Greater Greater Washington


Montgomery scales back dedicated lanes on BRT

On the heels of a report suggesting Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plans are too ambitious, county planners are recommending reducing the number of lines and using dedicated bus lanes across a smaller portion of the system.

Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

They presented these recommendations last night at a forum hosted by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, "The Next Generation of Transit," which discussed how the county needs to expand its transit network.

Geoff Anderson from Smart Growth America talked about the social, economic and environmental benefits of public transit and compact, walkable development, while County Councilmember Roger Berliner discussed how transit is integral to attracting young people and entrepreneurs to the county. Mike Madden, project manager for the Maryland Transit Administration, offered a quick update on the Purple Line.

However, the biggest news came from Larry Cole, transportation planner with the Montgomery County Planning Department. Cole presented the latest recommendations for a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, which would become part of a master plan for future transit expansion.

The county has been studying BRT since 2008, though a recently-released study from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, considered to be international experts on BRT, argues that it may not work in all parts of the county.

Planners looked at current land use and travel habits, along with changes proposed in the county's existing plans, and compared different scenarios for building BRT. They found that while a larger system would draw more riders and reduce driving, physical and economic constraints made a smaller network more feasible.

BRT corridors Montgomery County planners currently recommend. Click here to see their proposal from last November.

The approximate corridors ITDP recommends.

The Planning Department's latest proposal is for a 79-mile network with two phases. It would have 8 routes, on Route 355, Colesville Road/Columbia Pike, Georgia Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, Randolph Road, Veirs Mill Road, University Boulevard, and the North Bethesda Transitway. It's a smaller system than previous proposals, but it's still more than the 4-route system ITDP favors.

Buses would run in mixed traffic on many corridors just as they do today. Last November, Cole suggested that in order to give buses their own dedicated lanes, considered a must-have for successful BRT, space may need to be taken from cars.

Buses would have dedicated lanes in the median on all of Route 355 between Friendship Heights and Clarksburg, where it will support the redevelopment of White Flint and other areas along the corridor, along with portions of Georgia Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, and Columbia Pike. Combined, these sections make up 31 miles of the system.

On other roads, like Veirs Mill Road and Randolph Road, buses would travel in a single-lane median that would change directions based on rush hour traffic, in "managed lanes" where buses would have some priority over other vehicles, or in mixed traffic.

Cole cited "difficult operational issues" for places where buses wouldn't get their own lanes, such as Columbia Pike and Colesville Road south of Lockwood Drive in Silver Spring. Though the corridor has six lanes and is home to some of the most heavily-used bus routes in suburban Maryland, homeowners in Four Corners have expressed opposition to taking away lanes from cars at several public meetings, including this one.

Instead, Lockwood Drive, a two-lane road roughly parallel to Columbia Pike and lined with apartment buildings, would be widened to give buses their own lanes, though it doesn't go all the way to downtown Silver Spring.

"Is the desire [for transit on Colesville and Columbia] there? Yes," said Cole. "Is the ridership high enough to justify taking a lane? Yes. When we looked at how that would actually work, we decided we needed additional study."

Buses would run in mixed traffic on Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Though Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plans are being trimmed down, they're moving in the right direction. ITDP recommended that the county focus on areas where transit use is already high, which the 8 routes as proposed do cover. It's also good to focus on the right solution for the right area, allowing limited resources to be spent where they're most needed.

At the same time, we can't fall prey to "BRT creep," when BRT systems gradually get watered down throughout the design process to the point where they stop being significant steps forward for transit. County planners need to take a stand even when there's some opposition.

It's good that they've stood by dedicated lanes on Route 355 even in areas like downtown Bethesda and White Flint where space may have be taken from cars, but it's disappointing that they've chosen not to endorse doing the same on equally-constrained Georgia Avenue or Colesville Road in Silver Spring.

Transit is most effective when it can give riders a reliable commute, and buses simply can't do that when they're stuck in traffic with everyone else. And without reliable transit, our region's growth and prosperity is at risk.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, echoed these concerns at the meeting. "We have to make some hard choices," he said. "We've got to figure out a better way to grow. If we do it without adding transit and without adding more walkable neighborhoods, we will just die in our traffic."

Planners are currently working on a draft of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, which they will present to the Planning Board in March. In May, the board will hold public hearings before taking a vote later this spring. If the Planning Board and later the County Council approve, the county will start doing more detailed studies in addition to preliminary engineering for the Bus Rapid Transit network.

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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 »

Buses would have dedicated lanes in the median on all of Route 355 between Friendship Heights and Clarksburg,

What would happen where 355 doesn't have a median at all, or doesn't have a median wide enough for a bus lane (or two bus lanes?)?

by Miriam on Feb 14, 2013 11:11 am • linkreport

Can't say I'm a fan of buses in the median of 355. Seems like a big hassle for folks to cross 355 twice, once to get on, then again getting off. And will crossing signals give priority to peds? Right now, there are some spots where you can wait a consierable time to cross 355.

by Birdie on Feb 14, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

This is why people are skeptical of BRT systems, in general. I was in Bogota not long ago, which has a fairly extensive and successful BRT network. It happened because of the political will of the city's leadership.

by Rich on Feb 14, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

@Birdie- I am not sure on this, but any time penalty waiting to cross MD-355 to/from the median bus facility could be mitigated by a vastly improved travel experience on buses using the median lanes. In fact, depending on travel time savings on buses using the dedicated median lanes, the travel time may still be quicker.

@Dan- was there any thought or discussion on buses in the dedicated lanes connecting at Metrorail station? For example, will buses have to exit the median lanes, enter the station bus loops, and then reenter the median lanes or would more direct connections be provided? This may suck up travel time in addition to the issue Birdie mentioned. Also, great article. Thanks for contributing.

by Transport. on Feb 14, 2013 12:11 pm • linkreport

Time to stop abusing themisnomer BRT, and just call it what it is: Express buses.

by Jasper on Feb 14, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

BRT creep. Creeping towards just being buses.

BRT is (in the U.S.) usually seen as a way to "cheap out" on public transportation (in lieu of rail), so naturally, anything that makes it even cheaper still is seen as a good thing. Of course, in the end, after you've cut every corner and bargained down every thing as much as possible, what you're left with is some standard buses running in regular traffic.

This is why BRT is rightly regarded as a joke.

by Jason on Feb 14, 2013 12:32 pm • linkreport

Dedicated lanes through the entirety of 355? Yesplease.

355 is at least 3 lanes + median basically from Middlebrook Road in Germantown through to Friendship Heights (exceptions being the weird 3+2+median near Lakeforest and the 3+3 with no median in the Bethesda area), and 2 lanes+median north of Middlebrook Road. Assuming that the inner two lanes plus median are taken, this would give 355 2 car lanes in each direction. With the exception of the Medical Center area, 2 car lanes is (probably) enough (and Medical Center is only awful during rush hour). Since the route to Clarksburg is going to involve taking Observation Drive instead of 355 past Milestone, then it's possible that the route could switch over to the under construction portion of Observation Drive at Middlebrook that's being built as a part of Holy Cross Germantown.

While this is fantastic for 355, I fail to see why both Georgia Ave and Randolph Road, which are also 3 lanes + median for nearly their entire routes, cannot receive the same treatment. Also, the right of way for Veirs Mill Road has more than enough space for two dedicated bus lanes for the entire length. I don't understand why a reversible rush-hour only lane makes sense.

Colesville Road in Silver Spring is a little trickier, but really, since there realistically shouldn't be any BRT stops between Spring St and Four Corners, I don't see why you couldn't just take the two reversable lanes and give them over to the buses. Lockwood Drive being a replacement makes exactly zero sense, since Lockwood Drive doesn't come anywhere near inside the Beltway, which is where the problem is. Giving Lockwood bus lanes so that the buses can directly serve White Oak makes sense, and that should remain, but them mentioning Lockwood as a substitute for Colesville is just smoke and mirrors.

Overall, we all knew this was going to get pared down in the interest of politics and money, but at least the corridors chosen make sense. The only thing missing is University Blvd, which could be done as an extension of the Veirs Mill Rd line (ideally, it's one line from Rockville to Langley Park).

by Justin..... on Feb 14, 2013 12:52 pm • linkreport

Why do so many GGW authors and posters hate buses so much? All around the planet there are vibrant, dense, walkable cities connected by buses. Yes, faster transit is better transit but there are lots of ways to do it. The hostility to buses (and the odd allegiance to inefficient and expensive rail projects like DC's streetcars) is perplexing.

by Geronimo on Feb 14, 2013 6:59 pm • linkreport

Any talk of 1) who pays for this; 2) how does it affect our congestion standards for cars; and 3) what its effect is on pedestrians and bikers ?

by Nancy Floreen on Feb 15, 2013 8:10 am • linkreport

Hey Nancy Floreen, you championed the the $3-$4 billion ICC that few use and how has it impacted traffic?

Taxpayers paid for that developer boondoggle that you championed. The east-west traffic has done nothing to relieve congestion on the heavily traveled north-south commuter routes.

The county and state mortgaged its highway/transportation funding for a generation on the ICC. Poor leadership Nancy.

by Summer on Feb 15, 2013 12:24 pm • linkreport

Sure, Summer, Nancy Floreen wasn't super concerned about who would pay for the ICC. But it's widely acknowledged that limited-access highways like the ICC have extremely positive effects on pedestrians and bikers. By contrast, everyone knows that high quality transit negatively impacts pedestrians and bikers.

by Gray Spring on Feb 15, 2013 12:42 pm • linkreport

Why do so many GGW authors and posters hate buses so much? All around the planet there are vibrant, dense, walkable cities connected by buses. Yes, faster transit is better transit but there are lots of ways to do it. The hostility to buses (and the odd allegiance to inefficient and expensive rail projects like DC's streetcars) is perplexing.

It's not the buses, its the constant assertion that buses are better for cheaper (when they're not) and whenever someone proposes a nice bus plan you can set your watch on when they come back and say "not really, we're going to cut these elements out that make this plan meaningful" and then act as if they're doing us a favor by not actually proposing anything in the end.

I like riding the bus, just don't promise me a system that is "just as good as metro" when it isn't from the start and damn sure won't be by the time its on the ground.

by drumz on Feb 15, 2013 1:52 pm • linkreport

"Any talk of 1) who pays for this; 2) how does it affect our congestion standards for cars; and 3) what its effect is on pedestrians and bikers ? "

Given your concern for bikes, I would like to invite you to the WABA bike forum, to discuss current legislation of concenrn to cyclists.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 15, 2013 1:56 pm • linkreport

The Route down 29 is desperately needed. In fact, I'd say it's potentially the most useful piece, especially if it can be extended all the way to Howard County -- to Fulton and even Columbia. There is already a huge development that has gone up in Fulton, with more to come - and Columbia plans a big new downtown.

Getting some money from Howard County to run that line jointly would make it more likely. The thing is, to be truly useful, this line has to go all the way to downtown Silver Spring. It's gotta link up to the Metro. If it stops short of that, I'm not sure that it's even a good idea to put the line in.

As for the neighbors -- what they're missing is just how much traffic this would take off their streets if the line ended at the Metro. All of a sudden all those people who travel down 29 and then Georgia or 16th St, into DC would be commuting by public transportation. Hundreds and probably thousands of cars would be taken off Colesville Rd. each day...But, if the line doesn't go to the Metro, none of that will happen.

I suppose if the Randolph Rd line could be routed to pass by the Wheaton Metro, you might get some people to take Metro and a couple of bus lines, but that's probably tougher to do than just bucking the neighborhood opposition in Silver Spring. Moreover, the more links you force people to take, the less likely they are to sue mass transit.
To the Silver Spring metro or bust!!

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Feb 15, 2013 3:01 pm • linkreport

Oops -- that should read: "Moreover, the more links you force people to take, the less likely they are to USE mass transit."

You want to change neighborhood opposition? Give 'em a choice. Years of a massive construction project putting in light rail, or a relatively short period putting in BRT lanes.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Feb 15, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

"Give 'em a choice. Years of a massive construction project putting in light rail, or a relatively short period putting in BRT lanes."

There will be a third choice—nothing. NIMBYism at work.

by Allen S. on Feb 15, 2013 3:40 pm • linkreport

"Give 'em a choice. Years of a massive construction project putting in light rail, or a relatively short period putting in BRT lanes."

You mean like the light rail purple line that the County/State has now wasted $100 million studying that is now not going to happen because the County (1) lacks the ability to focus on a project (Purple Line, CCT, Viers Mill BRT, GA Ave BRT) and (2) can't find the money to construct because they are too busy handing out money to consultants for more studies while confusing everyone with new proposals for yet another unfunded project, before securing funding for the previously proposed transit projects? All of those projects have already been approved, some for a long time. If they had no intention of building those lines, that desperately needed money should have been used to maintain the rapidly deteriorating transit systems (Metro, Ride On) that are already in place.

Yeah, good idea, let's threaten residents and businesses who actually fund this stuff with light rail construction that will never happen.

by Bill on Feb 17, 2013 3:53 pm • linkreport

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