The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


BRT proposal could get Montgomery on the bus

Two weeks ago, Montgomery County released a study saying that a proposed Bus Rapid Transit system could drastically improve local commutes. The plan could do even more for commuters by sending lines to current and future activity centers in the county.

BRT routes serving Route 355, shown here in White Flint, would get nearly 65,000 riders a day.

Councilmember Marc Elrich first proposed creating a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network in 2008. On May 4, planning consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff presented their report on the concept to the County Council and identified what they saw as the best places for BRT in Montgomery County.

The consultants outline a 148-mile BRT system that goes farther than earlier proposals by Metro, with 16 routes and 150 stations. The system would cost around $2.5 billion to build excluding right-of-way acquisition costs. It would take between $144 million and $173 million a year to operate.

According to their findings, the network would carry between 210,000 and 270,000 riders a day in 2040. (By comparison, an average of 717,000 people rode the entire Metro system on an average weekday last February.) 85,000 riders would switch to BRT from other modes of transportation, and 65,000 riders would come from just two routes, serving Route 355 between Clarksburg and Rockville and between Rockville and Bethesda.

Parsons Brinckerhoff looked to successful BRT systems in places like Cleveland, Los Angeles and Eugene, Oregon for inspiration. The study assumed that two-thirds of the system would run buses either along dedicated guideways or special lanes separated from other vehicles, while the rest would run in mixed traffic. In addition, hundreds of intersections would get improvements like Transit Signal Priority or queue jumpers, which would help speed buses through.

Unlike existing bus services in the county, which can stop as often as every block, the proposed system would place stations a half-mile to a mile apart. Stations would be substantial, with places for riders to wait and ticket machines, so drivers don't have to collect fares. Additionally, they would be located to accommodate people who arrived on foot, transferred from other buses or the Metro, or drove there.

Montgomery County BRT Proposal
Parsons Brinckerhoff's proposal for BRT in Montgomery County.

According to the study, BRT on major roads like Rockville Pike and Connecticut Avenue would be as fast as, and in some cases faster, than driving. A trip between Clarksburg and Rockville, which currently takes over an hour, would be only 45 minutes long. Meanwhile, the 55-minute trip between Burtonsville and Silver Spring would drop to only 38 minutes.

Sixteen BRT corridors were studied by Parsons Brinckerhoff:

  • Veirs Mill Road between Rockville Town Center and downtown Wheaton.
  • Georgia Avenue between Wheaton and Montgomery General Hospital in Olney.
  • Georgia Avenue between downtown Silver Spring and downtown Wheaton.
  • A line between Rockville Town Center and the Life Sciences Center in Gaithersburg.
  • Muddy Branch Road between Lakeforest Mall and the Life Sciences Center, both in Gaithersburg.
  • Connecticut Avenue between Aspen Hill and Medical Center in Bethesda.
  • Rockville Pike (MD 355) between downtown Bethesda and Rockville Town Center.
  • Frederick Road (MD 355) between Rockville Town Center and Clarksburg.
  • New Hampshire Avenue between White Oak and Fort Totten.
  • Old Georgetown Road between downtown Bethesda and Montgomery Mall.
  • Randolph Road between White Flint and Glenmont.
  • University Boulevard between Wheaton and Langley Park.
  • Colesville Road/Columbia Pike (US 29) between downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville.
  • The InterCounty Connector between the Life Sciences Center and Briggs Chaney.
  • The North Bethesda Transitway between Montgomery Mall and Grosvenor.
  • Midcounty Highway between Shady Grove and Clarksburg.
In order for the system to work, the study says, BRT has to have special branding, distinct from the current Ride On service, so riders know that it's special. Los Angeles' Metro Rapid system, which uses special colors and signage to denote different kinds of bus routes, is a good example of that. The study also recommends that Montgomery County encourage higher-density, mixed-use development around BRT stations, so people can walk to transit and other amenities, thus reducing traffic.

There are a lot of great ideas in Parsons Brinckerhoff's report, but the discussion of land use actually raises one of the biggest issues with their proposal. Councilmember Elrich's BRT plan, which came out three years ago, brought fast, frequent transit to all parts of Montgomery County, including on the east side. A number of places targeted for new development or job growth, like Kensington or White Oak, would be served by multiple BRT lines. Yet the new proposal focuses on the Upcounty, and on just delivering BRT passengers to Metro stations, without considering where people are coming from and where they want to go.

Metro Orange Line At Warner Center
BRT in Los Angeles. Photo by Metro Transportation Library and Archive on Flickr.

In the study, five lines serve the I-270 corridor north of Rockville, which is where most new development in Montgomery County will take place in the coming decades. But there are limited connections between that area and the rest of the county, particularly the east side. The only direct, east-west connection in the plan, outside of the Purple Line, is a line along the InterCounty Connector, which will most likely produce park-and-ride lots, not walkable neighborhoods.

Other east-west lines stop short of important destinations, like a Randolph Road line that only runs between White Flint and Glenmont. That line should continue to White Oak, home to the new Food and Drug Administration campus, a new Washington Adventist Hospital and the massive proposed LifeSci Village development.

Likewise, a line along University Boulevard between Langley Park and Wheaton should continue west to Kensington, where it could meet the proposed Connecticut Avenue line while serving a redeveloped town center there.

The BRT system should be designed to reinforce existing activity centers as well. Many of the lines simply end at a Metro station, forcing riders to transfer to get to more significant destinations. For instance, the Connecticut Avenue line runs only between Aspen Hill and the Medical Center Metro station. While some riders will only want to go that far, others who want to go to Bethesda would have to transfer to the Red Line, possibly discouraging them from using the service.

In addition, the North Bethesda Transitway, which has been on the books for decades, would connect Montgomery Mall and the job-heavy Rock Spring Park area with Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro via Tuckerman Lane. But riders going to the rapidly-growing White Flint area, already a bigger draw than Strathmore, would also have to transfer.

Councilmember Elrich's Bus Rapid Transit plan promises to be a triple threat: it'll beat congestion, provide new opportunities for development and do so without breaking the bank. Nonetheless, the plan needs refining if it's going to have a lasting impact on the way we live, work and get around. With a few improvements, we'll be well on our way to making Montgomery County one of the most progressive and innovative communities in the country.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


Add a comment »

If there's one thing that American planners and politicians are great about doing, it's talking about BRT.

If there's one thing that American planners and politicians absolutely suck at doing, it's actually building BRT systems.

If you look at the development of the Metro and DC's freeway system, you'll notice that *every* one of those projects included extensive BRT features that were either cut from the projects, or were built and never used. As far as I know, only a handful of bus routes in the region run on highways.

by andrew on May 20, 2011 12:11 pm • linkreport

TRB recently shared this NCHRP Document on the cost/benefit of converting a lane to BRT:

by Bossi on May 20, 2011 12:33 pm • linkreport

Unfortunately, Montgomery County DOT is firmly opposed to converting existing lanes to BRTs, giving buses priorities at intersections, or even adjusting light cycles so that traffic in the direction of heavy bus traffic gets through faster than on the crossing road.

Changing this policy would make it possible to get much of the benefit of BRT without the heavy investment. And until the policy is changed, how effective will investment in BRT be?

by Ben Ross on May 20, 2011 1:12 pm • linkreport

Further, new construction of dedicated BRT lanes only delivers one thing for sure - new lanes. BRT requires continued operation budgets, and perhaps more importantly, public support. Voters in FL didn't like seeing empty BRT lanes while they simmered in stop&go traffic. The lanes, last I read, were up for grabs in a public referendum. BRT if done without huge promotion, careful planning and policy checks can be a Trojan horse for new road lane construction.

by Larry Martin on May 20, 2011 1:22 pm • linkreport

Changing this policy would make it possible to get much of the benefit of BRT without the heavy investment

Let the downgrading of the proposal begin!

by MLD on May 20, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

> Voters in FL didn't like seeing empty BRT lanes while they simmered in stop&go traffic. The lanes, last I read, were up for grabs in a public referendum.

The I-395 HOV facility in Virginia that the state tried to convert to HOT lanes was originally planned, built and operated as an exclusive busway. People thought the lanes were going to waste, so they were eventually opened up to cars.

One potential solution might be to put buses in the median like this rather than on regular lanes that could be opened to traffic.

by BeyondDC on May 20, 2011 2:15 pm • linkreport

The Montgomery County Plan is, in fact, to put the buses on guideways in the median where possible. It also includes such aspects as signal priority. Too much of it is only going one way, with the flow of traffic--but right-of-way issues make it difficult to do otherwise.

Once you get to the outer suburbs, BRT and improvements to MARC are the only affordable options for greatly improving transit and getting new riders. There is great momentum behind the plan. Transit advocates should be pushing to make it better, but opposing the plan is really cutting our own throats.

by Ethan Goffman on May 20, 2011 3:06 pm • linkreport

BRT is fantastic on paper, but the only truly successful systems I've heard about are places other than the US: China, Colombia, Mexico, Turkey, Canada.

I don't know MoCo at all, but my impression has been that for BRT to work there needs to be massive public support, or else the corner-cutting would reduce it to regular bus express service.

by OctaviusIII on May 20, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

For the record, better regular bus service would still be a big improvement out there, so short of a streetcar alternate to support instead I do think this is a basically solid plan that we should support where possible.

by BeyondDC on May 20, 2011 3:22 pm • linkreport

One great thing about BRT: it can be implemented piece-by-piece. While there's some consideration at transitions of how buses move between median bus stops to curbside bus stops, it's not something that requires a comprehensive investment all at the same time. There are also many features such as transit signal priority which, while not explicitly providing BRT, can provide benefits to all equipped buses as soon as it's switched on.

by Bossi on May 20, 2011 3:27 pm • linkreport

There is great momentum behind the plan.

It would be more accurate to say there is great momentum behind the paper study. Montgomery County loves to use studies as excuses for not actually building transit while it pours money into highways. A good recent example is MCDOT's comments (warning: buried in big pdf) on the White Flint master plan, which opposed the Rockville Pike bus lanes that are actually going to get built under the plan while calling for study after study, including the one discussed in the post.

by Ben Ross on May 20, 2011 3:29 pm • linkreport

I see both positives and negatives from what I've seen of the MoCo BRT proposal so far, but it's difficult to comment on it meaninfully when all I've been able to see so far has been the executive summary. Does anyone know when and where the full report will be available?

by Richard Arkin on May 21, 2011 5:57 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us