ROCKVILLE – To help get a better appreciation of transit issues, five members of the county council took it upon themselves to spend a week getting around the county without their cars — at least that’s what they tried to do.
For one week, several members of the council, along with other public officials, participated in something called the “transit challenge,” a week-long attempt to forgo the use of a car and take public transit.
While the county has centered development around transit, various transit options in the county still have issues, as public officials noticed as they got a better appreciation for last week’s “challenge.”
The exercise, organized by the Action Committee for Transit, was meant to educate lawmakers about issues with transit in Montgomery County.
While the public officials who participated in the transit challenge spoke about how it was a positive experience, saying the transit offers many benefits, they noticed many issues. Those who participated in the challenge, Councilmembers Gabe Albornoz (D-at large), Evan Glass (D-at large), Will Jawando (D-at large), Hans Riemer (D-at large) and Andrew Friedson (D-1), documented their transit trips, noting delays and hazardous street crossings.
“This is an effort to make sure that council feels, sees, witnesses firsthand what many thousands of county residents experience every day, and that is our current transit system,” Albornoz said.
Albornoz said his typical 20-minute commute from his home in Kensington to the County Council Office Building in Rockville more than doubled taking anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.
While Albornoz said his commute to only required one bus, which took him to a Metro station that he used to get to Rockville, that was not the case for Glass or Jawando. They had to take multiple buses to complete their commute to Rockville from Silver Spring.
“My current commute from home, to the County Council Office Building, is about 25 minutes, and when I take public transportation it takes approximately 90 minutes door-to-door,” Glass said. “So, that’s more time I have to build into my schedule and I know that for individuals living in our community who have families, or other obligations, it is a time-consuming endeavor.”
Jawando was the most inconvenienced by taking the transit challenge – posting a video on his Twitter account in which he said that his Ride On 10 bus did not show up on time, forcing him to take a Metrobus to Rockville.
“I’m going to lose 15 to 20 minutes on my ride and be late to Rockville, but (that’s) something that people have to deal with,” Jawando said.
For Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, improved transit, not more roads, is the cure for traffic-congestion woes. While Gov. Larry Hogan proposed widening I-270 and I-495, members of the county council criticized the plan, saying the state needs to invest more in public transit.
While the state is currently building the Purple Line to connect Bethesda to Silver Spring and College Park with light rail and the county is constructing a bus rapid transit line for U.S. 29, many residents still opt for a car for their commute. That is something county officials are looking to change.
So far, it’s been tough to change that culture. While the county has invested in faster and greener buses equipped with WiFi, ridership has gone down, not up, as the county population grows and becomes denser. According to CountyStat, Montgomery County’s online database, an average of 1.8 million people took Ride On per month in Fiscal Year 2018, compared to 2.3 million riders per month in Fiscal Year 2008.
For Nick Brand, president of the Action Committee for Transit, the goal was to help educate elected officials about the issues facing bus and rail customers in the county so they can better deal with them.
“I think the council generally has a pretty good attitude on it and is very much pro-transit. The state attitude is certainly not there,” Brand said.
Brand criticized Hogan’s plan to widen I-270 and I-495 and said there needs to be more funding for the MARC Train commuter line, which is funded and operated by the state. During the challenge, several council members complained about unsafe crosswalks on state roads.
Glass said he spent 10 years commuting to work via transit before he ran for the council in 2016, when he and his husband purchased a second car. While Glass said he is well versed with the pros and cons of transit, the challenge brought a reminder of how hazardous crossing the street to get to a bus stop can be.
“On top of the long commute, I had to play frogger to cross the street to get to the bus stop,” Glass said. “Multiple times I was concerned about my own life and by drivers not stopping for me at a marked crosswalk.”