We Need Better Buses
Montgomery County takes pride in one of the country's finest suburban bus networks. Good bus and rail transit, coupled with planning that encourages development around Metro stations, is why our traffic problems don't match the horrific congestion of Fairfax County. And bus service boosts the local economy, alleviating the labor shortages that (during better economic times) plagued employers in the allegedly business-friendly Virginia suburbs.
But despite the heavy investments the county has made, our bus system still falls far short of meeting transportation needs. Buses move slowly, stuck in the county's gridlocked traffic. Waits between buses are too long; clear schedules and maps are rarely posted at bus stops; and riders are confused when different providers serve the same route.
Increasing the total amount of bus service is essential, but if new funding is used just to add more routes like those we already have, these weaknesses will limit growth in ridership. While buses cannot adequately substitute for rail on high-volume corridors like the future Purple Line, the concepts of “bus rapid transit” can be used to upgrade bus service on other routes. Delays due to passenger boarding and traffic jams can be eliminated by making bus stops more like rail stations and giving buses their own lanes on busy roads.
What Needs To Be Done?
Bus Rapid Transit
Studies by Montgomery County's rapid transit task force and the Planning Board staff have shown that better bus service is possible using the concepts of bus rapid transit. These documents point to three clear take-home messages:
- The only way to create an effective, affordable rapid bus network is to use existing roadway lanes more efficiently by reserving them for bus-only traffic.
- BRT cannot succeed without also building the light rail Purple Line as a high-capacity east-west connection inside the Beltway.
- A BRT network must be built in phases.
But things have not gone as well as hoped. The plan sent by the Planning Board to the County Council in July is not acceptable in its current form because it does not offer people a good alternative to sitting in traffic and, in some important respects, will even make it harder to create bus lanes. We believe the Council should move in a more positive direction.
ACT recommends an immediate trial run of BRT by dedicating existing lanes for buses on a major bus corridor with heavy traffic (such as Veirs Mill Road, US 29 in Four Corners, New Hampshire Avenue in Takoma Park, or Georgia Avenue near the Beltway). At the same time, the council should return the proposed plan to the Planning Board with the following instructions:
- Eliminate the concept that creation of bus lanes requires “acceptable” traffic conditions. The idea behind BRT is exactly the opposite — it's when roads are congested that dedicated bus lanes ensure that people will have an alternative to sitting in traffic.
- Repurpose more lanes as bus lanes and eliminate reversible median lanes.
- Develop a functional master plan amendment for a third MARC track.
Priority Corridors Initiative
As a first step towards the BRT network, ACT calls for full implementation of Metro's Priority Corridor Initiative on the county's most heavily traveled bus corridors. This program speeds buses by relocating stops, extending green lights to let buses through, and designating bus-only lanes on a few short sections of roadway. The initiative has significantly improved bus service in the District of Columbia, but the Montgomery County Dept. of Transportation refuses to allow any modification of existing roadways that would cause buses to move faster than cars.
In December 2008, ACT wrote to County Executive Leggett and asked him to take action at ten locations where Montgomery County could institute bus priorities at no cost and minimal inconvenience to drivers. After a long delay, the county sent this response. Some problems will be fixed, but the county Dept. of Transportation remains unwilling to change its policies that give highest priority to the movement of single-occupant automobiles.
Taking a first step toward bus rapid transit with the Priority Corridor Initiative, which costs the county nothing, will give commuters a chance to see the benefits of bus priorities right away. Then we will be in a much better position to decide on the large investment that a full BRT network will require.
Designating a few bus lanes now will also enable transportation engineers to work out the bugs that are inevitable when roadways are redesigned. Putting high-speed bus lanes in the center of roadways, which the task force recommends for the portions of the county outside the Beltway, requires limits on left turns and other changes in highway operations. Residential streets in these areas, unlike most places where BRT has been implemented, are not laid out in a densely connected grid, and only after some trial and error will we understand how to fit bus lanes in without excessive inconvenience to autos and pedestrians.
More Information at Bus Stops
Clear, accurate information about schedules and routes is needed by current bus riders - and it is essential if we are to attract more riders. Large investments are being made in electronic displays at a few stops, but meanwhile most bus stops in Montgomery County now have no timetable at all, and where information is posted, it is often inadequate. Metro and Ride-On need to make a substantial investment of funds and management attention in the unglamorous but very important area of posting timetables at stops.