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For gold-standard BRT, Montgomery must start now

The "gold-standard" bus rapid transit network proposed for Montgomery County will be expensive, but money might not be its biggest problem. Lack of will to take the first steps now could be a bigger obstacle to creating a bus system that is truly rapid.

BRT station in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo by itdp on Flickr.

The county's BRT Task Force correctly insists that BRT will only live up to its promise if buses can speed past traffic in their own lanes. Its report offers a clear and compelling vision of complete streets that both move commuters quickly and create the walkable environment that transit-oriented development needs.

But the task force found itself unable to make the hard choices about street design that BRT requires. Until the county faces those issues, it won't be possible to deliver on the "gold-standard" promise.

The county panel, willing enough to ask taxpayers for money, would not ask drivers to give up pavement. As a result, the much-discussed $2 billion cost estimate isn't the price of a gold-standard bus network. It's the cost of a lesser system that will leave fancy new buses still stuck in traffic, and will result in streets that are still hostile for pedestrians.

The devil is always in the details, and fitting bus lanes into existing streets is the bus planner's special hell. Here the task force barely made it into purgatory. The panel asked its consultants, The Traffic Group, to plan a system that "could be built as swiftly as possible by minimizing the need to acquire large amounts of new right-of-way." To do this without taking lanes away from cars, the consultants found, buses would have to run in regular traffic lanes on a quarter of the entire system.

Not only that, the stretches where buses would mix with cars include most of the intersections where 4- and 6-lane roads cross (see pages 48, 88, and 90 of the report). Such intersections are usually where traffic backs up the most.

The task force admits that the consultants' system fails to "achieve the level of operational performance that the task force has established as minimally needed to have a transformational rapid transit system." Nonetheless, all the cost estimates in its report are the costs of building this not-so-rapid bus network.

The panel deferred the job of figuring out how "gold-standard" BRT might actually be fit into existing highways. That is legitimately a difficult job, but it's a necessary one if "gold-standard" is actually to be achieved.

There's more on the to-do list. How will extra-long buses maneuver in and out of traffic? How will pedestrians cross the bus lanes? How will cars make left turns across them?

The task force left these questions unanswered for good reason: the right answers, the solutions that don't just move commuters, but build walkable environments, can only be found with experience. As long as the questions remain theoretical, the hard choices will be put off.

Thus, the job of building Montgomery's BRT network needs to begin right away. Not only because commuters so desperately need a way to get past traffic jams, but also because the full solution can't be identified until push comes to shove and theoretical issues become practical ones.

Metro's Priority Corridors Initiative has already identified some places where existing traffic lanes could be reserved for buses only, with no expenditure needed beyond signs and striping. It should be implemented without delay. The next step is bus lanes and signal priorities on busy corridors like Veirs Mill Road (where planning is already underway) and New Hampshire Avenue south of White Oak.

Once low-budget projects like these have worked the bugs out and proved the BRT concept, then the time will come to turn to the taxpayers for additional help.

The task force report is a fine starting point for Montgomery's transportation needs. But paper studies cannot take the county much further. To prove the concept, and work out the kinks, Montgomery should begin immediately to turn its vision into reality. Start building now.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is now available in paperback. 


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If Montgomery County really does what's in that report, then MoCo will have the most extensive BRT system in North America. Then we will really see if in a place where (1) people have choices/cars; (2) aren't transit dependent; (3) have high incomes; (4) aren't willing to withstand the same kinds of crush load/maximum passenger density that the transit dependent withstand (6-9 people/sq. meter); (5) wages for bus drivers are significantly higher; that people will ride the bus.

It will be the most important BRT experiment in North American history.

And maybe within our lifetimes then the questions about whether or not people will ride the bus will be answered.

BUT, if it isn't truly gold standard on all the criteria that matter (e.g., as enumerated in various reports, criteria including separated busways and prepayment before boarding, multiple doors used for embarking-disembarking) then it won't provide that test.

by Richard Layman on May 30, 2012 9:03 pm • linkreport

Its already a lost cause. The promise of a Light Rail CCT that really would have 'changed everything' is now gone. I could understand BRT on many of the routes, but the CCT route should have held firm to LRT due to the mixed use development that it would have spawned.

Now we will end up with a glorified Ride-On system. With all of this talk of 'Gold Standard' of BRT, all I can think of is that "putting lipstick on a pig" saying. No one of means will get out of a car to ride on a bus. They will for rail.

I expect to read more and more in the coming months about new savings found by further reducing this "gold standard of BRT" to just regular standard, and then to just additional Ride-On express routes.

Heck, I wouldn't be surprised to read articles in 2015 talking about how the CCT is going to be nation's Gold Standard of a dedicated pedicab network.

by Cyclone on May 30, 2012 9:30 pm • linkreport

"No one of means will get out of a car to ride on a bus."

I take a bus sometimes through Takoma Park and downtown Silver Spring during rush hour and it looks about the same as Metro during rush hour (meaning plenty of well-off folks). Granted, it's RideOn in MoCo so it's much, much more comfortable than taking a packed Metro bus up 14th or something. I have no doubt BRT will be a major success in MoCo if it's a pleasant enough experience (wifi, nice buses, smooth boarding), doesn't sit in traffic (dedicated lanes), and doesn't run infrequently. The Task Force report hits all these nails on their head (who in their right mind wouldn't take advantage of such a system if at all feasible?). We'll see if the County actually follows through. If they do: massive success. If they don't: might as well just continue improving upon the current RideOn system.

by jag on May 30, 2012 11:31 pm • linkreport

The whole Bus vs. light rail difference is played up if both have dedicated lines. Will rich people ride the BRT if it's a dedicated line that wisks by traffic? You bet. People in this area are a bit more enlightened not to take a transit system that will give them back their free time instead of wasting it in traffic. Down the road they can switch to light rail once engineers realize they don't need a 50' right of way to ride a tram. In an effort to speed up the snail's pace of Montgomery County's beaurocracy, start now.

by Thayer-D on May 31, 2012 4:17 am • linkreport

"No one of means will get out of a car to ride on a bus."

Pretty amusing that someone living in the 21st century DC Metro area--the place that invented "slugging"--could make such a claim. :)

by oboe on May 31, 2012 9:48 am • linkreport

Assuming that this system will likely be very successful and have high ridership (if the creep isn't too bad...), 10 years down the line, are we just going to wish we built light rail instead? I understand the lower starting costs, but given rail's inherent strengths (lower labor costs because of higher capacity than even longer buses, high gas costs versus electricity (I guess the buses could be electric, is that in the plan?), high asphalt costs (cheaper to run rails), buses that need to be replaced every decade versus light rail vehicles that run 30+ years), isn't this penny wise and pound foolish?

by H Street Landlord on May 31, 2012 10:36 am • linkreport

the plan for CCPY transitway is to start with buses only, and eventually convert to light rail. Would that not be possible for selected routes in MoCo?

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 31, 2012 10:58 am • linkreport

I think a lot of US cities should look to Seoul as an example where BRT is doing really well. I lived there for half a year and I can say that there were times I took the bus during rush hour more so than the subway.

by DS on Jun 1, 2012 10:38 am • linkreport

The gold standard for BRT is Light Rail. If ridership is not likely to ever need more capacity than fairly frequent 60' artic's why would anyone spend megabucks on all of the bells and whistles? What is the point of full bore "stations" for occasional buses? Conversely, if like the not quite even BRT lite Wilshire Rapid in LA you can fill a bus every 2 minutes in rush, the correct answer IS rail. And now that subways are legal again in LA, it will be built although Beverly Hills is playing NIMBY about their high school.

by david vartanoff on Jun 2, 2012 3:22 am • linkreport

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