Last week, nine Montgomery County elected officials put down their car keys and picked up bus passes, drawing attention to the issues faced by local commuters on a daily basis.

We talk to one Montgomery County Council member about his experience going carless and explore alternative methods of transportation and their use in the area.

Plus, we check in with a reporter and an activist about how people make their way around the region and how public transportation could be improved.

Produced by Kayla Hewitt

Guests

  • Hans Riemer Member, Montgomery County Council (D-At Large); @hansriemer
  • Stewart Schwartz Executive Director, Coalition for Smarter Growth; @csgstewart
  • Luz Lazo Transportation reporter, Washington Post; @luzcita

Transcript

  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Do you commute by car, but nevertheless believe in public transit? A recent poll by the Washington Post in George Mason Shaw School of Policy and Government revealed that only 37 percent of people in the region use public transportation in their daily commute. Last week, nine Montgomery County elected officials put public transit to the test, abandoning their daily car routines and getting onboard local buses, trains and scooters. So, joining us to discuss that is Hans Riemer. He's an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council. Hans, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:33

    HANS RIEMERThank you. Glad to be here.

  • 12:32:33

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Luz Lazo. She's a transportation reporter at the Washington Post. Luz, good to see you again.

  • 12:32:40

    LUZ LAZOGood to see you. Thanks.

  • 12:32:41

    NNAMDIStewart Schwartz is the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Stewart, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:46

    STEWART SCHWARTZThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:32:47

    NNAMDIWe'd love to have you join the conversation. Give us a call. What's your daily commute like? Do you drive or take public transportation? What options are available to you? Give us a call: 800-433-8850. Send us a Tweet @kojoshow, or email to kojo@wamu.org. Hans, how did this challenge come about, and why did you decide to get involved?

  • 12:33:06

    RIEMERWe were challenged by a local community group called the Action Committee for Transit. And they had asked for several months if I'd be willing to do it, and they'd asked others. And, after a time, I relented, knowing that it was not going to be easy, that working 10, 12 miles from my office is going to make for a tough transit trip. But I agreed to do it, because I understand that we've got to walk the walk if you talk the talk. So, I wanted to put my ideas to the test.

  • 12:33:33

    NNAMDIWell, you did, and apparently, you found it extremely challenging to commute solely by public transit. What does your usual commute look like, and what adjustments did you have to make for the challenge?

  • 12:33:43

    RIEMERI live in Tacoma Park, and I'm a reverse commuter to Rockville, to the Rockville Town Center. So, when I drive, it's a pretty quick trip in the morning, 25 minutes, tops. It can be a lot longer in the evening, depending on what time if I'm at peak, but it's, generally speaking, a pretty manageable commute.

  • 12:33:58

    RIEMERBy bus, I had to get into downtown Silver Spring, and then jump on the Q2, which is a one-seat ride from downtown Silver Spring to Rockville. But that can take anywhere from an hour, to an hour and 20, and that is a lot of time. When you add both legs of the commute together, you've lost an hour or two in your daily life, and that's a lot to give up.

  • 12:34:21

    NNAMDIWell, so, what was the point of this? What will you and your fellow council members do to make transit work for more people? Because you can now return to your usual routine, driving.

  • 12:34:32

    RIEMERWell, I think it was helpful, because I think councilmembers need to all be familiar with the bus system. You know, the bus is really the unsung hero of our transit system. We spend a lot of time focusing on Metro and other kind of more high-profile systems, but the bus is the system that most people, you know, use in their daily commute. And it's the one that we really have the most opportunity now to expand.

  • 12:34:54

    RIEMERSo, this year, in the budget, unfortunately, county executive recommended cutting bus service. Council did approve some of those bus cuts, and I'm hoping that this experience will help motivate more councilmembers to want to expand rather than accept cuts to bus service in the future.

  • 12:35:08

    NNAMDIStewart Schwartz, Hans and his colleagues who chose to do this challenge have a choice, unlike a lot of people. Do you think that the experiences that he and other officials who took on the challenge reflect the struggles of average commuters?

  • 12:35:22

    SCHWARTZWell, certainly based upon their Twitter feeds that we saw some of those struggles of average commuters. Some of it is just trying to get to the bus safely, and crossing the intersections. Suburban roads can be too wide, too fast, very dangerous to cross. We're losing people every day, it seems like, every week to these dangerous roads. So, that is access.

  • 12:35:41

    SCHWARTZThe other is frequency and reliability. Access to transportation and transit in particular is one of the top means of getting out of poverty to increasing your family income by being able to reach jobs in a timely manner. And so it's super-important for the average person in this region.

  • 12:35:58

    NNAMDILuz, do many people across the region face those kinds of tradeoffs when deciding how to tackle their daily commute?

  • 12:36:04

    LAZOAbsolutely, yes. There's a lot of people I talk to for our stories who are always saying, well, even if we want to try transit, it's just there's too many challenges to it. I mean, one thing, it's more comfortable to be in your car, but also, I mean, there's too many steps, there's too many, you know, transfers. Getting to the Metro station is even, sometimes, even more expensive than driving because you have to pay for parking and then you have to pay for the Metro. And it's just too many people who just find a lot of barriers to switch.

  • 12:36:40

    NNAMDIYou've also looked at the district and Metro, where ridership has been falling for the past several years. What changes has the District made to encourage commuters to use public transportation, and is it working?

  • 12:36:52

    LAZOI think a lot of people are trying new things. If you live in the city, you obviously have a lot more options than if you live in the outer suburbs. Even Tacoma Park, some of it here is challenging. But if you're in DC, in the city, you have the option of using a scooter, for example, now to go to the Metro station, right, or you have bike share. You have a lot of ridesharing options, as well, things that are probably not as accessible in other parts of the region.

  • 12:37:24

    NNAMDIHans used a scooter to go to the bus station. It happened to be raining on that day, (laugh) so it was not a very pleasant experience.

  • 12:37:32

    RIEMERNo. I left the house thinking, it's just sprinkling, so it'll be okay. (laugh) But it took me a little while longer to get the app working than I expected, and then the rain started coming. So, by the time I got to the bus stop, I was one wet, angry cat.

  • 12:37:47

    NNAMDIHere is Heather in Adams Morgan, in DC. Heather, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:37:54

    HEATHERYes, my question/comment is about the survey methodology. My recent outreach -- primarily in Wards 5, 7 and 8 for our age-friendly DC Transportation Committee -- suggests that many, many DC older adults, seniors, in Ward 7 and 8 do take the bus. I interviewed seniors about walk signal timing being too short to cross the street safely. And the DDOT Traffic Signals Group is now looking into intersections collected by our Transportation Committee.

  • 12:38:23

    HEATHERYou know, the better the pedestrian safety and safe access to bus stops, the more seniors may take the bus. And I haven't had the chance to read the report yet, and yet know all the focus on the survey methodology. How do you...

  • 12:38:37

    NNAMDIOkay. Well, let me...

  • 12:38:38

    HEATHER...how did they reach older adults in these underserved neighborhoods, many of whom don't have smartphones?

  • 12:38:44

    NNAMDILuz, how is was this poll carried out, and what were some of the other findings?

  • 12:38:47

    LAZORight. This was a regional poll, so I think they interviewed more than 1,300 people in the region, from all aspects, from all areas of the Washington region. We did find a lot of people, even within the District, who have challenges getting around. And it's interesting that she mentions senior citizens. I was just on the phone with someone today in Northeast Washington who said, well, you know, the closest bus stop is six blocks away. And for someone who has challenges walking in a hilly neighborhood, it's very difficult for the person to get to that bus stop.

  • 12:39:30

    LAZOSo, we know that there are, even within the city where we have more transit services, a lot of people have challenges.

  • 12:39:37

    NNAMDIStewart, how would you like to see public transit issues tackled across the region? What are the priorities, in your view?

  • 12:39:43

    SCHWARTZWell, public transit should be our top priority, as a region, for the future. There is no way we can build ourselves out of the problems that we have today with building wider roads. They fill up in as little as five years. We feel the pain, as an organization. We're out there in the community, riding the buses and driving in the suburbs, and they're in meltdown right now. So, both in terms of the number of vehicles in the city and the way the roads are crowded in the suburbs, we need to put bus as a priority and transit, overall, as a priority.

  • 12:40:12

    SCHWARTZThat's what the Bus Transformation Study -- of which I serve on the executive committee -- has said, that bus should be our top mode of choice in this region. I was very impressed by the business community's support for this. We want to see dedicated bus lanes, more frequent service, more reliable service putting the bus first for people in this region.

  • 12:40:30

    NNAMDIHans, how could public transit in Montgomery County be improved?

  • 12:40:35

    RIEMERWell, I definitely concur with expanding bus service. I think that is the easiest way for us to expand transit. There are some bigger picture opportunities. MARC could be like a commuter rail. You could have as much service on MARC as you have on Metro, but we have not invested in the rail network in order to be able to make it that kind of system. I think for the region and for the county, making MARC the next big transit system is a huge, huge opportunity.

  • 12:41:03

    NNAMDIThe Purple Line connecting Montgomery County with Prince George's and East-West Rail connection is slated to be ready in 2022. How do you think that will affect how people get around?

  • 12:41:14

    RIEMERI think it's going to be a game-changer. I really do. Certainly for the commute that I had last week, Purple Line, it would be a smooth trip to the Bethesda, and then a smooth trip up on the Red Line. It would've been convenient and easy. I think the Purple Line is going to be an economic development powerhouse for Montgomery County and for the region, for Prince George’s County, connecting the University of Maryland and all of its specialized programs, and with our employers and with our workforce. So, the impact is going to be huge, and I can't wait for it to be rolling.

  • 12:41:45

    NNAMDIStewart, what are your thoughts on the poll results?

  • 12:41:49

    SCHWARTZWe're not sure the poll really captures the tradeoffs that we're facing as a region and the sorts of things the elected officials, through the Council of Government, have been wrestling with. You know, if there's information shared that new roads fill up in as little as five years, that would cause people to think about what those tradeoffs are.

  • 12:42:09

    SCHWARTZWhat COG did looking at the tradeoffs, they analyzed and found that balance land use, transit-oriented development addressed the east west jobs divide, demand management, bus rapid transit networks and Metro all performed best in addressing regional traffic. So, while the poll will give you a snapshot of how many people are driving today and some of the challenges they're having with transit, it doesn't give us a way forward. And these analyses show that the way forward is to create these more walkable, transit-accessible communities, so that each of us can drive less.

  • 12:42:39

    NNAMDIJennifer Tweets: I ditched the car shortly after moving to the area in 2014. In addition to saving quite a bit of money, my commute is a lot less stressful. I have a Zip Car membership for the random times I need access to a car. It might work for you, Hans, if you had a Zip Car membership. (laugh)

  • 12:42:56

    RIEMERI don't know that that would've counted, in this case.

  • 12:42:57

    NNAMDIExactly. Here is Kishan in Washington, DC. Kishan, your turn.

  • 12:43:04

    KISHANHi, Kojo and Luz and Stewart. Thanks for this topic. I'm an A & C commissioner who pushed for bus lanes on 16th Street to return.

  • 12:43:13

    NNAMDIAnd they're coming -- they're coming, right?

  • 12:43:15

    KISHANThey say they're coming. We've been on it for six years now. (laugh) You've heard me say it before. And we just hope that they don't delay any longer. I mean, buses are 5 percent of the vehicles on 16th, carrying over 50 percent of the people. And we need to make sure that this project gets finished, so that we have a successful model. H & I is great downtown, but this is the most crowded route in all of the DC area, and we've been working on it for six years.

  • 12:43:45

    KISHANSo, please, we need the city to submit to finishing this. We haven't heard from them in a while on it. And I think the public deserves to know where we're at.

  • 12:43:57

    RIEMERKishan's been a great leader on this campaign. (laugh)

  • 12:43:59

    NNAMDIKishan, thank you very much for your call. Here now is Marilyn, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Marilyn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:44:09

    MARILYNHi. Thanks, Kojo. So, I agree with a lot of things that have been said about transit. We absolutely need to look at MARC -- all day MARC up in the up-county of Montgomery County, and bus rapid transit. But we can't ignore the roads. I think it's an all-of-the-above approach. And I think what the challenge that happened last night -- which was fantastic -- was that we can't solve this problem by just putting buses up and down the roads. We have to focus on roads, and we have to make sure that our road infrastructure is sufficient.

  • 12:44:46

    NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us, because the Maryland State government is officially moving forward with the expansion of highways, speaking of roads. The plan will add toll lanes to I-270, the American Legion Bridge and the Capital Beltway. How does that figure into the conversation about getting around, in particular about buses? I'll start with you, Hans.

  • 12:45:08

    RIEMERWell, it can have a big impact in creating regional bus systems, bus rapid transit. You know, there's a lot of support in the county for the 270 piece of that expansion and for the bridge. And a bus system operating from Montgomery to Northern Virginia back and forth would really bring that part of the region a lot closer together. The challenge, of course, is the Beltway, where there's a very constrained right-of-way, and it's really hard to get an expansion through.

  • 12:45:40

    RIEMERSo, we haven't seen information there, and the governor has not solicited any kind of participation up until, you know, maybe the last week, from the county in how we would like to see this happen. So, you know, it has been a longstanding priority of the county to increase capacity on 270 and to tackle the bridge. And we hope that that'll move forward. And we'd really like to see a workable solution for the Beltway, and we haven't seen that yet.

  • 12:46:12

    NNAMDIStewart Schwartz.

  • 12:46:13

    SCHWARTZKojo, one of the problems here is that the governor and the secretary of Transportation, Rahn, have run this as a political campaign. They've started from the conclusion first, and haven't really done this sort of analysis. They never looked at a transit-oriented development, transit-demand management alternative for it. And when it came to the 12 lanes that they proposed, they didn't do what Virginia has done, which is ensured a lot of funding for transit as part of the package.

  • 12:46:34

    SCHWARTZThey're not necessarily targeting the places that need to be addressed, such as the upper 270 or the connection to Virginia. So, we've been a little troubled. And most of the public seems to agree that there are issues of cost -- this is from the Post poll -- impact on neighborhoods and the concern that these won't relieve congestion, which is likely going to be the problem.

  • 12:46:56

    NNAMDILuz?

  • 12:46:57

    LAZOAt the same time, there was 61 percent of the region residents who support the expansion of the Beltway and 270. So, yeah, a lot of people said they are concerned about, you know, they want options, pretty much. They want other options. They want the roads to be taken care of. And there's a lot of support for this expansion.

  • 12:47:22

    NNAMDIHere is William in Catonsville, Maryland. William, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:47:27

    WILLIAMYes, I just wanted to point out that American's don't really readily accept transportation like other countries. Like, I lived in Japan for six years, Europe for three, and they built their systems out in the middle of residential. They intersperse it between residential, subway stations, etcetera. American's don't do that. They try to build it and run it out to the suburbs. And, to be honest, people in the suburbs, when they see a bus coming in, a lot of different people move away.

  • 12:47:55

    NNAMDIStewart Schwartz...

  • 12:47:56

    SCHWARTZWell...

  • 12:47:56

    NNAMDI...you're the one talking about land use, here.

  • 12:47:59

    SCHWARTZWell, you know what's interesting that I've seen in this region, is that the demographics, the income levels of bus riders are all over the map. We have a wide diversity of people who ride our buses. And where they're more likely to ride the buses, that the ridership is highest, is when they're more frequent, more reliable. Ideally, you know, we'll get to more dedicated lanes, and we're encouraged that the city has the H & I bus lanes. We certainly hope they'll accelerate the 16th Street bus lanes.

  • 12:48:23

    SCHWARTZI think there's a lot of consensus that the only way we're going to get ourselves out of this mess is by creating these more walkable communities and providing the additional accessibility that not just Metro and the Purple Line, but bus rapid transit and other dedicated bus lanes will provide.

  • 12:48:40

    NNAMDIHans Riemer, Omega Tweets: it seems the more transit options a community has, the more expensive it is to live there. How can we ensure that affordable housing is included around transit centers?

  • 12:48:52

    RIEMERThat is such a great question. You know, the underlying issue here really is housing, as much as it is transportation. And the problem with transit in Montgomery County with the bus service is that you have many people who are 10 miles, 12 miles from their job. And then taking that bus trip becomes really, really challenging for them.

  • 12:49:10

    RIEMERWe need more affordable housing closer to jobs, and that is the rub of advocating for housing solutions and housing options in our denser corridors, which always has pushback. People say there's too much density here already. So, you know, the Council has been very strong on this over the last number of years. We've zoned a lot of the county in our commercial corridors and our transit corridors for more housing.

  • 12:49:35

    RIEMERWe need to follow through and build that, but, you know, communities that have options typically are successful communities. They attract employers. They provide a high-quality of life. That can result in more cost, but also hopefully higher incomes and less expense on transportation. So, I think it's generally a virtuous circle, but affordable housing is the big piece of this conversation, that we've got to create more affordable housing nearer to jobs.

  • 12:50:07

    SCHWARTZAnd I second Hans. Housing, in the right locations, is a transportation solution. And it's, you know, shocking when you see we'll spend $100 million or more on an interchange, but to raise $100 million for affordable housing is seen as unaffordable, in many places.

  • 12:50:22

    NNAMDIMitch Tweets: I commute from Shaw to Bethesda for work every day. I used to take Metro and used Rock Springs shuttle to get the last mile, but the shuttle was canceled due to budget cuts. The logistics are too cumbersome now, so I drive and I save 20 minutes per trip, but I would love to ditch my car. What would you say to someone like Mitch?

  • 12:50:41

    SCHWARTZThat's a very -- I wish I had heard from you during our deliberation over the budget this year. There is still shuttle service there, it's just not free. And we had ascertained that there were very few people who were using it free who weren't previously using it when it was not free. So, as a result, we agreed to accept the executive's recommendation for changing that from a free shuttle to a paid shuttle.

  • 12:51:05

    RIEMERBut interesting is to note the response of Marriott, where their CEO, Arne Sorenson, saw the demand for them to be located in an urban, walkable transit-accessible neighborhood is moving their headquarters from Rock Spring -- which is less accessible -- to the very accessible downtown Bethesda.

  • 12:51:20

    SCHWARTZOur creating a free shuttle there was part of trying to keep that suburban office environment functional...

  • 12:51:26

    RIEMERSurviving.

  • 12:51:30

    SCHWARTZ...to help it survive. We have some challenges in those kind of areas, because that's not where employees want to be, and the companies want to follow the employees. So...

  • 12:51:36

    NNAMDILuz Lazo, did this poll show that the reason why so many people have chosen to continue driving their cars is, because in many cases, it would be both too cumbersome and too expensive for them to use public transportation?

  • 12:51:52

    LAZOI think so. Well, based on interviews that we have done, you know, a lot of people would like to have the choice to use public transit. At the same time, I think there are people who like their cars. And, you know, there's also a lot of -- the way our economy has moved in this region has changed. You know, their jobs are not just in downtown. People drive from Bethesda to Springville. There's just not a direct route via transit, so people just prefer to use their cars. But, yes, there are a lot of challenges.

  • 12:52:32

    LAZOAnd, you know, if you have someone who has to be in the office or has to start working at 5:00 a.m., that person doesn't have the option of Metro rail. So...

  • 12:52:41

    NNAMDINot just 5:00 a.m., apparently 7:30. (laugh) Ryan emails: I leave my car at Shady Grove and ride the train home every day. In the last years, Metro changed parking hours, and I need to keep a tight, timeline to get out of the garage by 7:30 a.m. to avoid pain. While it's nice to train, a two-way Metro ride and parking fee is close to $15 daily, likely more expensive than driving alone. I would love to see Metro return open hours on garages to 10:30 a.m., so more people can reverse commute and fill underutilized rail miles.

  • 12:53:13

    SCHWARTZThat's a good idea. Pricing is a big part of it. One problem, as well, is that many employers provide free parking for their workers that may not provide transit benefits. In DC, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, we're pushing parking cash-out in a bill that Cheryl Cort from our team has been leading, and we're hoping the Council will pass it in the next couple weeks, that if an employer provides a free parking space, they provide an equal transit or bike-walk benefit, which could include cash, and that is of the same value as that parking space.

  • 12:53:40

    LAZOBut even for the lower-income people, we have a lot of people who work in the service industry here who just can't afford to, you know, pay parking or to have a $15, I mean, commute. (laugh) So...

  • 12:53:55

    NNAMDIAnd whose employers do not provide parking consensus for them.

  • 12:53:58

    LAZO(overlapping) Whose employers do not provide parking. And, you know, they are the ones who are getting up super early, or who have to leave work at midnight. And there's not an easy option for that.

  • 12:54:07

    SCHWARTZWell, we don't have the WMATA late night bus service that we needed and that we asked for. It's a question of public priorities, though, that Councilmember Riemer and others will have to set. We should be putting these transit investments first.

  • 12:54:17

    NNAMDIHans Riemer, we only have about 40 seconds left. What kind of input do you think Montgomery County should have in this whole highway expansion planning?

  • 12:54:26

    RIEMERA lot, you know. We've really been left out of the process. But, hopefully, we'll get to the table now, and we'll talk about: what are the transit investments that will be included in this project? There are a lot of opportunities to make transit part of this project. That would be a big conversation for us to have. Also, how is it possible to do the Beltway without taking so much park land? That's going to be really the pinch-point for this whole conversation.

  • 12:54:52

    NNAMDIHans Riemer, Luz Lazo, Stewart Schwartz, thank you all for joining us. This conversation about public transportation in our region was produced by Kayla Hewitt, and our discussion of teacher turnover rates in the District was produced by Monna Kashfi. Coming up tomorrow, Guns & America joins us with their most recent reporting on the effects gun violence near schools is having on students in the Washington region. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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