the following tools from a computer, but it’s a lot easier to re-route on the fly if you can use them while you’re out and about:

3a. Google Maps with Transit. WMATA finally got on board with this late last year after dragging their feet for aaaaaaaages, and it is pretty much the best thing ever. Plug in your starting and ending points, and Google will spit out multiple transit options that will get you there, and just like Metro’s trip planner, you can specify that you want to leave now, at a specific time later, or that you want to arrive by a certain time and Google will adjust accordingly. Unlike Metro’s trip planner, however, using it on a mobile phone won’t make you want to kick a puppy. Google does include regional commuter buses that don’t take SmarTrip, though, so watch for that. And the full, Google Labs version of Google Transit can even estimate the cost of driving, if you want to feel smug in your transit choices.

3b. Nextbus. GPS tracking of buses, and estimates of how long you can expect before the next one comes along. Set the bus stop closest to your home and office as link buttons in your web browser and you’ll always know when you have to leave. The mobile web app can use your phone’s GPS to give you predictions for all the bus stops near your location (though sometimes it can be a little bit of a challenge to figure out which corner you want). Welcome to life in the future! Caveat: Nextbus is about 78% accurate, which means it is a dirty, nasty, stinking liar 22% of the time. You can mitigate the effects of this inaccuracy first by understanding how it is that it gets to be inaccurate, but also by sanity checks on…

3c. Published bus timetables. They’re all available in PDF form on Metro’s website, and usually a quick Google query for “[route number] wmata timetable” gets you straight to it without having to navigate to it through Metro’s website. Handy from your computer, but even handier from your mobile device. If, for example, Nextbus tells you there’s no bus for 35 minutes but the schedule tells you that there’s a bus every 10 minutes this time of day, you can reasonably assume that Nextbus isn’t tracking a bus or two for some reason (broken transponder, driver failed to sign on, etc.) This won’t save you from every Nextbus lie, but knowledge of the schedules and what causes inaccuracies can wrangle the system back into a usable state for you.

The bus is cheaper and goes more places than the Metro does, and broken escalators are never a problem. If you’re not a bus rider, give it a shot sometime soon and report back.

Tiffany Baxendell Bridge is an Internet enthusiast and an incurable smartass. When not heckling the neighborhood political scene on Twitter, she can be found goofing off with her ukulele, Bollywood dancing, or obsessing about cult TV. She is That Woman With the Baby In the Bar.

Tiffany lives in Brookland with her husband Tom, son Charlie, and two high-maintenance cats. Read why Tiffany loves DC.

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10 thoughts on “Mastering Metrobus, or, S.T.R.E.A.M. (SmarTrip Rules Everything Around Me)

  1. “If their destination is not close to a Metrorail stop, they drive to it. I humbly submit that this is completely ridiculous; the bus is just not that hard.”

    Just a note as to why this is not ridiculous: In the case of Metrorail, it travels underground or on its own right of way, at very high speeds and often is faster than driving. Try driving from at rush hour from Silver Spring to downtown D.C., and then trying taking the metro. The Metro will be faster.

    A bus, on the other hand, by definition CAN’T be faster than driving. It mixes with traffic, stops places where you don’t want to go, and you have to wait for it.

    Now, that doesn’t mean that the bus isn’t sometimes a good option: When you’re drinking, when you don’t want to worry about parking, etc. But it’s not ridiculous because it’s unabashedly slower.

  2. Haha, I’ll second Emma’s statement. I tend to get one free ride a week because of broken readers.

    I prefer the buses when possible because I hate traveling underground. It’s so much more enjoyable to me to watch the city go by. And I loooove trying new routes that take me down roads I’ve never otherwise traveled. It’s a great way to see the city from a new perspective.

    I’m thankful WMATA finally jumped on board with Google. It’s great seeing the route mapped out with all the stops. Now, I wish they could use that same information to plot the routes on Google maps instead of those damn PDFs. I’d like the option to go to Google Maps and see the full 3Y route, instead of just seeing the route from my apartment to my office. The PDFs are practically unreadable, and are especially difficult if you need to see a route that goes VA-DC or MA-DC.

  3. I live in Baltimore, and our “Metro” is practically non-existent. I recently took the plunge of getting rid of my car (saving somewhere in the neighborhood of $600/month) even though our public transit systems are limited. Love this post, because I frequently encounter people who have NEVER riden an MTA bus in Baltimore. I learned to utilize public transit while studying abroad in Europe and it’s a skill that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Here’s to hoping people will take your advice and start utilizing mass transit more frequently!

  4. Tiffany!!!! Have to commend you on your WU-Tang reference. :)

    *logging onto spotify now…*

  5. The Metrobus map is hugely complicated. Also a lot of the routes aren’t simple, which is probably why the Circulator is so popular. Runs every ten minutes, costs a dollar, runs on major thoroughfares.

    Some of the Metrobus routes are really nice and convenient – like the N2,4 which runs up to AU, the D buses to Glover Park and the 30s bus which goes everywhere.

  6. Moving here from Annandale, where the only Metrobuses are the express ones that go directly to the Pentagon, I was thrilled to learn just how many bus lines run through my neighborhood. You truly can get just about anywhere by hopping on the bus. It does take forever, but I can gaze at the scenary which is harder to do while driving. And for someone who’s prone to motion sickness like I am, it’s a better option than the Metro trains.

    Another thing that’s good to know: If your SmartTrip is depleted and you’re out of cash (it happens sometimes), the driver will just wave you on.

  7. One very important thing to note about bus transfers being unlimited for 2 hours….. if you go on metrorail within that 2 hour window with your smarttrip and then try to go back onto the bus, you won’t get the transfer back to the bus, and will have to pay again for the bus, even in that 2 hour window. I found that out the hard way. And you cant’ daisy chain transfers, either, as in keep riding buses within that 2 hour period to reset the 2 hour window each time you touch your smarttrip card – the transfer is 2 hours after you initially pay. But on the plus side, those transfers apply to a lot of other local buses – if you want to go on to other local bus lines (DC’s Circulator, Arlington’s ART, etc), most will give you the transfer. You may have to pay the difference in the fare, which can be $0.50 or so, but you still have that window.

    If you really don’t know where you’re going – ask the driver!

  8. As someone who embraced DC buses as a primary form of transportation for 18 months, I learned something:

    Get a bicycle. The metrobus system can ruin your life. I moved to a place that had only bus access but did so without fear because buses supposedly came every 10 minutes during rush hour. The reality? I had to be at the stop an hour early to reliably get to work on time. Buses could fail to show up/be too full to stop for 45 minutes plus.

    Worse, I’ve seen near riots at the stops due to the inadequacies. I’ve seen drug deals, bricks thrown through windows, brawls, violence, racism, and all manner of crime on the downtown buses.

    I finally wised up and got a couple of cheap bicycles… one to get to the metro and one to get me from the metro to work. It cut an hour off my commute and I’m way less likely to be killed in a hate crime or drug deal gone bad.

  9. Thanks for this article. Admittedly, I am very much in the Metro/Circulator/car camp. It’s true that the bus seems overly-complicated and slow to be worth it, but at least the new Google maps that include public transit make it easier to explore the Metrobus option. That said, I would never want to live in a place where I was totally reliant on Metrobus…I’ve heard too many horror stories.