Most Washingtonians have memorized where Metrorail's six lines can take them. But nobody could possibly memorize every bus. Instead, savvy riders specifically remember these 10 bus lines as being just as easy and convenient to ride as the train.
These ten lines are among Metro’s highest quality and most popular. Buses on them come every few minutes, follow easy-to-remember routes on major streets, and carry riders to key destinations.
Unlike minor buses that only come once or twice an hour, you can treat these ten lines the way you’d treat Metrorail, streetcar, or a DC Circulator: They’re always there, and it’s never a long wait before the next bus arrives.
If you can memorize Metrorail’s Red and Orange Lines, you can memorize these buses:
16th Street (S series): If you want a bus on 16th Street, just remember to catch any bus beginning with the letter S. There are four unique routes, each with slightly different details but a similar overall path. 90% of riders can take any of the four. The S1, S2, and S4 stop every couple of blocks, while the express S9 stops less often for a faster trip. Collectively they're called the S series.
The other nine lines are similar. Each has multiple routes with slightly different details, combining to form a family, or series. Within each series some individual routes may come at different times of day, or continue farther beyond the lines illustrated on this post's map. But the key is to remember the series name. You can always look up the details later, if necessary.
H Street (X series): Three routes, starting with X: The X2 is the primary route, but at rush hour the X1 and the express X9 add more service. On top of the buses, DC Streetcar also runs this line, between Union Station and the Anacostia River. Beware the X3, which doesn't run on H Street, and looks more like one of the 90s than the other Xs (see below).
Crosstown via Florida & 8th (90 series): Most DC buses start downtown and run outward from there. But what if you want to go between neighborhoods without the hassle of entering downtown? The two 90 series routes, the 90 and the 92, are the answer for many central DC neighborhoods. The core line runs from U Street to Capitol Hill, with stops along the way in Shaw, NoMa, and H Street. East of the River the line splits, with the 90 going to Anacostia station and the 92 to Congress Heights.
Wisconsin / Pennsylvania (30 series): DC's longest bus line is a little more complex than the others, with nine total routes. The 30N, 30S, 31, 33, 32, 34, 36, and the express 37 and 39. Beware the 38B, which mostly serves Arlington and is not part of this series.
Columbia Pike (16 series): Virginia's busiest bus line has 11 unique Metrobus routes, all part of the 16 series. Combined they run service up and down Columbia Pike that's every bit as good as DC's 16th Street or Georgia Avenue lines. The 16X and 16Y are expresses that run into DC, but the vast majority of buses begin at either the Pentagon or Pentagon City (roughly half each). Beware the 16L, which uses I-395 to skip past Arlington's portion of the line before rejoining Columbia Pike in Fairfax County.
Pentagon City & Crystal City to Alexandria (Metroway BRT): The DC region's first Bus Rapid Transit line runs in mostly dedicated bus lanes from Pentagon City to Braddock Road Metro, through Crystal City and Potomac Yard. The Metroway doesn't have a route number, so there's no risk of confusion. Just look for the unique blue paint scheme, and you'll be good to go. Enjoy the busway.
Bethesda to Silver Spring (J series): Assuming it's ever built, Maryland's Purple Line is going to be great. In the meantime, the J buses are an easy and time-saving way to get between the two legs of the Metro Red Line, without looping all the way through downtown DC.
Three routes overlap on this line; all three run between Bethesda and Silver Spring, but they go to different places on either end. The J2 and J3 continue north to Montgomery Mall, while the J4 extends east to College Park. But beware the J1, J5, J7, J9, and J12, which aren't part of this line.
Georgia & Veirs Mill (Y, Q, & C series): By far the most complex line on this list, Montgomery County's best bus is really three different lines, combining nine unique routes. Between them, there are so many buses along the same stretch of road that you'll never have to wait long for a bus.
On Georgia Avenue, the Y series, Y2, Y7, and Y8, begins at Silver Spring and goes all the way up to Aspen Hill and Olney. Overlapping the Y buses are the Q1, Q2, and Q4 of the Q series, which run on Georgia from Silver Spring to Wheaton, then turn west on Veirs Mill Road towards Rockville. The Q5 and Q6 run the Veirs Mill portion beginning in Wheaton, but don't travel down Georgia Avenue. Finally, the the C4 of the popular C series (Maryland's busiest individual series) also overlaps on the Veirs Mill Road portion, as it connects Montgomery to Prince George's County.
Together, the Y series and Q series are fantastic on Georgia, and the Q and C are wonderful on Veirs Mill. The Q buses go all the way to Rockville, providing another fine shortcut between the Red Line's two legs.
It sounds confusing but it's actually pretty simple. It all works together like this:
These are great lines, you should ride them
Combined, these ten lines carry over 150,000 riders per day. On their own, they would be the 19th busiest bus system in the United States, ahead of the entire networks in cities like Phoenix, Dallas, Saint Louis, or Detroit.
They get tremendous ridership because they offer great service, to popular destinations. If you're not using these buses because you only ride the Metro, you're missing out on an important and easy-to-use part of our transit system. Give these a try.
A version of this post focusing on only five lines originally ran in 2015.