Montgomery BRT supporters at a hearing. Photo by Aimee Custis.

A new poll finds that a large majority of Montgomery County voters support more transit, including a proposed Bus Rapid Transit network. It may seem surprising, but it reflects overall trends favoring better transit.

In January, the Coalition for Smarter Growth commissioned polling firm Mason-Dixon to survey voters’ attitudes towards the 81-mile, 10-line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal, which the county approved last November and is now studying specific corridors. In a historically suburban county that is urbanizing quickly, debates over better transit have been contentious, and we wanted to understand where people really stood.

Out of 400 Montgomery County voters that Mason-Dixon surveyed by phone, 71% support the BRT plan and 22% oppose it after hearing common arguments from naysayers and supporters alike. Support is fairly uniform across age groups and race, though is much higher amongst Democrats (76%) than Republicans (57%), and amongst women (77%).

Voters agree that BRT could reduce traffic, but unsure about taking lanes from cars

While contentious arguments over transit projects often dominate the public debate, the reality is that a solid majority favors it. But they’re not always present at public hearings or community meetings, perhaps in part because few people are aware of Mont­gom­ery’s BRT plans to begin with: just 31% knew about the plan at the time of the poll.

Poll respondents were read a series of statements that reflect the main arguments for and against building a BRT system. 80% of voters agreed with statements that BRT was the most affordable option compared to other modes of transit. They also strongly agreed that BRT could reduce traffic by moving more commuters through congested corridors (76%), and that BRT supports the right kind of development by supporting walkable communities (78%).

Meanwhile, respondents disagreed with nearly all of the negative arguments about BRT. Just 26% agreed with the statement that BRT will “ruin the character” of existing neighborhoods, as some opponents say. But voters were split over whether repurposing general traffic lanes for buses would make automobile traffic worse, with 50% believing they would.

That may seem intuitive, but dozens of examples from around the country and around the world show that repurposing street space for transit and other modes typically has no impact on traffic as commuters shift modes or alter their routes. It may take a pilot or new local examples like Alexandria’s BRT, which will open this summer and include repurposed lanes, for people to see for themselves how BRT can work.

Regional and national trends favor transit

A solid majority of Montgomery residents believe that transit investments, not new highways, are the right way to move forward, with 63% of voters agreeing. Washington Post polling data suggests public opinion in the region has been shifting on this question over the past few decades. In 1998, 51% of respondents to their survey supported investing in transit over roads, but in 2010 and 2013, approximately 60% did.

Those opinions are in line with a national survey of attitudes about transit RCLCO conducted in 2011. It found that 50% of Americans said better transit would improve traffic, and that a majority of people want to live in walkable, transit-served communities.

So are government investments reflecting the public’s growing interest in transit? While Montgomery’s latest transportation priority letter represents a major shift in the right direction, there are still many expensive road widenings and interchanges on the books in Montgomery and around the region.

With public opinion shifting, people driving less, and climate change on the rise, the time is now to shift our spending priorities to transit and other sustainable travel options.

Kelly Blynn is a former DC resident and an advocate for sustainable transportation and equitable development. She is now a graduate student in the Masters in City Planning program at MIT and a co-founding member of the pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC.