Bus Rapid Transit systems use a variety of features to provide a faster ride, the most important of which is dedicated lanes. But as Montgomery County plans its own BRT network, they could be the first thing to go.
Last week, the Montgomery County Planning Board began discussing the Planning Department’s draft proposal for a 10-line, 79-mile countywide BRT network. This isn’t the first scheme for BRT, which has been studied for 5 years. However, if approved, it would be incorporated into the county’s Master Plan of Highways and Transitways, a long-term guide to how our streets and highways are designed.
Like existing Bus Rapid Transit lines in Los Angeles and Cleveland, Montgomery’s BRT network would employ several features to give buses the speed and reliability of a train, like from widely-spaced stations to ticket machines that allow riders to pay before boarding and sensors that turn stoplights green as buses approach.
In many parts of the county, buses would also run in their own dedicated lanes. This is arguably the most important feature of BRT; like rail, it gives riders confidence in where the bus is going and that it’ll continue to be there tomorrow. Dedicated lanes for transit are often the only way that anyone, including drivers, can get through a congested corridor.
Of course, some streets have enough room that bus lanes can be added through widening, but in many areas, such as Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda, giving lanes to buses means taking them away from cars. And that has some county officials nervous. At a recent Planning Board worksession on BRT, Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier said the BRT plan “screams that we don’t care what happens to drivers.” She’s not alone: last year, County Councilmember Nancy Floreen insisted that people “will drive no matter what.”
As a result, much of the Planning Department’s draft does not give buses their own lanes in much of the county, including on Route 355. They’ve broken the BRT plan into two phases, only the first of which would become part of the county’s master plan and eligible for funding. The BRT corridor along Route 355 between Twinbrook and Germantown is included in Phase 2, meaning it may not even get dedicated lanes, while political opposition might kill the proposed dedicated lanes along Route 355 between Friendship Heights and Twinbrook, which would require taking lanes from cars.
Everyone knows that traffic is bad in Montgomery County, but it’s only going to get worse as the county continues to grow. It’s geometrically impossible to move all of the cars through certain streets at rush hour now, let alone in the future. While some might argue that the county’s too spread out for effective transit, there are many places, particularly around interchanges or in areas with poor street connections, where all of the traffic demand gets forced onto one street, forming a chokepoint. That’s where transit shines.
For instance, take the intersection of Rockville Pike and Cedar Lane in Bethesda, which is one of the county’s most congested. It’s adjacent to the Beltway and thousands of jobs at NIH and the newly relocated Walter Reed Medical Center, meaning that during morning rush hour, lots of drivers will be pouring onto either the Beltway on-ramps or the handful of entrances to NIH or Walter Reed.
Those cars will back up onto Rockville Pike, effectively closing off one or more lanes to anyone who’s simply passing through, who in turn back up the remaining open lanes. Transit planner Jarrett Walker says that chokepoints like this situation are actually where transit has a huge advantage by giving people a way out of congestion:
“Why do you . . . effectively shut down the street, just for the purpose of storing waiting cars? Why don’t you set aside a through lane for transit (and perhaps also for taxis, HOVs, and certainly for emergency vehicles) so that efficient use of the street can continue even as the cars pile up? What would be the effect on traffic? Simple: the pile of stored cars would be narrower and longer. But meanwhile, people could get where they were going, and emergency vehicles could get through to save lives and property.”
Note that Walker refers to moving people, not cars. While some drivers may feel that transit doesn’t benefit them, it can help other people, who in turn choose not to drive, reducing congestion. There are already several neighborhoods along Route 355 and throughout the county where a majority of residents walk, bike or take transit to work.
The choice is simple: force everyone to sit in traffic, or give transit priority along congested corridors and chokepoints and offer people a fast, reliable way to their destination. It’s not a solution for every trip or every street in Montgomery County, but in the right places, the benefits are huge for everyone.