Greater Greater Washington

Better streets & buildings boost walking in Briggs Chaney

Located 9 miles north of downtown Silver Spring, Briggs Chaney is one of the densest neighborhoods in Montgomery County, but walking can feel unpleasant or even dangerous. However, some new public and private improvements may change that.


New townhomes and traffic calming on Castle Boulevard. Photos by the author.

In the 1980's, Briggs Chaney was zoned for high-density residential development in anticipation of a light rail line that was never built. The neighborhood continued as planned, with mainly garden apartments and townhomes and a few single-family homes.

Instead of light rail, it's served by a handful of infrequent bus routes including the Metrobus Z line, which happens to be one of the most well-used routes in suburban Maryland. However, 78% of Briggs Chaney's employed residents drive to work, while just 14% take transit and 2% walk.

This isn't surprising, since Briggs Chaney is far from the county's major employment centers, meaning driving may be the most practical way to commute for many residents. However, even though light rail may not ever be built here, the neighborhood will be served by Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit system. And people who may use it in the future, along with current residents who don't drive, must deal with a neighborhood that was designed and built for cars.

Dirt Path Leading To Windsor Apartments (cropped)
Dirt path leading to an apartment complex parking lot.

Briggs Chaney is chopped up into self-contained, fenced-off developments whose streets don't connect, making it really difficult to walk from one part of the neighborhood to another. The few connector streets that exist, like Robey Road, are wide and straight, making it easy to speed and putting pedestrians in danger.

There are also lots of awkward, unused public spaces behind apartment buildings or between complexes that invite loitering and crime, creating an atmosphere where residents don't feel safe. Though much of the neighborhood is within walking distance of Greencastle Elementary School, it doesn't participate in International Walk to School Day and students have to play inside.

How can we fix this? First, the streets must be redesigned to discourage speeding.

Last fall, Montgomery County installed bumpouts, medians and crosswalks along Castle Boulevard, one of the neighborhood's main arteries. According to a study by the county Department of Transportation, 21 percent of drivers on this road drive over 40 miles per hour even though it's signed for 30.

Bus Stop and Bump-Outs, Castle Boulevard
Bumpouts and medians make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street or wait for the bus.

The bumpouts and medians will make the road narrower, slowing motorists and hopefully making them more aware of what's going on around them. They'll also give pedestrians a safe place to wait for a bus or to cross the street.

This may not change residents' perception of the street, however. For much of its length, Castle Boulevard is lined by fences, parking lots, and the backs of apartment buildings. These are the awkward, unused spaces that invite disinvestment and crime; in turn, they make the street susceptible to disinvestment and crime as well.

To change that, we have to orient buildings to the street. Castle Boulevard would be a livelier, and thus much safer, place if it was lined by front yards or other semi-public spaces. It's a lot easier to commit illegal activities if you're not directly in front of somebody's front door.


Left: new townhouses at Woodlake have front yards along Castle Boulevard.
Right: townhouses across the street hide behind driveways and a tall fence.

And that's exactly what local builder Craftstar Homes is doing at Woodlake, a new townhouse development being built around an existing garden apartment complex of the same name. This project provides more owner-occupied housing in a neighborhood where almost two-thirds of the households are renters, giving it more stability. It also treats Castle Boulevard with respect, placing front yards and shared courtyards along the street.

Unlike most townhouses being built in East County, these homes have rear garages on alleys. The front of these houses is actually the front, where you'll see people, not just cars. That creates "eyes on the street," further discouraging destructive behavior. It also means there's actually a front yard with grass or landscaping, which is generally more attractive than a line of driveways or a tall fence like those at another recently-built townhouse development across the street.

Of course, there aren't a lot of opportunities for new construction in Briggs Chaney, and it's unlikely that the neighborhood will get redeveloped any time soon. But many garden apartment buildings have entrances on both sides or patios facing the street, making it easy to for residents to "claim" those spaces as yards as well.

Together, these road improvements and new homes are a step forward for Briggs Chaney. Not only do they make it easier and safer to walk there, but they will help knit together many disparate parts into one coherent neighborhood.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

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Wow, great article, Dan. Gives me a little bit of hope for Briggs Chaney. And I hope they get some decent transit up there soon.

by Dave Murphy on Jun 8, 2012 10:52 am • linkreport

The problem I have with medians, as implemented in this country, is that there is little to no "horizontal deflection". So while, visually, the space for a driver may seems smaller (and is in fact), they can continue without having to alter their course or speed. I could not find the link, but streetsblog linked to a great story earlier this week re: medians and the way the UK vs. Netherlands do them. The takeaway: In the Netherlands, medians are used as little chicanes. They visually narrow the road and break up sightlines (psychological cues) and they force drivers to steer around them and therefore slow down (physical cues).

by squaredeal on Jun 8, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport

I lived in Briggs Chaney for a long time and this was exacatly why I moved. You have to drive to everything. This is none more evident then in the Briggs Chaney shopping center which is always a madhouse of cars.
At least in Gaithersburg where I am now I have the option of making one drive to the Rio, downtown Rockville, the Kentlands, etc where I can then walk around.

by Matt R on Jun 8, 2012 1:21 pm • linkreport

In the 1980's, Briggs Chaney was zoned for high-density residential development in anticipation of a light rail line that was never built. The neighborhood continued as planned, with mainly garden apartments and townhomes and a few single-family homes.

Dan, I respectfully disagree with the above statement.

The badly-flawed 1981 Eastern Montgomery County Master Plan did not contain any recommendation in favor of light rail. It actually contained language counseling against a light rail line, which was estimated to have cost $350 million (in 1980 dollars). There were some activists along U.S. 29 that wanted light rail (I believe the late Harry Sanders (RIP, great guy)) was one of them, but there was significant opposition, especially in the Four Corners area (and the 1981 plan was for Cloverly, Fairland and White Oak only, not Four Corners).

The intent behind the "concept of transit serviceability," which was the central theme of the 1981 plan was that residents would take buses to the Silver Spring Metrorail station (in 1981, the Glenmont terminal station was still many years in the future). Now those buses also had to use the very congested general-purpose lanes on U.S. 29 (Columbia Pike and Colesville Road) - there was never shoulder use allowed south of Tech Road, and I can recall it taking an hour on the Z9 or Z11 bus to get from the Silver Spring Metrorail station to Briggs Chaney on weekday afternoons (developers were required to fund free operation of the Z11 for several years in the 1980's).

There was, however, a reason why the residential densities were made so high in the Fairland Master Plan Area. Many of the parcels of land that were vacant when the 1981 plan was written were designated as receiving areas for transferable development rights from the Upcounty Agricultural Preserve (which was new at the time), and staff at the M-NCP&PC and the Montgomery County Council were looking for places to receive them - and there was little objection to them coming to Fairland.

by C P Zilliacus on Jun 8, 2012 1:47 pm • linkreport

@CP - The concept of the Fairland Master Plan was for Bus Rapid Transit. The county did a bus rapid transit study in 1993-1995. It was BRT that encountered fierce opposition, especially from the Four Corners area. There were good reasons for the opposition (based on issues, by the way, that this year's BRT task force did not address, and will have to be dealt with if BRT is to be built).

My recollection is that Harry Sanders managed to convince the BRT opponents to have a somewhat more open mind about light rail on that route. But the county never pursued light rail -- it only studied BRT.

The Planning Board recommended to the county council and state that they not pursue BRT on US 29. That recommendation was followed. More details are here (link to the Planning Board's letter is currently not working -- I'm working on getting it fixed).

by Ben Ross on Jun 8, 2012 2:57 pm • linkreport

The fate of true BRT and how it morphed into the Z11 sometimes - sometimes not - having its own lane during rush hour for only some stretches is a classic lesson on how easy it is to scale down BRT plans.

by Capt. Hilts on Jun 8, 2012 3:13 pm • linkreport

BRT is a joke. A bus is still a bus no matter how sexy or "modern" you try to make it look. I won't even take Megabus to New York because it is a bus and I don't want to be stuck on I-95. While I do take Metro and Amtrak whenever I can, I'm not going to get out of my car to take a bus anyway.

by Rain17 on Jun 8, 2012 5:15 pm • linkreport

I do think, though, that the US 29 corridor could probably benefit from light rail. Although this is admittedly decades away, given how the current "era of austerity" makes it all but impossible to get any transportation project started, I do think a light rail line perhaps as a spur from the Purple Line could continue up US 29, past Four Corners, through White Oak, and to Burtonsville would get passengers. In fact, if you even extended it toward Columbia and other points in Howard County, and possibly created a connection to the Baltimore Light Rail or Metro, it would do well. It also makes sense to extend the Green Line to Laurel, BWI, and Anne Arundel County. But that is probably decades away.

by Rain17 on Jun 8, 2012 5:18 pm • linkreport

Route 29 is ideal for light rail. It's straight as a gun barrel. It goes through a dense area. Four corners is the problem.

Solve it!

by Capt. Hilts on Jun 8, 2012 5:22 pm • linkreport

All the overpasses on Route 29 north of White Oak were engineered to allow light rail to go through in the median. The bridge footings were designed to be deep enough that the grade can be lowered to provide the necessary clearance without requiring any bridge modification. Horizontal clearances for ramps and retaining walls were also designed to accomodate light rail.

It's not clear whether BRT can be built in the median without rebuilding the bridges -- wider horizontal clearances are needed because the bus does not run on a track, unless the buses observe a 15 mph speed limit like Boston's Silver Line does where it runs in a tunnel. It's very unfortunate that the county BRT task force excluded light rail alternatives from its study, especially on this corridor where it is possible that building light rail will be less expensive than BRT.

by Ben Ross on Jun 8, 2012 5:34 pm • linkreport

Ben Ross wrote:

The concept of the Fairland Master Plan was for Bus Rapid Transit. The county did a bus rapid transit study in 1993-1995.

I disagree. The concept (and highest priority) of the 1997 Fairland Master Plan was to undo at least some of the damage done by the 1981 Eastern Montgomery County Master Plan.

It was BRT that encountered fierce opposition, especially from the Four Corners area. There were good reasons for the opposition (based on issues, by the way, that this year's BRT task force did not address, and will have to be dealt with if BRT is to be built).

In addition to opposition in Four Corners (much of it apparently orchestrated by owners of commercial property along U.S. 29 in the Four Corners area), there was also plenty of opposition in Fairland, mostly because we feared that new and high-capacity transit would be used to justify even more residential density (probably in the form of more rental garden apartments).

My recollection is that Harry Sanders managed to convince the BRT opponents to have a somewhat more open mind about light rail on that route. But the county never pursued light rail -- it only studied BRT.

Harry worked hard to lobby various groups and people along U.S. 29 (including at least some developers).

The Maryland Department of Transportation did not encourage light rail along U.S. 29 in the late 1970's and early 1980's, when the 1981 Plan was being developed; and the MDOT did not change its position when the 1997 Fairland and White Oak Master Plans were in development - a process that started with the so-called Trip Reduction Amendment in 1990.

The Planning Board recommended to the county council and state that they not pursue BRT on US 29. That recommendation was followed. More details are here (link to the Planning Board's letter is currently not working -- I'm working on getting it fixed).

BRT is in and of itself not a bad thing (in my opinion). The express coach service on Md. 200 (Maryland Transit Administration Routes 201, 202, 203, 204 and 205) is by some definitions BRT (though I wish some of that service served Briggs Chaney). But many of us that worked on those master plans in the 1990's were deeply skeptical of anything that could have been used to justify upzoning Fairland's residential properties for countywide goals and objectives, be they increased transit patronage; increased affordable housing or receiving even more transferable development rights to protect the far-away Agricultural Preserve.

Please remember that the Briggs Chaney area of Montgomery County that Dan wrote about is between 15 and 16 miles (by streets, from Google Maps) from the U.S. Capitol Dome. Compare and contrast with the Friendship Heights area of Montgomery County, which is between 7 and 8 miles away from the Capitol, or the Clarendon area of Arlington County (so admired by some members of the Montgomery County Council), between 5 and 6 miles from the Capitol. Densities and land use patterns appropriate for close-in communities with Metrorail stops are not appropriate in a place like Fairland, and likely never will be.

On the other hand, Dan is right to mention the disconnected (and sometimes pedestrian-hostile) street network in and near Briggs Chaney. One of the reasons that we were so in favor of the grade-separated interchanges along U.S. 29 was to make it easier to walk from one side to the other (compare crossing U.S. 29 at the Briggs Chaney Road overpass with crossing it at Fairland Road, where a crash-prone at-grade signalized intersection remains).

by C P Zilliacus on Jun 9, 2012 9:12 am • linkreport

Sorry - I confused the two master plans. It was the earlier one that was premised on mass transit.

The issue you mention about pedestrian crossings of US 29 was one of the main objections to BRT from the Four Corners area. This, by the way, is an underappreciated advantage of light rail over BRT. Tracks that carry a train with 300 passengers every 5 minutes are much easier to cross than a pair of bus lanes with a bus with 60 passengers once a minute (a bus every 30 seconds when you count both lanes). If the passenger load gets higher than that, it's much easier & less expensive to put rail underground than a bus. The physical carrying capacity of a transit system is one thing; the passenger load it can carry without degrading the urban environment is another.

BTW, the link to the Planning Board letter on the page linked above has been fixed.

by Ben Ross on Jun 9, 2012 10:32 am • linkreport

Ben Ross wrote:

Sorry - I confused the two master plans. It was the earlier one that was premised on mass transit.

Thank you. You are a scholar and a gentleman.

The issue you mention about pedestrian crossings of US 29 was one of the main objections to BRT from the Four Corners area.

I got the distinct impression that activists in Four Corners (and, to a lesser extent, in White Oak) were opposed to any improvements to U.S. 29 between I-495 and Md. 650 (New Hampshire Avenue) (definitely including Four Corners), and the ones that the State Highway Administration finally did build (at Four Corners) were rather minimal.

Had the through lanes on U.S. 29 (with new managed lanes, either for rail or bus or possibly HOV) been built under or over the existing intersection at Md. 193 (University Boulevard), then transit would have been more attractive from places as far north as Columbia.

This, by the way, is an underappreciated advantage of light rail over BRT. Tracks that carry a train with 300 passengers every 5 minutes are much easier to cross than a pair of bus lanes with a bus with 60 passengers once a minute (a bus every 30 seconds when you count both lanes). If the passenger load gets higher than that, it's much easier & less expensive to put rail underground than a bus. The physical carrying capacity of a transit system is one thing; the passenger load it can carry without degrading the urban environment is another.

We can probably argue capacities all day - the perverse thing about U.S. 29 in Maryland (in my opinion) is that there will always be limits to transit demand, because the south end is Silver Spring, which has some jobs and a Metro station, but does not have (and likely never will have) the critical mass of jobs that say, downtown D.C. or Tysons Corner have.

BTW, the link to the Planning Board letter on the page linked above has been fixed.

Thank you. I will take a look at it.

by C P Zilliacus on Jun 9, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport

I got the distinct impression that activists in Four Corners (and, to a lesser extent, in White Oak) were opposed to any improvements to U.S. 29 between I-495 and Md. 650 (New Hampshire Avenue) (definitely including Four Corners)

I am not really disagreeing with you. I can only say that Harry's impression was that these activists would be willing to sit still and listen to an argument for light rail, while they wouldn't even listen to an argument for BRT.

As for transit demand on US29 - of course there is a limit, but it is not small. There are already 32 southbound buses in the peak morning hour, and there would be more demand if transit could bypass the congestion and if transfers were possible to the Purple Line.

by Ben Ross on Jun 10, 2012 10:25 am • linkreport

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