From Mobility Lab
Buses traversing Montgomery County, Md.’s limited-stop Ride On ExtRa Route 101 have gotten fuller and fuller since they began operating in October 2017. The Bethesda-Gaithersburg route’s 12 percent ridership increase over the past year and a half was achieved despite competition from low gas prices and investor-subsidized ride hailing.
This contrasts strongly with national trends, as well as the county’s overall bus ridership numbers, which have fallen 11 percent during that time, according to internal Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) figures.
Route 101, though today just a weekday rush-hour-only service, could be the beginning of a bright future for mobility in Washington D.C.’s northern suburbs. Ride On is in the process of expanding fast, frequent transit service to reach more residents and businesses, with some new routes set to incorporate characteristics of bus rapid transit (BRT).
But at the same time, in response to county budget shortfalls, the county executive proposed reducing service on seven of the county’s busiest existing bus routes. While the Montgomery County Council quickly backed off some of the originally proposed cuts, three routes still face reductions.
MCDOT officials emphasized that none of the proposed cuts will directly affect Ride On’s ExtRa, Flash, or Flex services. However, any ridership losses resulting from the cuts could adversely affect transit’s overall role in Montgomery County mobility and create further challenges for Ride On in the future.
Even on wide suburban arterials, people ride transit that meets their needs
Al Roshdieh, Director of MCDOT, told me that he “honestly didn’t expect this kind of a result” from Ride On ExtRa.
But those results weren’t just luck. Rather, they were a product of the county’s people-oriented planning.
“In the past, it was more about . . . how fast you can get the cars through the intersection,” Roshdieh said, referring to the auto-centric level of service metrics often used to predict a project’s impact on traffic congestion. “[But now,] that is not my priority; my priority is how many people I can get through an intersection.”
Ride On ExtRa coasts down Rockville Pike, even though the arterial is one of the most crowded roads in the county during peak periods. Limited stops (only 13, instead of the 80 that local routes along the corridor serve), 10-minute headways, and transit signal priority have helped reduce travel times by 25 percent, compared to the bus routes that preceded the new service.
Though the corridor doesn’t have any dedicated bus lanes, the less-frequent stopping means buses can use center and left lanes for much of the route, helping them flow more smoothly with traffic and contributing to the shorter travel times. In addition, Wi-Fi coverage and USB charging ports help make people more productive on the buses.
According to MCDOT, the ExtRa service averages 2,000 riders a day, and total daily ridership on the corridor (including the Ride On buses that preceded ExtRa and continue to operate) is up 700, demonstrating that the improvements have both benefited existing riders (as I can attest) and attracted new ones. For example, Roshdieh told me that the MCDOT Director of Consumer Protection gave up his car commute soon after initially trying Ride On ExtRa.
Ride On survey numbers show that many ExtRa riders have the option to drive, but are choosing the bus instead. Some of these riders still do use their vehicles to access bus stops, resulting in increased usage of the main parking lot serving the route.
Marketing campaigns – such as a free trial period when Ride On ExtRa started, public service announcements, multiple appearances at community events, and social media outreach – have helped attract riders. Montgomery County also has a robust Transportation Demand Management program, which means that businesses and other developments might, for instance, provide employees and residents with subsidized or free bus passes and help publicize transit services.
With a hodge-podge of expansions and cuts on the table, will Montgomery County choose a people-oriented future?
In a sprawling, suburban area like Montgomery County, it can be hard to spur change. Despite Ride On ExtRa’s strong ridership, solo car trips remain the most common form of mobility in the area.
However, Roshdieh told me that he sees sustainable transportation as more than just something that’s good for the environment, emphasizing transit’s social and economic benefits.
As a result, officials see Ride On ExtRa as just the first part of much larger plans for Montgomery County that will make it far easier for families to live with fewer cars (or even no car) while moving safely and swiftly between multiple destinations. Accordingly, Ride On is taking numerous steps to give people more options to get around.
A pilot microtransit service, Ride On Flex, will begin this June, allowing people to call shared, flexible-route vans using a smartphone app. Though the service will only be available in two specific parts of the county at first, one of these areas – Rockville – is served by Ride On ExtRa. Roshdieh told me that the county plans to market the new vans as an option for first- and last-mile travel to and from ExtRa stops.
The county also is in the process of adding new routes – branded as Flash – that will benefit from not just the advantages that have helped speed up Ride On ExtRa, but also additional Bus Rapid Transit amenities such as dedicated bus lanes on some segments, upgraded stations, and all-door boarding.
Ground has already broken for the first Flash route, which will serve the Route 29 corridor. About a third of the corridor will have dedicated lanes, though in the future the county hopes to separate more of the route from cars.
While the route is not yet full-on BRT, Roshdieh estimates Flash service will be 35 percent faster than current buses. Also, MCDOT plans to charge the same, flat $2 fare for Flash, ExtRa, Flex vans, and other existing Ride On bus routes, helping integrate the various transit services it provides.
While such fare integration will benefit riders, it also demonstrates the extent to which a transit system’s various components complement each other – and, accordingly, the risk the aforementioned proposed service cuts on existing routes could pose to the ongoing improvements.
To accomplish their bold plans, county officials must not only invest in service expansions and infrastructure improvements, but also commit to providing and maintaining a convenient, county-wide transit system for the long term. If they do so, Montgomery County has an opportunity to become a national leader in car-free mobility, facilitating a more sustainable future and serving as a model for other suburban areas to follow.