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Road designs stand in the way of White Flint's urban future

White Flint's future as an urban place depends on a street network that welcomes people on foot and bike, not just in cars, and roads that are pleasant to spend time in, not just move through. But county transportation officials may not make getting there easy.

Old Georgetown Road today. Photo by the author.

On Monday, representatives of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) gave a presentation to the White Flint Implementation Advisory Committee about the Western Workaround, a planned network of new streets on the west side of Rockville Pike.

"We want to provide an environment that's pedestrian and bicyclist friendly and will encourage people to get out of their vehicles," said Bruce Johnston, MCDOT transportation engineering chief, citing the county's Road Code, which describes how to make streets in urban areas. But the streets he presented continue to prioritize moving cars over pedestrians and bicyclists or creating enjoyable urban spaces.

Old Georgetown Road will get wider, not more pleasant for people

The White Flint Sector Plan calls for Old Georgetown Road to have 4 car lanes, a median where pedestrians can wait while crossing the street, a "shared use path" for bikes and pedestrians, and one of the few actual bike lanes proposed for the area.

With ground-level shops and apartments at Pike + Rose going up on the north side and White Flint's future Civic Green on the south, this street needs to be a place for people, not a highway.

Instead, MCDOT proposes keeping the 6 existing lanes and adding 2 more at intersections for right and left turns. The bike lanes are gone, and the wide sidewalks have been reduced. The speed limit would remain at 40 miles an hour, which is totally inappropriate in an urban environment. Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, pointed out that the speed limit on Old Georgetown in downtown Bethesda, which has 4 lanes and a turn lane, is just 30 miles per hour.

The sector plan's street network (left) and bike network (right).

Johnston blamed the Maryland State Highway Administration, which controls state roads like Old Georgetown and has resisted attempts by MCDOT to lower speed limits or reduce the number of lanes.

"The state has the authority to say 'I know that's in the sector plan, but traffic volumes are what they are,'" he said, adding that if White Flint residents and landowners want bike lanes and safer, pedestrian-friendly streets, they can "go over their heads" and speak with Governor O'Malley.

Cars, not people drive design choices

But even streets that are entirely under MCDOT's jurisdiction, like an extension of Executive Boulevard, have been designed for cars first. Johnston described it as a business street with tall buildings up against the sidewalk, which might make you think of Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda, one of the best urban streets not just in the county, but in the region.

Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda. Photo by eddie welker on Flickr.

Instead, Executive Extended will be 5 lanes wide, including a turn lane. Landowners who have willingly agreed to give up land for the new street have asked MCDOT for on-street parking, which would not only serve future businesses but give pedestrians a nice buffer from traffic. Instead, on-street parking will only be available during rush hour.

Meanwhile, pedestrians and bicyclists would get a 10-foot "shared use path" on either side of the street and a 6-foot buffer. To compare, the sidewalks on Woodmont Avenue are about 20 feet wide, and there's also a separate, 6-foot wide bike lane.

When asked why there's so little room for pedestrians and cyclists, Johnston said they need all 5 lanes "because of the anticipated traffic volume of the road."

But as Fred Kent from the Project for Public Spaces likes to say, "If you design for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you design for people and places, you get people and places." It's not a given that Executive Boulevard needs 5 lanes, especially if there are legitimate alternatives to driving. But MCDOT officials seem unwilling to entertain that possibility.

Mary Ward, a White Flint resident and regular cyclist, was disappointed by the new street designs. "This kind of needs to be rethought," she said. "The Complete Streets vision is that it's all levels of cycling, not just experienced cyclists."

Better street network means baby steps

Thankfully, MCDOT's street designs are only 35% complete, meaning there's still room for improvement. Evan Goldman, vice president of development at Federal Realty, which is building Pike + Rose, says the plans are flawed, but are better than what MCDOT has presented before. For instance, lanes on many streets including Old Georgetown would be 10 or 11 feet wide, compared to 11 or 12 feet today. That means slower traffic speeds and extra space for sidewalks.

"There are a lot of good things happening here," Goldman said, though he admitted that he will go to the governor to ask for "appropriate" street designs on Old Georgetown Road.

This short stretch of Woodglen Drive will get a bike lane. Photo by the author.

Until then, the only bike lane White Flint's getting anytime soon will be on Woodglen Drive between Executive Boulevard and the Bethesda Trolley Trail, a distance of less than 1/3 mile. MCDOT will remove 6 parking spaces in front of Whole Foods to make room for a northbound bike lane. They'll also paint sharrows, or lane markings that tell drivers to watch out for bikes, in the southbound traffic lane, which will become 5 feet wider.

"There's a lot of competing uses among our roadways," said Pat Shepherd, MCDOT bikeways coordinator. "We need to reallocate this space."

Shepherd has it exactly right. The White Flint Sector Plan calls for the creation of a new downtown where people have real alternatives to driving. To make that happen, we need streets that prioritize and celebrate pedestrians and bicyclists, rather than treating them as an afterthought. And we need transportation planners, both at the state and county level, who are willing to fight for them. We shouldn't have to go to the governor to ask for bike lanes because MCDOT won't stand up for us.

Crossposted on the Friends of White Flint.

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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The part that complicates this is White Flint is outside the Beltway, surrounded by very suburban land uses and until it is nearly built out, will need to be able to attract some of these suburban people from the outside into the area to patronise businesses. Getting Old Georgetown reworked is important, but something like executive being 5 lanes could easily be changed in a few years with a few signs and paint to 3 lanes and 2 parking lanes. Look at Spring Street in Silver Spring. This road was clearly a 4 lane road at some point, and it was years later the County did pedestrian bumpouts and only striped a single lane for traffic in each direction.

by Gull on Jun 13, 2013 2:57 pm • linkreport

Having 2 lanes each way instead of 3 on Old George seems reasonable but I can understand why some people would be resistant, especially since driving options in this area going north and south are already very limited and congested. For example I use Old Georgetown to avoid Rockville Pike. The other problem is that everything east of Old Georgetown is SFH's on large lots which house folks that are unlikely to use transit.

I don't see why Executive needs 5 lanes though.

by Fitz on Jun 13, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

MCDOT loves to push blame onto others, such as SHA. Yet in downtown Bethesda, the speed limit on SHA-controlled Old Georgetown Road is 25 mph (not 30 as the county seems to have asserted at the meeting), while the speed limit on county-controlled Arlington Road is 30.

by Ben Ross on Jun 13, 2013 3:15 pm • linkreport

It's interesting to note how late this area was built up, compared to nearby areas.

If you look at topographical maps from the early 1970s, the areas along Rockville Pike between the Beltway and the southern city limit of Rockville were almost entirely green, except for a number of small buildings right on the Pike and the Korvette's (now Mid-Pike Plaza, transitioning to Pike and Rose).

By contrast, the areas along Georgia Avenue were completely developed all the way out to Aspen Hill by the late 1950s.

by Frank IBC on Jun 13, 2013 3:23 pm • linkreport

It looks like "Hoya Street" will be re-opened all the way to Rockville Pike, and the intersection with Old Georgetown Road will be squared off. Will MD 187 revert to its old route, I wonder?

by Frank IBC on Jun 13, 2013 3:42 pm • linkreport

Excellent article. They should design and implement it correctly (as a complete street) the first time. Anything else would be maddening and a waste of money.

by h st ll on Jun 13, 2013 6:15 pm • linkreport

Part of the problem is that even if you give the White Flint area a complete street grid, the areas north, south, east and west won't have a street grid. If you want to travel between White Flint and Bethesda/DC by car, you have exactly two choices: the Pike or Old Georgetown Road.

Sure, you could take metro, but it would be pretty painful to walk 10-15 minutes to the White Flint station, wait 20 minutes for a train, and walk 10-15 minutes (and paying about $6 for the privilege, I might add). Better transit options along the Pike and Old Georgetown Road would help, but only to a point.

I could go either way on Executive Blvd. Again, there aren't many east-west options. To get between White Flint and 270 you're probably taking Executive. If the street layout didn't basically force all the cars to/from 270 down that path it would be different, but that area has got those terrible suburban roads.

Yes, I know your catchphrase is that we need to move people, not cars, but I think you're kidding yourself if you don't think that's going to involve moving a lot of cars down those thoroughfares. If all the neighborhood roads didn't feed onto those roads maybe it would be different, but that's not going to change.

Anyways, a 40mph speed limit does seem nuts. You really can't drive that speed right now in the White Flint area without driving like a maniac (which a fair number of people do). I fully agree the speed limit shouldn't be above 30. It might make sense to keep it at 40 south of the White Flint area, but I can't think of a good reason to keep it 40mph in White Flint.

by Andy R on Jun 13, 2013 10:18 pm • linkreport

I was surprised that Hoya wasn't put through during the recent construction of the intersection with Executive Blvd., as that was already on the maps. One problem with that whole area is the criss-cross of through routes and the re-do of Montrose. The other is that it's already built out with fortress-like mono-function structures like the highrises on Marinelli.

Getting Park & Rose to relate, for example to the office park on Executive Blvd. would be a start; and keeping Hoya as a dead end is a necessary part of that. Rationalizing Security Lane, etc. and creating a more urban environment tied to the new Whole Foods would be another step.

Old Georgetown, I suspect, will work better as a throughfare than anything else and more feasible would be a something like flyover mid block between the Pike and Executive, as well as dealing with the still ridiculous and confusing intersection at Executive--the cutouts should go, to make this a better pedestrian environment. I'm guessing that the new apartment complex on Executive will look inward rather than outward if its like Gables' other places.

by Rich on Jun 13, 2013 10:31 pm • linkreport

@ Rich

There is (or was) a white flint II plan in the works that would look at the office park along Executive, and at Montross Crossing shopping center to see how those two areas relate between White Flint and Twinbrook. I'm not sure whats happened to that plan however.

by Gull on Jun 14, 2013 8:45 am • linkreport

"The state has the authority to say 'I know that's in the sector plan, but traffic volumes are what they are,'" he said, adding that if White Flint residents and landowners want bike lanes and safer, pedestrian-friendly streets, they can "go over their heads" and speak with Governor O'Malley.

That's bs and buck-passing. In charter counties like Montgomery, the SHA does what the county asks as long as the county provides funding. MCDOT clearly knows they're wrong on this one and they're probably under heavy pressure behind the scenes to do the right thing. Invoking the SHA's name is just trying to lie themselves out of doing the right thing and making Old Georgetown appropriate for an urban place.

by Cavan on Jun 14, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

Woodmont is not comparable to Old Georgetown. It is a shopping/restaurant destination, not a major means of north-south travel. Slowing traffic on Woodmont may enhance the atmosphere and make it more walkable. Slowing traffic on Old Georgetown makes it more difficult for people to get to places like Woodmont.

I suppose Executive Blvd could be transformed to be Woodmont-ish, but it is very, very different in character today.

by Chris S. on Jun 14, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport

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