"Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich thinks he might have found a way to let the suburbs grow without putting more cars on the roads: Build a rapid bus system that can speed past traffic.
Rapid buses, sleek vehicles that look like trams or light-rail cars, run on alternative fuels and can include comfortable seating, WiFi, multiple doors and cashless fares. They operate in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Pittsburgh, among other cities. They are planned for a dozen other jurisdictions, including New York, Atlanta, Albany, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn. Rapid buses are used in Australia, China, England, France and South America.
In the next decade, thousands more people are expected to move into Montgomery, pushing the county's population to more than 1 million. Despite expected increases in housing density that will make parts of the county look like small cities, there is little urban-style infrastructure, such as sidewalks or closely spaced Metro stops. Many residents get in their cars for the shortest of trips.
A rapid bus system may be the cheapest and quickest way to add seats for new riders, said Lurae Stuart, a bus expert at the American Public Transportation Association. "It is flexible, too. You can do something very low-cost and then move up the scale."
Rapid buses can run on paved medians, or special bus guideways, without competing with car traffic. The buses often are longer and more luxurious than standard Metrobuses. They use magnetized fare card systems and often have station stops that look like rail stops.
"It is what a real transit system in a real city would do," Elrich said.
Cost is always a concern, but Metro senior planner Jim Hughes said that over time, faster bus systems could boost revenue and increase efficiency. Metro officials want to add about 20 express bus routes in the next seven years across the region to the four it has. In Montgomery, possible routes are Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue."