Greater Greater Washington

Berliner hammers MCDOT for bad road designs

Plans for White Flint call for roads that accommodate people walking, biking, and sitting at cafes as well as driving, but Montgomery County transportation officials are disregarding those plans, as Dan Reed reported. Councilmember Roger Berliner took them to task in a recent letter.


Photo by Dome Poon on Flickr.

Berliner, who is the County Council's transportation chair and whose District 1 also includes White Flint, points out how the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) didn't design the same road as in the approved Sector Plan.

That plan specifies a road with bike lanes as well as a path for walking, and enough room for sidewalk cafes. Instead, MCDOT squeezed all of these into less space in order to move even more cars faster.

MCDOT officials told Berliner they plan to redesign Old Georgetown a second time in the future to fit in bike lanes, but only once traffic drops in the area!

That's rightwhile the White Flint plan aims to encourage bicycling as one of several ways to reduce dependence on driving, transportation officials are saying they want to see the effects of this lesser dependence before putting in the basic infrastructure to make it possible. That wasn't in the plan, and they haven't specified how much of a traffic drop is enough to make them willing to tolerate biyclists on the road.

As Berliner more circumspectly points out, MCDOT seems to have a pervasive attitude that it should design its roads solely around driving needs, and then only if there's extra room, it can accommodate other users, or just promise to do so at some vague future time. This is similar to county officials' baffling attitude in Clarksburg that they won't build an important crosswalk until after an planned but unfunded multi-lane road gets built, who knows when.

MCDOT treats pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure as "nice to have" extra features on roads, not integral parts of a transportation network that shares space and balances needs among all userseven when a plan says otherwise. Elected officials like Berliner will have to keep calling out this bad behavior in hopes that the department will eventually get the message.

Here is the relevant part of Berliner's letter:

I am very concerned that the current design for Old Georgetown Road between the current Executive Boulevard alignment and Rockville Pikethe first and one of the most important areas being developedis inconsistent with the approved White Flint Sector Plan.

As you know, the Sector Plan calls for both a shared use path and bike lanes along this stretch of road (p. 56). Regrettably, MCDOT's 35% design drawings include no bike lanes and only a 13 foot shared use path/sidewalk as opposed to a sidewalk and a shared use path. The combined facility would not be wide enough to allow for the desired café seating in front of the adjacent properties, customers exiting and entering retail establishments, and safe access for pedestrians and bicyclists. exiting and entering retail establishments, and safe access for pedestrians and bicyclists. These functions simply cannot coexist in a 13 foot span directly adjacent to retail structures. The shared use path should be ten feet wide according to ASHTA [I think he means AASHTO] standards.

Adding to these concerns is the fact that this segment of Old Georgetown Road is also supposed to accommodate the Recreation Loop called for in the approved Sector Plan (p. 59). In the current design you shared at the meeting on Monday, there is no Recreation Loop. If it will not be possible to accommodate this element, important to manyif not allresidents involved in the WF Sector Plan process, then I am interested in hearing what options are being considered as an alternative route.

MCDOT has stated that the current realignment for Old Georgetown Road is a temporary measure and that when the Plan meets its mode share goals and traffic has lessened, a second realignment of the road will be considered/constructed and that this realignment would include bike lanes. The problem with this approach is threefold:

(1) MCDOT's statement is predicated on an assumption that bike lanes are only warranted where vehicular traffic meets a certain, but yet unspecified, level. This creates great uncertainty regarding the future of bike facilities, the shared use path, and recreation loop as called for in the Plan;

(2) In order to meet the Plan's mode share goals, we should implement multi-modal, complete streets on the front end, not at the end stages of the Plan; and

(3) It is costly and a potential waste of scarce tax dollars to reconstruct Old Georgetown twice as opposed to taking a long term approach and reconstructing it once, integrating multimodal elements into the design.

Read the whole letter and thank Councilmember Berliner for his action on this isssue.
David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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The "thank Councilmember Berliner" link looks to be not functioning.

by thump on Jun 24, 2013 11:08 am • linkreport

I thought that master plans were, in effect, the law. So (for example) if the Sector Plan said that a road will have both a shared use path and bike lanes, then it would not be legal for the county to build a road without both a shared use path and bike lanes. But obviously my understanding must be wrong, because MCDOT seems very often to propose things that are counter to the master plans. Could somebody please explain?

by Miriam on Jun 24, 2013 11:10 am • linkreport

Miriam,

Master Plans are only guiding documents. Numerous court cases have actually proven that a Master Plan does not need to be followed. Generally, Montgomery County treats Master Plans very seriously, especially when reviewing development plans at the MNCPPC level. Plans do not always take in every level of detail when they are drafted, and don't anticipate fully the way an area will develop, or how a community may change over time, which is part of why they are meant to be flexible. In this case MCDOT is using the flexibility of a Master Plan to push through standard road engineering. The only legally binding part of planning and development is Zoning. The zoning code is a legal document, and can be enforced in a court of law. Zoning however does not dictate road or infrastructure design, nor an exact use on a property, is only sets parameters including size, density, types of uses and general design guidelines that a development must meet.

by Gull on Jun 24, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

Thump -

I think the link only works if you have Outlook installed on your computer.

by Frank IBC on Jun 24, 2013 11:24 am • linkreport

@Miriam "I thought that master plans were, in effect, the law."

They're supposed to be, but politics sometimes gets in the way of the law being adhered to. We're having a similar issue in DC where the Comprehansive Plan enacted and voted on by Council some 7 years ago is being ignored and misconstrued by the people entrusted to carry it out. While there's a lot good about the proposed zoning revisions, they are without doubt far outside the scope of any changes provided for by the changes in the comprehensive plan. The lesson to be leaned here is that it's not over until the fat lady sings.

by A neighbor on Jun 24, 2013 11:25 am • linkreport

My personal read of MCDOT's actions is they are just lazy. These engineers probably have been doing things cookie-cutter for such a long time that when they are asked to build something new they probably just roll their eyes and figure it's not worth the hassle and continue what they've always done.

by dc denizen on Jun 24, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

Bike infrastructure being conditional is nothing new but it's interesting to see the logic of "because traffic is too bad" so baldly on display. As if the number of cars is what concerns cyclists rather than the fact that they're just trying to get to where they're going without too many close calls.

by drumz on Jun 24, 2013 11:54 am • linkreport

@Frank IBC-I do, but it didn't work the first two times I clicked on it. Worked just now though.

by thump on Jun 24, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

"My personal read of MCDOT's actions is they are just lazy. These engineers probably have been doing things cookie-cutter for such a long time that when they are asked to build something new they probably just roll their eyes and figure it's not worth the hassle and continue what they've always done."
by dc denizen on Jun 24, 2013 11:45 am

And, exactly what are you reading to come to that seemingly baseless assertion/conclusion?

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jun 24, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport

So why is the county transportation department allowed to disregard the expressed will of the county legislature? Isn't MCDOT accountable to the County Council? Shouldn't someone be fired?

by alurin on Jun 24, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

@Fischy
Because they didn't follow the guidelines and said something as ridiculous as "but only once traffic drops in the area". I mean, common, engineers are supposed to solve problems, not say we're going to do the same old thing and hope it solves itself...people in many industries are entrenched in doing things the same way they've always done it. It's hard to change a culture and this is probably just another example. Construction, traffic, development is no different to this kind of inertia as any other industry.

by dc denizen on Jun 24, 2013 1:30 pm • linkreport

MCDOT never considers the possibility that improving ped and bike facilities might actually lower motor vehicle traffic and hence demand for the roads. They will continue to build roads that are scary for cyclists and pedestrians and point to the lack of bike/ped as evidence to build more roads.

by SJE on Jun 24, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

@SJE -- There's a reason for that. Improving ped and bike facilities will not lower motor vehicle traffic unless it makes the roads so congested that drivers finally give up. Bike lanes might even lead to hundreds of additional bike trips each day. I doubt it, but it's not impossible. there might be more walkers, too...but, road traffic will inevitably increase, not decrease, unless the population trends reverse.

Bike lanes represent a choice to make roads accessible to other modes of traffic, but at most they might lower the slope of the increase in traffic. You're not going to see numbers anything like the thousands of additional cars that take to the roads each year.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jun 24, 2013 2:17 pm • linkreport

automatic response to Ed F

WHAT ABOUT ROSSLYN-BALLSTON!!!

automatic response to that

"RBC is different because of proximity to DC, legacy street layout, etc!"

eh. Im not sure that the biking/walking trips will be enough to lessen traffic in themselves - it does seem though that waiting to implement complete streets till auto LOS has improved goes against both the plan, and good policy, as well argued in the letter.

I dont attribute it to laziness - designing roads in built up areas is hard, and the bike lanes, etc add one more constraint. So I can see its natural for the highway engineers want to delay them till another constraint (high traffic) goes away. But its also reasonable for berliner to push back, and reiterate the plan and its goals.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 24, 2013 2:44 pm • linkreport

Fischy: I don't agree. The facilities are so poor in many parts of MoCo that it is unsafe or at least scary to get around by anything except car, at least for most people.

by SJE on Jun 24, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

@Fischy -- bike lanes and sidewalks will never reduce car traffic, because there are so many parts of the county where there's no good alternative to getting around by car, so we have to build roads for the car traffic, because bike lanes and sidewalks will never reduce car traffic, because...

by Miriam on Jun 24, 2013 3:05 pm • linkreport

designing roads in built up areas is hard, and the bike lanes, etc add one more constraint. So I can see its natural for the highway engineers want to delay them till another constraint (high traffic) goes away

That's lazy...to not create mixed-use roadways because it's "hard" or "natural" is lazy. Sorry, I know it's a harsh word to use, but these guys are paid to figure out the hard stuff, it's what the community and the county asked for, and that's what they go to school for. What happens to all the people who live there and bought into the mixed-use future? Now the traffic engineers say, "though, that's too hard for us to do. Too bad."

by dc denizen on Jun 24, 2013 3:05 pm • linkreport

Is there a link to the plan Mr. Berliner is protesting? Lacking that, I can't say much about the pros/cons of MCDOT's plan, but it does seem reasonable to carefully evaluate expected future traffic volume before acting to reduce traffic capacity.

by Chris S. on Jun 24, 2013 3:08 pm • linkreport

@ Chris S. -- this is what I get when I Google "White Flint Sector Plan":

http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/community/whiteflint/

by Miriam on Jun 24, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

"That's lazy...to not create mixed-use roadways because it's "hard" or "natural" is lazy. Sorry, I know it's a harsh word to use, but these guys are paid to figure out the hard stuff, it's what the community and the county asked for, and that's what they go to school for"

Most of them went to school in Civil E programs that taught how to build roads to move motor vehicles, and where the geeks who didnt like roads learned who to build rail lines. And where they learned about LOS (traditionally defined) as a metric. So, in their minds they DID come up with a solution. They designed a road (in this instance - CM berliner seems to indicate that on other roads they HAVE done better on complete streets) - that gets good LOS, etc and they have suggested that when the urbanist magic reduces AADT, THEN they will rebuild the road. So, reframed, the problem is solved.

Its up to the political leadership to clarify that the desirability of multimodalism and the need to avoid rebuilding the road twice, are so important as to make deterioration in auto LOS a worthwhile tradeoff. Unless the original plan explicitly mentioned decrease in auto LOS (which I doubt) I can well understand the reluctance of highway engineers to make that leap themselves, when the leap both goes against their training, the (until quite recently) standards of their profession, and the desired on approach on many projects OUTSIDE urban areas.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 24, 2013 3:16 pm • linkreport

But the problem isn't solved...no matter how many acronyms are thrown at it.

by dc denizen on Jun 24, 2013 3:23 pm • linkreport

@ dc denizen "That's lazy...to not create mixed-use roadways because it's "hard" or "natural" is lazy. Sorry, I know it's a harsh word to use, but these guys are paid to figure out the hard stuff, it's what the community and the county asked for, and that's what they go to school for. What happens to all the people who live there and bought into the mixed-use future?"

Well, one could just as easily wonder what happens to all the people who live there having bought into the suburban present.

by Chris S. on Jun 24, 2013 3:26 pm • linkreport

They sit in traffic.

by dc denizen on Jun 24, 2013 3:26 pm • linkreport

LOS is level of service and AADT is average anual daily traffic. And yeah, the Civil engineers arent going to make LOS worse without getting sufficient direction to achieve optimal "CYA". So that when LOS gets works and drivers sit in traffic, and say "why did these idiot engineers design it this way?" they can point to explicit directives from their political superiors.

"What happens to all the people who live there and bought into the mixed-use future?"

They will get their Complete Streets, thanks to the Council's intervention. Complete streets done, pols get to take credit with the mixed use future crowd, engineers get to hide behind pols when suburban present people complain. Win-win all around - the system WORKS!

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 24, 2013 3:39 pm • linkreport

If they can also expand quality restaurant and retail options and reduce traffic congestion, it certainly will be win-win all around.

by Chris S. on Jun 24, 2013 3:57 pm • linkreport

And that's the main problem with LOS of service. It only looks at vehicle flow (which is going to inordinately elevate the importance SOVs)so just about anything you do to improve anything else will have a negative impact on LOS like putting in crosswalks, bike lanes, bus stops etc. If you measured the number of "trip" capacity of something through an intersection, you might get a different take. I'm not blaming the particular engineers for following it, but using LOS without considering other factors is kind of a self fulfilling prophecy.

by Alan B. on Jun 24, 2013 4:08 pm • linkreport

They sit in traffic.

BOOM! Headshot.

by thump on Jun 24, 2013 4:46 pm • linkreport

@ Alan B.: "And that's the main problem with LOS of service. It only looks at vehicle flow (which is going to inordinately elevate the importance SOVs)so just about anything you do to improve anything else will have a negative impact on LOS like putting in crosswalks, bike lanes, bus stops etc."

Not necessarily. Assuming the demand is there and the design is good, then putting in crosswalks, bike lanes, and bus stops should cause enough current drivers to switch to these other transportation methods that LOS is improved even if some roads are narrowed. Which I guess is what MCDOT is evaluating at this time.

by Chris S. on Jun 24, 2013 5:03 pm • linkreport

Alan is right. The worse is when an intersection only has three crosswalks, because adding a fourth will "make LOS too bad". Except they never consider that the LOS for the pedestrian is an F-

by JJJJ on Jun 24, 2013 5:03 pm • linkreport

Of course, they sit in traffic now, because there's no other way to get around. I'm afraid I don't quite understand why the "service" in "Level of Service" does not also apply to non-motorists. The level of service for bikes and pedestrians is near-zero.

As for people who "bought in to the suburban present"... The county council presumably answers to them, in their capacity as voters. If the attempts to make the area less hostile to pedestrian and bicycle uses proves unpopular, then presumably the council will be voted out. But it is the decision of the elected representatives of the people to make, not the engineers.

by alurin on Jun 24, 2013 5:07 pm • linkreport

Chris

but its quite possible that lets say, you lose 25% of vehicle capacity, but only 20% of drivers switch modes. So net auto LOS gets worse for the residual drivers . BUT it becomes faster and easier for existing peds to cross and the folks who do switch modes benefit. So its a net positive thing, even though it makes auto LOS worse.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 24, 2013 5:09 pm • linkreport

" I'm afraid I don't quite understand why the "service" in "Level of Service" does not also apply to non-motorists. The level of service for bikes and pedestrians is near-zero. "

LOS is traditionally defined in terms of speeds and time to wait at intersections. its relatively straight forward to model,IIUC, and is useful for a range of roadways, including ones where no bikes or peds are allowed, rural roads, etc, etc. As with most bad things, there are very good reasons why its become established. It does not work well for a distinct class of road projects that are in dense areas and heavily impact significant numbers of peds and cyclists.

Those happen to be the kinds of projects we are most concerned with on this site, and of which this particular project is one.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 24, 2013 5:18 pm • linkreport

LOS is traditionally defined in terms of speeds and time to wait at intersections.

Specifically, speeds for cars, and time for people in cars to wait at intersections.

by Miriam on Jun 24, 2013 5:44 pm • linkreport

@AWitC: They will get their Complete Streets, thanks to the Council's intervention. Complete streets done, pols get to take credit with the mixed use future crowd, engineers get to hide behind pols when suburban present people complain. Win-win all around - the system WORKS!

You sound like my boss: "just dig up some marble, draw some plans, and voila! the Taj Mahal."

Getting there is not as easy as you describe it...and I think you have left out a few, much fraught over steps along the way.

by goldfish on Jun 24, 2013 10:51 pm • linkreport

"but its quite possible that lets say, you lose 25% of vehicle capacity, but only 20% of drivers switch modes. "

No, it's not possible. Seriously? You think putting in a bike lane on Old Georgetown and making crossings more pedestrian-friendly might take 20% of traffic of the road? Drop a zero and you're stlll overly optimistic.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jun 24, 2013 11:53 pm • linkreport

I've ridden Old Georgetown Road. For very experienced cyclists, it's not too bad. For every other cyclists, it is literally a nightmare. Average speeds are around 40 mph, there is no shoulder, the sidewalk is tiny and often obstructed by telephone poles and signs, driveways appear frequently, and intersections often have obstructed views. And for going N/S in that part of the County, there are few alternatives.

It's also 3 wide lanes. Accomodating cyclists is totally feasible.

by Crickey7 on Jun 25, 2013 9:50 am • linkreport

"LOS is traditionally defined in terms of speeds and time to wait at intersections.
Specifically, speeds for cars, and time for people in cars to wait at intersections."

that is correct. I assume complete streets usually does not significantly impact pedestrian speeds. it can of course impact ped wait times at intersections - but I think an at least equally important aspect of ped LOS is circuity (for a safe walking route)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 25, 2013 9:57 am • linkreport

Ed I was trying to explain how you could, mathematically, get a cost benefit ratio indicating the project is worth doing (in part due to mode shift) but still not get a mode shift high enough to lead to improved (traditional) LOS.

I was not trying to determine the actual mode shift from the project, or to determine the cost benefit ratio. I think that requires a detailed analysis with more specifics than are here.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 25, 2013 10:00 am • linkreport

The reason DOTs focus on LOS for cars only is because (a) its easy to measure (b) the DOTs are focused on cars, and have been for at least two generations. Its hard for them to adjust to a new paradigm.

by SJE on Jun 25, 2013 10:30 am • linkreport

JJJJ, the intersection at Jones Bridge Road and 355/Rockville Pike has only three crosswalks. If you are on the Southern side, you have to walk aaaaaaalllll the waaaaaaay around.

by Capt. Hilts on Jun 25, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

Seems like the term should be changed to LOAS.

by alurin on Jun 25, 2013 1:57 pm • linkreport

When DDOT did the bike plan, they used the term BLOS or Bicycle Level of Service to rank every street in DC. So I guess the equivalent would be ALOS.

by David C on Jun 25, 2013 3:01 pm • linkreport

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