High-ridership BRT in Bogota. Image from Project for Public Spaces.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) could contribute much to Montgomery County, says a team of BRT experts hired by the county, but the consultants caution that it’s essential to start off on the right foot.

Their report, which the Examiner uncovered last weekend, recommends upgrading existing bus service as the best way to expand transit in most of the county. In some places, the county can add some BRT features now with the aim of eventually creating a fully “BRT” line.  Elsewhere, speeding up express commuter buses or adding more regular buses could work better.

The county consultants warn, however, that a failed BRT project could boomerang.  At worst, their report hints, it might turn into just more lanes for cars, worsening traffic jams instead of boosting transit.

BRT is not a one-size-fits-all solution

The Examiner obtained a copy of an interim report from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, an organization known for its wide experience with and support for Bus Rapid Transit.  ITDP has defined a set of criteria that make a BRT route “gold,” “silver,” and so on. Some US projects that use the term “bus rapid transit,” like Boston’s Silver Line, are not considered BRT at all by ITDP because they fall short of its minimum standards.

The consultants began with the plan a county task force created earlier this year, calling for 160 miles of Bus Rapid Transit.  (The task force used the term “Rapid Transit Vehicles” to avoid the “bus” word.)  ITDP concluded that the county is more likely to succeed if it scales back its ambitions.

The task force recommended creating BRT routes even where predicted ridership is low, saying that the lines could transform existing residents’ commute patterns.  ITDP disagrees, saying that the existing base of bus ridership “will continue to make up the majority of ridership for many years after system opening.”

Peak-hour ridership on existing BRT systems range from 45,000 boardings in Bogota, Colombia, to 1,700 in Rouen, France.  Montgomery’s 4 most-traveled bus corridors draw between 200 and 800 riders in the peak hour.

Building BRT lines without the ridership to support them, the ITDP warns, could do more harm than good.  The high cost of running near-empty buses could undermine public support for all transit.

Beyond that, the consultants say, many corridors have features that make them unsuitable for BRT.  On US 29, the busiest, the bulk of riders are on express buses traveling nonstop from Burtonsville and Howard County.  Dedicated bus lanes for the commuter buses would make more sense there than classic BRT, which has a stop every mile or two. Other corridors only see heavy use on short segments, and expensive upgrades of the entire route could go to waste.

ITDP does see a future for “gold-standard” BRT in the urbanizing Rockville Pike corridor. Between White Flint, Twinbrook, and Rockville, thousands of new housing units, offices, and retail spaces will be coming online, transforming the landscape in the coming decades.

Better bus service is essential for a transformed Montgomery County

Bus service is the best transit mode for most sections of the county.  While the corridors along the two Red Line branches and the future Purple Line need high-capacity rail service, few other places are dense enough to justify laying tracks.  Elsewhere, buses are the clear choice.

For example, the Veirs Mill Road portion of the BRT proposal has service from the Q Metrobus line, which has the highest ridership of any WMATA line in Maryland (despite the fact that the route is plagued by overcrowding and, WMATA writes, “frequent delays caused by traffic and other factors”).  The New Hampshire Avenue corridor, too, has heavy ridership and frequent traffic jams.  Obviously there is potential here and elsewhere for greatly enhanced rapid bus service.

Transit advocates have long been divided on BRT. Will “BRT creep” just water down a project until it’s not very transformative? How much will a better bus really boost ridership? Should transit anticipate future growth or only come after there is development? ITDP weighs in forcefully on some of these healthy debates.

At the moment, the county is still in the early stages of planning for this program, and it’s too early to limit future options.  No bus improvement should be ruled out of bounds in advance.  “Gold standard” BRT, whether or not it makes sense in any corridor now, gives planners a standard to determine whether every feasible upgrade has been pursued.  And in the future, a denser, more urban county will need higher levels of transit service than ridership can justify today.

Could BRT actually end up growing car traffic and not transit?

It’s important to guard against any BRT proposal becoming a trojan horse for the automobile lobby.  An empty bus lane, the ITDP points out, “will be distasteful to the car drivers” stuck in traffic alongside it.  The drivers will push hard to get their cars into the empty lanes.

The Montgomery plan tries to avoid this by putting BRT in narrower median transitways, possibly also with grass tracks. But there is reason to worry that the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) would seize any opportunity to turn the project into infrastructure that can ultimately become a regular car lane.

Edgar Gonzalez, the department’s number two, urged the county planning board to reserve wider rights of way on all the highways where BRT is under consideration.  Such a step would open up space to widen roads in the future. It would also prevent redeveloping strip malls with pedestrian-oriented stores that front on the sidewalk.  To avoid these outcomes — and to ensure that transit upgrades are affordable — the place for bus lanes is on existing roadways in high-ridership corridors.

Start improving buses today while planning for the long term

ITDP suggests starting by building on existing bus service.  They recommend commuter bus lanes on Route 29 as an example, and will follow up with more specifics in a future report.

That approach has a lot in common with WMATA’s Priority Corridors Initiative for buses — something the report oddly does not mention. 

MCDOT has resisted implementing priority corridors, refusing to prioritize any bus movements over car travel anywhere in the county.  They should reverse this policy without further delay. WMATA has already done legwork on Veirs Mill Road, New Hampshire Avenue, and other corridors, giving the county an opportunity to start moving toward BRT without waiting for another consultant report.

Bus riders want service that is frequent, fast, and convenient.  Whether it’s called BRT or just a bus makes little difference.  Planning for “gold standard” BRT, even when it turns out not to be the right answer, offers substantial benefits.  But there’s no reason to hold off improving buses in other ways today at the same time.  The worst possible outcome would be for debates over BRT to get in the way of better buses.