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The Fadeaway of the 5B

Just got back from a round trip this morning on the 5B Metrobus, which is among those that will be discontinued as of Sunday. I was curious about this route in particular, because it provides a rare transit link between two urban centers: Washington and Tysons Corner. Yet Metro says the ridership is so low that the resources should be diverted to enhance other bus routes that are more crowded.

The thing that intrigues me is, Why wasn't this route more popular? I boarded at L'Enfant Plaza at 7 a.m. The bus is well-designed, with upholstered double seats on each side of the aisle, an overhead rack to support bags and briefcases, reading lamps -- more like an airport shuttle to the rent-a-car center than a city bus.

There were about a dozen passengers with me for the trip, stopping only in Rosslyn before the drop-offs and pickups at the offices and the transit center in Tysons.

There was no notice posted on the bus about the end of service, but when I asked the driver she did confirm for me that it was ending. One passenger said, Oh, yes, she had seen a brochure about the schedule changes.

We stopped at the Tysons-Westpark Transit Station a few minutes before 8 a.m. and picked up 14 passengers, most of whom got off outside the Rosslyn Metro station, but about half a dozen of us made the trip all the way in to L'Enfant Plaza, getting there a little before 8:30. There was some heavy traffic, of course, on I-66 inside the Beltway, where I noticed an Arlington police officer stopping solo drivers trying to enter the highway during the HOV-2 time period. The 14th Street bridge was the other sluggish spot -- but at least I wasn't driving.

We didn't have Arlo Guthrie aboard to sing "City of New Orleans" to the 15 restless riders, but I felt down to be aboard one of the last trips of this hidden gem in our transportation system.

By Robert Thomson  |  September 21, 2006; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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I've ridden the 5B for three years and can assert with some confidence that the reason the ridership is so low is that until fairly recently it was completely unreliable.

I ride the first bus of the run (it leaves Tysons Westpark Transit Station at 6:45AM). And for the years that I've been riding, the bus has routinely gone through sustained cycles of unreliability. When I started riding, the bus was an entirely hit-or-miss proposition. At that point it was generally 20 minutes late, but not always. Sometimes it simply didn't come at all. That meant that riders were forced to wait for as much as an hour in all kinds of weather not knowing whether the bus would even show. For a bus that only runs once an hour, that kind of inconsistency tends to force riders to seek out other options. And that's exactly what happened, again and again. Occasionally, we'd get a good driver, word would spread, and ridership would increase. Then the driver would move to another route, the bus would become unreliable again, and ridership would drop off. I watched this happen numerous times over the past 3 years.

More recently, we've had two totally fantastic drivers. (The current driver, Jason, is wonderful. He's being moved to another route, so some other very lucky MetroBus riders will get to ride with him soon.) Unfortunately, the uncertainty about whether the bus would be cancelled caused a number of the more regular riders to shift to alternative transport.

Posted by: McLean | September 21, 2006 12:01 PM | Report abuse

For a short time 2 years ago, I commuted between Silver Spring and Tysons Corner. I tried several combinations of rail and bus from here to there, including the 5B bus that you mention. The biggest impediment is the Tysons Transit Center. What can you walk to from there without having to go up a huge hill? It's positioned conveniently for vehicles to get in and out, but not for pedestrians. Isn't that what got us into trouble in the first place here?

Yes, there are circulator buses around Tysons, but that would mean that nearly every rider would have to ride THREE separate routes (unless they walk to L'enfant Plaza) to get to their destination at Tysons.

I found that the Fairfax Connector buses running from West Falls Church were a better option, since they stopped closer to civilization, along routes 7 and 123.

For the record, this is the same reason I gave up on the now cancelled buses that ran from Tysons up to Bethesda, Rockville and Lakeforest Mall. It was a huge pain to get down to that "Transit Center."

Posted by: Joe in SS | September 21, 2006 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Joe, you are so right about the positioning of that station. I can't tell you the number of times that passengers who've just disembarked at the station have asked me directions to places in Tysons Corner (e.g., Tysons Corner Center, various hotels) and my answer is almost always the same: you can wait 15-30 minutes for a bus or hike uphill for about a mile and a half.

Posted by: McLean | September 21, 2006 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Just my 2 cents, I would think the reason for it being tardy or late would be the route itself....look how long it is and
"I-66"!!! Come on...give me a break.

Back in forth in traffic...buses breakdown etc...

I would say only Thank You Metro for trying but it's up to Tyson commuters to fight and get political to get the Subway going and built.

Posted by: Frankey | September 21, 2006 2:36 PM | Report abuse

You all are making very interesting points about the difficulties with the suburb to suburb commutes by bus.
Joe, the "now cancelled" bus that you were referring to, was that the SmartMover? (I think it was also called the 14 Line.) I thought that was another example of a good concept that didn't work out in practice.

Posted by: Dr. Gridlock | September 21, 2006 3:14 PM | Report abuse

I've always used the 425/427 Fairfax Connector to get between Tysons and West Falls Church Metro. It's so much easier to take the metro a few more stops past Rosslyn and catch a bus - instead of waiting in traffic from Rosslyn to Tysons.

Posted by: Former Commuter | September 21, 2006 3:14 PM | Report abuse

McLean's observations were right on the mark. In the years that I have commuted from Tysons Corner to Rosslyn in the a.m. rush, I gave up on the 5B, because it was simply "unreliable". I would occassionally take it in the evening rushhour, when metrorail had disruptions. I'm sorry to see it go, but we have to face facts - the rail system is evolving in Tyson's corner and 4-5 years from now, this will all be a bad memory...

Posted by: sam | September 21, 2006 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Gridlock - yes, that was the SmartMover bus that I tried. Would have been great if it picked up at various locations around Tysons, but no, it was not to be.
I fear that the Dulles Rail will have the same issue at some stations. For example, they are blowing a HUGE opportunity by not putting the Reston Parkway station actually in the Town Center. (Similarly, could the first phase of the Silver Line not have ended there?) Instead, people will have to hike to it. How many people actually work within walking distance of Wihele Avenue, or Elden Street, where they actually cross the toll road?

Virginia may be building a $4B train to serve the Marriott Worldgate and the McDonalds and Pizza Hut on Wihele Avenue!

Posted by: Joe in SS | September 24, 2006 5:41 PM | Report abuse

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