Photo by San Joaquin RTD on Flickr.

Last week, the Montgomery County DOT released its final study on a future county-wide BRT system.  The system has the potential to improve transit options for many county residents. But four months after the study’s draft executive summary was released, it’s clear that expectations have already been lowered and that many questions remain.

As Dan Reed wrote when the summary draft was published, the plan identifed 16 potential routes, covering 150 miles and just as many stations. The study’s model predicted significant time savings over current transit options on each of the routes and in some cases even travel time savings over driving.

Very little has changed between the study’s draft summary and the now-finished product, but what has changed is definitely worth noting.  Revisions to the study team’s forecasting model resulted in significant reductions in predicted ridership numbers.

The range of expected daily boardings for the whole network has been revised to 165,600-207,000, down some 20% from the originally estimated 213,100-266,400 boardings.  This drop in predicted ridership ripples throughout the report, resulting in lengthened recommended headways, increased total operating and maintenance costs, and reduced farebox recovery ratios.

These revisions may not be all bad given the large number of transit projects that have suffered from inflated ridership estimates and too-conservative operating cost projections.

On the other hand, lower predicted ridership and higher costs may give notoriously road-focused MCDOT reason to whittle away at the plan as it moves ever so slowly to fruition.  After all, BRT’s broad spectrum of implementation levels and scalability can be both a blessing and a curse.

What’s also disappointing about the plan is its focus on traditional travel patterns of the county today. The model even assumed “unconstrained availability of parking” at three potential park-and-ride stations, underscoring the fact that this study is not really a change of approach for Montgomery County’s transit planning. Of the 16 potential routes, only 3 of them are true cross-county routes, while the rest move primarily north to south. 8 of the routes end at Metro stations.

The emphasis on access to Metro stations and importance of parking availability in the ridership models indicates a continued emphasis on commuter trips that start in a car, rather than in a transit-oriented development that supports all-hours trips that don’t require a car at all.

Most of all, though, the plan doesn’t come close to proposing true Bus Rapid Transit.

The system would use articulated, 60-foot, hybrid low floor “BRT Vehicles” with automatic vehicle locators and other technology. Interestingly these “BRT Vehicles” sound remarkably like the newest 60-foot hybrid buses with WMATA operates on its heaviest routes like the X2 and 71.

Only “major stations serving at least 500 daily boardings by the year 2040,” would get infrastructure upgrades beyond a typical bus stop, and even then, “stations” will primarily consist of an “extended shelter, benches,” and some additional aesthetic treatments.

First, for a well-designed BRT route, these treatments should be afforded to every stop. Consistent station treatment unifies a rapid transit system’s “premium transit service” feel. What if some metro stations only had 200 foot platforms?  Secondly, a true rapid transit service should not be serving any stops that don’t attract 500 people per day anyway.  If the density for this transit demand doesn’t exist, those stops should be omitted from the BRT line to begin with.

Finally, the infrastructure choices may prove problematic.  Where busways are recommended, which is only about two-thirds of the route length, the study proposes “guided busways” for a large portion of the infrastructure.  The study doesn’t offer more specific technology recommendations, but guided busways are relatively uncommon around the world, having never proved particularly beneficial for the additional investment they require.

Human Transit’s Jarret Walker wrote last week upon the opening of the world’s longest guided busway in Cambridgeshire, England:

“If this busway doesn’t turn up significant benefits in customer experience, it will probably be the last, or at least the last to be done with guide-wheels.  Adelaide’s pioneering O-Bahn is now 25 years old, so one hopes the state of the art has moved on.”

Guided busways have even been problematic in many cities.  After a few years of operation, Edinburgh determined to tear out its busway and replace it with light rail.  In Crawley, England, south of London, the Fastway system installed one-way guided busways in several places where previously had been poorly enforced bus lanes. 

The result: only the two bus routes that were officially part of the Fastway system and had guidewheels could use the guideways, leaving the other bus lines to fend for themselves in mixed traffic.  Even the Fastway routes have been sometimes stymied by this problem on the occasion that too many guided buses are out of service.

The primary benefit to guided busways is the fact that they allow designers to somewhat shrink the width of the required right of way.  In other words: they give transit-skeptical planners and elected officials one more way to save precious SOV space. 

Are the costs and headaches worth it? Doubtful, but we’ve already learned that Montgomery County will do practically anything to avoiding giving over space from cars to transit.  Most of the other guided bus systems across the globe use the technology because there literally is not enough space for full-width lanes and busways in their chosen right-of-way.

Montgomery County has proposed, for much of the system, to build one-way busways that can be used by buses traveling in the peak direction, leaving buses traveling in the opposite direction to compete in mixed traffic.  Does this mean that the busway will have station infrastructure on both sides of the guideway?  Presumably. Bus stops or stations would also then need to be placed along the outide of the main roadway in both directions as well, further duplicating infrastructure.

This could mean that roads with one lane, reversible busways would need four stops at each station location. In the morning, the busway would need a right-side platform for southbound buses, while the sidewalk on the northbound curb would need a platform as well. In the afternoon, the busway would need a right-side platform for northbound buses (opposite the morning stop), and the sidewalk on the southbound curb would need a platform.

The logistical headache of operating bi-directional one-lane guideways, combined with the infrastructure duplication of building up to four stations in each direction along the guideways, emphasizes MCDOT’s utter reluctance to actually reallocate space from single-occupancy vehicles to high-occupancy transit vehicles.  This reluctance may very well land the County’s nascent system among the ranks of America’s countless other faux-BRTs.

Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009.  Hailing from the home of the nation’s first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find.  Views expressed here are Erik’s alone.