A Ride On bus in Germantown. Photo by the author. Image by the author.

Montgomery County’s Ride On is the busiest bus system in the Washington region after Metrobus, carrying 75,000 riders each day. Its most popular bus routes, however, might surprise you.

Here’s a map of the ten most heavily used Ride On routes in Montgomery County. They all have a couple of things in common, which can tell us a lot about the state of transit in the county.

For starters, many of these routes have simple, easy-to-remember routes, a key feature for growing ridership. The 46 (Rockville-Medical Center) and 55 (Germantown-Rockville) both run on Route 355 with few deviations. The 100 (Germantown-Shady Grove express) follows I-270, making one stop in Germantown and another at the Shady Grove Metro station. Riders don’t need to be intimately familiar with each route in order to use it. They just need to know where that street goes.

These are the most popular Ride On bus routes as of 2015. Map by the author using data from MCDOT. Image by the author.

In addition, most of these routes are pretty frequent, running all day, every day, and every 15 minutes or more during rush hour. That means riders can rely on them at all times, without worrying how they might get home if they miss the last bus.

Where these 10 routes go, however, might be the most interesting part. Three of them, the 15, 16, and 20, run between Silver Spring and the Takoma-Langley Crossroads area, a dense corridor with tens of thousands of residents, shops, and jobs. It’s also where the Purple Line will go, demonstrating the there’s a lot of demand for transit here.

But five of the routes, the 46, 55, 59, 61, and 100, all serve the Upcounty, the newest, most suburban, and most spread-out part of Montgomery County. The prevailing wisdom among some county officials is that transit “doesn’t work” in these areas, unlike the denser, more urban Downcounty, where all of the county's busiest Metrobus routes are. In the Upcounty, the roads are big and fast and you have to travel long distances to get from residential areas to jobs, shopping, or popular hangouts.

Map of Ride On's Route 46, which has a pretty clear, easy-to-follow route along Route 355. Image by Montgomery County.

Yet these areas still manage to support frequent, heavily used transit service. There are thousands of car-free and one-car households in areas like Gaithersburg and Germantown who depend on transit. The Upcounty also has lots of places that people want to go to: Montgomery College and the Universities at Shady Grove; two hospitals; big shopping centers like Lakeforest and Milestone; and walkable, urban-ish neighborhoods like Rio/Washingtonian Center and Germantown Town Center.

That’s something to remember as the county considers building new transit lines to serve the Upcounty, like the Corridor Cities Transitway and bus rapid transit on Route 355 - as well as big highway projects like M-83 and adding new lanes to I-270. Driving rates in Montgomery County have stayed flat over the past 15 years, even as 100,000 new people moved here. And it’s because some of those people, even those coming to Germantown, took the bus.