Metro’s N7 Express attracts riders whom transit officials want. So why kill the bus line?

When Lee Sanchez boarded the Express N7 bus on Feb. 13, at the intersection of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues NW, she was treated to a perk that most morning commuters never receive. After she settled down in her seat, a man strolled through the bus, handing red roses to all the female passengers, including Sanchez.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” said the man, flashing a bashful smile. “Thanks for riding the N7.”

Sanchez was surprised by this apparently random act of kindness, but she wasn’t completely in the dark as to its motive. A few days before he handed out roses, the same man—regular passenger Bob Lipman—had announced to passengers that a group of riders was trying to “save” the N7 Express bus.

The N7 route, which runs on weekdays from Maryland’s Montgomery Mall to downtown D.C., was in danger of being canceled, Lipman told them. He added that the “N7 Rescue Team” (as the ad hoc group is known) had made laminated cards with a new bus schedule for riders.

Unlike most morning mass-transit vehicles, says Sanchez, the N7 bus has “a community atmosphere. People share the newspaper in the morning. They talk with each other and have ‘assigned’ seats.”

Sanchez observes that the impending cancellation of the line has nurtured this congenial atmosphere. “I’d never been on a bus where somebody gets up and announces they’ve made up schedules, and they’re collecting money for donations to the cause,” continues Sanchez. “I found it humorous from the get-go, but I also understood that this is a serious effort of theirs. And I thought it was cool that they were taking the time and energy to keep this bus going.”

Rosy PR gimmicks aside, the N7 Rescue Team’s efforts are indeed in earnest. After the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority—which coordinates mass transit in the D.C. metro area—decided to cancel the N7 route last December, dedicated riders and some timely intervention from legislators won a six-month reprieve for the route, in January 2001.

The stay of execution for the N7 has allowed the Rescue Team, which includes lawyers, nonprofit executives, an architect, and staffers from the World Bank and the IMF, a chance to meet the challenge laid down by Metro via Maryland transit officials: increase the number of N7 riders by nearly 100 percent per trip (or from 16 riders to 30) by June.

It’s a task that Peter Cladouhos, a lawyer at the D.C. firm of Willkie, Farr & Gallagher and one of the Rescue Team’s leaders, has embraced with the help of multiple electronic mailing lists, a few handy spreadsheets, and a gritty determination to save the route.

“We are committed to public transportation,” says Cladouhos, who bears a striking resemblance to Welcome Back Kotter’s Gabe Kaplan. “It’s convenient and more enjoyable for us. To get in a car and drive to work, even though it would seem more convenient…None of us really wants to drive and sit in traffic or deal with the congestion on Massachusetts Avenue.”

The riders of the N7 are just the kind of people that Maryland wants to attract to its mass-transit systems. Many of the route’s regular passengers are affluent or middle-class passengers who could afford to drive to work and pay for parking. Regular riders on the N7 argue that the other mass-transit options available to them if the route dies are limited and unappealing.

Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is one of those riders. Carothers started a petition drive for the N7 bus when the route’s January 2001 cancellation date was announced.

“To get to the Metro,” says Carothers, “I have to take a small, rickety Ride-On bus, go out of my way to Friendship Heights, and then I have to get on the overcrowded Metro, where I can never get a seat. On the N7, I can sit down and read the paper. It’s a better way to commute.”

Cladouhos and his cohorts say that they want Maryland to keep the N7 alive in the spirit of the six-year, $750 million initiative proposed by Gov. Parris Glendening in December 2000 and targeted at increasing mass-transit options and ridership on the state’s transportation services.

“Here you had one of the few bus services that runs directly from Montgomery County into the city,” argues Cladouhos, “and officials wanted to cancel it. We’re certainly not saying that the bus route was perfect and that the ridership was where it should have been, but we didn’t think it was fair that they targeted the bus and canceled it without giving us an opportunity to try and save it.”

Maryland legislators responded to the pleas of the Rescue Team by exerting influence on Metro and the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT). Maryland State Sen. Brian Frosh, a strong mass-transit advocate, says, “My colleagues and I begged, pleaded, and cajoled officials to get them to figure out a way to keep the bus rolling. MDOT and Metro really responded and said, ‘We’ll help.’”

As a result of the lobbying efforts, Maryland decided to pony up $99,500 to continue the bus for another six months. Frosh hopes that the Maryland legislature will OK Glendening’s proposed transportation initiative, and that new public monies will keep the N7 running after the reprieve ends.

Transit officials don’t exactly share the Rescue Team’s enthusiasm for the N7. They are demanding that ridership on the bus increase—and soon—or they will cancel the route permanently.

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel says that the District government has already washed its hands of the bus route. “Any offer for restoration of permanent status will have to come from MDOT or Montgomery County,” he says, “which would also have to assume full or joint financial responsibility indefinitely.”

MDOT reps are more supportive of the N7, but officials there also focus on the bottom line. “At the very least,” says Len Foxwell, MDOT’s director of Washington-area transit programs, “we want to see 30 passengers per trip by June. Right now, we’re getting 16, which is the least productive route [in the system]. It’s silly to keep throwing good money at services that are half-empty.”

The roses, and other attention-grabbers, are the Rescue Team’s way of pushing the ridership numbers upward. The Rescue Team is advertising the route through a PR campaign, combining slogans such as “Mornings are tough, thank goodness for coffee and the N7” with $3 coupons from a local Starbucks. It has also posted fliers at bus stops and local libraries, and harnessed e-mail and the Internet (via its own Web site) to spread the word.

Cladouhos says that the PR effort is already paying off, that his detailed ridership tallies show substantial growth. “On the 9th of March, I had all five [runs] reporting in,” he notes, “and we had an average of 20 riders. The most we had on a trip in February was 22, and on one run this month, we had 35 passengers. Overall, it looks like a 50 percent increase [from] what we had in February.”

Despite its stopgap victories thus far, Cladouhos says that the N7 Rescue Team is feeling the pressure as ride checks planned by transit officials in April approach.

“There’s not a lot of time to increase the ridership even more,” says Cladouhos, “and I think we deserve extra time to get more riders. I’m concerned that the state won’t think [our gains] are substantial enough.”

MDOT isn’t making any promises, but Foxwell says he is “very encouraged” by the spirit of the N7 campaign. “What’s especially heartening here,” says Foxwell, “is these are people who aren’t dependent on mass transit. They choose to take the bus to work, and we need to keep riders like that. If there’s any way we can keep them on buses, we’ll do it.”CP