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White Flint interchange could have been a great place

Last week, I was invited to Boston by the Federal Highway Administration to talk about livability. Five years ago, would anyone have thought that would be possible?


Montrose Parkway at Rockville Pike. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Less than 1% of the $30 billion-plus spent on highway funding is currently spent on pedestrians. It seems like a huge ship we have to turn around. However, federal leadership through the EPA, HUD, DOT, and their joint Sustainable Commu­ni­ties Initiative, has created an energy that will bring a new direction to federal highway spending.

Can we translate that into a shift in local thinking as well?

When I arrived in Montgomery County in 2008, the White Flint property owners and members of my staff tried to divert $50 million in funding for the Montrose Parkway underpass, the first phase to reconstruct Rockville Pike, to study a future transit line along the Pike. Our efforts were unsuccessful. While I am sure many love to drive through the underpass, think of the missed opportunity.

I have driven the underpass on several occasions. Frankly, it is not that great. Connectivity is expedited in one directioneast-westbut getting off the road to head north or south is a pain. A regular at-grade intersection with turn lanes, appropriate signaling, pedestrian infrastructure and plantings would have been wonderful and much more effective for the broader public.

Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive map.

You can forget the pedestrian environment on the overpass. I watched a bike commuter ride across and was struck by how brave he was. With new condos just south of Montrose and major mixed-use development plans on the way in White Flint, the whole Montrose project works against what the new master plan is trying to create.

People do not walk over overpasses, they walk where there is something at the edge of the sidewalk that enlivens the space. Current and future residents will have to drive to the shopping north of Montrose if, as White Flint develops, they go north of Montrose at all.

Graphic from Montgomery County Planning Dept.
The graphic at right illustrates the point about the Montrose underpass. It shows the I-270/I-370 interchange overlaid on top of Bethesda's Woodmont Triangle.

The Rockville Pike/Montrose Parkway interchange sterilized huge tracts of land that could have been used to create a vibrant urban intersection with buildings framing the street, people on the sidewalks interacting along the street edge, traffic moving at effective speeds and with room for future surface public transportation.

Not doable, some say? I pass along the best example of a street designed effectively for both high motor vehicle traffic and high pedestrian activity: the Champs-Elysées. Think about it. This street has some of the most expensive shopping in the world. Cars stop along the curb to drop or pick up Europe's elite to patronize those shops.

There is a sidewalk that can best be described as too big, tourist numbers beyond comprehension, views that astound, trees galore, yet the road itself carries more cars per hour than many interstate highways. You can cross the Champs on foot at numerous signalized intersections, yet the traffic still moves, except of course on the last day of the Tour de France.


Champs-Elysées. Photo by David Forster on Flickr.
I am not saying the Montrose underpass should have been the Champs-Elysées, but it could have been an at-grade intersection that offered a terrific urban pedestrian experience. That would have also opened up land for development that has been consumed by roadways and created the urban experience White Flint needs while generating a heck of a lot more property tax for the county.

In Montgomery County, we are fortunate that both County and the State leaders are looking in a different direction.

Consider all the initiatives underway:

  • The growth policy the Planning Department advocated and that the County Council adopted calls for a part of impact fees assessed on developers to be dedicated to transit.
  • Zoning that assigns increased density for places close to basic services like groceries and dry cleaners.
  • Master plans like White Flint, the Purple Line plans for Takoma Langley Crossroads, Long Branch and Chevy Chase Lake, and the soon-to-be-released Wheaton and Kensington Sector Plans.
  • The state has their "ag print" and "green print" initiatives that are leading into the emerging Plan Maryland program which we hope will result in a rethink of the priority funding areas (areas of growth for each county).
  • Maryland DOT's leadership in funding infrastructure through smart growth is a national model.
In participating at the FHWA session, it became obvious that here in Maryland we are leading the nation in not only thinking about change, but in preparing for the future as well. It is a great time to be planning here in MoCo.

The Planning Department, the County Council and the state Departments of Planning and Transportation are in sync at many levels. Together we can shift the thinking from one of moving cars, to moving people.

Crossposted at The Director's Blog.

Rollin Stanley is Director of the Montgomery County Planning Department. Previously, he held top planning jobs in St. Louis and Toronto. He blogs regularly at the Planning Department Director's Blog, which features the tagline, "No place is worth visiting that doesn't have a parking problem." 

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I hope this doesn't happen on the Randolf Road/Georgia Ave interchange they are beginning to work on. What steps are being taken here to insure this interchange is more pedestrian and land parcel friendly?

by Jeff on May 19, 2011 1:38 pm • linkreport

Funny, I was driving south on Rockville Pike for the first time since this was completed, just yesterday, and all I could think of was how the underpass, while it relieves some traffic back-ups, really bifurcates what should have been a cohesive street wall.

Lessons learned for future improvements, I suppose.

by Andrew on May 19, 2011 1:58 pm • linkreport

Yeah I was happy when they started construction of this interchange because traffic is very heavy there at times. it often takes 2 or 3 lights to cross east - west.

However this over pass is not going to work its a shame to becasue there is a huge often empty parking lot right there they could have worked with.

by Matt R on May 19, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

Great tagline, BTW.

A couple pushbacks:

1. 1% of highway funding spent on pedestrians. OK, that is bad. But what percentage of total money in the road fund is being spent on pedestrians? And exactly how do pedestrians contribute to that fund?

I get your point. But it is a bit of double dipping.

2. Exactly how would 50M to study transit funding actually help the walkability of White Flint?

3. I've always thought of 9 de Julio as a better example.

But based on C-E and 9dJ, I'd say a big problem isn't just design. Americans are just lazy and don't like walking. Hell, even Dave Alpert complains about walking two blocks from his car.

by charlie on May 19, 2011 2:04 pm • linkreport

To be fair, crossing the Champs-Elysées is not the greatest experience, even at crosswalks. Once you get to the Arc de Triomphe, they don't even let you cross the street -- you go through a series of underpasses, because the traffic at that circle is completely insane. The gorgeously-landscaped sidewalks are quite nice, but the road itself isn't all that great.

A little bit further to the northwest, there's the circle at Porte Maillot, where the pedestrian crossings are all above-ground, and offers one of the worst urban pedestrian experiences that I've ever witnessed. Doesn't help that it's located right next to the intersection of a freeway and Paris's busiest boulevard.

So, yeah. Paris has some lovely planned spaces -- directly adjacent to some truly horrible ones.

by andrew on May 19, 2011 2:04 pm • linkreport

charlie: What complaint are you referring to?

by David Alpert on May 19, 2011 2:11 pm • linkreport

@Rollin, its great you are so positive, list positive accomplishments and express optimism. I was left asking, "why they'd hire him if they wouldn't let him do his job?" (i.e. with the plan you wanted for the WF interchange).

by Tina on May 19, 2011 2:11 pm • linkreport

I don't really understand your comparison with Paris's Champs-Elysees: The Champs Elysees is a major tourist/retail/historic road which also happens to be where marches take place for 14th of July celebrations. Compare that to Montrose Road/Rockville pike, which in reality are just access roads surrounded by strip malls and more and more condo buildings.

Now you are right in saying that the interchange is sterile, and that coming from I270 via montrose Road onto Rockville pike is a mess. But is this the area to focus on?

I see a lot of parking lots that are ripe to redevelop between montrose avenue and white flint station. One could imagine establishing pedestrian paths/bicycle lanes linking montrose avenue to white flint station where there was once a gigantic parking space.

At some point I think we need to stop thinking that pedestrians and cars can co-exist everywhere. Sometimes it is better to leave dual/triple carriage ways alone and develop alternative routes for slow users.

by Vincent Flament on May 19, 2011 2:21 pm • linkreport

@Vincent F, re-read:I am not saying the Montrose underpass should have been the Champs-Elysées, but it could have been an at-grade intersection that offered a terrific urban pedestrian experience.

And ...the road itself (Champs-Elysees) carries more cars per hour than many interstate highways. You can cross the Champs on foot at numerous signalized intersections, yet the traffic still moves

by Tina on May 19, 2011 2:29 pm • linkreport

@Vincent Flament: Why do they celebrate the 4th of July 10 days late there?

by Michael Perkins on May 19, 2011 2:42 pm • linkreport

@Vincent Flament
At some point I think we need to stop thinking that pedestrians and cars can co-exist everywhere. Sometimes it is better to leave dual/triple carriage ways alone and develop alternative routes for slow users.

There is a place for moving people quickly, and there's a place for moving them slowly. However, I do think we need to constantly think about how something affects the community as a whole, whether it's a freeway demolition or construction. We need to keep in mind that pedestrians and cars can coexist, and that they should at every practical opportunity. A freeway is no place for a sidewalk, but a city is no place for a freeway.

by OctaviusIII on May 19, 2011 2:56 pm • linkreport

The pedestrian experience across the overpass is intimidating and as a result I rarely walk to the White Flint Metro from my apartment even though it's less than 3/4 of a mile away.

by Matthew Tingstrom on May 19, 2011 2:56 pm • linkreport

Great article. I walk along the new path beside the Parkway almost every evening in the summer with my wife and daughter. We stop prior to the underpass, because it is not inviting to pedestrians. It might be good for cars, but not us. That's a real shame for the businesses/restaurants at Montrose Crossing that we would probably go to if things were more connected. The wasted potential here is a real shame.

by doug on May 19, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport

I grew up near the intersection and could not, for the life of me, figure out how the Montrose/Rockville Pike interchange was an effective use of funds. It has never been the worst intersection in the county, let alone the entire area, and the only thing holding it back before was just poor visibility due to improper grading of the terrain. The best thing the state could have done was lower the grade of the intersection so that it didn't peak on the top of a hill, widen the sidewalks, and rezone the area to accept greater density.

The same can be said for the Randolph Rd/Georgia Ave intersection which is adjacent to Glenmont Metro Station. There are plans to replace the intersection with an interchange, which is absurd at this point. A few years back the county reworked the traffic light timing and the intersection improved immeasurably. Not only that, but as a major intersection next to a Metro station, the area should be densified and further pedestrianized, not turned into a series of loops and turns to get cars passing by vaguely quicker.

Quick note for those not in the know Montrose Road/Parkway actually turns into Randolph Road east of Rockville Pike. In the past, this entire stretch was planned to become a parkway in order to hasten east-west travel in MoCo. Now, it isn't necessary as we realize there are more cost-effective, environmentally-friendly, pedestrian, bike, and public transit-friendly alternatives to popping interchanges into every difficult intersection. Imagine, a few years ago, Forest Glen Road and Georgia Avenue (also at a Metro station) was ranked the worst intersection in the county. Instead of placing an interchange in an inappropriate location, the county reworked the traffic light timing and it pretty much solved the problem. Now the only issue is the lack of a pedestrian tunnel on the east side of Georgia Avenue into the Metro station. But if the state and county had their way a few years ago, I bet an interchange there would have been their preferred alternative.

by Eric on May 19, 2011 3:19 pm • linkreport

I don't have the same doomsday outlook about this particular project. The interchange is actually relatively compact when compared to other interchanges of similar traffic volume, and some of those empty parking lots adjacent to it will eventually be re-developed as part of the White Flint urban village (Mid-Pike Plaza, I'm looking at you).

This project did also include some important bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, notably including the completion of a major segment of the Bethesda Trolley Trail. What most people driving the Pike don't notice is that the interchange includes a nice, wide bike trail on the east side of the Pike. It's somewhat hidden from view because it follows the exit ramp down to the Montrose Parkway level, where it crosses at a pedestrian signal and intersects the Montrose Parkway bike trail and then continues back up along the other exit ramp and in front of the Montrose Crossing strip mall (yes, there is an actual trail there, too).

Between this segment and the bike trail running along Montrose Parkway (and the shared use paths along Tower Oaks and Preserve Parkways, which could, admittedly, be a bit wider with a little more separation from the road), it has provided a nearly continuous (except for one glaringly absent section near Tildenwood Drive), off-road bike route connecting Bethesda, North Bethesda, and Rockville. There are still a few one-block sections here and there along the Pike that need an actual trail, though:

- One block along Nicholson between Woodglen and the Pike
- The half block in front of the Staples on the east side of the Pike just north of Nicholson and just south of the nice, wide NRC plaza
- One block adjacent to the White Flint metro just north of Marinelli

by Roger on May 19, 2011 3:21 pm • linkreport

Can anyone name any intersections like this that have developed successfully? I can think of a few in Spain that have a better "feel" I'm curious what models are out there to re-develop this relicts of the 1960s.

by charlie on May 19, 2011 3:24 pm • linkreport

Can anyone name any intersections like this that have developed successfully?

Dupont Circle?

by Ben Ross on May 19, 2011 3:34 pm • linkreport

@Tina

I honestly would find it very difficult to make this intersection a pedestrian friendly neighbourhood given the amount of cars that flow there every day.

i find the Champs Elysees a scary place for pedestrians if you don't stick to the sidewalks...

@ Michael

News travels slowly. It took another 7 days for us Belgians to get the news of the courage shown by your founding fathers!

@OctaviusIII

Unless Rockville Pike changes (and I sincerely hopes it does and it somehow is already), I still consider Rockville Pike as predominantly a highway that should be reserved to cars.

Nows as the area becomes more dense, I totally agree that Rockville Pike should be changed, either by segregating it even more, or by making it more pedestrian friendly.

But sadly it would be hard to decrease the throughput of Rockville Pike by some serious traffic calming measures.

by Vincent Flament on May 19, 2011 3:34 pm • linkreport

My View:

In its current form, it is deficient for all of the reasons bantered about in this thread already.

But its actually an excellent A+++ design as a basis for what needs to be added:

a- a semicircle lid to the west- and optionally to the east with a reloacton of the off ramp.
b- retaining-support walls for the below grade segment of the Montrose 'Parkway' for new desne development atop.
c- the same to the west, getting rid of the at grade mainline intersections, with new development and park-space atop.

That would make the area ALOT more DuPont Circle urban environment- yet is neglected because new urbainists intellectual charlatans as CNU’s Norquist that would condemn urbanity to single level ranch houses because they lacked the imagination to design stair cases.

by Douglas Willinger on May 19, 2011 4:10 pm • linkreport

@Vincent Flament
Oh yeah, absolutely. Maintaining the throughput of a roadway is sometimes necessary, but doing so doesn't always mean maintaining the status quo. If throughput on Rockville Pike can be maintained while enhancing the roadway for other modes of travel, including pedestrians, it should be.

by OctaviusIII on May 19, 2011 4:20 pm • linkreport

@Douglas Willinger - Huh? I've been a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism for 14 years and worked with Mayor Norquist on several projects. Yet I don't have the slightest idea what you are talking about.

I agree with Roger that the interchange has potential to be redeveloped in a walkable form. The main problem is the interchange was designed for current conditions only, and is already obsolete with regards to the White Flint plan. How is a BRT route or streetcar line going to be installed on that bridge? Not to mention wide sidewalks and tree boxes on both sides.

Redevelopment is possible, but will be difficult and expensive because flexibility was not built into the current design.

by Laurence Aurbach on May 19, 2011 6:26 pm • linkreport

@ Laurence Aurbach -

I refer to Norquists' dismmissal of the concept of urban roadway grade seperation, *with NO consideration of ramp design, routing, configuration, etc*, and done deceptively by using examples of devise elevated freeways to even go after depressed freeways, such as his badly advised plans for New Haven CT's Route 34 and Buffalo, N.Y.'s Kensington Expressway- the former which the CNU misdescribes as elevated and not depressed.

Intellectually, his dismissal of the very concept of grade seperated highways is like someone insisting upon single level ranch houses because they lacked the imagination to design stairs, and akin to condemning the very concept of urban railroads -- without consideration of tunnel concepts -- because Washington, D.C.'s Metro Branch RR is a wall.

By throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the Norquists of this world ignore better ideas for the sake of those seeking to serve fewer.

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2007/02/alexandria-orb-page-one-news-december.html

by Douglas Willinger on May 19, 2011 6:52 pm • linkreport

@ Laurence Aurbach -

"because flexibility was not built into the current design."

How so when re-design involves *adding* to the existing design, involves *no* demolition of the bridge, and at most only a portion of the ramps, and is quite practical to do in stages:

1- Western semi-circle 'lid'
2- Eastern semi-circle 'lid' (this can either be developed as a traffic circle, or retaining the straight through 355 roadways, with new 355 service roads that use the circle)
3- Construct new overpass for Hoya Road atop a Montrose Parkway that is lowered in grade, and stradeled with building pads
4- Construct lid atop this below grade Montrose Parkway from a few hundred feet west of Hoya Road to 355- which can be done in stages, some of which could be new air rights buildings.
5- Construct new overpass for East Jefferson atop a lowered Montrose Parkway.

It's a sound yet incomplete design.

by Douglas Willinger on May 19, 2011 9:57 pm • linkreport

I'm actually pretty surprised David Alpert

a) has a car
b) street-parks it! I would have thought that he would have paid market-prices to park it in the garage.

by AA on May 19, 2011 10:17 pm • linkreport

Douglas - It's not so that supporters of new urbanism are dogmatically opposed to building things like Dupont Circle. The Action Committee for Transit has repeatedly cited Dupont Circle as a model.

Here is ACT's proposal for Bethesda Naval Hospital, including a Dupont Circle type underpass at Wisconsin and Jones Mill Road. ACT's testimony on Gaithersburg West said: Replace the seven proposed urban-diamond interchanges with Dupont Circle-like underpasses.

by Ben Ross on May 20, 2011 8:13 am • linkreport

@AA:

Don't hate the playa! ;)

by oboe on May 20, 2011 8:20 am • linkreport

@BenRoss; I was more referring to the model of changing a 1960s era suburban highway into an "urban" enviornment -- rather than taking the more organic path of DuPont Circle.

And I've never liked DuPont circle anyway. I always thought it was popular because it is the only green space around. Not fun for either cars or pedestrians, terrible on a bike, and not very dense either.

by charlie on May 20, 2011 8:37 am • linkreport

As a commuter (bicycle and car) from Randolph and Parklawn going towards 270/Tower Oaks, I really appreciate the creation of Montrose Parkway. I appreciate even more the large bike path adjacent to it. While it has an 'industrial' feel to it, I adapted to the underpass quite quickly. I thought it was strange that the Rockville Pike overpass did not have a North-bound sidewalk but, when I realized that the sidewalk runs along the off ramp to Randolph (and back up the on-ramp from Randolph), I thought it was much neater this way. What are your thoughts on Montrose Parkway East? I am concerned about the raised interchange with Parklawn (as it is right next to my house). I enjoy your blog very much and look forward to more information on my neighborhood!

by Massi on May 20, 2011 10:23 am • linkreport

Ben-

THANKS! That's a pleasant surprise I do not recall from the GGW discussion[s] on the Wisconin Avenue grade seperation.

Alas, that does not appear to apply in any way to the 'Congresss for New Urbanism'- perhaps local neighborhood groups are better then these national "foundations".

Did ACT ever commission any such drawings?

They could have contacted me, given my experiance in designing the citizen's alternative Alexandria Orb interchange proposal.

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2007/02/different-way-alexandria-orb.html

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2007/02/alexandria-orb-points_117140830358347894.html

by Douglas Willinger on May 20, 2011 2:40 pm • linkreport

Doug - Would you be willing to do a drawing? A real conundrum you ought to tackle is the intersection at Georgia & Randolph. It really needs to be pedestrian-friendly, given the proximity of Glenmont Metro and the potential redevelopment of the really awful shopping mall on the NE corner.

On a blank slate, it seems to me, you would put Randolph Road below grade. Since unlike the north-south roads there is no rail alternative to carry traffic, it needs to carry the most volume - and it's the road that backs up most now. You could eliminate the troublesome (especially for buses leaving the Metro station) intersection of Layhill & Georgia by building a big traffic circle that Layhill and Georgia enter separately from the north side.

The problem, I've been told by SHA engineers, is the presence of the shallow Metro tunnel just to the west of Georgia. What I don't know is whether it's really impossible to go under Georgia and then over the Metro, or if an intersection could be designed with a road grade steeper than SHA likes but still doable (like Dupont Circle).

A key issue, as I see it - in truly urban underpasses, the cars going at grade hit traffic lights at intersections with tight turning radii. It's really important to strongly signal the cars moving at grade to slow down, so that they understand that pedestrians are present notwithstanding the grade separation. SHA still thinks of building - not quite ramps - but ramp-like turn lanes that are very pedestrian-hostile.

ps Re Bethesda Naval: An underpass would have made lots of sense at Wisconsin & Jones Mill. Like Georgia & Randolph, you can eliminate a messy intersection by bringing 5 streets into the circle. An underpass at the Metro station as MCDOT is pushing is a completely different beast. That is not the intersection that backs up traffic on 355. The purpose of putting the underpass there is either to push pedestrians underground and move cars too fast for the environment, or to be a trojan horse for a really massive and expensive interchange project that we will just have to disagree about.

by Ben Ross on May 20, 2011 8:13 pm • linkreport

@Ben-

Sure. But what size circle and with what center point?

And what is the elevation for the WMATA tunnel? IIRC the area of Randolph climbs as one approaches Georgia Ave from the west

My guess is that the Randolph Road Underpass would have to cross beneath both, resulting in pushing its western portal nearer to Judson Road.

I am studying the area now in google map. I think its a worthy idea.

by Douglas Willinger on May 21, 2011 2:23 am • linkreport

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