Thursday, July 11, 2013

to get anywhere with BRT, we have to think big

Over the past 5 years, Montgomery County has envisioned building a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, making it a model for communities around the country. But transit advocates worry that the latest proposal takes another step back from the original vision.

Orange Line Platform, North Hollywood
The Orange Line in Los Angeles, an example of "gold-standard" BRT. Most of Montgomery's BRT system won't look like this.

Last November, planners proposed a 92-mile system where buses had their own lanes, whether in the median or in repurposed car lanes, on all or part of each of the 10 routes. But some residents and the Montgomery County Department of Transportation resisted calls to take away street space from cars.

The latest draft of the plan, which now has 79 miles of routes, has backed away from that recommendation. Under the current proposal, the only places that would get "gold-standard" BRT with dedicated lanes are Route 355 and portions of Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue that have wide medians.

Planners say they're being realistic

The BRT network proposed in November. Blue represents curb bus lanes, purple is buses running in mixed traffic, and median busways are red. Click for an interactive version.

BRT corridors proposed July 2013
The current BRT proposal. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Planners removed repurposed lanes along Route 29 in Four Corners after vocal opposition from a small group of neighbors, but say it's because bus lanes would conflict with an on-ramp to the Beltway. On Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase, where neighbors say the buses would endanger their kids, curb lanes have replaced a median busway.

Meanwhile, dedicated lanes on Georgia Avenue between 16th Street and University Boulevard, on Randolph Road between Rockville Pike and Georgia Avenue, and Stewart Lane and Lockwood Drive in White Oak have disappeared altogether. These sections were part of a "Phase 2" in earlier drafts that was meant to be built in the future.

Cole says that many parts of the county aren't currently dense enough to justify the expense and disruption of creating dedicated bus lanes, especially where streets are constrained by buildings or steep slopes. Likewise, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the world's leading experts on BRT, recommended that the county only pursue 4 of the 10 proposed routes where demand was highest.

Planning staff made the plan more ambitious because the Planning Board wanted an "aspirational plan to look beyond current land use," Cole says. "Phase 1 is what we, the staff, wanted all along. We didn't feel pressure all along. We're the ones who pushed the board to move Phase 2 to the appendix because it caused a lot of confusion and concern from the public."

Plan allows bikes, right-turns in bus lanes

The new draft does have some strengths. It calls for recommend "gold-standard" BRT, with dedicated lanes in the median, all along Route 355, which will support future development in places like downtown Bethesda and White Flint. And there are still repurposed bus lanes on Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring. While these streets are already congested, they all serve areas with the county's highest transit ridership, meaning those buses will be well-used.

"We're not backing off on repurposing lanes," Cole said. "We've been pretty hardcore about that."

It also recommends letting bicyclists, emergency vehicles and right-turning drivers use the bus lanes, which lets more people use them without making them as congested as regular lanes. "If a bus was coming every 2, 4 minutes, that would be a safer place for [bicyclists] to be then in the general traffic lanes," says Cole.

Finally, the new draft also explains what the plan will actually do, like identifying areas where the county should put dedicated bus lanes, and what it won't do, like decide what kind of buses to use or how much fares should cost.

Cole notes that this plan simply gives policy direction to things that county and state officials can already do. "Some people are determined that nothing should happen," he says. "As far as curb lanes go, the reality is that [the Maryland State Highway Administration] could make that change today without the master plan."

We have to think big

Many residents support BRT, which is based on a 2008 proposal by Councilmember Marc Elrich. Both planning consultants and task force of community and business leaders found could provide alternatives to driving and support future population growth. But planners have removed some of the plan's more controversial elements and called for more study in a draft that the Planning Board will vote on today.

The Action Committee for Transit, an advocacy group for transit, wrote a letter urging them not to "water down" the BRT plan. "To be worthy of support, the bus rapid transit plan must put bus lanes on the most congested roads, not the least congested ones, and include lane repurposing as a major component," it says.

It's good that planners want to take a realistic approach, but to those who don't want BRT on their street, the plan's evolution sends a different message: yell loudly enough, and it'll go away or get watered down. That's a bad precedent for our public process, but worse for drivers and transit riders who will continue to be stuck in traffic.

Montgomery County is known for doing big things. 50 years ago, we created a visionary plan to direct growth into urban areas and preserve farmland. 40 years ago, we created one of the nation's largest subsidized housing programs. 30 years ago, we preserved almost 1/3 of the county as open space forever.

It's likely that each of those things encountered some opposition, but in the end they made this county a better place to live. BRT isn't a panacea, but it is right for the corridors that county planners have studied. And it could be the next big thing that Montgomery County's known for. That is, if we don't let a few naysayers dominate the conversation.

If the Planning Board votes to approve this plan, it'll go to the County Council later this month, with a public hearing to follow in the fall. Hopefully, they'll make sure that this bus doesn't stop prematurely.


Robert said...

They are still calling for BRT between downtown Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Glenmont on Georgia Avenue. The Metro Red Line under Georgia Avenue serves this corridor and could easily handle more passengers by running all trains from downtown DC through to Glenmont rather than turning half of them around at Silver Spring.

Why propose expensive and duplicative BRT? We already have the Red Line.

The same thing holds true on 355. Why duplicate the existing Red Line?

Dan Reed said...

As I've noted before many times, different forms of transit do different things.

The Red Line stops are about 2 miles apart, meaning it's best suited for long trips, while local buses often stop every couple of blocks, making it ideal for short trips (though people often take the bus for longer trips because they often don't have an alternative.)

BRT goes in the middle, with stops every 1/2 to 1 mile apart. It's not duplicating the Red Line, it's complimenting it.

I don't know about you, but I could see this helping people who live between Metro stations or too far away from one, or serving as an alternative when there are service issues on the Red Line, or giving people who live north of Glenmont a one-seat ride to Silver Spring.

Robert said...

It sure seems like an expensive duplication to me.

The local buses meet the needs of anyone wanting to get to a Metro station along Georgia Avenue, and BRT stops a half a mile to a mile apart. besides duplicating the local bus service, wouldn't serve a lot of people very well who live in the interior of neighborhoods -- their walk to get to a BRT station would be a lot farther than a quarter mile to half a mile.

Do we really need THREE types of transit service in that corridor?

As far as the one trip BRT ride to
Silver Spring for people north of Glenmont is concerned, that would be nice, but it seems like an expensive luxury we can't afford. Besides, what we really should do is extend the Red Line to Olney, not give those folks inherently slower BRT that duplicates the Red Line for half the trip.

Dan Reed said...

If we're going to talk about expensive luxuries: the Silver Line Metro extension costs $269 million A MILE to build. By comparison, Los Angeles built its entire 14-mile Orange Line BRT for $290 million.

As I said, BRT and Metro aren't interchangable (as you suggest), but if we're trying to move people quickly and affordably, especially in parts of the county where the density isn't there to support the investment in Metro (like Olney), BRT is a good way to go.

If you'd like to learn more about the BRT proposal, I strongly suggest you read up on it. Read the Parsons Brinckerhoff study, the Transit Task Force report, and the ITDP report, and look at some of the BRT systems being built around the country. I think they would answer a lot of your questions.

Lane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick said...

The idea that BRT in dedicated lanes is somehow taking lanes away from traffic on roads like 29 inside the beltway and Viers Mill is bogus. Bus traffic is such that the curb lanes don't function to carry cars now.

The right lane is something you briefly enter if there's no bus between you and the next traffic light. The back and forth probably slows traffic overall.

Woody Brosnan said...

Dan, it takes five to 8 minutes for a ride-on bus between 2nd and Seminary and the Silver Spring station. No one in my neighborhood is going to take another five minutes to hop on a BRT on Georgia Avenue.
Running a BRT down Georgia Avenue in a dedicated lane between Forest Glen and 16th would mean the elimination of businesses on one or both sides of Georgia and eliminate any chance for the kind of walkable neighborhood you are always touting.
Transit advocates need to focus our time and energy on funding the Purple Line. Then we can focus on BRT where it makes sense.

And how does BRT jive with Metro's plan for more express buses.

Dan Reed said...


BRT actually jives pretty well with Metro's priority corridors network plan, which looked at ways to provide faster, more reliable bus service. One of the best ways to do that is with dedicated lanes. And in fact, the plan explicitly calls out Route 29 as a corridor where they'd like to have a dedicated lane (between Sligo Creek Parkway and the Silver Spring Metro).

I'm disappointed with the SHA's current proposals for Georgia Avenue that involve tearing down buildings. That's not the way to make Montgomery Hills a better place. We need to find a way to accommodate pedestrians and transit on Georgia Avenue without widening the street, which means repurposing space that's currently only for cars.

Like I said to Robert, just because you personally don't see yourself using BRT doesn't mean it's not a good idea. It gives people another transportation option and can be done without widening the road if MCDOT and SHA were willing to take a lane from traffic. Some people may not find that to be the most palatable option, but it's actually the only one that exists, whether the space is used for transit or for sidewalks, a median, etc.

Lockwood_650 said...

I like the BTR Idea, just stop deleting comments because u feel is offensive... let people voice their opinions no matter what, stop censoring people!!!

Dan Reed said...


This blog has a commenting policy. If people can express their views in a polite and civil manner, they won't get their comments deleted. I don't think it's censorship to require people to act like adults.