Rockville Pike, the best spot for BRT. Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Rockville Pike is the best place to first launch a “gold standard” Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line, says a recent report. The report is less certain about other potential routes, but that shouldn’t stop the county from investing in top-quality BRT on key corridors, and being smart about how to phase in BRT and other bus improvements elsewhere.

Our region must invest in the next generation of transit to provide alternatives to sitting in traffic, to grow more sustainably, and to remain economically competitive. The demand to live in walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods has never been greater and will continue to grow. These are the motivations behind Montgomery County’s bold proposal for a network of BRT lines.

Linked with investment in the Purple Line, improvements to Metro service, and walkable, transit-oriented communities, the “RTV Network” proposed by the county’s Transit Task Force will be critically important as the county absorbs at least another 200,000 residents in the next two decades.

Yes, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP)‘s report, which Ben Ross wrote about Friday, takes a much more cautious approach for implementing BRT than did the Transit Task Force. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move forward.

Instead, it pushes the county to be smart about BRT. It’s best to methodically phase in each new transit route, adjusting each one as necessary to work in the neighborhoods it passes through while seeking to maximize high-quality, frequent service.

Start with gold-standard BRT on Rockville Pike

Some areas and corridors in the county have the potential right now for high quality BRT, and the county needs to move forward before it’s too late — before congestion drives away jobs and investment. As the ITDP report notes, the rapidly urbanizing Rockville Pike has the most immediate potential for what they have defined as “gold” standard BRT — with its own dedicated right-of-way, very frequent service, rapid boarding, and real-time information, among other features.

The county and the City of Rockville have recognized that the best way to absorb growth, to protect suburban neighborhoods and the Agricultural Reserve, to manage traffic, and to meet the demand for transit-neighborhoods is to reinvent Rockville Pike as a mixed-use, walkable transit corridor tied both to the Red Line Metro Stations and a new BRT line.

"Gold standard BRT” in this corridor, combined with new local street networks, is essential to make the new residential and commercial development succeed and to maximize transportation performance and livability. Montgomery County has the opportunity here to build what could be the nation’s best new BRT line.

The ITDP report underestimates BRT’s potential

The ITDP report took a unreasonably cautious approach toward BRT, recommending the county narrow down its BRT to just the Rockville Pike corridor. Much of this turns on the definitions: the task force advocated for “gold standard” BRT on all routes, and ITDP suggests gold standard is not appropriate for many of these. However, not every route has to truly meet the gold standard to make a substantial difference.

ITDP relies on current bus ridership numbers in Montgomery County, comparing them to other countries with far higher numbers of bus riders. But frequent, dedicated-lane service can indeed attract new riders and connect the county’s growing urban neighborhoods. Comparing Montgomery County to a metropolis of 7 million like Bogotá, as the ITDP report does, and comparing its multiple “gold” standard BRT routes to Montgomery County’s current, traditional bus ridership, simply isn’t apt.

Montgomery County is growing quickly, and something needs to be done. The Maryland Department of Planning estimates that the county will add over 200,000 new residents and 130,000 jobs between now and 2040. That will make it the only Maryland jurisdiction with more than a million people.

The county faces the challenge of how to grow without repeating past mistakes of simply building and widening more roads, which inevitably leads to more spread-out development and even more traffic.

These population projections might even be conservative, and may also assume far too many workers commuting long distances into the county. Study after study shows that more and more Americans want to live in walkable, transit-accessible communities and closer to jobs.

Transit ridership continues to increase, and it’s becoming clear that the younger generation will be much less tied to their cars and much more likely to take public transportation than before. Recognizing this, WMATA is expecting Metro ridership to double between 2001 and 2025.

So let’s be smart about implementing much-needed new transit in Montgomery. Fund Metro’s rehabilitation and service improvements, build the light rail Purple Line to connect the high-demand transit market between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and phase-in BRT routes. Start with the “gold” standard BRT for Rockville Pike. Then implement some of the Task Force’s Phase 1 routes that have the best potential, tailoring the design and service to the particular conditions and potential of each of those corridors.

How could BRT realistically work elsewhere in the county?

The Transit Task Force report included the following routes as part of its Phase 1 proposal:

  • Rockville Pike (MD-355) from Montgomery Village Avenue to the Bethesda Metro Station: 12.1 miles
  • Viers Mille Road (MD-586) from Rockville Metro and the county office buildings to Wheaton Metro and Georgia Ave: 6.7 miles
  • Colesville Road (US-29) from Burtonsville/MD-198 to Silver Spring Metro: 10.7 miles
  • Georgia Avenue (MD-97) from Olney to Viers Mill Road: 9.8 miles
  • ICC (MD-200) from I-270 to Colesville Road: 22.9 miles
  • Randolph Road from Rockville Pike to FDA Boulevard: 12.5 miles

Proposed BRT phase 1.

Viers Mill Road is served today by the Metrobus Q line, which has the highest ridership of any WMATA line in Maryland. Approximately 10,000 riders took the Q on the average weekday in 2009. With slightly lower ridership than Viers Mill Road, the Georgia Avenue corridor also has some of the highest ridership levels in Maryland, according to WMATA.

WMATA’s report also notes that the Q line route suffers from overcrowding and “frequent delays caused by traffic and other factors.” Traffic, lack of dedicated lanes, lack of bus priority at traffic signals, substandard bus stops, and other hurdles discourage “choice” riders (those who have the option of driving) from taking the bus. This is where BRT can make a real difference, even if it’s not 100 percent “gold” standard.

The Task Force recognized the importance of physically separating the transit vehicles from general traffic to the maximum extent possible. But the Task Force also noted that there are several different ways to do this and that any one route could potentially have multiple configurations, such as the preferred center running dedicated lanes, reversible lanes depending on the commute flows, curbside lanes, or, as a last resort, running in mixed traffic on occasion.

Even non-“gold standard” BRT can attract choice riders while significantly improving service for transit-dependent riders.  Modern BRT vehicles, signal priority, quick boarding, and robust route and arrival information and on-board wireless can provide faster and better service.

The alternative to BRT would be the fruitless, business-as-usual approach of widening roads and intersections just for cars, disrupting neighborhoods with controversial and wasteful new arterials like M-83, and still sitting in traffic without a viable option. BRT offers that viable option with the advantage of adding more vehicles and more frequent service year after year.

Frequent, high capacity bus and BRT service between Montgomery County’s growing mixed-use residential and employment centers and interconnecting the Purple Line and Red Line will allow Montgomery County to grow in an environmentally sustainable way, vastly expand transportation options, and compete for the next generation of workers and high-tech businesses.

Neighboring Fairfax County has reached this same conclusion. They are building the Silver Line, and planning for the Columbia Pike Streetcar and other dedicated lane bus or rail transit corridors like Route 1. Montgomery County should move forward with a bold transit vision while being smart about the implementation and committing to funding all three legs of the “three-legged transit stool:” Metro, the Purple Line and the BRT network.

Alex Posorske is the Managing Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Before joining CSG, he managed two top tier Congressional races, organized key constituencies in the 2008 presidential primaries, built grassroots operations in numerous regions throughout the country. Alex has a B.A. in Journalism from Webster University in St. Louis, Mo.

Stewart Schwartz is Executive Director and a founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which he built into the leading smart growth organization in the Washington, DC region, addressing the interconnected issues of land use, transportation, urban design, housing, and energy. A retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve service, he earned a BA and JD from the University of Virginia and an MA from Georgetown University.