Tuesday, April 2, 2013

on the bus mall (scrap the silver spring transit center)

Waiting For A Bus, Wayne at Dixon
Catching a bus on Wayne Avenue today. Photo by the author.

When construction of the Silver Spring Transit Center began in 2008, local bus stops were moved to nearby streets. Today, it's been declared unsafe and there's no fix in sight. What if we kept buses on the street permanently?

Located next to the Silver Spring Metro station, the transit center is supposed to be a hub for local, commuter and intercity buses, MARC trains, and the future Purple Line. Construction stopped over a year ago after workers discovered that the concrete was too thin, and a recent report says the $112 million building is unusable without major repairs. County Executive Ike Leggett has asked for $7.5 million just to figure out how to fix it.

However, resident James Mallos has found a silver lining. To him, the curbside bus stops that have temporarily replaced the Transit Center have made downtown Silver Spring a more urban-seeming place:

Silver Spring has been looking more like a city lately, even a little glamorous in a twilight rush hour. Part of the reason is the integration of bus riders with the fabric of the city. For five beautiful years, bus riders have been dropped off closer to Silver Spring's business center, and they have been waiting for buses in front of businesses and restaurants, just as they would in New York or Chicago.

Letting street corners serve as stations for changing buses (and that is what most bus riders arriving at Metro's stations are doing) is good for business, good for public safety and good for the perception of Silver Spring as a busy, urban place. Long may it be postponed.

Having lived in Philadelphia for two years, where buses stop on the curb even at big transit hubs like 30th Street Station, I can relate to what Mallos is talking about. It's not pretty, but it works, and having all of those people pass by restaurants and shop windows can't be bad for business.

Thus, I propose a thought experiment: what if the curbside bus stops in downtown Silver Spring became permanent? A series of small changes could improve the experience of using transit in Silver Spring and probably cost less than repairing the transit center.

We could turn the four streets were buses and taxis already wait, Wayne Avenue, Dixon Avenue, Bonifant Street and Ramsey Avenue, into a transit mall like in Portland or Denver, where transit vehicles and pedestrians have priority. Transit riders would be able to wait for buses and transfer as they do now, but we could make more substantial changes to accommodate the nearly 100,000 daily riders who are expected to pass through the area in 2020.

i love your new color coding : muni bus, church street,  san francisco (2013)
Painted bus lanes give transit priority in San Francisco. Photo by torbakhopper on Flickr.

The walk between buses and Metro or MARC would be longer than it would be with the transit center, but it would be shorter than it is walking all the way around the transit center today. And as Mallos points out, bus riders would be much closer to the shops, restaurants and offices along Georgia Avenue and Ellsworth Drive.

For starters, we could lay down red paint to designate bus lanes like in San Francisco. Drivers would be allowed into the transit mall to access the Bonifant-Dixon parking garage or drop people off, but through traffic would shift to Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue.

With most cars out of the way, we could widen the sidewalks on the south side of Wayne Avenue, which are often so crowded with people waiting for buses that it's hard to walk through. Then, we could replace the existing bus stops, which can't always hold everyone waiting for the bus, with larger "super stops" that can hold more people and have real-time displays to let riders know when the next bus is coming.

Bus shelter on Portland Transit Mall
Portland's transit mall has large bus stops and landscaping. Photo by Thomas Le Ngo on Flickr.

After that, we could add some landscaping, benches and tables, and even sidewalk vendors like coffee carts or food trucks, since these four streets have almost no retail on them. An area where today you just wait for the bus could become an actual part of the urban experience, where people shop and gather as well.

As for the transit center, it could be torn down and the land sold off for private development, adding to the apartments, offices and a hotel already planned to go around it. We'd keep the public plaza that was supposed to be there, and expand it into a series of pedestrian paths connecting the Metro to the transit mall. This makes room for more homes, jobs and shops close to transit.

Of course, Montgomery County didn't spend $112 million to build a transit center only to scrape it later. The best plan for now is to figure out how to salvage the complex and how to pay for it.

Until that happens, however, people will continue to catch buses on the street. And after 5 years, they deserve a safe, comfortable place to do so. Maybe we can't turn downtown Silver Spring into Portland's transit mall, but some wider sidewalks, more benches, and a food truck wouldn't hurt.


John said...

Bus stops on streets - now there is an excellent idea. I have never seen a "transit center" that anyone would like to wait at. Plus getting those buses back on to the street from a transit center always causes delays.

Joe said...

As someone who works on one side of the transit center, and commutes (usually) home via bus from the other, this is, and would continue to be a royal pain, and probably encourage me to get a PCS sticker for the parking garage here.
Remember, the MARC/CSX/Metro tracks already provide enough of an obstacle to the rest of DTSS from the Blairs and E-W Hwy, without the transit center standing in the way.
To get the buses going up to Four Corners, one can walk over in front of the Subway and (new) 7-Eleven on Wayne to catch the 9, to Dixon Avenue to catch the 8, to Bonifant Street to catch the 19, or to the other side of Wayne, down the hill, across five lanes of traffic, to the Z buses. That's not how network transit is supposed to work, and even eliminating cars from the mix doesn't really help that. In my experience, I have to walk up to the AFI, a nearly half-mile uphill walk, to have a reasonable chance at catching a bus.
(I say chance, because the RideOn buses invariably leave early, and the Metrobuses leave late, and the realtime arrival apps don't work so close to the start of a route.)
The hustle and bustle of people walking through a fenced off corridor to get to their buses may look nice to one reader, but it's a case of form over function.

Joe said...

Re: Waiting there - if it saves Metrorail riders a 5-10 minute walk in inclement weather, I don't think any of them would be complaining.

Also, the Bethesda transit center is arguably just as tucked away from the Woodmont Triangle and the core foot traffic areas (by a few blocks, just like SS), and I don't see anyone begging to put the buses back on the streets there.

Robert said...

Bad idea! The transit center will make it much easier for people to transfer from bus to bus, bus to rail, etc., etc. and will provide shelter from bad weather.

In addition, getting the buses into the transit center will make traffic better for everyone, both cars and buses. As for making Wayne bus-only, using Wayne from Colesville to Georgia Avenue is the only legal way for someone northeast-bound on Colesville to make a left onto Georgia. Preventing that would make traffic in Downtown Silver Spring even worse than it is now.

david said...

The Silver Spring Transit Center is lame. I agree, scrap it. Bus lanes are a good idea - however, Montgomery County at Silver Spring is much denser than a Portland or Seattle (though SF is dense, they've always managed it extremely efficiently). Silver Spring alone is about the size of Portland.

While taking up a lot of space, the Transit Center does serve a purpose of giving a diverse and on-the-go area of the county a "chill out spot of sorts. Basically, you can only crowd people into the street up to a certain point (until Silver Spring looks like Mumbai or Accra, Nigeria).

jag2923 said...

"Silver Spring is much denser than a Portland or Seattle (though SF is dense, they've always managed it extremely efficiently). Silver Spring alone is about the size of Portland."

I'll have some of whatever you're smokin', david.