Over the last 50 years, Montgomery County’s Ride On bus system has turned itself into the region’s second busiest bus network, only behind Metrobus in terms of ridership. Prior to the pandemic, Ride On carried 68,000 people over 81 routes every day, about 18% of regional bus ridership; currently, ridership is at 60,000 daily according to the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT). And while Ride On has grown dramatically over the past half-century, much of its routing has remained untouched.
But that is about to change. MCDOT is doing a full-scale reimagining of Ride On. Community outreach has revealed a need for more frequent and reliable service, better cross-county connections, and more flexible service. Below, we outline what those changes could be and how they may impact your ride.
Public outreach helps inform new bus network
It’s been nearly 50 years since Ride On Bus first began serving Montgomery County and, although it’s grown immensely from two routes, it’s never been rethought as a comprehensive network. Asked some four years ago by the new director, Chris Conklin, “when was the last time you did a full network review, the honest answer was probably never,” said Phil Mclaughlin, Chief, Operations & Central, Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT). Now, the county is undertaking a full study with Ride On Reimagined,which has sought wide community input to better serve the county’s residents. A draft version of the new routes and policies is available.
While the humble bus is a large part of the solution to climate change and traffic congestion, it’s difficult to draw people on. Ride On Reimagined’s commuter survey revealed the dominance of automobiles, “with drivers seldom even aware of transit benefits,” the project website explains. However, an improved bus network just might do the trick, especially when linked to a new rapid bus system, the Purple Line, Metrorail, and MARC trains.
Ride On Reimagined is coinciding with the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) Better Bus Network Redesign project, a comprehensive regional network redesign. The timing was lucky happenstance, explained Mclaughlin and the two projects are coordinating.
A high-functioning bus network is crucial to those who can’t afford a car, or otherwise can’t drive, especially since “Over 27 percent of the county makes less than $20,000 a year,” explains the project website. And for meeting climate goals, and mitigating traffic congestion, electric cars aren’t enough. Ride On Reimagined, in conjunction with other county efforts to improve walkability and transit, is critical to building a sustainable future, “so that people who want to get from place to place can do so in way that has a smaller carbon footprint and accounts for … environmental justice and racial justice” said Amy Frieder, President of the Action Committee for Transit (ACT), a county-wide activist group.
A network emerges
The draft network concept map, if implemented, will accomplish at least three things. First, it will add cross-county routes and second, it will increase frequency and reliability of service, two of the biggest factors making bus service desirable. Third, it will add numerous on-demand zones, providing a kind of group Uber or Lyft.
One frequent request from the outreach was for “more cross-county connections, direct connectivity from south county to up county. So we took a stab at creating some new routes,” said Deanna Archey, Senior Planner, MCDOT. “And this is something that we’ve been working with WMATA on.” Carrie Kisicki, Montgomery Advocacy Manager, at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, mentioned two important routes in the draft plan, 170a from Bethesda to Germantown, and 102a from Silver Spring to Germantown, with connections to White Oak and Aspen Hill. “The Express routes will be run 7 days a week at high enough frequencies to provide truly useful upcounty-downcounty connections,” she explained, providing service to areas with great need.
Increased frequency of service is another crucial recommendation. As the project website explains, “When given the choice, most prefer shorter waits between buses more than they want shorter walks to the bus stop.” The plan currently calls for 15 to 30 minute headways for local service on weekdays and 30 minute or better headways on weekends, with service continuing till at least 11 PM. Express and other key routes would have more frequent service. However, Kisicki questioned the maximum recommended headways of 30 minutes on weeknights and weekends for local routes, which she said is “not going to make it a usable service for everyone” and is too much of a wait if one misses, say, a late-night bus.
Ride On Reimagined is happening in conjunction with two major transit initiatives in Montgomery County: the Purple Line light rail, which extends into Prince George’s County, and Flash, a new bus rapid transit (BRT) network. Alongside existing Metrorail and MARC service, these will form a robust network of arteries connecting major parts of the county swiftly and easily. It might be best to think of these as various parts as one system, linking diverse and often sprawling neighborhoods to major job, business, and residential hubs and into Washington, DC itself.
The long-delayed Purple Line is projected to begin operating in 2027, linking the Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton Metro stations and points in between. Frieder stressed the importance of connectivity between the buses and the Purple Line and was pleased that the plan includes ample future Purple Line stops.
While Flash BRT only has one line currently operating, on route 29, construction on the first phase of a major new line on route 355 is projected to conclude in 2028, with a line on Veirs Mill opening in 2027. Other lines await various stages of engineering and funding. Ride On will then be a feeder from local neighborhoods into the BRT.
While the county awaits a full BRT network, Ride On extRa express bus service could be used to speed riders along. With direct routes, fewer stops, and transit signal priority, these routes provide a boost in service. Currently, only the 101 does this on route 355, with approximately 1200 riders a day according to MCDOT; however, Archey noted that new Ride On extRa routes “might come ahead, as a precursor to BRT.” Kisicki mentioned additional express service as an important goal. For instance, the first phase of the Route 355 BRT will not serve Clarksburg in northern Montgomery County, long promised transit service.
Perhaps the most surprising recommendation of Ride On Reimagined is the expansion of Flex service, largely due to the volume of community excitement. “There was an overwhelming level of support for the demand response service,” said Mclaughlin. Frieder lauded the possibilities of micro transit: “I would hope if that is implemented that that would bring more people who aren’t using Ride On as much.” Currently, 17 Flex zones are envisioned. For those individuals lacking smart phone access, a call-in number will be provided to reserve the bus, explained Mclaughlin.
Yet Kisicki is concerned that individuals enthusiastic about Flex were seduced by the lure of calling a bus where and when it’s desired without being aware of the cost to the county. It’s up to local government to take responsibility for fiscal issues that individuals may not be aware of, she said. Flex bus might be most valuable, Kisicki explained, in sprawling areas with poor walkability, such as up county and east county. However, fixed bus is preferable where ridership is high and access is relatively easy.
Reaching out to the community
The draft concept network occurred after extensive community outreach. “We had focus groups, we did surveys early on to get public input, we actually had two sets of meetings with the focus groups,” said Archey. “We wanted the community to be involved throughout the process. So what you see is a combination of all of the feedback that we’ve received from our public outreach.” She added that “we’ll take all of those comments into consideration as we refine what will be our final plan.”
Traditional outreach has largely drawn in affluent people with time and access rather than the daily bus riders, often low-income, who most depend on the system. To mitigate this, MCDOT held a series of pop-up events early in the process and then a second series at eight major Metro hubs around the county in October. I attended one at Rockville station and the MCDOT officials were friendly and approachable, offering information about the program, how to access it online, and major routes. Kisicki also praised the officials at these events.
Still, Kisicki noted that Metro’s Better Bus initiative had much more extensive engagement. In addition, she argued that the period for feedback, one month, has been too short for a major system change that will affect people decades into the future and is crucial for meeting climate-change goals. Indeed, the Coalition for Smarter Growth and five other advocacy groups have sent a letter asking MCDOT and the county for additional ridealongs and engagement, signage in multiple languages on buses and at stops, and an additional month of feedback. In response, MCDOT has added an additional virtual meeting, in conjunction with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and extended the comment period until November 15.
The biggest hurdle is yet to come
Of course, all the recommendations in the world are useless without money. Financing is “huge,” said Mclaughlin. “That’s going to be last phase of this study”; currently MCDOT is “too early in the study for cost estimates.” While it’s possible that improved efficiencies and increased boardings could save some money, other aspects of the plan, such as expanded Flex zones and improved bus stops and lighting, will likely require additional funding. Should this last hurdle be overcome, the timeline is some 5 to 7 years for implementing Ride On Reimagined, slightly faster than the next phase of the BRT network.
Kisicki was hopeful, saying that county officials are making buses a priority and noting that they are key to meeting climate goals. Meanwhile, local activists are mobilizing. “I can assure you that there will be a push from ACT for funding” said Frieder. She added that Ride On Reimagined builds on a plethora of actions from the county designed to create a more walkable, bike-friendly, transit-oriented Montgomery County: “they have been supportive of the Safe Streets Act, and we’re excited about implementation of the pedestrian master plan. So we are seeing support from the county council.”
Looking to engage? Register for the virtual open house on November 8 and provide comments for Ride On Reimagined by November 15 by emailing Rideon.email@example.com