Greater Greater Washington

Final report downgrades Montgomery "BRT"

Last week, the Montgomery County DOT released its final study on a future county-wide BRT system. The system has the potential to improve transit options for many county residents. But four months after the study's draft executive summary was released, it's clear that expectations have already been lowered and that many questions remain.


Photo by San Joaquin RTD on Flickr.

As Dan Reed wrote when the summary draft was published, the plan identifed 16 potential routes, covering 150 miles and just as many stations. The study's model predicted significant time savings over current transit options on each of the routes and in some cases even travel time savings over driving.

Very little has changed between the study's draft summary and the now-finished product, but what has changed is definitely worth noting. Revisions to the study team's forecasting model resulted in significant reductions in predicted ridership numbers.

The range of expected daily boardings for the whole network has been revised to 165,600-207,000, down some 20% from the originally estimated 213,100-266,400 boardings. This drop in predicted ridership ripples throughout the report, resulting in lengthened recommended headways, increased total operating and maintenance costs, and reduced farebox recovery ratios.

These revisions may not be all bad given the large number of transit projects that have suffered from inflated ridership estimates and too-conservative operating cost projections.

On the other hand, lower predicted ridership and higher costs may give notoriously road-focused MCDOT reason to whittle away at the plan as it moves ever so slowly to fruition. After all, BRT's broad spectrum of implementation levels and scalability can be both a blessing and a curse.

What's also disappointing about the plan is its focus on traditional travel patterns of the county today. The model even assumed "unconstrained availability of parking" at three potential park-and-ride stations, underscoring the fact that this study is not really a change of approach for Montgomery County's transit planning. Of the 16 potential routes, only 3 of them are true cross-county routes, while the rest move primarily north to south. 8 of the routes end at Metro stations.

The emphasis on access to Metro stations and importance of parking availability in the ridership models indicates a continued emphasis on commuter trips that start in a car, rather than in a transit-oriented development that supports all-hours trips that don't require a car at all.

Most of all, though, the plan doesn't come close to proposing true Bus Rapid Transit.

The system would use articulated, 60-foot, hybrid low floor "BRT Vehicles" with automatic vehicle locators and other technology. Interestingly these "BRT Vehicles" sound remarkably like the newest 60-foot hybrid buses with WMATA operates on its heaviest routes like the X2 and 71.

Only "major stations serving at least 500 daily boardings by the year 2040," would get infrastructure upgrades beyond a typical bus stop, and even then, "stations" will primarily consist of an "extended shelter, benches," and some additional aesthetic treatments.

First, for a well-designed BRT route, these treatments should be afforded to every stop. Consistent station treatment unifies a rapid transit system's "premium transit service" feel. What if some metro stations only had 200 foot platforms? Secondly, a true rapid transit service should not be serving any stops that don't attract 500 people per day anyway. If the density for this transit demand doesn't exist, those stops should be omitted from the BRT line to begin with.

Finally, the infrastructure choices may prove problematic. Where busways are recommended, which is only about two-thirds of the route length, the study proposes "guided busways" for a large portion of the infrastructure. The study doesn't offer more specific technology recommendations, but guided busways are relatively uncommon around the world, having never proved particularly beneficial for the additional investment they require.

Human Transit's Jarret Walker wrote last week upon the opening of the world's longest guided busway in Cambridgeshire, England:

"If this busway doesn't turn up significant benefits in customer experience, it will probably be the last, or at least the last to be done with guide-wheels. Adelaide's pioneering O-Bahn is now 25 years old, so one hopes the state of the art has moved on."
Guided busways have even been problematic in many cities. After a few years of operation, Edinburgh determined to tear out its busway and replace it with light rail. In Crawley, England, south of London, the Fastway system installed one-way guided busways in several places where previously had been poorly enforced bus lanes.

The result: only the two bus routes that were officially part of the Fastway system and had guidewheels could use the guideways, leaving the other bus lines to fend for themselves in mixed traffic. Even the Fastway routes have been sometimes stymied by this problem on the occasion that too many guided buses are out of service.

The primary benefit to guided busways is the fact that they allow designers to somewhat shrink the width of the required right of way. In other words: they give transit-skeptical planners and elected officials one more way to save precious SOV space.

Are the costs and headaches worth it? Doubtful, but we've already learned that Montgomery County will do practically anything to avoiding giving over space from cars to transit. Most of the other guided bus systems across the globe use the technology because there literally is not enough space for full-width lanes and busways in their chosen right-of-way.

Montgomery County has proposed, for much of the system, to build one-way busways that can be used by buses traveling in the peak direction, leaving buses traveling in the opposite direction to compete in mixed traffic. Does this mean that the busway will have station infrastructure on both sides of the guideway? Presumably. Bus stops or stations would also then need to be placed along the outide of the main roadway in both directions as well, further duplicating infrastructure.

This could mean that roads with one lane, reversible busways would need four stops at each station location. In the morning, the busway would need a right-side platform for southbound buses, while the sidewalk on the northbound curb would need a platform as well. In the afternoon, the busway would need a right-side platform for northbound buses (opposite the morning stop), and the sidewalk on the southbound curb would need a platform.

The logistical headache of operating bi-directional one-lane guideways, combined with the infrastructure duplication of building up to four stations in each direction along the guideways, emphasizes MCDOT's utter reluctance to actually reallocate space from single-occupancy vehicles to high-occupancy transit vehicles. This reluctance may very well land the County's nascent system among the ranks of America's countless other faux-BRTs.

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Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 

Comments

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Thank you for this analysis. I've long thought that all the bluster about BRT in the county has been a way for the Highway/Sprawl lobby (and related sypathetic parties) to claim they're "doing something" about transit while actually doing nothing.

Once again, the BRT brand gets used as a tool to do nothing at all. I've been skeptical and this reinforces my skepticsm. Until Montgomery County gets out of its "county money for roads only" mindset, this kind of hot air will continue to be the norm.

by Cavan on Aug 10, 2011 10:41 am • linkreport

It is so common. There's a good idea, it gets watered down, built half-assed, and then the opponents get to say they said it was gonna fail.

by Jasper on Aug 10, 2011 10:45 am • linkreport

With most of Montgomery County still dispersed (housing located well away from employment and commercial centers), creating a useful system of buses that could replace car usage is still a fools errand. In addition, creating a bus system that doesn't leverage the existing metrobus/metrorail infrastructure is duplicative and wasteful.

That being said, the county bus system needs to take advantage of modern infrastructure. Nextbus gives users the ability to plan their trips in smaller increments than the current inaccurate posted headways for buses, saving daily commuters 1+ hours per day.

Running long bus loops across the county has been proven to reduce reliability given the current traffic congestion. Shorter, more predictable loops would increase reliability and customer satisfaction, even if it meant additional transfers. I assume that the fare structure could be adjusted to reflect a new multi-modal transit paradigm without gouging customers.

The hair in the soup is still the inability of county residents to agree on standards for civil society. Attempts to enforce any type of human decency and hold, undesirable, let not legally enforceable antisocial behavior to account has been stymied by special interest groups. A private car and a remote house in an expensive neighborhood is still the best safety against undesirable elements of society.

A future transit system with a more public police presence will be necessary if public transportation is to recapture the middle class. Thus far public decency standards have been ceded to bullies on inexpensive public transport, but that will have to eventually be addressed either by fares that price out bullies or by arresting them more frequently.

by moco on Aug 10, 2011 10:46 am • linkreport

"The hair in the soup is still the inability of county residents to agree on standards for civil society. Attempts to enforce any type of human decency and hold, undesirable, let not legally enforceable antisocial behavior to account has been stymied by special interest groups. A private car and a remote house in an expensive neighborhood is still the best safety against undesirable elements of society.

A future transit system with a more public police presence will be necessary if public transportation is to recapture the middle class. Thus far public decency standards have been ceded to bullies on inexpensive public transport, but that will have to eventually be addressed either by fares that price out bullies or by arresting them more frequently."

What the hell are you talking about? Ugh.

by k on Aug 10, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

moco, or we could abandon this county-wide BRT and focus on our downtowns. Our future is in our current and emerging downtowns: Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville, Takoma Park, Old Town Gaithersburg, Wheaton, White Flint, Twinbrook, etc. We could spend the BRT money on infrastructure improvements to make our existing downtowns even better and our planned/emerging downtowns feasible.

The 20th century car-dependent places are there. They're designed to be both inconvenient and cost-uneffective to transit. We should let them be and focus on places that are cost-effective and convenient.

by Cavan on Aug 10, 2011 11:20 am • linkreport

I was pretty excited about the BRT plan in May but I'm sad to see it become increasingly less ambitious. I'm wondering if it would make sense to sort of do what Cavan suggests and create a system that connects those "current and emerging downtowns," giving people in those communities who already have the ability to travel without a car inside their neighborhoods travel to other neighborhoods the same way. Buses from outlying, auto-dependent areas could use the BRT lanes, but the emphasis would be on fast, frequent service in places that will benefit from them most.

by dan reed! on Aug 10, 2011 11:45 am • linkreport

"These revisions may not be all bad given the large number of transit projects that have suffered from inflated ridership estimates and too-conservative operating cost projections."

Hmm, who on earth would do something like that? Oh yeah, the MTA with the Purple Line.

by BS_Dawg on Aug 10, 2011 12:43 pm • linkreport

@BS_Dawg-

How so? I'd say the PL's estimates actually understate its potential, particularly in its consideration of UMD students and future development.

by Bossi on Aug 10, 2011 12:47 pm • linkreport

"How so? I'd say the PL's estimates actually understate its potential, particularly in its consideration of UMD students and future development."

Definetly not understated. The ridership numbers for the PL are based on 2030 projections, ten years after its completion, thus giving plenty of time for the additional development to take root.

Having said that, now I'm really curious-- this blog has been an ardent supporter of all things mass transit (which is primarily a good thing, since more mass transit, including a BRT with all the bells and whistles, is needed). BUT . . . if the author is aware of instances of inflated ridership numbers (locally or projects elsewhere), I think it only fair that he state which ones he was referring to. Indeed, I believe it would be a civic duty to do so, and would greatly enhance the credibility of this blog.

by BS_Dawg on Aug 10, 2011 1:10 pm • linkreport

BS_Dawg, light rail projects ridership estimates are consistently underestimated. The new Phoenix line has long-since surpassed ridership projections. The same is true with Salt Lake City. As of 2006, Trax was getting four times its projected ridership.

The Purple Line corridor has enough ridership and redevelopment potential to justify heavy rail. We have to fight for funding for metro-like light rail (light metro) service so we'll do that. I really think that 68,000 is too low for the Purple Line. In my unprofessional opinion, it'll get 100,000 boardings a day. The ridership projections have more to do with the models themselves than what will actually happen.

by Cavan on Aug 10, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

So if MoCo doesn't think that the number of estimated riders justifies the costs of BRT then what's the problem?

by Fitz on Aug 10, 2011 1:40 pm • linkreport

I don't understand why they think they need bus guideways. I hadn't even heard of these before but I think they are a bad idea. Why not just institute signal priority for buses and then even cars traveling in the same direction as the bus can benefit from constant motion? The buses would only end up stopping at BRT stations and would help keep all other traffic moving as they traveled.

by James on Aug 10, 2011 2:34 pm • linkreport

James, your suggestion might make sense in theory (your head) but in practice signal priority would not be enough to make taking the bus faster or more convenient. It would simply be stuck in the same-old-same-old car traffic.

Also, the MCDOT has refused to do signal priority so why would they start for some bus network?

by Cavan on Aug 10, 2011 3:00 pm • linkreport

Quick reminder-

While MCDOT maintains & times the signals on State roads, SHA formally owns them and still has the authority to say whether or not TSP be implemented along them.

by Bossi on Aug 10, 2011 3:02 pm • linkreport

Why not stop plans for the BRT which costs billions, isn't safe in some areas (Georgia Ave South and Veirs Mill), and does harm to vehicular traffic? Why not give the money for "premiums" and "gold standards" to RideOn and MetroBus - and by that I don't mean million dollar bus shelters - people don't like them in Arlington, why make similarly wasteful plans for 200' long bus disabled-unfriendly "stations" in MontCo? So snobby, elite "choice" people won't realize they're going on a bus? That won't work. They'll figure it out.
BRT as proposed for MontCo with all dedicated lanes was projected as not "rapid" - averaging 9 minutes faster than local buses in mixed traffic. One of the worst improvements is one they want to do first - ie given a wholly dedicated lane on Georgia South, BRT was projected by experts to be only two minutes faster than running local buses in mixed traffic. At HOW MUCH MONEY? During a recession!?
Talk of "dedicating but not adding lanes" taking mixed use to elite use, "gold standards", "premium", etc.. sounds like someone selling credit cards. I don't want that debt.
You know what would be faster plus more efficient? Express buses for popular routes. More efficient because people aren't having to build up a whole new system.
And "reversible" lanes increase chances of accidents - serious ones, such as head-on collision, even the pro-BRT traffic experts mention this. Driving buses is not "precision dance" and complicating things for any drivers increases accidents rates. Georgia Avenue's current accident rate (one of the highest in the county) is attributed to "reversible" lanes.
BRT should not be proposed as a first course of action anywhere riders stand waiting for buses every half hour instead of every 15 minutes. 15 minute gaps/waits which would put them at a service rate better than the Metro. Add a bench and shelter, and reduce crowding, and the bus, though slow, is better than the Red Line. Don't reduce stops and replace with "stations" - fix them! This is a situation where it is more efficient, effective, and better for all riders (bus and car) to repair the local bus services than start a new one.
The Waste on this is shameful - 11 million state dollars was used on BRT studies for just GA ave and Veirs Mill. These poor studies didn't include the traffic impact repurposing/dedicating but not adding/taking from mixed use lanes would do cars. They didn't get adequate public input nor address safety.
Compare that to how MontCo spent $12.3 million last year for 28 new buses - an immediate benefit to county ridership. Fixing what's needs improvement is better than cutting it down and starting from scratch.

by asffa on Nov 18, 2013 10:19 pm • linkreport

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