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Montgomery's bus future is more than BRT

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) could contribute much to Montgomery County, says a team of BRT experts hired by the county, but the consultants caution that it's essential to start off on the right foot.

High-ridership BRT in Bogota. Image from Project for Public Spaces.

Their report, which the Examiner uncovered last weekend, recommends upgrading existing bus service as the best way to expand transit in most of the county. In some places, the county can add some BRT features now with the aim of eventually creating a fully "BRT" line. Elsewhere, speeding up express commuter buses or adding more regular buses could work better.

The county consultants warn, however, that a failed BRT project could boomerang. At worst, their report hints, it might turn into just more lanes for cars, worsening traffic jams instead of boosting transit.

BRT is not a one-size-fits-all solution

The Examiner obtained a copy of an interim report from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, an organization known for its wide experience with and support for Bus Rapid Transit. ITDP has defined a set of criteria that make a BRT route "gold," "silver," and so on. Some US projects that use the term "bus rapid transit," like Boston's Silver Line, are not considered BRT at all by ITDP because they fall short of its minimum standards.

The consultants began with the plan a county task force created earlier this year, calling for 160 miles of Bus Rapid Transit. (The task force used the term "Rapid Transit Vehicles" to avoid the "bus" word.) ITDP concluded that the county is more likely to succeed if it scales back its ambitions.

The task force recommended creating BRT routes even where predicted ridership is low, saying that the lines could transform existing residents' commute patterns. ITDP disagrees, saying that the existing base of bus ridership "will continue to make up the majority of ridership for many years after system opening."

Peak-hour ridership on existing BRT systems range from 45,000 boardings in Bogota, Colombia, to 1,700 in Rouen, France. Montgomery's 4 most-traveled bus corridors draw between 200 and 800 riders in the peak hour.

Building BRT lines without the ridership to support them, the ITDP warns, could do more harm than good. The high cost of running near-empty buses could undermine public support for all transit.

Beyond that, the consultants say, many corridors have features that make them unsuitable for BRT. On US 29, the busiest, the bulk of riders are on express buses traveling nonstop from Burtonsville and Howard County. Dedicated bus lanes for the commuter buses would make more sense there than classic BRT, which has a stop every mile or two. Other corridors only see heavy use on short segments, and expensive upgrades of the entire route could go to waste.

ITDP does see a future for "gold-standard" BRT in the urbanizing Rockville Pike corridor. Between White Flint, Twinbrook, and Rockville, thousands of new housing units, offices, and retail spaces will be coming online, transforming the landscape in the coming decades.

Better bus service is essential for a transformed Montgomery County

Bus service is the best transit mode for most sections of the county. While the corridors along the two Red Line branches and the future Purple Line need high-capacity rail service, few other places are dense enough to justify laying tracks. Elsewhere, buses are the clear choice.

For example, the Veirs Mill Road portion of the BRT proposal has service from the Q Metrobus line, which has the highest ridership of any WMATA line in Maryland (despite the fact that the route is plagued by overcrowding and, WMATA writes, "frequent delays caused by traffic and other factors"). The New Hampshire Avenue corridor, too, has heavy ridership and frequent traffic jams. Obviously there is potential here and elsewhere for greatly enhanced rapid bus service.

Transit advocates have long been divided on BRT. Will "BRT creep" just water down a project until it's not very transformative? How much will a better bus really boost ridership? Should transit anticipate future growth or only come after there is development? ITDP weighs in forcefully on some of these healthy debates.

At the moment, the county is still in the early stages of planning for this program, and it's too early to limit future options. No bus improvement should be ruled out of bounds in advance. "Gold standard" BRT, whether or not it makes sense in any corridor now, gives planners a standard to determine whether every feasible upgrade has been pursued. And in the future, a denser, more urban county will need higher levels of transit service than ridership can justify today.

Could BRT actually end up growing car traffic and not transit?

It's important to guard against any BRT proposal becoming a trojan horse for the automobile lobby. An empty bus lane, the ITDP points out, "will be distasteful to the car drivers" stuck in traffic alongside it. The drivers will push hard to get their cars into the empty lanes.

The Montgomery plan tries to avoid this by putting BRT in narrower median transitways, possibly also with grass tracks. But there is reason to worry that the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) would seize any opportunity to turn the project into infrastructure that can ultimately become a regular car lane.

Edgar Gonzalez, the department's number two, urged the county planning board to reserve wider rights of way on all the highways where BRT is under consideration. Such a step would open up space to widen roads in the future. It would also prevent redeveloping strip malls with pedestrian-oriented stores that front on the sidewalk. To avoid these outcomes—and to ensure that transit upgrades are affordable—the place for bus lanes is on existing roadways in high-ridership corridors.

Start improving buses today while planning for the long term

ITDP suggests starting by building on existing bus service. They recommend commuter bus lanes on Route 29 as an example, and will follow up with more specifics in a future report.

That approach has a lot in common with WMATA's Priority Corridors Initiative for buses—something the report oddly does not mention.

MCDOT has resisted implementing priority corridors, refusing to prioritize any bus movements over car travel anywhere in the county. They should reverse this policy without further delay. WMATA has already done legwork on Veirs Mill Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and other corridors, giving the county an opportunity to start moving toward BRT without waiting for another consultant report.

Bus riders want service that is frequent, fast, and convenient. Whether it's called BRT or just a bus makes little difference. Planning for "gold standard" BRT, even when it turns out not to be the right answer, offers substantial benefits. But there's no reason to hold off improving buses in other ways today at the same time. The worst possible outcome would be for debates over BRT to get in the way of better buses.

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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fwiw, this is the position I've come to wrt the BRT proposal in MoCo.

I think it's great that the initiative has moved forward, but rather than think about BRT in the way that they do in Bogota for example, how about creating some high quality service (like the priority corridors project from WMATA like you mention) and new services designed to reduce SOV trips in certain areas where there is a great deal of auto traffic to/through the county, like Commuter Bus service I suppose.

In other words, this initiative is very good because it allows for MoCo to plan the next generation of RideOn basically, although it should been called something like Montgomery County Transit Future and looked at more than BRT.

But I guess it got constrained because it grew out of the earlier efforts by Councilman Elrich, which were focused on BRT.

I guess the elements for me would be:

1. Better leveraging/improvements to the red line
2. station development around the red line and repatterning communities (like the White Flint initiative that is already happening)
3. Purple Line
4. Even before the Purple line, how to better leverage MARC service to serve the county not just for commuting to DC but intra-county
5. Better bus service (although it's not bad it can be better, but it is one of the most successful suburban bus transit systems in the US) and higher usage--most of the times I ride RideOn buses, although at odd times and on lesser used routes, the ridership isn't very high.
6. and as part of this creating and branding a priority bus network (which grows out of the BRT planning initiatives)
7. dealing with the I-270 issue and transit and congestion
8. dealing with the east-west issue (Am. Legion Bridge etc.) including extending the purple line west

among other things...

by Richard Layman on Oct 19, 2012 10:56 am • linkreport

Circular beltway Metro line. Reverse MARC trains during the day on the Brunswick line. Connect the Red Line after extending it north on Georgia and swing it back around connecting at Shady Grove (with 4 tracks of course). 4 track Metro everywhere. Metro up to Briggs Chaney, loop that around to New Carrollton.

by Redline SOS on Oct 19, 2012 11:15 am • linkreport

To be transformative, real BRT is not cheap. I think some who are pro-BRT think it's a low-cost panacea. It's low-cost only in comparison to rail, but in truth it would cost just as much as adding a new lane of roadway. And once you do that, there is a strong political pressure to make it available for other road users, like HOV. And then you have HOV cheaters and drivers who get stuck trying to merge into other non-HOV lanes that aren't moving, and so on. It's really hard to get it to fulfill the promise without running afoul of one of these issues.

It's a good idea, but I think it will work on only a handful of MoCo routes.

by Crickey7 on Oct 19, 2012 11:24 am • linkreport

I actually think where BRT can work best is on freeways, as that picture from Bogota shows. 270? ICC?

by charlie on Oct 19, 2012 11:33 am • linkreport

Veirs Mill Road (and preferably past Wheaton along University Blvd)
Rockville Pike/MD 355 (at least to Lakeforest)
Georgia Ave (at least to the ICC P&R)
CCT (to Metropolitan Grove, since this is apparently not happening as light rail)

In my opinion, these four corridors should be where MoCo starts and focuses their network. This will be their core, and the routes that will most likely have the highest ridership (you try getting on a Q bus or a Y bus or a 46 or a 55, and see how that works for you). Have routes that go up and down these corridors...but ALSO have routes that go from one corridor to another (say, Kentlands-White Flint, for example).

Then, add in some of the other proposed corridors later, those corridors that make good connections to the main core, and that will also serve locations on their own. Emphasize even harder connections between the main lines.

And, most importantly, don't waste money building some corridors that will never have the ridership that would support this level of commitment (I'm looking at you, Muddy Branch Rd route). Use the money not wasted on these routes to a)support the ones that are built and b)boost other transit opportunities (I want bidirectional, all day MARC, and I want it yesterday). I think that if they do this, then the MoCo BRT plan just may work.

by Justin..... on Oct 19, 2012 11:44 am • linkreport

typically, transit lines on freeways don't work very well, unless you have a transit dependent population like they do in Bogota. Generally, freeways aren't integrated tightly within densely populated areas.

the i-66 portion of the orange line is a good example locally, but there are many other examples across the US.

So while seemingly attractive if only for the available of ROW, I wouldn't recommend a circular beltway subway definitely, and maybe not BRT down I-270 per se--not that it isn't intellectually attractive--but preferential lanes down 270 sure based on a bus network off of it may actually make sense, if paired with super duper TDM and programs to build ridership.

by Richard Layman on Oct 19, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

BRT on expressway makes sense for MoCo for the FFX connection. Purple line across the Potomac will be great for connecting the urbanist parts of lower MoCO (dwnton Bethesday, DTSS) to Tysons, but the need to change seats/modes will be a deterrent for folks from upcounty, I suspect. Instead I think a solution will be HOT lanes on the legion bridge and at least to I270, to connect to the I270 HOV lanes (which could become HOV3 - they are HOV2 now, right?) Then you get BRT services to all the way to Tysons, connecting to the bus services that will run up the VA hotlanes from southern FFX and PWC.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 19, 2012 1:05 pm • linkreport

@Rlayman, good points, you do have to balace that. I'd like to see more buses on the freeway, however.

by charlie on Oct 19, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

It's great that MOCO is thinking about these sort of transit options. It's a shame,however, that they do not bring a regional perspective on any of these plans. Montgomery's vision ends at the county line. Same could be said for Fairfax, Prince George, Arlington and the District. WMATA's only cross border service is from suburbs to DC.

I live in Reston and work in Bethesda. I see plenty of Virginia licence plates in Bethesda, and plenty of Maryland tags in Reston during the day. Tyson's corner is the same.

Yet, there is not one single transit option that goes directly from Virginia to Maryland, or vice versa. Anyone who has cued up in traffic on I-270 heading to the beltway toward Virginia or the reverse commute can clearly see that there is more than a few potential customers for some sort of BRT/Express bus scheme.

Until we get the planners to look at moving people not just "county residents" we will be stuck with a pretty crappy transit system

by Tom on Oct 19, 2012 1:15 pm • linkreport

"Montgomery's vision ends at the county line. Same could be said for Fairfax, Prince George, Arlington and the District. WMATA's only cross border service is from suburbs to DC. "

currently MoCo and FFX are discusing issues related to the river crossing, focusing on the legion bridge and BRT, IIUC.

FFX county is working with ArlCo on PikeRail, Arlco with Alex on the crystal city-potyd transitway. I presume MoCo and PG have worked together on purple line planning. CaBi is a shared initiative of multiple jurisdictions. IIUC DC is looking to run street car lines across into Md.

There are WMATA routes that run FFX to Arlington, FFX to Alex. At present there is no FFX to MoCo route - they tried that a while ago and it was unsuccessful - but they are looking at one again, but this time to take advantage of HOV/HOT lanes.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 19, 2012 1:50 pm • linkreport

Veirs Mill Road (and preferably past Wheaton along University Blvd)
Rockville Pike/MD 355 (at least to Lakeforest)
Georgia Ave (at least to the ICC P&R)
CCT (to Metropolitan Grove, since this is apparently not happening as light rail)

If I can add just 1 more, i'd do Randolph Road from Rockville Pike to New Hampshire Ave, making a mid-county east west connection.

by Gull on Oct 19, 2012 3:11 pm • linkreport

@charlie - The TransMilenio BRT in Bogota does not run on a highway, but a very wide arterial road in the center of the city.

by Mary on Oct 19, 2012 3:16 pm • linkreport

BRT needs to be connected a bigger development vision and to some practical usability considerations.

Pittsburgh has a busway connecting the airport to downtown & Pitt. It's terrifically efficient because the bulk of the riders seem to originate at one end or the other and much of the route seems not to be close to dense development. Cleveland's BRT follows what once was the busiest bus route in the city connecting downtown, Cleveland Clinic and the University Circle area around Case Western, which has been depopulated over time of residents. That system opened just as the economy was cratering, but it does seem to get users despite the slow pace of redevelopment along its route. It's a good lesson in how BRT as a development tool needs a long, subject to unfortunate change, timeline.

The Silver Line has some odd quirks such as it's awkward relationship to the slowly redeveloping waterfront and things like the ferries to Cape Cod. It seems to be a good example of usability problems.

by Rich on Oct 19, 2012 6:35 pm • linkreport

@Gull: Of course, how could I forget Randolph Rd? Silly me! :-)

As for MoCo-FFX, I'm holding out hope that a revival of the old Smartmover buses Metro used to run a while back. Maybe the HOT lanes will speed the buses to viability? (iirc, they were cut due to low ridership, which came as a result of a complete lack of reliability). Bring them back, run them all day, and you have a winner.

by Justin..... on Oct 19, 2012 9:41 pm • linkreport

@Ben Ross

I take issue with ITDP's predicted ridership for Route 29 (Colesville Road/Columbia Pike) and your characterization of it. This is a prime corridor for BRT, and even if the county's vision is too ambitious, it should still include a line along 29.

The Metrobus Z line, which serves Route 29, is basically tied for the highest ridership in the county with the Q line. The corridor also connects downtown Silver Spring with White Oak and Briggs Chaney, both of which have large concentrations of multi-family housing that was zoned and built in anticipation of rapid transit that was never built. On top of that, the White Oak Science Gateway plan would put a tremendous amount of jobs, housing and retail along Route 29 as well, none of which can happen without a major investment in transit.

There are issues with the built form of the 29 corridor - north of New Hampshire Avenue, it's basically a highway, and much of it is built in a suburban format that makes walking and transit use difficult, yet people here still do both already. Maybe there isn't the demand for BRT all the way to Burtonsville, but a line to Briggs Chaney Road/the ICC still has merit. As Ben and ACT have been saying for years, Route 29 is "transit-ready." It's time that MoCo comes through on the promise it made 30 years ago.

by dan reed! on Oct 19, 2012 10:24 pm • linkreport

BRT is several things.

It is carving a stick to neat yourself with. Buses, unlike rail, require MASSIVE operating subsidies. In a recent year, WMATA subsidized Metro 18 cents/passenger-mile and buses with $1.12 per passenger-mile. Metro gets little more subsidy than para-transit - 80+% of the operating subsidy goes to buses even though they carry half as many pax-miles as Metro.

Capitalizing the cost savings in subsidies can pay for the rail investment. Building BRT will soak up public monies, so there is nothing left over

There is no good example of TOD with BRT in the United States and Canada. OTOH, the examples of rail generated TOD are many and varied.

People are simply (and for good reason) not attracted to buses. Ever seen a Museum full of nothing but old buses ?

The BRT supporters just say - lets gold plate the bus some more. This adds costs - but there is an old saying about polishing a t*rd. "Gold standard" BRT will not resolve the fundamental weaknesses of BRT.

As generations pass, the early premier example of BRT in the Greater Washington area - the complete and utter failure of the Shirley Busway - is forgotten.

Ridership on exclusive lanes in the middle of I-395 (now HOV lanes) dropped to 1,650 per day (at very high capital and operating cost) before it was just given back to cars.

Save the operating subsidies and build as much rail as you can. Forget about the money pit of BRT.

by AlanfromBigEasy on Oct 20, 2012 6:43 am • linkreport

PS: Ed Tennyson and I are working on a rail-centric plan for Greater Washington. Dave Murphy is helping with the Maryland Light Rail plans that are "under development". New Metro plans are pretty well complete.

by AlanfromBigEasy on Oct 20, 2012 9:14 am • linkreport

Alan - have you been to shirlington lately?

Sure looks like TOD to me, using only buses on I395. Not sure total riders on buses on the HOV lanes now, but they are certainly not given over entirely too cars.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 20, 2012 5:09 pm • linkreport


It doesn't only have old buses, but it certainly has quite a few ;)

by Thaddeus Bell on Oct 20, 2012 8:55 pm • linkreport

It is carving a stick to neat yourself with. Buses, unlike rail, require MASSIVE operating subsidies. In a recent year, WMATA subsidized Metro 18 cents/passenger-mile and buses with $1.12 per passenger-mile. Metro gets little more subsidy than para-transit - 80+% of the operating subsidy goes to buses even though they carry half as many pax-miles as Metro.

Apples and Oranges comparison. Bus requires more subsidy because it serves lower-demand areas. If you built Metro to every place bus serves you would have a lot of low-ridership Metro lines. Then there's the fact that light rail is a completely different kind of project/service than Metro and requires similar subsidies to bus services.

Preference for a technology "rail transit" just because it's a technology is silly. Figure out what kind of transit service you want, then pick a technology that fits that plan.

by MLD on Oct 21, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

My issue is using BRT on dense routes in Montgomery County that are dense enough to support rail. Not neighborhood bus routes (yet).

And BRT *DOES* compete with rail.

The quoted Shirey BRT served the same corridor as the Blue Line. The Blue Line takes MUCH less subsidy to operate AND attracts many more passengers than Shirley BRT.

And rail - Light & Heavy - requires significantly less subsidy to operate than the buses they replaced, while attracting many more riders. This is a truism without an exception I can think of (except possible the poorly designed San Jose Light Rail, perhaps a draw there between bus & rail).

On routes with less than 6 to 8,000 pax/day, go with bus. I have no quarrel there.

But the rail technology is simply cheaper to operate AND attracts more passengers. That is a simple and verifiable truth.

For example, the CCT should be rail and not BRT. BRT there will require much more subsidy and attract fewer passengers.

by AlanfromBigEasy on Oct 22, 2012 10:21 am • linkreport

Wow really good commenters here! Too bad are planners are so clueless. We could do BRT like Bogota and it could be just as successful, if we do it on the commuter routes, highways, like Bogota. Their buses are like small metro trains with doors that open at the platform level. The lanes should be exclusive; use HOV and add a jersey wall. Let folks walk across the lanes on footbridges and save on expensive bus overpasses. Cars are just as stuck on HOV due to lane changers and HOV terminations.

by BlazeRip on Dec 9, 2012 9:34 am • linkreport

Sorry Blazespot - Most Washingtonians and their Maryland neighbors are not Third World citizens. Ridership in the DC area will not be anything like Bogota. OTOH, people that can afford cars (whether they own one of not) will ride rail even if the avoid buses.

Switching from bus to rail adds 30% to 42% to ridership if all other factors are kept constant (or adjusted for).

Second, buses just cost *TOO* much to operate ! Metrobus subsidy a few years back was $1.12/passenger-mile - Metrorail was 18 cents per passenger-mile.

Bottom-line - BRT is a waste of money !

by AlanfromBigEasy on Dec 9, 2012 11:32 am • linkreport

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