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Ditching Cars For Bus Rapid Transit A Tough Sell

By Aaron Kraut

Tuesday - 5/21/2013, 2:15pm  ET

View of Friday afternoon rush hour traffic on Rockville Pike near NIH and Walter Reed, one of Bethesda's worst chokeholds and potential site of dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes

The rational choice was obvious.

A group of Italian researchers gave participants in an experiment two scenarios: Take the metro for a fixed cost or take the car for an uncertain cost determined by construction delays, traffic congestion or weather. Take a bus, with costs determined by a different combination of chance and traffic congestion, or take the car with the same uncertain costs present in the metro scenario.

The researchers gave participants feedback on the actual travel times of both modes in each scenario. The more participants chose cars, the more congestion would be factored into the travel cost.

Still, they chose cars over metro and bus by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, despite a clear demonstration that the average cost of a car trip would be almost 50 percent more.

The study, published earlier this year and highlighted by The Atlantic Cities, demonstrates a concept Montgomery County planners are grappling with as they contemplate a Bus Rapid Transit system that would take away a general traffic lane in each direction of Rockville Pike/MD 355 and dedicate lanes inside the Beltway exclusively to a bus transitway.

The study shows people prefer their cars and are inclined to stick with them even when given a mass transit option that is, in psychological terms, more rational.

“BRT does not have the data to support ridership. It turns out the forecasting model is simply that we think people will ride a fast bus,” said Bethesda resident Robert Dyer, who got a decent amount of media attention last week after his testimony deriding the BRT proposal at a Planning Board public hearing. “This is really junk science.”

Crucial details of the proposed 79-mile, 10-corridor Bus Rapid Transit network remain to be planned. As the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan heads to the Planning Board for deliberation and a recommendation slated for June, critics question whether BRT will be convenient enough to entice drivers out of their vehicles.

It’s a hard sell to make.

“We have the worst congestion in the United States. To suggest now that we’re going to have people just flocking to Bus Rapid Transit and therefore you won’t have as many cars makes one wonder if they’re smoking something funny,” AAA Mid Atlantic spokesperson Lon Anderson said. “Because the history clearly demonstrates that yes, you may stop the rate of growth of vehicle miles traveled, but vehicle miles traveled will continue to grow as the population grows.”

Proposal for the South 355 Bus Rapid Transit corridor, via County Planning DepartmentHigh above the fray, at least on days with clear weather, is Rich Bettinger. As a senior traffic supervisor for Montgomery County Police in the 80′s, Bettinger helped create the county’s Traffic Plane program. After he retired, he continued piloting the plane as a contractor.

Bettinger and a partner take off from the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg most morning and afternoon rush hours to survey traffic from above. They communicate bad traffic congestion to the county’s transportation management headquarters, where staff can adjust the timing of lights to alleviate jams or help drivers navigate accidents. Bettinger is never much more than five or six minutes away from any point above Montgomery County.

He’s unsure about the viability of an exclusive bus lane on some of the county’s most heavily congested roads.

“It’s sort of like robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

A few moments later, after talking about ways it could play out, the guy who looks at traffic jams for a salary said, “I think it’s a good idea. They have to try something.”

The Planning Board and the County Council must make that difficult determination. Will enough people leave their cars and take the bus to compensate for the closure of a lane of mixed traffic?

Daily ridership projections by 2040 show between 44,000 and 49,000 riders for a southbound MD 355 system and between 22,000 and 34,000 riders for a northbound MD 355 system, clearly making the White Flint, Bethesda and Chevy Chase section of MD 355 the most traveled of the 10 proposed BRT corridors.

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