Better sidewalks? A tunnel? How can Bus Rapid Transit work in Rockville?
Under Montgomery County's newly-approved Bus Rapid Transit plan, two BRT lines would converge in the heart of Rockville. How can the city fit them into its space-constrained downtown?
BRT lines would run along Route 355 between Clarksburg and Friendship Heights and on Veirs Mill Road from Wheaton to Rockville, meeting at the Rockville Metro station. Both lines are currently under study: the State Highway Administration expects to have a preferred alternative for Veirs Mill later this year, while Montgomery County has received state transportation funds to begin studying 355 this year.
But BRT will have to contend with busy roadways, a major transit hub, and a town center still being built out. "[BRT] would provide our residents with more travel options, so that would conceptually be a good thing," Rockville planner Andrew Gunning told the Gazette, "but we have challenges, too." We asked GGW contributors how they would approach this problem, and these were the principles and ideas they suggested.
Make walking safer and more comfortable
One key issue will be creating an inviting and safe environment for pedestrians trying to access BRT stations. Both 355 and Veirs Mill are currently dangerous environments with multiple lanes of traffic that alternate between congested and high-speed, depending on the time of day. It's a long way across 355 even with surface-level pedestrian improvements, and sidewalks are typically narrow and right against the roadway.
How Route 355 (Rockville Pike) in White Flint could become a boulevard. Image from the White Flint Partnership.
Wider sidewalks with buffers, shorter crossings for pedestrians, more time to cross at lights, and protection around crossings for median stations would be excellent first steps to creating a more welcoming environment for pedestrians, and could create more of a boulevard, as is planned for White Flint further south.
Rockville could also consider working with WMATA to improve the at-grade pedestrian entrance to the Metro station, which currently features a fence and two narrow, inconvenient walking routes.
Accept lane repurposing
To avoid creating an even more unsafe pedestrian environment, it's critical that Rockville repurpose street space for transit. Widening 355 to add bus lanes runs the risk of making it even more inaccessible to people on foot.
Last year, Montgomery County planners found that there's more than enough forecasted ridership to justify dedicating an existing lane for transit on both Veirs Mill and 355. Already, Ride On's 55 bus, serving 355 from Germantown to Rockville, carries an average of 8,000 passengers each weekday, making it one of the busiest bus routes in Montgomery County.
A broad study of cities that reduced street space for cars, even in congested areas, showed that traffic stays the same, or even disappears. With Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle and other cities moving to repurpose lanes for transit, Rockville would be in distinguished company.
Balance local convenience with corridor function
One of the central questions facing planners will be whether to stay on 355 or deviate onto local streets to better serve Rockville Town Center. Having a stop at the Metro station to facilitate transfers seems obvious, but all of Rockville's main destinations, including the county government, shops, and restaurants, are closer to East Middle Lane and North Washington Street.
Keeping BRT on 355 would speed up running times and provide an impetus to make it more of a pedestrian friendly boulevard, but deviating could pick up more riders by serving the popular town center. On the other hand, existing local bus service could connect the town center to a BRT stop at the Metro station, particularly for those that have limited mobility.
Serving Montgomery College, many of whose 60,000+ students are transit dependent, will also be critical, but it's not yet clear where the best station location might be. Currently, buses deviate from 355 onto Mannakee Street to serve the college. However, it is not a far walk to the corner of 355 and Mannakee, and an improved walking path could make it desirable to keep BRT on 355 to save time. An alternative could be a BRT station between Mannakee Street and North Campus Drive, where a new path could provide a shorter connection to classroom buildings.
Planners should consider how underutilized spaces could play a role in accommodating BRT. One example is Metro's parking lot just north of the Rockville station across Park Road. This area could become a BRT station, or have buses rerouted there to make room for BRT directly in the existing bus bay.
Alternatively, a station at the Rockville Metro could utilize an existing vertical asset: the pedestrian bridge crossing Route 355. A station in the median of the road directly below the bridge with staircases or elevators going up could provide a direct, covered connection to the Metro.
While we're dreaming, a really ambitious overhaul of the area from the intersection with Viers Mill to the Metro station would create a Dupont Circle-like intersection that carries express traffic on 355 under Route 28 and continues underground past the Metro station. With through traffic passing underground in a tunnel, the city could extend the local Rockville street grid to reunite its town center with the Metro, creating a much more connected and attractive access to Metro, MARC, and BRT.
Ben Ross, David Versel, Dan Reed, Ethan Goffman, and Dan Malouff all contributed to this post. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.
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