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 mediaattention 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."
High 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.
Recommendations in the Plan are based on the threshold of 1,000 passengers per peak hour, slightly lower than a varying national standard of 1,200 passengers per peak hour. Forecast ridership for the BRT as a whole was less than the 1,000 pphpd mark, but planners combined those projections with forecast local bus ridership to find corridor segments where dedicated lanes would meet the threshold.
In many segments of the proposed corridors, including MD 355, the 2040 ridership projections far surpass the person-throughput of a single general purpose traffic lane, which planners say justifies giving preference to dedicated bus lanes. If nothing else, planners say the 14 BRT stations from the Rockville Metro station to the Friendship Heights Metro station would be an improvement over doing nothing.
That point was at the crux of the argument of many who testified last week in support of exclusive bus lanes.
The Plan cites a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments projection of a 30-percent population increase and 39-percent employment increase in the region by 2040.
"People will continue to come here and that’s a good thing, but forcing them to bring their cars isn’t," said Action Committee for Transit member Dan Reed. "This Plan isn’t about taking away from drivers, but putting those who ride transit on equal footing with them."
Anderson said AAA Mid Atlantic supports Bus Rapid Transit. But the organization with origins in 1902, when the goal was to expand a non-functioning roadway and highway system, is against the taking away of lanes for dedicated bus use.
"What happened to the idea of a democracy in transportation choices? That's what concerns us. Alternatives that you force people into really aren't alternatives. We should be looking for ways to better accomodate all users of our transportation systems," Anderson said.
He cited Metrorail as an example of how transit systems and car use can be used together successfully. Until Metro began providing mass amounts of parking at its stations, Anderson said the system was being underutilized.
"Today Metro is the largest provider of parking in the Washington Metropolitan area because people proved they would drive to Metro but they weren't willing to take shuttle buses to Metro," Anderson said. "We need to find the right combinations, not force people into things that aren't comfortable."
Supporters argue traffic conditions will only deteriorate if the county doesn't attempt a bold move, one that very well could leave some uncomfortable.
"This is an opportunity for the greatest 20th Century suburb in the United States to become the greatest 21st Century suburb in the United States," Bethesda resident Drew Morrison said during his public hearing testimony. "We made mistakes. A 21st Century suburb corrects those mistakes."
"People will ultimately take the means which best suits their needs, that is most affordable and that best delivers them to where they need to go," Anderson said. "The thing we need to remember is that people are rational."
Corridor map, Bus Rapid Transit vehicle via Montgomery County Planning Department