Greater Greater Washington

Transit


A bridge closure suggests how bus lanes could affect traffic

Skeptics of Montgomery County's proposal to put bus lanes on major roads fear it could make traffic worse. But a road closure on Route 29 to repair recent storm damage might offer a glimpse of our possible future.


Image from SHA.

Two weeks ago, a torrential rainstorm flooded Route 29, also known as Columbia Pike, on a bridge where it crosses Northwest Branch in Silver Spring. This isn't the first time the bridge has flooded, and soon after, Maryland State Highway Administration closed the heavily damaged right lanes from Southwood Avenue to Lockwood Drive. Last Monday, it began making repairs, which will last until the end of May.

Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plan envisions a line on Route 29 between Burtonsville and Silver Spring, which is already one of the region's busiest transit corridors, with 40 buses an hour during rush hour. Along most of the corridor, buses would have their own lanes, though we don't know if they would be on the curb or in the median, or if there would be a a reversible lane or lanes in both directions.

In any case, creating bus lanes would mean closing a lane to cars, which some residents in nearby Four Corners are vehemently opposed to. Thanks to last month's storm, we now get to see what closing a lane on Route 29 to general traffic might be like.

I've driven and taken the bus through the affected area a few times, including in evening rush hour. And there is some congestion, especially where drivers have to merge from three lanes to two. But the real test is what happens after people adjust to the new traffic pattern.


Traffic on Route 29 after a flood in 2010. Photo by the author.

Studies have shown that taking away street space, often predicted to cause traffic mayhem, can actually reduce congestion as people find alternate ways to get there. Since the closure began, I've experimented with different routes. I've taken the bus at times of day when I would normally drive because there would be less traffic. Meanwhile, the sidewalks are still open, and I've noticed more people walking or biking to and from Trader Joe's across the bridge.

That may not seem like a big deal, but it only takes a 5% reduction in traffic to cause a 10 to 30% increase in traffic speed, meaning only a few people have to change their behavior in order for everyone to have a faster trip. It also explains why major highway closures around the country, like Carmageddon in Los Angeles, didn't cause the traffic they were anticipated to.

Of course, this isn't a perfect trial. The buses still have to share the remaining two lanes of traffic with everyone else. Unlike other, larger highway closures, there isn't a campaign directing drivers to other routes or beefed-up transit service. And unlike a road washout, a bus lane will give drivers another travel alternative to choose from instead of simply taking away street space.

But if Route 29 travelers can handle losing a lane for a few weeks, when the bridge is repaired, we might be able to do another trial with an actual bus lane.

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also 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. 

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Just playing devil's advocate... Because of this closure, I drove rather than took the bus to a WMATA focus group on the Z-lines at Briggs Chaney (yes, I am aware of the irony here), I couldn't leave work at 5:30 and get up there on the Z6/Z8 in that sort of traffic. I diverted to New Hampshire, and it was a nightmare with all of the spillover traffic that wasn't taking 29. Lots of people can and do delay trips and/or use alternate routes during temporary closures.

by Joe in SS on May 15, 2014 2:36 pm • linkreport

Interesting thoughts - I'll admit to being one of the motorists who has generally avoided this stretch since this has happened - somewhat.

I typically take the Z9/29 from Burtonsville, but, expecting bad backups primarily in the PM peak, I've been driving to Glenmont and getting Metro from there.

Therein however lay some problems with the dynamics of this. If even I as a transit rider who drives am driving more as a result of this, I'm sure that many others who drive exclusively, and for whom 29 is the most direct path for their trip, are likely driving more miles in the business of reaching the same destinations. As a result, traffic on the pike may decrease, but is offset by a general increase in driving miles elsewhere.

My round trip mileage for the daily commute was 20 using Burtonsville and the Z line - it's 34 to drive to Glenmont directly.

by Lord Baltimore on May 15, 2014 2:39 pm • linkreport

In the current example, busses would be delayed just as much as the single occupancy vehicles are, so there is little incentive to take the bus instead. If an exclusive bus lane is added, it would actually give a large benefit to those choosing to ride it, so results would likely be better than what is seen now with a lane completely closed to all traffic.

by engrish_major on May 15, 2014 2:56 pm • linkreport

You've got to be kidding me. The lane closure here has made traffic a nightmare to the point where University now backs up each way because of the gridlock at Four Corners. Traffic on Georgia ave is also noticeably worse as commuters are diverting to go north south. If anything this only proves what a disaster taking a lane in the rush direction would be.

by Mike on May 15, 2014 3:48 pm • linkreport

This comparison is bogus. Closing the lane for maintenance forces the same amount of traffic into a smaller space. Dedicated bus lanes remove cars from the road as people shift their commuting patterns from car to bus because the bus will be faster.

by DCForever on May 15, 2014 4:40 pm • linkreport

Personally, I missed some classes that I enjoy because of the lane closures on 29. I changed plans, figuring the roads were not safe. I guess my not going to them meant I "reduced congestion".
BTW, places like Stewart Lane off 29 have only one side of the street with shelters, meaning half the passengers are forced to wait without either seats or shelters in the elements.
And I agree with Mike.

by asffa on May 15, 2014 4:42 pm • linkreport

So it reduces congestion because things get so bad that people find another route. Well what happens when there's no other route? Models that work under one set of conditions don't always work under others.

You've got to be kidding me. The lane closure here has made traffic a nightmare to the point where University now backs up each way because of the gridlock at Four Corners. Traffic on Georgia ave is also noticeably worse as commuters are diverting to go north south. If anything this only proves what a disaster taking a lane in the rush direction would be.

Hey look, some real data. Reducing road capacity made traffic horribly worse. Who woulda thunk.

In the current example, busses would be delayed just as much as the single occupancy vehicles are, so there is little incentive to take the bus instead. If an exclusive bus lane is added, it would actually give a large benefit to those choosing to ride it, so results would likely be better than what is seen now with a lane completely closed to all traffic.

Which is great for those people who are in a position to take the bus, I'm sure. A hell of a lot of people driving that route can't feasibly do that for various reasons, including not living particularly close to the bus line, so punishing them isn't going to get them to take the bus, it's just going to double the length of their commute. You're going to deliberately hurt other people so that you can get a modest benefit. And here I was thinking that the point of transit was to improve the transportation system for everyone.

by Zeus on May 15, 2014 4:46 pm • linkreport

BTW, what happens when the weather is foul and the bus stop doesn't have a shelter, is a lot fewer people wait around for the bus.

by asffa on May 15, 2014 4:51 pm • linkreport

Zeus said " You're going to deliberately hurt other people so that you can get a modest benefit. And here I was thinking that the point of transit was to improve the transportation system for everyone. "

Nail-head what the problem is with some of the "Smart Growth" Committee's plans. And that it keeps seeming they target damage to communities not their own.

by asffa on May 15, 2014 5:01 pm • linkreport

Nail-head what the problem is with some of the "Smart Growth" Committee's plans. And that it keeps seeming they target damage to communities not their own.

Because the people who ride the bus now and would likely love better bus service aren't part of the "community"?

by MLD on May 15, 2014 5:05 pm • linkreport

MLD I think most people know where they themselves live.

by asffa on May 15, 2014 5:14 pm • linkreport

Zeus said "Which is great for those people who are in a position to take the bus, I'm sure. A hell of a lot of people driving that route can't feasibly do that for various reasons, including not living particularly close to the bus line, so punishing them isn't going to get them to take the bus, it's just going to double the length of their commute. You're going to deliberately hurt other people so that you can get a modest benefit. And here I was thinking that the point of transit was to improve the transportation system for everyone. "

"Punish"? "Deliberately hurt"? Paranoid much? ("Paranoid thinking typically includes persecutory beliefs, or beliefs of conspiracy concerning a perceived threat towards oneself (e.g. "Everyone is out to get me")).

In less emotive terms, the conversion of a general traffic lane to a dedicated bus lane would likely increase the cost (in time) to many drivers in that corridor, while decreasing the cost (in time) to many bus riders in that corridor. This change in the balance of costs and benefits may induce a number of people who currently drive alone in that corridor to alter their behavior (by arranging to take the bus, or carpooling, or adjusting their schedule, etc).

There aren't many projects that benefit everyone - ask any NIMBY.

by John Henry Holliday on May 16, 2014 1:19 am • linkreport

If the one's benefit is over-weighed by damage done more, including the funding of other services, including transit, it's poor planning.
If traffic is worsened not only on the changed road, but as result, on roads not meant to take the road's overflow - causing dangerous situations - that's poor planning. If you make traffic worse in a location, it generally gets more dangerous. And creating knowing risk and damage to others and their nearby properties, creating accidents or loss from said planning, is doing deliberate harm.

Does the damage in a plan done to drivers outweigh the benefits given the bus route? - if yes, stop.
Then how much is this projected to cost, how will it be paid?
Will traffic be made worse on other roads as a result- what will be done to prevent problems? Is that being weighed in the environmental benefit-damage analysis?
Is the proposal to build in the median or to close lanes to drivers use that they paid for the building of for their use and for its maintenance for many years?
How many and where are the proposed expensive "stations" going to be placed? Will parking be required, etc.?
Is this going forward with support of the local community who will live beside it?
Are there other, less damaging, and less expensive ways to achieve the bus goal?
(More friends of transit should be getting up when they see a lack of bike racks and bus shelters - both sides of the streets)

by asffa on May 16, 2014 8:22 am • linkreport

If the one's benefit is over-weighed by damage done more, including the funding of other services, including transit, it's poor planning.
But that's not the case. The road will move more people during peak periods (because of more frequent and faster bus service that can move many more people than SOV), so that is a net benefit overall.

Is the proposal to build in the median or to close lanes to drivers use that they paid for the building of for their use and for its maintenance for many years?
When it comes to all roads, everyone has been paying to build them. And especially when it comes to local roads (which get basically zero user fee funding).

by MLD on May 16, 2014 8:54 am • linkreport

The traditional method of relieving congestion is to build more lanes, which inevitably fill up with more cars at a much less efficient carrying capacity than dedicated transit. Time and again it's been prooven that at some point during a road networks increased congestion, the only way to move more people efficiently is with public transit on a dedicated lane. This scenario on Route 29 is no different. The transition will be difficult but the final results will be superior.

Proper planning will should be able to determine the least painful method of bringing BRT lines to reality, but the status quo is not an option. This lane closure should provide planners with a wealth of data to better plan for the transition, and I commend Dan Reed for pointing out this opportunity should the county not be paying attention.

Being resistant to change becasue of short term pain has never been a good option in any aspect of life, and it certainly isn't in this case. We will suffer economically if we do not embrace these changes becasue companies see loosing time stuck in traffic as a disincentive for establishing a new businesses in an area not well served by transit. On the residential side the market is clearly showing that more people would prefer to spend their 'extra' hours with their loved ones rather than getting high blood pressure stuck in traffic.

Planners still have a lot of work to convince area residents that the BRT on a dedicated lane is the best choice for improving the overall quality of life, but the data is there. They need to do a better job at showing the facts to overcome the natural fear of change.

by Thayer-D on May 16, 2014 8:56 am • linkreport

OT: Why don't they build a bridge here? This road gets hammered with some regularity.

by SJE on May 16, 2014 11:10 am • linkreport

Thanks to last month's storm, we now get to see what closing a lane on Route 29 to general traffic might be like.

Is this an argument for or against closing a lane to general traffic? Seems like pretty bad traffic to me.

by Falls Church on May 16, 2014 11:49 am • linkreport

* I meant to post the pic in the author's article titled "Traffic on Route 29 after a flood in 2010"

by Falls Church on May 16, 2014 11:50 am • linkreport

Without getting into the pros and cons of a dedicated bus lane, I can state from personal experience the lane closure on RT 29 has created a nightmare of gridlock on all the nearby intersectons, especially University Parkway. There is no "mass transit" between where I work and where I live and I am currently driving miles out of my way and increasing the traffic on Randolph Road.

by Carol on May 16, 2014 2:07 pm • linkreport

DCForever " This comparison is bogus."

Really?????

by tim on May 16, 2014 6:45 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D "They need to do a better job at showing the facts to overcome the natural fear of change."

That is not a fair statement because the "fear of change" is what pushed special interest groups to stop the progression of getting I-95 and I-270 built between DC and the Beltway.

The facts have been already shown that removing the existing travel lanes for a special bus will not improve commute times and it will make traffic worse and the issue with US Highway 29 few weeks past showed and proved what will happen if existing lanes are removed from busy roads.

by tim on May 16, 2014 7:15 pm • linkreport

Rt. 29 been prepared to be driver-transit friendly with millions of dollars of investment with elaborate interchanges meant to reduce the number of lights, access to ICC, etc., already built to that purpose.
And then somebody comes in and says driver needs are irrelevant for Rt. 29. Discusses wasting millions and all that building effort to make Rt. 29 driver impassable, extra slowed, and/or dangerous.

I'm not against the idea of using the medians for buses. I'm against closing lanes to drivers after all that effort, and without beyond excellent - sterling - cause. To do otherwise is wasteful, and short-sighted, and ignores the basics of the traffic - that a huge bulk of rush hour on 29 is coming to/from/through Howard County.
So how is closing a lane on 29 going to help to do anything but waste tons in gas through idling vehicles?

by asffa on May 16, 2014 7:26 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted because this commenter repeatedly uses a false email address in violation of the comment policy.]

by tim on May 17, 2014 9:18 am • linkreport

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