Greater Greater Washington

Car-centered traffic engineering ties Bethesda in knots

Construction-related street closings in downtown Bethesda have put pedestrians and cyclists at risk, while needlessly jamming up car traffic. The Montgomery County DOT, by treating a busy urban crossroads like a suburban highway, has made the streets less friendly to all.


Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues last Saturday. Photo by the author.

The intersection of Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues is the best-known place in downtown Bethesda. Located a few blocks from the Metro, it is surrounded by shops, offices, movie theaters and apartments. A complex mix of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians traverse it every day.

Faced with the problem of managing traffic while a large mixed-use development goes up, the county took a standard traffic engineering approach. It treated the crossroads as an intersection consisting of 3 roads that carry cars and sought to eliminate "conflicts" by removing obstacles to automobile movement.

But Bethesda & Woodmont is also a major travel node for bicyclesvehicles toowhich arrive on two other routes, the Capital Crescent and Georgetown Branch Trails. Suburban traffic engineering concepts, applied in this highly urban setting, have made a mess for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike.

A 20-month road closure began 3 weeks ago. Woodmont Avenue, which crosses the construction site, had one block shut completely. On Bethesda Avenue, MCDOT removed turn lanes and eliminated a section of sidewalk. It moved back stop lines for the traffic light, sending bicycles exiting the Capital Crescent Trail directly into the intersection.


Aerial view of Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues before construction. Photo from Google Earth.

Problems quickly emerged. Because motorists can no longer use Woodmont Avenue to reach Bethesda Row from the south, Bethesda Avenue carries more traffic than before. Traffic on that newly narrowed road regularly backs up.

Closing a section of Woodmont shut down an important pedestrian corridor, which connects a densely populated apartment district with downtown Bethesda and the Metro station. Pedestrians now detour through a drive-through bank.

In addition, Bethesda Avenue has foot traffic of its own. A 190-unit apartment building (where I live), stores, and restaurants adjacent to the closed sidewalk generate significant pedestrian activity. Yet the traffic plan did not replace the crosswalk lost to construction. Pedestrians now dodge cars as they cross the street.

One cause of these difficulties is that the county did not retime traffic lights. A longer green light could move through traffic faster on Bethesda Ave. But with this fix alone, turning cars would still back up at crosswalks. And faster-moving traffic would endanger pedestrians crossing Bethesda Avenue and bicyclists leaving the trails.

The traffic engineers, focused as usual on cars, made another, more fundamental mistake. They ignored the movement of bicycles between the trail and the roadways. The great majority of weekday cyclists go from the trail into the traffic lanes. The new traffic pattern endangers these cyclists with a signal that sends them into moving auto traffic.

On-street cyclists moving to and from bike trail during morning rush hour. Photo by the author.

Also, the construction traffic pattern continues the county's ongoing disregard for the safety and convenience of pedestrians. There may not be room for a temporary walkway next to the construction, but a crosswalk could have been marked where the sidewalk ends on Bethesda Avenue. Instead, the county erected a "Sidewalk Closed" sign a block away, needlessly driving away walk-in customers that the street's businesses depend on.

This construction project cries out for innovative traffic management. A two-phase traffic signal could fix many of the problems pedestrians and cyclists face during the construction. One phase would be green for all pedestrian crossings and for bicycles entering from the trails, making the intersection much safer and more convenient.

The other phase would be a flashing yellow that allows cars to move slowly through the intersection in all directions. The significant reduction of traffic on Woodmont Avenue since the closure of the block south of the intersection could make this feasible. Pedestrians and cyclists would be much better off, and auto traffic would back up less.

That might or might not be the best solution. What is certain is the need for more multimodal thinking. In this sort of urban setting, traditional traffic engineering fails pedestrians and cyclists, and hurts motorists too.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 

Comments

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Totally agree. Another solution would have been not to agree a project that closes off a major artery for cars, bikes, and pedestrians. I grew up in New York City, and even when building a 30 story apartment they never shut a street down completely.

And for two years Bethesda is going to look like this.

by pjwjr on Oct 3, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

Does Maryland have any mitigation rules where you can force developers to pay for the inconvenience of their new construction?

by charlie on Oct 3, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

Between the overzealous parking enforcement and the bonehead county planners who allowed this project, Bethesda is quickly becoming a place where I enjoy less and less.

by Michael on Oct 3, 2012 1:10 pm • linkreport

Bethesda has been screwed up at least since they refused to do a study upon the Wisconsin Avenue corridor freeway, instead placing the traffic upon the surface streets. The freeway could have been cut and cover beneath the buildings that were constructed anyway for WMATA induced development.

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2006/12/1959-northwest-freeway.html

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Oct 3, 2012 1:22 pm • linkreport

One solution for pedestrians coming from the south of the downtown corridor would be to REQUIRE the developer that has cut off their access to downtown Bethesda to LIGHT THE CRESCENT TRAIL between Bradley Blvd. and Bethesda Ave.

Lighting that section of the trail would make that an alternative to walking around the obstruction for a few extra hours at night.

by Capt. Hilts on Oct 3, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

The solution for a pedestrian and cyclist problem is to ram a freeway through the neighborhood. Yes!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Oct 3, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

Interesting that place like New York they can build 100-story skyscrpaers without taking away a single lane of traffic, but in this area, they need to take away half the street and endanger everyone who passes by just to build a 10-story box.

by ceefer on Oct 3, 2012 2:54 pm • linkreport

@Michael

This is not a boneheaded project, it's an extension of Bethesda Row with more street level space for restaurants and shops, and more residents paying taxes, purchasing goods and helping activate the streets.

If one wants to argue that we should not make parts of Montgomery Co urban, then make that battle somewhere outside the beltway away from a metro station. Bethesda has been an urban node for decades and this is the natural progression to complete the holes in the urban fabric. The project that has triggered this road closure is small compared to some of the others that are either also under construction up in the Woodmont Triangle area, or that are approved and have yet to start building.

by Gull on Oct 3, 2012 3:34 pm • linkreport

Gull, I didn't say the project was boneheaded, I said the county planners are the boneheads. Poor planning for this project has made this part of Bethesda unfriendly to both pedestrians and bicyclist. There could have been a better way not to disrupt this part of Bethesda so much, but the planners did a lousy job of implementing this project. And ceefer is right. Places like New York can put up a building ten times the size without this type of disruption.

by Michael on Oct 3, 2012 4:18 pm • linkreport

@ Michael

Planners only create the land use and environmental portions of Master Plans, and review proposed development against the Master Plans, Zoning and environmental regulations. MCDOT gives their own requirements for roads, multi-modal provisions and road closures, along with the Permitting Services Division of the County. The problems may be County caused, but it's unfair to blame just the planners for the problems currently happening in Bethesda.

by Gull on Oct 3, 2012 4:33 pm • linkreport

@ceefer

It is not the size of the box above that is driving the closure of Woodmont Ave., but the size of the undergrounding parking lot being built below. The county wants a large parking lot for 900+ cars, and that can't be practically built below only the Lot31 (west side) parking lot because the ramps and entrances take out so much space. Closing the street allows the parking lot to be built extending also under Lot31A (east side of Woodmont).

I'm not asserting the larger parking lot is a good idea, but only pointing out it is the parking lot, not the buildings, that drive the decision to close Woodmont Ave.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Oct 3, 2012 4:38 pm • linkreport

Can you imagine what the operating expenses alone (ventilation, etc.) would be for all these fantasy underground freeways?

by Frank IBC on Oct 3, 2012 5:56 pm • linkreport

Thank you for bringing attention to the situation. I'm shocked to learn how long this project is supposed to last. As a frequent walker, driver, and cyclist through that intersection, I'm appalled by its current state.

The worst is as a pedestrian. When I have a walk sign to cross Bethesda Avenue just west of the intersection, cars driving south on Woodmont can turn right to head west on Bethesda Ave., and they can't see me until they complete the turn.

They complete the turn and have already started accelerating, not realizing that there is a crosswalk waiting for them on the other side of the barrier wall. It's a nightmare.

by Corey on Oct 3, 2012 9:18 pm • linkreport

"it is the parking lot, not the buildings, that drive the decision to close Woodmont Ave."

And they're realigning the street and intersection. That's why the road is closed. Come on people, do your homework!

by jag on Oct 3, 2012 10:59 pm • linkreport

Yeah, it's a mess, but... 1) closing Lot 31 eliminated most of the need for traffic along that block of Woodmont, 2) downtown Bethesda is an urban island in a vast suburban ocean-- so, providing adequate parking really is necessary, like it or not 3) I agree that there's no excuse for screwing cyclists and pedestrians; the county needs to do better.

More broadly, I strongly support higher density in the Urban District but it's just a fact that the areas directly to the east and to the west of the UD are car-dependent.

by MattF on Oct 4, 2012 8:26 am • linkreport

The developers should pay for traffic officers (not flaggers but actual police officers) to direct traffic during rush hour. The weekend poses a signifiant challenge as trail traffic increases and busy times extend beyond rush hour. This is the perfect location for an all cross signal or so-called barnes-dance to allow foot and bike traffic to safely cross in a timely fashion.

by andy2 on Oct 4, 2012 8:54 am • linkreport

Wayne P. and Jag are correct - a lot of people here seem to be missing the fact that Woodmont Avenue is closed not because buildings are being built on either side, but because a garage is being built UNDER it.

by Frank IBC on Oct 4, 2012 9:08 am • linkreport

@Corey:

The worst is as a pedestrian. When I have a walk sign to cross Bethesda Avenue just west of the intersection, cars driving south on Woodmont can turn right to head west on Bethesda Ave., and they can't see me until they complete the turn.

They complete the turn and have already started accelerating, not realizing that there is a crosswalk waiting for them on the other side of the barrier wall. It's a nightmare.

Unless the driver is completely oblivious to their surroundings I don't see how you can make that case: http://goo.gl/maps/QctQA. As you can see a driver has a clear line of sight to the Bethesda cross walk. This will obviously change depending how crowded the sidewalk will be. Plus the condition that you describe here existed before construction began.

My only recommendation for change would be to have a covered crosswalk for crossing Woodmont on the south side of Bethesda Ave.

by Fitz on Oct 4, 2012 10:33 am • linkreport

@Fitz
Unless the driver is completely oblivious to their surroundings
Yes, well this is the usual state for a large portion of drivers so should we be surprised when there are collisions?

You can SEE the crosswalk, but Corey is right that the crosswalk is not in a driver's usual line of sight. At most intersections the crosswalk is close enough to the parallel street that it is within the line of sight of a driver looking straight ahead, here the crosswalk is not.

This intersection has been terrible for a long time - it is desperately in need of a pedestrian/bike-only signal because of the increased pedestrian and bike volume from the trail.

by MLD on Oct 4, 2012 10:43 am • linkreport

@Fitz

Your link to Google's Street View image of the intersection predates this construction project. It is bad, especially in the twilight hours near the end of rush hour.

I think the crosswalk was repainted maybe 15 or more feet west of its original location that was closer to where turning vehicles expect it to be.

The move is compounded by the presence of construction equipment and additional barriers.

Pedestrians also have to be particularly mindful of cyclists who stream out of the CCT. There's now some ridiculous wall that obstructs line of sight for pedestrians and cyclists approaching the intersection of the sidewalk with the CCT entrance.

by Corey on Oct 4, 2012 11:13 am • linkreport

Fitz - Corey is correct. This one of several issues at the intersection and others nearby that I left out of my post because it is already overburdened with detail.

If you look at the third photo in my post and compare it with your Streetview photo, you will see that a group of large potted plants and the Bethesda Urban Partnership's pushcart have been placed where they block the view of a driver who is about to turn. They can and should be moved.

Further problems are (a) drivers can no longer see bicycles approaching on the trail, because the trail is hidden behind scaffolding, and (b) the wide turning radius encourages drivers to move fast. These are not as easily fixed -- fixing them requires a reconceptualization of the intersection such as what I suggest in the post.

by Ben Ross on Oct 4, 2012 11:35 am • linkreport

Regarding the crosswalk it does appear that it has been moved back. So yes, that would make it more difficult for drivers turning on to Bethesda Ave. I'm still not convinced that the intersection is anymore dangerous than it was before. Previously that intersection was already slow moving, and now with construction everywhere that's an extra incentive to slow down.

I ran by here Saturday and on to the CCT, as I've done pretty much every Saturday for the past two years, and while it was jarring to see changes, it didn't feel any more dangerous. Everyone (cyclists, pedestrians and cars) just needs to slow down and be more cautious.

More optimal timing of the lights and a diagonal crosswalk would probably fix a lot of problems here.

by Fitz on Oct 4, 2012 12:37 pm • linkreport

i pass through every morning on bike coming on Bethesda Ave. east to the CCT headed north (not south...). I must cross the mess. The lights haven't been retimed, so Woodmont has a very long green without sense, except for on weekends when the crosswalk by the CCT needs it to clear pedestrians. Agreed with Corey, folks turning right from Woodmont to Bethesda make nearly all of their turn then become aware of the crosswalk.

It is more dangerous than before. Previously one could effectively ride with traffic on the bike (my preference). That is most certainly more difficult for my path now. Also, the sidewalk at the trail entrance is not wide so during busy times/nice weather people pile up there and spill into the street.

The solution to all of this would involve setting the intersection up two-phase, and then stationing police along Bethesda Ave. to hand out tickets to anyone a) making a 3-6 point U-turn in their SUV while on the phone, stopping traffic. b) cars standing making drop offs. c) anyone on the phone. I would then raise enough money with a week to put the CCT *under* the intersection. :)

by isThisAppropriateName on Oct 4, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

Sadly, after living in Bethesda over 20 years, this project was the last straw of poor city planning I could take. Im putting my home, just a few blocks from here, on the market next month. Im sure since I have a half acre some developer will buy it and put up three homes. I want to live somewhere where families can bike and walk safely to schools and parks.

by Bethesda Tax Payer on Oct 4, 2012 2:20 pm • linkreport

@Bethesda Tax Payer

I would imagine a half acre a couple of blocks from here would wind up with more than one unit if practical. We can hope at least.

by Kyle-w on Oct 4, 2012 4:08 pm • linkreport

Bethesda Tax Payer, how are the problems with this one intersection making it impossible for your family to "bike and walk safely to schools and parks"? Can't you just take Elm or Bradley and lose the melodrama?

If you're looking for sympathy for the prospect of your half-acre estate being converted into housing for additional families who want to live in Bethesda, you're looking in the wrong place.

by Frank IBC on Oct 4, 2012 4:15 pm • linkreport

GH- "... ram a freeway through the neighborhood. Yes! "

Indeed, through space that was cleared anyway for WMATA induced development, or beneath Wisconsin Avenue itself in the fashion of the Connecticut Avenue tunnel beneath DuPont Circle.

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Oct 8, 2012 2:30 am • linkreport

To make it eminently clear for those who don't understand sarcasm, in no way do I approve of the idea of putting a freeway through this area in any way, shape, or form. I believe that's absolutely wrong.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Oct 8, 2012 7:46 am • linkreport

Considering the biggest CBD road tunnel project of them all, the Big Dig, built about 7 miles of tunnels and was widely criticized for massive cost overruns and shoddy work, the idea that we could have or would have built tunneled freeways through DC from places as far away as Bethesda is ludicrous.

by MLD on Oct 8, 2012 8:39 am • linkreport

@ MLD - Yes, the Big Dig cost several billion dollars per mile. And that does not include operating expenses such as ventilation or lighting. Imagine that multiplied by the mileage of the 1960s DC freeway proposals.

And I notice that someone here is posting under a new nick.

by Frank IBC on Oct 8, 2012 9:19 am • linkreport

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