Greater Greater Washington

The right answer to Montgomery BRT is yes

There are many questions surrounding Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit proposal, but there's just one the Planning Board will consider next Thursday: whether we should set aside room on our main streets for public transit. The answer is decidedly yes.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

It's been 5 years since Councilmember Marc Elrich first proposed a countywide network of rapid bus routes. His idea has been reviewed, vetted and refined by transportation engineers, a task force of community and business leaders, the world's leading experts on BRT, and now county planners.

Today, the Planning Board is reviewing a draft of what's called the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, which envisions a 79-mile network containing 10 BRT routes across the county. While it's much smaller than what previous studies have proposed, it offers a realistic answer for our county's current and future traffic congestion.

I worked with Kelly Blynn of the Coalition for Smarter Growth to create a video about why we need BRT in Montgomery County:

In some parts of the county, especially in the congested Downcounty, we don't have the room to move everyone in cars now, let alone in the future. Keep things the way they are and they'll get worse. Provide a dedicated lane for transit, as this plan proposes in many areas, and people will gain a fast, reliable alternative to sitting in traffic.

Don't get me wrong: I love driving, and I love my car. But I'd rather spend my time in the car having fun, not sitting in traffic because there's no better way to get around. Some will insist that transit doesn't work for them, and that's okay. However, there are places and times when transit is the best tool we have to get people moving, and we have to take advantage of it.

Expanding our transit network is really the only way that Montgomery County can continue to grow, and the county will grow, whether people want it to or not. This plan will provide improved transit service in areas where people already use it, like along Route 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville, where thousands of apartments were built in the 1970's and 1980's in anticipation of light-rail line that never materialized. And it will support future development in places like White Flint, where BRT along Rockville Pike will form the spine of a new urban center.

Of course, many questions remain about this proposal. Elected officials have asked how we'll pay for it. Residents are worried about impacts to their individual neighborhoods. And there's a larger, philosophical debate about Montgomery County's transition from being the "perfect suburbia" of 50 years ago to a slightly more urban place.

We're not going to answer these questions today, not do we have to. There are still a lot of details to consider, and there are smaller, incremental improvements we can make to our transit network sooner rather than later. What this plan can do, however, is begin a conversation about getting transit on equal footing with cars.

Growing up in Montgomery County, I was taught to value diversity. We may have different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different lifestyles, but we still come together to form one community. Building a transportation network that acknowledges that not everyone drives is a statement that we value all residents of Montgomery County, not just those who drive.

The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan this Thursday at 6pm at the Montgomery County Planning Department, 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. To sign up to testify or send written comments, visit their website.

If you're interested in learning more about Montgomery County's BRT plan, the Action Committee for Transit is hosting a talk with Larry Cole, the county's head planner for BRT, at their monthly meeting this Tuesday at 7:30pm at the Silver Spring Civic Center, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street.

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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A bus is a bus is a bus. The right answer to BRT in Montgomery County and everywhere else is "we support improvements to bus service."

Don't get me wrong - there absolutely should be room on our streets set aside for better bus service, but we should all be on the same page. Boston and Hartford should be kept firmly in mind as cautionary tales - dire warnings as to what happens when we start buying into the lie that a bus is something other than a bus.

by Ryan on May 10, 2013 10:41 am • linkreport

One issue is that the current BRT proposal takes two existing lanes on Route 355 in certain areas from vehicles. These areas are already congested during peak hours so adding BRT helps some at the expense of others. What needs to happen is that dedicated lanes be built for the BRT and at the same time have no existing lanes taken away from vehicles.

by noname on May 10, 2013 10:51 am • linkreport

Build new lanes for it and it sounds like a great idea.

by Chris S. on May 10, 2013 10:54 am • linkreport

One issue is that the current BRT proposal takes two existing lanes on Route 355 in certain areas from vehicles. These areas are already congested during peak hours so adding BRT helps some at the expense of others.

Honestly, having those two extra lanes on 355 isn't going to make your commute up there any faster. Driving on 355 will remain just as slow and unpleasant as it always was after the BRT lanes are in place.

by JustMe on May 10, 2013 11:07 am • linkreport

Very hard to sell the idea of dedicated bus lanes to car commuters who are sitting in traffic looking at an empty lane on a highway. All of us who recognize the benefits of dedicated ROW have to make ourselves heard, or the car crush will only get worse.

by renegade09 on May 10, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

This sounds like a good alternative to Metrobus and Metrorail, since at the present time they seem to be expensive and unreliable. I wonder if Prince George's County will consider building BRT routes; it could work well for them as well.

by Roy J. on May 10, 2013 11:11 am • linkreport

I don't think you understood my comment.

If you subtract two existing lanes from cars and give them to the BRT it will take longer for people in their cars to get from point A to point B(It's stated that certain sections on 355 do not have enough space for dedicated BRT lanes). Also I did not suggest that anything would be faster, so that was the wrong interpretation.

by noname on May 10, 2013 11:21 am • linkreport

Or you could see that the people on the bus are flying by you and you could begin to commute or make trips that are accessible by BRT and become on of the faster ones.

by drumz on May 10, 2013 11:29 am • linkreport

noname, I understood you fine. My point is that getting from point A to point B on 355 is already very unpleasant. It will remain unpleasant with the BRT lanes, and I doubt it will be appreciably worse, since it's already pretty bad.

by JustMe on May 10, 2013 11:36 am • linkreport

@JustMe - Just because it is bad doesn't mean it can't get much worse. Recently they have been closing 1 or 2 lanes on northbound 355 near NIH in the evenings for construction and it stops traffic dead in its tracks, even around 9 PM.

by Chris S. on May 10, 2013 11:43 am • linkreport

Don't build so many residential units. Too many people not enought transit options.

by David on May 10, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

Don't build so many residential units. Too many people not enought transit options.
This is why they're trying to expand transit options by creating a BRT system.

@Chris S.
Just because it is bad doesn't mean it can't get much worse. Recently they have been closing 1 or 2 lanes on northbound 355 near NIH in the evenings for construction and it stops traffic dead in its tracks, even around 9 PM.

Honestly this doesn't accurately reflect what would happen if you took two lanes of traffic and put vastly improved transit on them. It only reflects what would happen if you took away lanes and didn't provide any improved options.

by MLD on May 10, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

@MLD - But the Metro red line already runs parallel with 355, so people who can use transit to get where they are going are presumably doing so already. I don't see what the BRT could do that Metro can't. It's unlikely it could be faster. Maybe it could be more punctual, but I'd have to see it to believe it.

by Chris S. on May 10, 2013 12:19 pm • linkreport

We'll just have to wait for the impact studies to tell us how the lanes will affect traffic. Also, it is incorrect to assume that "everyone who can use transit already does," this is certainly not the case. Furthermore, improved transit options allow for transit mode share growth by focusing metro area growth along certain corridors. This means that future traffic will be better than it would be otherwise, because more of that new growth will be attracted to areas where transit commutes are feasible than would be otherwise.

by MLD on May 10, 2013 12:24 pm • linkreport

There is barely any benefit to residents of Four Corners for a BRT line down Rte 29- only one stop is planned, at Univ Blvd.

by Susa on May 10, 2013 12:59 pm • linkreport

What's the projected cost of 79-million design? I know the original was 2.5 Billion.

by Tom on May 10, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

@Chris

BRT will have stops that are closer together than Metro stations (which are about 2 miles apart on Rockville Pike) but farther apart that existing local buses. It's useful if you're trying to go to places between Metro stations, like Montgomery College, and as an alternative for local trips, making room on the already-crowded Red Line for those going farther.

@Susa

You could say there's no benefit to Metro for Silver Spring inside the Beltway because there's only one Metro station, yet somehow it's one of the region's biggest transportation hubs. There will only be one BRT stop in Four Corners, but that's because spacing the stops farther apart will make the service faster, not just for Four Corners residents, but for all of the other people who travel on Route 29.

by dan reed! on May 10, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

For the record, I avoid driving on 355 as much as I can because driving on it is such a nightmare. If BRT were viable (and I'm skeptical of that), I would probably visit the stores there much more often, particularly the ones that are not immediately accessible by metro.

by JustMe on May 10, 2013 1:48 pm • linkreport

I do think that taking lanes for the BRT will initially worsen car traffic on the routes, especially on 355. However it is inevitable that without the BRT or some other form of improved transit system, car traffic will continue to get much worse with no prospect of ever improving as denser development continues especially around Metro stations.
The BRT, if build will influence future development in a way that would take greater advantage of the BRT, and that will eventually improve auto traffic just as the development in the Roslyn to Balston corridor in Arlington has relieved traffic on Wilson Blvd.

by DaveS on May 10, 2013 10:56 pm • linkreport

@DaveS: Wislon and the Pike are apples and oranges. Wilson is really two roads: Wilson and Clarendon, which makes it easier to regulate traffic flow. Wilson Blvd was a set of streetcar strips in decline with car dealerships and an early Sears, whereas the Pike is a healthy retail environment that has continued to evolve. There really wasn't much traffic on Wilson/Clarendon much of the day before the area was redeveloped. Those boulevards serve closer-in traffic and are more like Connecticut or Wisc in Upper NW in that way. Wilson/Clarendon hammock two intensively developed areas (Ballston/Va Square and Rosslyn) which have a lot of jobs and housing. It's not a long stretch (may be 2-3 mi; shorter than the Pike) and was a logical place to do something. The Pike is truly congested much of the day and worse on weekends. It doesn't bridge intensive development, although there is some adjacent (Twinbrook/Fishers Lane, Executive Blvd/Security Lane), but it's all work-oriented. Really intensive residential development is in its infancy and is not entirely well developed for transit. The development dynamics and tasks are completely different. The Pike will remain congested no matter what is done, but BRT, bike lanes, etc would provide options. There also are alternate routes like Executive Blvd that could be reconfigured to take either some of the local service traffic or the trunk traffic, but I haven't seen much attention to this.

by Rich on May 11, 2013 7:29 am • linkreport

I think the ONLY thing that will get a lot of non-transit riders out of their cars and onto a bus/BRT is a free transfer to Metro.

by Capt. Hilts on May 11, 2013 3:54 pm • linkreport

I think Dan Reed does a fantastic job of supporting the concept of transit and getting people out of cars in Montgomery County. However, it is important when making public policy to base decisions on WHAT ACTUALLY IS BEING PLANNED AND WILL BE BUILT in the county and what it will actually cost. If we support the hypothetical systems based upon the hyped best case scenarios of modal proponents and don't get what the advocates have promised we will let down the public, and end up with something that simply does not work. The problem is that the vision that the article describes is not what is being proposed as part of the Master Plan. Also the negative impacts specific groups of what is being proposed and the tradeoffs between winners and losers as well as the real costs and how it will be paid for are not being presented. These need to be brought out in the open so a true public debate and decisions on how to implement a truly beneficial system can be made.

I'm in the camp that the debate should be over improving overall transit service in Montgomery Co. by increasing span of service and frequency , improving connectivity and choices of general transit so transit becomes a true 24/7 alternative to the auto. This should start especially in areas where transit already has a solid foothold and that already have densities to support bike and pedestrian traffic. when you actually examine what is in the functional plan, this is NOT what the recommended system does. It is a primarily a commuter oriented peak plan. It will not provide a network of service without will planned out transfer stations that have to date not been thought out. It is unlikely that high frequency no transfer service from one corridor to another will ever take place.

So in summary, there needs to be realistic examination and debate in the public discussion of what is being planned, who wins, who loses, how much it and who pays before a decision is made.

by Jim Bunch on May 14, 2013 2:35 pm • linkreport

@Jim

I agree that there should be a focus on providing additional all-day, late-night and weekend transit service, because that will be a compelling alternative to the car. The BRT plan does allude to different kinds of service (and you're right, Route 29 is designated a "commuter" corridor, despite the fact that there's already service until 2am on the Z8 and presumably demand for more), but as i wrote, it's mainly concerned with where we set aside room for transit, and can hopefully begin a conversation about some of the other points you raised.

by dan reed! on May 14, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

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