A Ride On bus at the Langley Park bus station by the author.

Among the many bus agencies in the Washington region, obviously WMATA’s Metrobus is the biggest by any measure. But the second biggest, Montgomery County Ride On, is such a large agency on its own that it ranks alongside many a big-city operation from elsewhere in the country.

If you rank US bus agencies by 2019 ridership, New York’s MTA, Los Angeles County’s MTA, and Chicago’s CTA came in 1-2-3. WMATA was 9th. Baltimore’s MTA 11th.

But scroll down to number 33, and there was Montgomery County Ride On, nestled comfortably just below Saint Louis, Orlando, and Detroit, but with higher ridership than the bus agencies of Tampa, Charlotte, Norfolk, Columbus, Cincinnati… many a big city.

That was 2019. On Twitter, Denis Agar compiled a list from March 2023, including some Canadian cities. COVID-19 shifted things a bit, and a cluster of Canadian cities appears between New York and LA, but broadly speaking the pattern is similar:

WMATA is in the top 10, near peers like San Francisco Muni, Philadelphia’s SEPTA, and Boston’s MBTA, but quiet, unassuming Ride On shows up a few dozen spots lower, just below Phoenix and Milwaukee, but above the likes of Austin, Tuscon, and Buffalo.

You can also dig into first quarter 2023 data via the American Public Transit Association’s first quarter ridership report, which lists Ride On as serving about 46,000 trips per average weekday.

According to the same document, here are the major bus agencies of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia:

DC, Maryland & Virginia:

  • WMATA: 345,000
  • Baltimore MTA: 186,000
  • Montgomery County Ride On: 46,000
  • Richmond GRTC: 29,000
  • Fairfax County Connector: 26,000
  • Norfolk/Virginia Beach HRT: 18,000
  • Blacksburg Transit: 17,000
  • Alexandria DASH: 16,000*
  • Arlington ART: 7,000

The Carolinas & Georgia:

  • Atlanta MARTA: 106,000
  • Durham GoDurham: 17,000
  • Chapel Hill Transit: 16,000
  • Raleigh GoRaleigh: 14,000
  • Charlotte CATS: 16,000*
  • Charleston RTA: 7,000
  • Columbia CMRTA: 7,000

Besides Atlanta, Ride On leaves them all behind. Even big metropolitan centers like Charlotte, Raleigh, and Richmond.

It’s not too complicated to understand why this happens: Good transit builds upon itself with a network effect. Ride On riders don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re riding to Metro stations, and in the context of land use in a region that—compared to others in the US—has embraced transit-oriented development. Ride On provides most of the bus service in Montgomery County, and Montgomery County is part of the transit-rich Washington region. So there you have it.

* Alexandria and Charlotte didn’t report the first quarter 2023 ridership to APTA. The cited data for Alexandria is from its June ridership report, and for Charlotte is from the fourth quarter 2022. While these inconsistencies do matter in a strict analytical sense, they do not impact the rough ballpark scale of Alexandria & Charlotte ridership.