All Aboard

All Aboard

A ride on the Bethesda Circulator is free-and entertaining.

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A young woman in a slate-gray business suit clambers up the steps on a mid winter Thursday afternoon. She drags a suitcase that must weigh half as much as she does.

She scowls.

She sighs.

She appears to have had a very long, very hard day.

“How much?” she asks the driver with a tone of resignation.

“It’s free,” Kewana Mason replies with a smile.

“You’re putting me on,” the woman says. “I wouldn’t kid you about money,” Mason says.

The woman sits with a thud.

She is Melanie Miller, a management consultant who has business the next morning at the nearby National Institutes of Health. Miller has just arrived from Atlanta by plane, and has traveled to Bethesda by Metro. She is heading for the Doubletree Bethesda Hotel on the northern edge of the downtown business district.

It would have been too far to walk— especially in three-inch heels and with her giant suitcase. But the Bethesda Circulator bus makes the trip in less than five minutes.

It’s clean, it’s well lit, it’s mostly empty. Soft oldies music is playing on the PA system—and the price is right.

“You have a good day!” says Miller, her attitude thoroughly adjusted as Mason lets her off near the hotel. “I’ll do that,” Mason replies. Then she smiles at her one remaining passenger—me.

“Happens every day,” says Mason, a Circulator driver since 2006. “They come with a downtown attitude. They leave with a smile.”

About 1,000 people ride the trolley (as it’s unofficially, but widely, known) along its figure-eight route in downtown Bethesda on an average day. The bus operates every day except Sunday.

I’ve been a bus addict all my life. When I was 4 years old, I tried to talk my way aboard one in the Bronx. I failed only because I lacked 15 cents. When I was 8, I notified my horrified parents that I intended to become a bus when I grew up. I emitted a few beep-beeps at the dinner table to show them I was serious. I was especially entranced by the pneumatic doors and their loud “whoosh!” The squealing brakes weren’t bad, either. All in all, I learned very early that a bus is a place for color—and a surprising amount of excitement.

The Bethesda Circulator answers to that description. It has decorative touches like something out of a postcard. The poles are shiny chrome or brass. The cordovan grips look like those that hung in early New York City subway cars. The seats are polished, slatted wood. The effect is part barbershop quartet, part carnival ride. The human scene aboard the Circulator is a mix of mind-your-own-business and relaxed yakking, flirting and laughing. Mason has had many passengers who were thinking of moving to downtown Bethesda and wanted to have a bird’s-eye look around. She often shuttles elderly apartment dwellers who live on the northern edge of downtown and shop at the Safeway on Old Georgetown Road. “Because of me, they can carry more groceries home,” she says.

Homeless men sometimes ride for hours because they have nowhere to go— especially when the weather is foul. “But I’ve never had a problem” with them, Mason says. Skateboarders, construction workers, joggers, young mothers with strollers—they’re all trolleyniks.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the seats held people from all walks of life. Elzbieta Karanova, a swing-shift maid from Wheaton, was going to work at the Hyatt Regency Bethesda. She said she rides the Circulator because it gets her off her feet for a few minutes—a boon for a woman who will be standing for the next eight hours.

Beryl Smith of Chevy Chase, a young woman in a sensible cloth coat, had just bought several books at the Barnes & Noble on the corner of Bethesda and Woodmont avenues. She had dived into one of them and almost missed her stop. She said she rides the Circulator because it’s homey.

A young couple, both about 25, sat on the front bench. They shared a peck of a kiss. He tried for another. She pushed him away with a giggle.

Two girls, maybe 14 years old, climbed aboard. Girl One was wearing a Bethany Beach sweatshirt, the other was wearing shorts (never mind that it was 30 degrees outside). “I feel, like, real stupid wearing shorts,” Girl Two says. “Everyone makes fun of me.”

“So maybe you should dress with more layers?” offers Girl One.

Girl Two wasn’t listening. She was reading and replying to a text message on her cell phone.

Mason keeps an eye on who’s aboard so she can offer appropriate music. “When it’s just kids, I do 99.5 FM [top 40],” she says. “Otherwise, I do 97.1 [soft rock].”

Riders generally fall into one of four categories, the drivers say. They can be hotel guests heading to or from the Doubletree or the Hyatt Regency, or a variety of workers who have parked at a Montgomery County lot near the Circulator’s route and are going to their jobs in downtown Bethesda. They also can be Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School students who are looking for a little private time with friends between, after or sometimes instead of classes. At night, pub crawlers—often couples, sometimes tipsy— are grateful for a safe and quick way to get back to the Metrorail station or the Metrobus.

In September 2006, the bus service was taken over by Bethesda Urban Partnership Inc., a nonprofit organization that markets and manages downtown Bethesda. Revenue from public parking meters pays for the Circulator, which costs about $640,000 a year. When the management changed, the trolleys also got a new color scheme—from brown and gold to red. The trolley’s loop—from Woodmont Avenue down Bethesda Avenue to Arlington Road past the library, then to the Metro and back down Old Georgetown Road to Auburn Avenue—takes about 10 minutes. There are 17 possible stops. But this is no ordinary public transit.

Whenever a trolley driver wants to say “hello,” or “watch out,” to someone walking along the route, he or she sounds a bell that’s mounted on the front grille. It sounds celebratory, merry, even circus-like—a lot different from a Metrobus horn. Mason says she is in the promotions business, not the bus business.

“Other drivers, they’re used to time, time, time,” Mason says as she negotiates midday traffic outside Barnes & Noble, referring to Metrobus drivers who have to stay on schedule. “This is more of a service.”

The trolley does not serve Wisconsin Avenue, the National Institutes of Health, Bradley Lane or the Beltway. According to trolley drivers, many riders ask for those destinations. They also ask about the “Yacht Club of Bethesda,” an upscale adult-singles bar that operated in the basement of the former Holiday Inn (now the Doubletree). It closed about five years ago.

“They’re always sorry to hear that,” Mason says. But they’re always glad to hear that the ride is free. “It makes me the most popular girl in town,” Mason says.

Bob Levey spent 36 years as a staff writer and columnist for The Washington Post. He is Hardin Chair of Excellence in the Department of Journalism at the University of Memphis. He has lived in Chevy Chase for 26 years.

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