Photo by Los Angeles Metro.

Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich believes that his proposed Bus Rapid Transit network is a key tool to deal with the huge amounts of traffic that the controversial Base Realignment and Closure plan (BRAC) will bring to military facilities in the county. Elrich cited two of his proposed BRT lines, from Olney and Germantown to downtown Bethesda, as key links from housing to BRAC jobs.

Councilmember Elrich clearly sees Bus Rapid Transit as a piece of our region’s future mobility infrastructure plans.  Back in December, he articulated a plan that would implement BRT in selected Montgomery County corridors.  While BRT has its own unique strengths and weaknesses and should never be used as a direct substitute for heavy rail, light rail, or streetcars, it can be a complimentary piece of the regional transportation system.

On a positive note, Elrich seems to understand that BRT is not BRT without its own dedicated right of way:

Elrich said although he had not had detailed discussions with Navy Med about the project, he thought the necessary 20 feet of right-of-way could be obtained along the east-side curb along Route 355 at Navy Med. ... The BRT lines would feature dedicated lanes in the median or curbside, real-time travel information for customers, and flexible routes, with six to eight minutes between stops at each station.

The biggest danger is for political pressure to convert the BRT late into first an HOV lane, then just another general traffic lane.  Any asphalt is inherently attractive to cars’ unquenchable desire for more asphalt.  Motorists, often through civic associations, will call their Councilmembers and lobby for any dedicated bus lane to be opened up for all vehicles.  This would then negate the entire point of BRT. The lines would become as slow as the Q2 or the 30s lines because of the car traffic. 

This happened with the Shirley Busway, in the median of I-395 in Virginia. The Shirley Busway began as a bus-only lane. Then it became a bus and HOV lane. Next, hybrid vehicles could use it too. Now, the lane is becoming a HOT lane. Our region is not the only one that has devolved dedicated bus lanes. The New York State DOT just coverted bus lanes to bus-and-HOV, slowing buses, on the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City (via The Overhead Wire).

Elrich is also touting “flexible routes” as a positive feature. However, flexibility is also a drawback of BRT and such a “feature” could doom a BRT system to failure. Developers hesitate to invest in transit-oriented, human-scale street grid development near BRT stations because of the possibility of a route change in the middle of the night. Transit is most convenient, efficient, and cost-effective when it connects and/or operates completely within walkable urban human-scale street gridded places. 

Convenient, efficient transit cannot coexist with a low-density car-dependent environment except as commuter rail or commuter bus. And those commuter services still need dense job centers at one end of their routes. No bus or train can go to every little subdivision and strip mall and be convenient enough to attract riders who also own automobiles.

Asked by The Gazette if the Olney and Germantown lines specifically would help move large numbers of BRAC employees, Elrich indicated that generally speaking the system accounted for connecting population centers with employment centers, and that these routes could move more new BRAC employees than the proposed Purple Line light rail project between New Carrollton and Bethesda. BRAC is expected to bring in about 2,500 new jobs to Bethesda.

Mr. Elrich doesn’t seem to understand the connection between transportation and land use.  His environmentally-friendly vision of creating a BRT should be applauded.  However, he is trying to do the impossible: build a mass transit system that is convenient for all residents of the miles and miles of car-dependent un-places in Montgomery County.  He is trying to envision a system that improves upon the status quo, rather than acknowledging that the land use status quo is the problem.  The fundamental characterics of a low-density car-dependent land use arrangement is inherently prohibitive to transit that is convenient enough to attract riders of choice from their cars.  When he talks about his BRT vision, he acknowledges that traffic is a problem and touts his vision as a tool to address it.  However, just like every other car-dependent place, the traffic is a symptom of an arrangement that requires its residents to drive for every basic life function.  Building a BRT system won’t change that.  However, enacting policies that provide incentives for human-scale street grid development around transit hubs will.  However, the problems associated with lack of development around bus stations would rear their head in such a scenario.

Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, however, noted that the general idea for BRT is not new, and that the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority was already looking into similar ideas. She also mentioned cost figures and ridership numbers as potential problems. Floreen is chairwoman of the county’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee.

While transit advocates often disagree with Councilmember Floreen about transportation issues, she has a valid point in this case.  Despite the fact that the separate jurisdictions in our region have their own county and city councils, we have all prospered together with regional transit cooperation.  The Metro has been an unquestionable success in our region for a variety of reasons, one of which being the improved access to jobs and amenities across jurisdictions.  Because of our positive experience with regional transportation, it would be a better idea to plan a complementary BRT system on a regional scale , while focusing development on heavy rail Red Line stations and on future light rail Purple Line Stations.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.