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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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