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To build support for Montgomery BRT, start with the basics

Supporters of Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit network like to highlight its vast network of routes, compelling new technology and potential to spur economic development. However, it's important not to forget to focus on the fundamental goal: getting people where they want to go in a faster or more convenient fashion.

BRT in Los Angeles. All photos by the author.

A countywide BRT system was first proposed 4 years ago. Since then, it's been studied by transportation consultants, a task force of county residents, and most recently county planners. Yet judging from open houses during the fall, the general public appears to be either unconvinced of BRT's merits or hostile to it.

Why is that? For all of the discussion that's been had over BRT, we haven't spent enough time talking about it as a tool for moving people and for filling gaps in our transportation network. It's not enough to say why BRT is great, but rather why it's great for our specific problems in Montgomery County. That's the only way taxpayers can justify spending $1.8 billion to build and millions more to operate a new transit system.

There are two points that I feel could point the conversation over BRT in the right direction:

Bus Rapid Transit complements rather than competes with existing service.

Both online and off, I've heard from residents who argue that BRT will compete with Metro or that it's only for long-distance commuters coming from Frederick or Howard counties.

These claims ignore the distinctions between different kinds of transit. Transit planner and blogger Jarrett Walker uses three categories to describe different services based on their stop spacing: local transit that makes lots of stops close together, rapid transit that makes stops that are about 1/2-mile to a mile apart but still evenly spaced, and express transit that makes very few stops, very far apart.

For the DC area, I'd add a fourth category for the Metro, which has evenly-spaced stops like a "rapid" service, but they can be over 2 miles apart in Montgomery County and much of the region. Here are those four categories in a handy chart:

Each service does different things for different people, and in a larger system they can compliment each other. For instance, today the Route 29 corridor between Silver Spring and Burtonsville is served by local buses like the Metrobus Z6, which makes lots of stops along a windy, circuitous route, and express buses like the MTA 929 commuter bus, which makes just 3 stops before heading north to Howard County.

BRT would be the middle ground: it would be faster than local buses, but serve more neighborhoods and destinations than the express bus. Commuters going from Columbia to Silver Spring might find it too slow, but for folks coming from White Oak, which the 929 passes over, it would be a welcome alternative to the Z6.

BRT isn't a fixed menu, but a buffet.

Many transit services come as a complete package, like a prix fixe menu at a restaurant. For instance, a heavy rail system like the Metro has to have rails and has to be separated from cars and people. You can't have one without the other.

BRT, meanwhile, is comprised of many different features that can be used independently of one another. You can give buses priority at stoplights without having dedicated lanes, or you can have off-board fare collection without having special buses.

MetroExtra can get us to BRT sooner rather than later. Photo by the author.

Of course, you can get a faster, more efficient service if you include all of those things, and that's why the county's proposed BRT network would do just that. I've written before that BRT simply won't be successful without dedicated lanes in the county's most congested areas.

Nonetheless, transit ridership is higher in some parts of the county than others simply because of how they're laid out, and there are areas where doing everything on the "BRT menu" won't be effective. Given, this could lead to what Dan Malouff calls "BRT creep," when a service is slowly stripped down until it's just a regular bus. That's bad for commuters, but it's also bad for taxpayers who were sold a high-end service only to find out that we just painted the buses a different color.

However, it may still make sense to take a measured approach, and start experimenting with some aspects of BRT now rather than rushing to build out an entire system. The Action Committee for Transit, where I serve as Land Use Chair, has recommended rolling out Metro's Priority Corridor Initiative, which focuses on small fixes to speed up existing bus routes.

The "rapid" MetroExtra bus routes, like the S9 on 16th Street and the new K9 on New Hampshire Avenue, are one result of this program. They improve transit riders' commutes today while showing how full-fledged BRT could be implemented in the future.

Bus Rapid Transit isn't a panacea, but it has a lot of potential for Montgomery County. I'm glad that our county leaders are so excited about it, but we can't lose sight of why we make transportation improvements. After all, we can't grow our local economy if we can't get people to work now, let alone in thirty years.

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. 


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3 missing ingredients for BRT in Montgomery County:
1. Dedicated ROWs
2. A couple of billion dollars
3. Public enthusiasm
I agree that the most likely outcome is a few new express routes. I'm surprised that we don't see more private jitneys trying to profit from the more obvious routes.

by renegade09 on Jan 16, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

I agree, Dan. Actually I've heard from a lot of opponents of BRT about how BRT will lead to economic development -- specifically, economic development they don't want. So I don't think that would win them over. But it might win them over if they thought that BRT would help them get places faster or better (assuming, of course, that it would).

by Miriam on Jan 16, 2013 2:35 pm • linkreport

Here are some photos of what actual BRT looks like (Rio De Janeiro):

BRT includes dedicated lanes and roadway, stations (generally enclosed) as opposed to mere "stops", pre-boarding fare collection, etc. My guess is that the MoCo plan will eventually be watered down to "some old buses with a new paint job running on existing streets". Color me unimpressed.

by Jason on Jan 16, 2013 3:15 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this thoughtful report, Dan, I think you hit the nail on the head here. While the full 160-mile network as originally proposed may be unrealistic, the fact is, Montgomery County has an opportunity to greatly improve transit service and fill in key gaps on routes with high ridership. The county planners' forecasts of ridership on top priority routes are impressive, and according to the thresholds they've established, warrant taking lanes along several corridors; namely Rockville Pike, Route 29, Georgia Ave, and possibly Viers Mill - that's pretty bold. I encourage Montgomery County residents reading this blog to catch up on MNCPCC's study and be prepared to engage during their hearings this May:

Dan is right, this discussion about BRT is an exciting prospect for Montgomery County, but it needs to be adapted locally. We need to find the balance between being ambitious, while basing plans in the realities and needs of Montgomery County - so get involved and make your voice heard!

by Kelly B on Jan 16, 2013 4:34 pm • linkreport

I'm with @Jason. I pretty much think that we will end up with some glorified Ride-On buses running some express routes with a scattering of impressive bus stops.

by Cyclone on Jan 16, 2013 5:00 pm • linkreport

BRT is carving a stick to beat yourself with - forever. Buses require MANY times the subsidy of urban rail. For WMATA, a couple of years back, the numbers were $0.18/passenger mile for Metro - $1.12 per passenger mile for Metrobus.

All other factors being equal, buses attract 30% to 43% fewer riders than rail (based on streetcar > bus & bus > Light Rail studies by Ed Tennyson in TRB paper).

The work I am doing with one of the original Metro planners (1962-63), Ed Tennyson, is still working on Light Rail in Maryland. The results so far are linked.

We hope to triple urban rail passenger-miles in Greater Washington while REDUCING the operating subsidies. A major key is to replace expensive bus pax-miles with cheap rail pax-miles.

Perhaps the most cost-effective Metro line we propose is the Olive Line - spur off Green Line in Anacostia and down Indian Head Highway to Ft. Washington. Southern Maryland commuter buses can short turn at the southern terminus, trading bus miles for Metro miles.

Build the Purple Line, and then other Light Rail lines feeding into it.

PS: We propose extending the Purple Line to Tyson's Corner with a six mile TBM drive. 12 minutes travel time (plus boarding & disembarking).

PPS: The Kashagan oil field in Kazakhstan is coming on-line this year after 15 years and $43 billion invested. 375,000 b/day. Per barrel saved, expanding Metro is competitive with Kashagan.

by AlanfromBigEasy (Alan Drake) on Jan 17, 2013 5:30 am • linkreport

Basically the problem in MoCo with BRT/transit is that BRT is the equivalent of the cart before the horse.

BRT "is" "the solution" because of the initiatives of Councilman Elrich, when really what was needed was a full and complete assessment of transit and sustainable mobility paradigm in Montgomery County more generally, including a full assessment of RideOn--given it's now 30 years old, it's a good time to assess it. But this also includes an assessment of through traffic through the county and how to manage it, through sustainable methods also.

In the meantime I have been convinced that BRT is a mode that reasonable to include in the the mix.

But BRT is just not where MoCo should be spending all their transportation planning energies.

Just like I have argued for years--and now DC is finally doing it--that DC needs a comprehensive transportation plan (comparable to Arlington's), so does Montgomery County.

There is a role for "BRT" in Montgomery County. But there is also a need for express bus services on the main trunkline. There is a need to do better marketing of bus services so that they get used more.

The system needs to be upgraded just as how I recommend rebranding and repositioning bus service in DC.


BUt those conversations aren't happening and they are the most important.

... it's the job of advocates, including bloggers, to push for what really needs to be done, rather than fashion.

by Richard Layman on Jan 17, 2013 8:19 am • linkreport

Alan -- links please. Otherwise it won't mean anything. (Even though yes, Ed Tennyson is amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

by Richard Layman on Jan 17, 2013 8:20 am • linkreport

Oh, while I like the diagram, the real point is the scale of the service within the transit shed, and I don't see how your framework is superior than the ones that already exist.

Yes, like mine...

but it's not really mine, at the root it's an extension of concepts in the Arlington County plan, extended to a number of scales.


by Richard Layman on Jan 17, 2013 8:23 am • linkreport

BRT is carving a stick to beat yourself with - forever. Buses require MANY times the subsidy of urban rail. For WMATA, a couple of years back, the numbers were $0.18/passenger mile for Metro - $1.12 per passenger mile for Metrobus.

Please don't use statistics if you don't know what they mean.

You mean to tell me that the Metro, a multi-billion dollar transit system that runs completely separate from street traffic and can carry 20,000 people per hour in each direction along long trips costs less per passenger mile to move people than the entire bus system, which moves in mixed traffic at slow speeds and has a large portion of service tied up in just providing a way for low-income people to get around? Color me shocked!

Not to mention the fact that comparing cost recovery for Metro to that of a light rail or streetcar system is ludicrous. Or that "subsidy per passenger mile" is probably the worst possible way to measure how much transit service costs relative to what it provides.

Commuter buses in New York City require negative subsidies per passenger mile! I guess we should just rip up the subway and replace it with commuter bus service since clearly that's superior.

How about an example closer to home:
Perhaps the most cost-effective Metro line we propose is the Olive Line - spur off Green Line in Anacostia and down Indian Head Highway to Ft. Washington. Southern Maryland commuter buses can short turn at the southern terminus, trading bus miles for Metro miles.

Maryland MTA commuter buses have a "subsidy per passenger mile" of TEN CENTS, which is less than the Metro.

by MLD on Jan 17, 2013 9:00 am • linkreport

The work of Ed Tennyson, my self and Dave Murphy is at

Springer (top tier publisher) is interested in publishing book by Ed & I on transit planning, transit operations and transit economics.

Note: BRT is not Ed's favorite mode for any of the above. He is the last living member of the team that prosecuted GM for buying up streetcar lines and replacing them with buses. Buses help sell cars, urban rail does not.

by AlanfromBigEasy (Alan Drake) on Jan 18, 2013 1:28 pm • linkreport

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