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Sidewalks aren't just for walking

On narrow sidewalks, there's often a tension between different users and activities. But sidewalks in an urban place need to make room for people to do more than just walk through.

Pedestrians shuffle through the sidewalk on Bethesda Avenue. All photos by the author.

On Black Friday, I went to the Apple Store in Bethesda Row to get my computer checked out. Though the area is a really popular destination for shopping and dining, the sidewalks are surprisingly narrow, and seemingly designed to make walking difficult and unpleasant.

Here's the sidewalk two doors down from the Apple Store on Bethesda Avenue. Next to the curb, there's a row of big, mature street trees in large, fenced-off planters. Where the buildings step back, there's also a little seating area with some benches.

The level of the street falls about a foot here, meaning the seating area is actually below the sidewalk. So there's a brick wall around the benches, just in case anyone falls.

That leaves about four feet for the actual sidewalk, which becomes a narrow channel between the storefronts and the brick wall. Since it's also on an incline, there's a railing to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, blocking off about a foot of sidewalk between the railing and the storefronts.

The woman in the red coat is about to walk into a railing.

On a busy day, or frankly on any day when people are outside, you can watch folks struggle to pass each other through this slalom course: shoppers with bags, parents with strollers, or groups of friends chatting. They look down to avoid eye contact, form a single-file line, or swivel their bodies to squeeze through. The sidewalk discourages strolling or lingering here, which is part of the attraction of Bethesda Row.

Given, this is right across from Bethesda Lane, a pedestrian-only street. And Bethesda Avenue itself is a pretty narrow and slow-moving street, which is much nicer to walk along than Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, where the sidewalks are similarly pedestrian-hostile but there's far more car traffic.

But it still shows what happens when designers and engineers don't really think about the experience of walking through a place. Bethesda Row has most of the pieces to be a great place to hang out and gather, and most of the time it works really well. But poorly-designed sidewalks make it hard to enjoy being here.

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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Bethesda has a few other sidewalks like that right nearby, and a few lesser examples over on Norfolk. While it isn't the case right in this spot, for the most part it seems like it's because they gave restaurants too much space for outdoor seating.

by Brian S on Dec 2, 2013 10:59 am • linkreport

Actually, I sort-of-disagree with you about that specific piece of sidewalk, and more generally about this sort of pedestrian bottleneck. I think it's an inevitable element in an actual urban environment. I'll allow that it's missing teenagers racing through twice as fast as anyone else-- but Bethesda teenagers are actually rather polite.

by MattF on Dec 2, 2013 11:00 am • linkreport

Woooo Weeee, you sure did cherry pick didn't you Dan. That area has mid block pedestrian crossings, wide sidewalks across the street, a narrow two lane street, etc. To wit, Given, this is right across from Bethesda Lane, a pedestrian-only street. Literally you are talking about maybe 10 feet, over hundreds and hundreds of feet of sidewalk. Why didn't you pick on somewhere more conducive to your argument, recently built, white flint metro area maybe?

by Bill the Wanderer on Dec 2, 2013 11:04 am • linkreport

Cherry picking? Bethesda may be very walkable but this section is designed in a f-ing stupid way. The brick wall makes absolutely no sense.

The "walk somewhere else" suggestion isn't very helpful if you want to get to those stores that are serviced by this sidewalk section. Like if I want to go to North Face, I can't use Bethesda Lane to get there because obviously it isn't on that street.

by MLD on Dec 2, 2013 11:35 am • linkreport

Sidewalks shouldn't have a hierarchy like you could expect for cars or even bikes. They should be very standard. Humans are irascible, we told to walk somewhere else they simply won't.

by Drumz on Dec 2, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] Pretty much every article is a complaint about some facet of urban life in Montgomery County, government policy, institution, or infrastructure. Don't get me wrong, many of these articles are valid, relevant, informative, and are clearly thoroughly researched, but the other half pretty much amount to nitpickinging over minute issues. [Deleted.]

The pieces on DC strike a reasonable balance with a roughly equal amount of neutral, critical, congratulatory, and advocacy articles. However, the very few pieces on Northern Virginia are almost always patting them on the back despite the fact that, outside of Arlington/Alexandria, they have some of the most anti-smart growth policies in the DC Area. [Deleted.]

I'm not trying to offend here, just relaying an observation. Some of the best commentary I've read on this website was written, but it would nice to read about what Montgomery County is doing right once in a while in order to prevent readers from being inundated by their supposedly numerous missteps and forming a very negative opinion of the county and state.

by A Reader on Dec 2, 2013 12:08 pm • linkreport

In Montreal cafes are allowed to rent the public parking spaces in front and build decks for dining. This aleves a lot of the friction between diners and pedestrians by clearing more of the sidewalk for pedestrians.

by Tom Coumaris on Dec 2, 2013 12:49 pm • linkreport

And in Paris there's several pedestrian arcades incorporated into the fronts of buildings. The south side of F St. NW between 12th and 13th has a wonderful one of these. They protect pedestrians from weather and encourage shopping.

We could give incentives for buildings in high density areas to have pedestrian arcades.

by Tom Coumaris on Dec 2, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

I don't think Dan "resents" Maryland at all. As his bio says, he lives in Silver Spring. All of his criticism seems to be constructive, he's not bashing the county, he's pointing out ways it can improve. I think Dan does a great job at this by drawing our attention to issues we may not have known about or that deserve more attention. He also does a great job of covering the east side of the county, which is often (wrongly) overshadowed by the wealthier western side. I think he does quality work covering these issues, and I hope he continues to do so.

by Sean on Dec 2, 2013 1:00 pm • linkreport

My standard for sidewalks is 4' bare bones only in non urban or very residential areas. Everywhere else should be at least 8', preferablly 12" in high traffic areas. 12' is less than one travel lane and one parking lane. I would love to see more pedestrian avenues which have been shown, around the world, to be very successful in all climates.

by BTA on Dec 2, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Silver Springer on Dec 2, 2013 1:29 pm • linkreport

Thanks, Sean. I love Montgomery County and have lived here almost all of my life, but I don't think there's anything wrong with giving constructive criticism where it's due. I want to make my community a better place to live, whether it's through adequate sidewalks or more equitable schools. If that's nitpicking, then I guess I'm guilty as charged.

by dan reed! on Dec 2, 2013 1:45 pm • linkreport

Why isn't anyone asking the more important question...

Why would you go to an apple store on Black Friday to get your computer checked out? I would rather give myself a lobotomy.

by ChrisB on Dec 2, 2013 2:29 pm • linkreport

check out the FHWA citation in this blog entry:


I agree with you that we have to be focused on ensuring decently wide walkways in pedestrian priority areas.

Someone above mentioned the Pedestrian only street across the street. That's great if you're going to Le Creuset (we use the organge stuff) but irrelevant if you're walking on Bethesda Ave.

... although ChrisB makes a good point.

by Richard Layman on Dec 2, 2013 3:31 pm • linkreport

The design of that sidewalk may be a legacy of the original building. The building used to be a warehouse along the old Georgetown Branch railroad. The original wall was about halfway between the present front of the shops and the curb. When the warehouse was converted to shops sometime in the 70s or 80s, the area between the former outer wall and the present wall was an open arcade, but the level of the arcade didn't exactly match the level of the sidewalk. In about 1999 or so the arcade was demolished and new facades were built on the shops along the old inner wall.

by Frank IBC on Dec 2, 2013 3:34 pm • linkreport

How big is the sidewalk its look rather small to fit things like wheelchairs or strollers ?

by kk on Dec 2, 2013 4:09 pm • linkreport

The original building line was where the outer wall of the black building is (former City Lights of China, now ShopHouse). About two feet outside the low brick wall.

The former Blockbuster (demolished and replaced by the Apple Store) also used to stick out along the original building line like the ShopHouse.

Uncle Julio's Rio Grande restaurant occupies the site of the old Moloney cement factory (Boston Market for a while).

by Frank IBC on Dec 2, 2013 4:23 pm • linkreport

I don't often agree with Mr. Reed but he is totally right on this one. Add to the pedestrian issues the fact that bicyclists can also use the sidewalk, all the doors to shops and restaurants open outwards, and from April to October you've got wait staff crossing the pavement with loaded trays - you've got a half dozen accidents waiting to happen every few minutes. The same situation exists on Woodmont between Bethesda and Hampden Lane on the west, and Bethesda and Elm on the east, so it's not building lines, it's what the planners approve.

by Bccer on Dec 2, 2013 9:21 pm • linkreport

another controversial issue is "the green" in other words the trees. One of the reasons for the congestion is the trees, which take up a lot of space in an area of dense pedestrian activity.

Also, Bethesda does it differently than DC (with the exception of Jaleo). Most of the time, restaurants are allowed patio space immediately adjacent to their facility, not across the sidewalk and abutting the street. As Bccer points out, this increases the opportunity for accidents.

From a planning standpoint, I call it "designing conflict in" when the point of planning is to try to design out this very apparent kinds of conflict.

by Richard Layman on Dec 3, 2013 9:34 am • linkreport

I actually asked a Federal Realty guy about this once, and he claimed that MoCo patrons prefer this kind of spatial setup.

by Richard Layman on Dec 3, 2013 9:35 am • linkreport

Dan is spot on here and I'm glad to read his post highlighting the complete lack of planning by MoCo when it comes to walkable areas. In many parts of SS we lack sidewalks altogether and for me, as a parent, this is insane.

Heck I'd argue that even when MoCo chooses to build sidewalks (which is rare in many parts), they botch it up by putting the sidewalk adjacent to the street. Which is like tempting fate when someone is DUI near a pedestrain walkway.

What is so freaking hard about building a streetscape that has a decent tree buffer separating the street and the sidewalk? It's the standard across much of the developed world (and well-planned US cities), but MoCo continues to build streetscapes like they did in the 1950s ...

Keep it up Dan!

by TC on Dec 3, 2013 10:06 am • linkreport

It can get frustrating in a lot of places with tree boxes that have little fences around them being really close to fenced-in outdoor eating areas. One that comes to mind is the tree box in front of Fox & Hounds's eating area on 17th Street in Dupont, which leaves a pretty tiny space to pass. I remember once when some lit-up patrons coming out of Fox & Hounds decided to congregate there and chitchat, apparently oblivious to the fact that they were effectively blocking the entire sidewalk (and ignoring my excuse-mes until I had to shove through them).

Google Maps pic:

by iaom on Dec 3, 2013 10:21 am • linkreport

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