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BRT is great, but highway buses aren't BRT

Are highway toll lanes a great way to provide rapid bus service all over the region, or a sneaky way to widen roads under the auspices of improving transit?

Photo from Washington State DOT on Flickr.

Planners at the Transportation Planning Board (TPB) are currently preparing a Regional Transportation Priorities Plan. It will be a sort of wish list of transportation projects and strategies the DC region may want to consider funding some time in the future.

One interesting concept they propose is to widen nearly every highway in the region with a new set of variably-priced toll lanes, like the express lanes that recently opened on the Beltway in Virginia.

The idea is that tolls would be set high enough to ensure traffic on the lanes moves quickly, which would simultaneously improve car congestion and provide all the benefits of a dedicated busway. Sounds great, except it never works that way in real life.

Why this won't work as promised

There are two big problems with this approach.

First, transit is most effective when it's located along dense, mixed-use corridors, where riders can walk to their destination on at least one end of the route. Highways never work very well, because the land use surrounding highways is inevitably spread out and car-oriented nearly all the time.

Even Metrorail stations in the most prosperous parts of the region have trouble attracting development if they're in a highway median.

And without surface bus lanes on downtown streets, highway buses will get clogged in downtown traffic just like cars.

That's not to say highways shouldn't have good buses. Of course they should, because there are some trips that can be served that way. But you will never succeed in building a truly great transit system when it's built as an afterthought to highways, because the land use drives ridership.

That brings up the second big problem: Transit lines that are promised as an afterthought to highway expansion are always the first thing to be cut when money runs low.

That's exactly what happened on both the Beltway express lanes in Virginia and on the ICC in Maryland, which both use variably-priced tolls to keep traffic moving.

In Virginia, the Beltway HOT lanes were originally sold as "HOT/BRT lanes." But planners stopped promising BRT before construction even started. Now there are a handful of commuter buses that use the HOT lanes, but they're nothing like a true all-day BRT line.

In Maryland, planners never promised BRT on the ICC, but they did promise good bus service. Lo and behold, just a couple of years after opening the ICC, the state proposed to eliminate 3 of its 5 bus routes.

Today, neither the Beltway nor the ICC have bus service anywhere near as good as the regular bus lines on 16th Street in DC or Columbia Pike in Virginia. Say nothing of BRT. On the other hand, those highways got built.

A better alternate exists, but isn't in the plan

Oddly, the TPB's proposed plan doesn't say anything about BRT on arterial roads, where it's more likely to do the most good.

Arterial roads have the most demand for bus service, and produce the most bus ridership, precisely because they're the main streets with all the mixed-use destinations.

That's why Montgomery County, Arlington, and Alexandria are all working on actual BRT projects on arterial roads.

But the upcoming BRT lines in Montgomery, Arlington, and Alexandria could be so much more effective if they were coordinated into a larger regional network. As the main cross-jurisdictional planning agency for the DC region, TPB should be helping to plan that network, with lines in Fairfax, Prince George's, and DC.

Instead, they're mucked up pushing a highway plan that doesn't really do much good for transit.

Tell TPB to look at arterial BRT instead

The draft Regional Transportation Priorities Plan does say arterials should have "bus priority," such as MetroExtra-like limited stop routes. That's good, but why not push for something better? With many jurisdictions looking at arterial BRT anyway, there's no reason to hold back.

TPB is good at studying alternatives. In fact, they've already completed multiple studies looking at the variably-priced lanes idea. They should give at least as much attention to arterial BRT.

TPB is still accepting public comments on its draft plan, but today is the last day. They need to hear that a few buses won't convince transit advocates to support the biggest expansion of sprawl-inducing highway capacity in the DC region since Eisenhower. They need to hear that the proper place for transit is arterial roads, not highways.

Steven Yates grew up in Indiana before moving to DC in 2002 to attend college at American University. He currently lives in Southwest DC.  


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1. AFAIK the bus services on the 495 HOT lanes are exactly as promised. They will presumably ramp up as Tysons grows and becomes more walkable

2. You dont always need bus lanes downtown, if you have a suitable station at the highway route terminus - see Pentagon

3. But yeah, downtown bus lanes would tie in well to a HOT lane BRT network

4. And that could connect to an arterial BRT network. For example I believe FFX is looking at a bus lane on Braddock Road, which would feed the 495 HOT lanes

5. Highway BRT probably needs to be examined on a case by case basis. Where likely transit demand is low, because of low walkability/low parking costs at the destination, its more greenwashing on a road widening (but a PRICED road widening need not be a bad thing). In other places it can be a real asset.

6. MetroWest is a success as residential BRT. Its being held back by the weakness of the market for office space. Dunn Loring/Mosaic is another example of TOD thriving at a highway median metro stop. Oh, and the construction boom near the East Falls Church metro stop. And there is TOD arriving in Reston, Herndon, and Loudoun for highway median metro stations, and those stations aren't even built yet ;)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 23, 2013 10:22 am • linkreport

pardon "MetroWest is a success as residential TOD"

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 23, 2013 10:23 am • linkreport

BRT is almost never implemented in a way that works, plain and simple.

by Ron on Aug 23, 2013 10:28 am • linkreport

Great post Steven! Yes, please comment to the Transportation Planning Board everyone: I concur with Steven -- the focus by area transportation agencies on Express Toll Lanes and their cost, undermines good land use and regional investment in the most sustainable and effective approach: a regional network of transit-oriented centers and communities. High-capacity/high-frequency transit makes compact, mixed-use development possible and means not just many more transit trips, but more walking, biking, and carpooling trips, along with lower car ownership. This should be the priority focus of the TPB's Regional Transportation Priority Plan. Please let the TPB know! Comment here:

by Stewart Schwartz on Aug 23, 2013 10:30 am • linkreport

"Today, neither the Beltway nor the ICC have bus service anywhere near as good as the regular bus lines on 16th Street in DC or Columbia Pike in Virginia. "

They don't have the frequency. Given the densities and demographics that wouldnt really be possible now, whatever the physical configuration. In terms of speed, I think the Beltway express services more than match the 16 bus.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 23, 2013 10:31 am • linkreport

Great point. How do you integrate a highway into a pedestrian oriented community, or better yet, how do you build urbanism around a highway? Like the metro stations on route 66, what a wasted opportunity.

by Thayer-D on Aug 23, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

"Great point. How do you integrate a highway into a pedestrian oriented community, or better yet, how do you build urbanism around a highway? "

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 23, 2013 10:34 am • linkreport

Amen---I just submitted a comment.

by xmal on Aug 23, 2013 10:34 am • linkreport

We need to better use the lanes we have today. That includes tolling what we have and converting existing lanes into bus only lanes as suggested. Braddock road in particular is like 10 lanes wide at its exit with 495.

by drumz on Aug 23, 2013 10:35 am • linkreport

Yes, you can build a town next to a highway, but you can't build a town around a highway, thus locating a BRT that runs on a highway will give you a lot less return in the TOD possibilities compared to a road that isn't so anti-pedestrian oriented.

by Thayer-D on Aug 23, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport


thats true. In the case of shirlington the other side of the highway is Park Fairfax, which couldn't realistically be redeveloped anyway. But the presence of the highway does undoubtedly deter Park Fairfax residents from using the Shirlington Transit station. Similarly, there is no TOD on the north side of the Dunn Loring station, but again, legacy low density development means there really couldnt be anyway. In the case of the Vienna station, there is some sort of TODish development on the north side, but nothing comparable to MetroWest on the south side.

I would say TOD possibilities need to be examined on case by case basis. Clearly a highway (other than a decked one) is bad thing for adjacent TOD (whether the T is bus or rail). But it also does not make TOD impossible.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 23, 2013 10:47 am • linkreport

It's "lo and behold"

by George on Aug 23, 2013 10:47 am • linkreport

"But it also does not make TOD impossible."

True, simply shooting for the ideal before settling for the best of all options. ie, when choosing BRT lines de nuovo, let's get the biggest bang for our buck, but not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

by Thayer-D on Aug 23, 2013 10:57 am • linkreport

Excellent post, Steven. Enhanced bus service in Fairfax on routes like 236 and 50 is what would boost both ridership and better development along these corridors. The toll lanes are too often a bait and switch.

by Douglas Stewart on Aug 23, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

Arterial roads have the most demand for bus service, and produce the most bus ridership, precisely because they're the main streets with all the mixed-use destinations.

It depends on what kind of arterial road you have. Arterial roads in the outer suburbs tend to be pedestrian-hostile and need traffic calming if BRT is to be effective. Otherwise they will be barriers just like highways, and the need to cross them to reach the bus stop will repel potential riders. (Or else the bus will take a very time-consuming detour that destroys its time-competitiveness with driving.)

Examples are Germantown Road and Reston Parkway alongside the respective town centers.

by Ben Ross on Aug 23, 2013 11:05 am • linkreport

Today, neither the Beltway nor the ICC have bus service anywhere near as good as the regular bus lines on 16th Street in DC or Columbia Pike in Virginia.

Not every transit line (particularly a recent implementation) is going to have the service levels of 16th Street or Columbia Pike, both of which are dense and far longer established. Not every transit line should be held to that standard of comparison either.

I am no fan of the ICC, but I do see where the 201 in particular provides one of the corridor's few true regional services that are sorely lacking elsewhere. When the line was first instituted, sadly the schedule's only focus was on bringing travelers into BWI for flights. Demands have since grown for additional trips and connectivity for different markets, and I am hearing from a friend of mine who catches the 7am trip from BWI to a job in Gaithersburg that about 30 people are now using this trip that didn't even exist a couple of years ago, despite little in the way of publicity of the extra trips.

In essence, I can agree that such plans should not be pushed with promises of making a transit service with levels comparable to that on dense urban corridors, but personally see a LOT lacking in regional connectivity at more modest levels that improved highway bus services could potentially fill.

As an anecdote, My Z29 (Silver Spring-Laurel bus) uses the shoulder of Route 29 and often bypasses the congestion at the lights, making it faster and more preferable to driving to me. I'd love for car-dependent and car-free to be able to benefit from similar "fast bus" type services.

by A. P. on Aug 23, 2013 11:07 am • linkreport

I am in favor of Bus/HOT lane concept but only if toll revenues collected are linked to: a congestion toll (toll is 0.00 during no congestion periods), maintenance of the facility, and operational costs of transit service in the corridor that link activity centers/metro stations. Reliable and frequent trip times will support increase transit service in the future.

The toll should not be used to support bond payments for the construction of the new or converted roadway lanes.

by jcp on Aug 23, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

Leaving public comments with the TPB is fine--the TPB staff will have to respond to them. But the real decision makers who would influence the plan are these folks: the TPB board, local elected officials actually responsive to constituents. If you live in one of their jurisdictions, send them messages and show them their constituents actually care about transportation planning and they should stick their necks out.

by Dan on Aug 23, 2013 11:51 am • linkreport

I concur heartily with Mr Yates, a BRT "network" would be a nightmare. I just asked for, and got information from Fairfax County on the number of bus trips on the HOT lanes: 39/day that come from Lorton, Springfield and the Burke VRE combined. That means each origin has about one bus per hour spread over a 12-hr day, a pathetic performance. We would be well served by a frequent bus service on I-66, but I'm not sure it should be called BRT, maybe express bus.

by Roger Diedrch on Aug 23, 2013 12:27 pm • linkreport

They are not spread over the 12 hour day though, they are rush hour only I believe. I doubt there is sufficient demand for non rush hour service from those auto centric areas to Tysons.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 23, 2013 12:30 pm • linkreport

New car lanes are a bad idea (almost) wherever they're proposed, and for (almost) whatever reason they're proposed. This is not an exception.

Busways like this aren't good because they aren't really BRT. There's no way for people to get on or off the bus without it exiting the lanes and there are only poor connections to local transit or streets.

If we are going to do HOV, it's best to do it by repurposing existing lanes. Sure, we can't toll the drivers, but at least the conversion is nearly free and offers most of the same benefits. HOV lanes don't have quite the same vehicle capacity (about 1200 vehicles per hour vs. 2000 VPH for regular lanes), but it encourages carpooling.

And yeah, BRT should be on arterials first.

by David Edmondson on Aug 23, 2013 12:32 pm • linkreport

Sorry about nitpicking, but you should define an acronym in the body of a paper the first time it is used.

by NE John on Aug 23, 2013 1:46 pm • linkreport

That ^ was with respect to BRT, which is not familiar to me.

by NE John on Aug 23, 2013 1:47 pm • linkreport

I'm just going to throw out a few things here

1. There is no guarantee that the BRT planned for Alexandria and Arlington is going to work out. In Del Ray there is a lot of skepticism because the transitway doesn't go through the heart of the community but along the edge of it. Even if they get 10 minute headways, they will probably just cut service on Mt. Vernon Ave. and MVA already suffers from erratic bus service as it is.

2. Express buses might not be BRT, but they are an important part of the transportation network. Using them in combination with park-and-ride lots is a great way to commute in the 267 corridor for all of the suburban dwellers who are not candidates for TOD. In fact if you use an express bus now, you will almost certainly be worse off when the Silver Line opens.

3. Without the HOT lanes, getting from the Rt. 1 corridor to the 267 corridor and back is a nightmare. Now it is more tolerable, but express buses are not really part of the picture. Over time that will change.

by movement on Aug 23, 2013 3:35 pm • linkreport


The BRT is for Potomac Yard, not Del Ray.

by ImThat1Guy on Aug 23, 2013 6:07 pm • linkreport

The transitway runs right between the two communities. There are no actual destinations along the route. (No, Afghan Restaurant doesn't count.) If it was really just about Potomac Yard, they should have run the route down Main Line Blvd. That would help attract visitors to the center of the community. If it isn't going to be a mixed use community, it will be a nightmare to live there. If you live on Potomac Ave. it isn't like you will walk over to Rt. 1 and take the bus up to Harris Teeter. You will drive. Isn't reducing the need to drive what we're trying to get away from?

by movement on Aug 24, 2013 10:26 am • linkreport

Except for the huge community planning on being built around te eventual Potomac yard metro station. The reason alexandria is going with BRT rather than streetcar on that section is because they want to build the metro station first.

by drumz on Aug 24, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport

It's true that highway buses are not BRT. Its also true that they don't act as a catalyst for TOD developments. But perhaps that's not the point?

Unfortunately since this is America, there is existing residential sprawl. Its not going away any time soon. So, there will be many trips between sprawled out homes to various employment centers around the region for the future on our already congested roadways. This is a rampant problem that needs to be addressed.

The HOT lane concept provides a way to do this -- they can be priced to pay for themselves as well as establishing park-and-ride lots and providing some of the subsidy for commute-period express bus services from the pnr lots to either Metro stations or directly to employment centers. It manages traffic growth by creating monetary and time incentives for using a transit service (unlike any other transit service you'd have to park-and-ride towards, I might add). And it doesn't add any burden to the region in terms of unfunded maintenance and operations costs. Of course if you give away a sizeable chunk of the revenue raised to a private entity as a way to build them on the cheap, a lot of the potential benefit is lost, so the one we do have is a bit hmmmm...

But my point is that not all transportation solutions result in walkable, mixed-use developments. It doesn't preclude them from being effective solutions, however. The Park-n-Ride to HOT lane + transit service highways are a middle way for areas outside the beltway where interest in extending Metro and creating TOD don't exist, which is a pretty sizeable portion of the region.

by Vinnie on Aug 24, 2013 4:25 pm • linkreport

Excellent article, Steve. I unfortunately got to it only after the TBP deadline passed.

What you are talking about is classic for I-66 within the Beltway. Instead of stealthily adding lanes by hardening shoulders, the state/region should extend HOV hours in both directions and simply provide more buses for the existing roadway. The traffic flows beautifully during HOV hours, and non-car-poolers can have a great ride on a bus.

Keep up your writing.

--Peter Harnik

by Peter Harnik on Aug 24, 2013 7:17 pm • linkreport

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