Why? To reach the Bus Rapid Transit stop.
A new study of Bus Rapid Transit options in Montgomery County has County officials scrambling to avoid egg on their faces. The officials who commissioned the new study (paid for by a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation) received the report in December, but the Washington Post broke the study story today.
To summarize: Bus Rapid Transit for the entire County doesn’t seem to make financial sense, because there isn’t enough demand to support it in most places, and the alternatives (driving yourself) are too easy. “The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a New York firm commissioned by the county, said the MD 355/Rockville Pike is the only corridor where demand for service and plans for new construction justify bus rapid transit. Redevelopment underway in the White Flint section of North Bethesda is expected to create 3,000 housing units to replace traditional shopping malls and parking lots over the next decade.”
Critics, however, are crying “fowl,” pointing out that this study, which relied, in part, on comparing Montgomery County to some megalopolises in Latin America, isn’t the final word. (We usually compare Montgomery County to similar areas near major metropolitan areas in North America, but putting all your eggs in one basket isn’t a good idea.) Sometimes you have to invest to generate demand. Remember “if you build it, they will come”?
In New Urbanism terms, people use cars because they have to go somewhere they can’t walk or take transit. So you build things close so people don’t have to drive; that’s the White Flint philosophy: you won’t drive because you don’t have to.
But you can’t entice people out of their cars if there isn’t an existing transit alternative. “Hey, we’ll build it soon if you don’t drive now” is another way of saying there isn’t enough current demand for transit. So you’d have to force people out of cars, through parking restrictions or something equally ineffective, which would just aggravate people without any commensurate benefit to the environment. Shades of “speed bumps” instead of more effective communication with drivers (as Friends of White Flint showed in its 2010 Annual Meeting).
Bottom line: how you interpret the study depends on your “chicken-and-egg” perspective (OK, I’ll stop the feathered metaphors now). Which comes first: the development pulling transit demand, or the transit demand driving development? There are good arguments on both sides.
The one place where BRT will make sense, and everyone seems to agree on that, is Rockville Pike – in White Flint. This area is already one of the biggest retail and economic drivers in the entire state of Maryland, and that will only increase as the new developments bring both work and people.
But Bus Rapid Transit, like almost everything in Montgomery County, is a hot political topic. With the political balance in the County shifting to the heavily-populated down- and East-County areas, an expensive proposal like this one has to be shown to benefit all parts of the County. In White Flint terms, this is because something to benefit just Rockville Pike is a non-starter politically, even if it’s the logical place to start. We found that sentiment time and again while promoting the White Flint Sector Plan. “Wait,” we would argue, “we’re going to generate BILLIONS in new tax revenue for the whole County, but you’re saying we can’t do it because it will be seen as a boost to a rich area?”
Fortunately, the MoCo powers-that-be understood investments that benefit everyone can be placed somewhere, shall we say, not as politically-neutral. And we got the Sector Plan approved so everyone, everywhere in the County, can benefit over time.
Let’s hope the same intelligent analysis is applied to the new BRT study. The fact that there’s not enough demand for BRT everywhere isn’t a good reason not to start somewhere.