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This bill could make Montgomery's streets better for walking

Montgomery County's urban areas are growing, but their wide, fast streets, designed to prioritize drivers over everyone else, are holding them back. A new bill going before the County Council could level the playing field for pedestrians and cyclists.

Pedestrian-unfriendly Colesville Road. Photo by the author.

Last month, Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Hans Riemer introduced several amendments to the county's Road Code, notably to reduce the "target speed," which is usually the speed limit, of new or rebuilt streets. All streets in urban areas would be designed for speeds of 25 mph, or between 30 and 40 mph on suburban arterials. On smaller residential streets, the target speed would be 20 mph.

To achieve those lower speeds, in urban areas like Silver Spring, the bill would allow lanes no wider than 10 feet, tighter curb radii at intersections, and curb bumpouts, which reduce the distance pedestrians have to cross a street. It also lets developers work with the county to put bikeshare stations or car charging outlets in their projects.

"The overarching goal of this bill is to…facilitate the implementation of pedestrian friendly, bike friendly, walkable, livable urban areas as envisioned" in county plans for areas like White Flint and Wheaton, write Berliner and Riemer in a memo to the council.

Bill 33-13, as it's officially called, is an update of the county's Road Code, which was approved in 2008 as an attempt to create "complete streets" that accommodate pedestrians and cyclists in addition to drivers. To offer recommendations, County Executive Ike Leggett convened a 24-member task force, including representatives from groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, as well as AAA. Many of the bill's progressive features fell by the wayside due to AAA pressure to allow wider roads and remove street trees, which spokesperson Lon Anderson called a hazard to drivers.

Berliner and Riemer's amendments will help the Road Code fulfill its original purpose. Whether in emerging urban places like Wheaton or older communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring that were built before cars became common, wide, fast streets are unpleasant to walk on at best, and at worst, a danger to pedestrians. This bill will make those streets safer by slowing traffic and forcing drivers to pay attention.

But complete streets are also better for the county's economy. More people want to live in a walkable community, which translates to rising home prices in places like Silver Spring.

Streets that are nicer to walk or bike along mean more foot traffic, which means more customers for local shops and restaurants. And studies show that pedestrians and cyclists spend as much if not more at businesses than drivers do. That's especially good news for the county's Nighttime Economy Initiative, which seeks to encourage nightlife in its urban areas.

As in 2008, this bill could face resistance both now and if it's passed. The county's Department of Transportation has been reluctant to create more pedestrian-friendly streets in White Flint or even in school zones. Despite efforts to promote pedestrian safety, county police still side with drivers even when those on foot aren't breaking the law.

Berliner and Riemer's bill deserves all the support it can get. But for it to be successful, we'll need a change of attitude towards pedestrians and cyclists. Some will call lower speed limits and curb bumpouts an inconvenience to drivers, but they remove barriers to making Montgomery County a better and more prosperous place to live.

The County Council will have a public hearing about Bill 33-13 Thursday, January 23 at 7:30 pm at the Council Office Building, located at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. To sign up or for more information, you can visit the county's website.

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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More complete streets are greatly needed in MoCo. Cabi stations are now in Silver Spring, however they have done nothing to make the area actually pleasant to bike around. The roads are too wide, and drivers want to drive too fast to make casual cycling a comfortable affair.

by engrish_major on Jan 6, 2014 12:16 pm • linkreport

Oh, I wish that my neighborhood in Fairfax Co would be retrofitted with these rules. Speed limit is 25 mph, but the road was built for 35 and so most people go 35.

by Jasper on Jan 6, 2014 12:21 pm • linkreport

Long overdue. I love living in downtown Silver Spring, but one thing that badly needs attention is the walkability of the main arterial roads slicing through the middle of it. If the county wants to see people continue to pay a premium to live in DTSS then they need to wise up and stop treating the area as a cut through to Olney and Howard Co. Prioritize residents of the immediate community instead of people who live 20 miles outside of it.

by jag on Jan 6, 2014 12:50 pm • linkreport

This wouldn't affect any of the state-maintained roads, right? My understanding is that the SHA is in charge of both Georgia and Colesville in DTSS, and has no interest in making them more friendly to pedestrians.

by Gray on Jan 6, 2014 1:00 pm • linkreport

Gray - SHA is quite deferential to county policies. While the SHA would not be bound to comply with this legislation, there is a good chance it would have some impact on SHA actions.

by Ben Ross on Jan 6, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

My conversation with a Monty Cty police officer telling me that "they need to remove the 'cars yield to pedestrian' signs at the Trader Joe's crossing," and "pedestrians can enter that crosswalk only when the lights at the surrounding intersections are both red" was really sobering.

by Capt. Hilts on Jan 6, 2014 1:46 pm • linkreport

@Ben Ross - I really hope you are right! I live in Wheaton and walk to the Metro every day along University Blvd, which is horribly unpleasant with narrow sidewalks and cars zooming by at 40+ mph.

I also hope that the county considers developing some kind of standard for distance between crosswalks. It's not enough to lower the speed limit and design multimodal roads, there should be marked, signalized pedestrian crosswalks at most cross streets in urban areas. Again, using University Blvd. as an example (talk about what you know, right?) - there are no crosswalks between Georgia and Amherst Avenues, yet there are constantly people trying to cross here because there are a lot of businesses and bus stops on either side of University. Crosswalks at Elkin and Fern Streets would go a long way in improving safety and the overall pedestrian experience.

by Rebecca on Jan 6, 2014 1:51 pm • linkreport

This is a step in the right direction. But we need more enforcement of the laws and pedestrian friendly policies. You can design a neighborhood street for 20mph and put up signs, but will it stop people doing 35? My own street has parking on both sides, making it effectively a single lane. We have signs warning that there are children. But we still have drivers speeding.

by SJE on Jan 6, 2014 4:02 pm • linkreport

That's my concern, SJE, I the County police on the beat - who seem to spend the vast majority of their time in cars - don't seem to have gotten the message.

by Capt. Hilts on Jan 6, 2014 5:40 pm • linkreport

I noticed last week that Garrett Park also has 20mph. (Previously, I noted that Chevy Chase has 20mph on neighborhood streets.)

FWIW, ACT and progressive advocates in MoCo need to make their #1 election priority a changing of the guard at MCDOT towards a more balanced approach for sustainable transpo. -- although it's gonna be tough to change the paradigm in MoCo more generally.


And ACT should schedule a session with the SHA district 3 people responsible for planning...

Gabe Klein gets all the props, but frankly, I think I'd rather get Ian Sacs, ex-Hoboken (although I don't know where he is now). I don't know what suburban counties are known for particularly good sustainable transportation policies, but there must be some out there.

After changing the road manual (that is an issue in Balt. County too, and I was impressed that my then boss and the planning director pushed for significant changes on the DPW's preferred version to better balance sustainable transpo and urban design concerns) the most important thing to do is get a transpo director committed to sustainable transportation.

by Richard Layman on Jan 6, 2014 5:42 pm • linkreport

Enforcement also seems dodgy on state roads as compared to County roads.

by Capt. Hilts on Jan 6, 2014 5:45 pm • linkreport

"Montgomery County's urban areas are growing, but their wide, fast streets, designed to prioritize drivers over everyone else, are holding them back."

It's just not true. It's the suburbs. If growth isn't happening as fast as you'd like, it's not the speed limits. Distances are greater in the 'burbs. If you make it a longer drive from Rockville to Bethesda, you're not going to make the county more attractive to new residents, many of whom choose to live there and commute to DC. They don't want a longer commute either.

Note the comment above -- Garrett Park has a slow speed limit, enforced with a speed camera. Same for Grosvenor Lane. There is nothing urban about the surrounding neighborhoods. They are, in fact, the epitome of rich, leafy, single-family expensive homes. They make it hard to transit through their neighborhoods to preserve their bucolic character.

The development that's happening is around the wide, fast arterial roads you're trying to eliminate.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jan 6, 2014 11:53 pm • linkreport

It's just not true. It's the suburbs. If growth isn't happening as fast as you'd like, it's not the speed limits. Distances are greater in the 'burbs.
I get that talking about MoCo can be confusing because it's such a huge county, and parts are urban while other parts are very suburban, even exurban. But did you read the post at all? This is dealing with urban areas like downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda (both quite close to DC) as well as the urban areas emerging around transit in places like Rockville and Wheaton. These places are "suburban" in the same sense as Alexandria or Clarendon, but I don't think that term means what you want it to mean.

by Gray on Jan 7, 2014 10:44 am • linkreport

Nothing prevents suburban arterials from being "multimodal" and streets with placemaking elements. I laid out a structure and process for doing so in Baltimore County, but came up with it just a couple weeks before the plan was due and my job ended and I didn't have the time I needed to fully flesh out the concept.

Basically the idea is that suburbs have a foundational road network that accommodates a preponderance of trips, provides key connections between activity centers, etc.

So define this network and designate it as such and provide the additional infrastructure necessary to make it great, multimodal, definitional for a county with branding elements, and able to be funded through bonding and other supports.

I call the concept "Signature Streets." It's based in part on the frameworks in the Smart Transportation Guide but with other elements + branding + the funding idea, since suburbs have to purchase right of way.

The funding approach was based on Seattle's Bridging the Gap, but another example would be Oklahoma City's MAPS program -- -- which I didn't know about at the time.

WRT Gray's comment, the STG provides a framework for different road, roadside, and speed characteristics depending on land use, so it provides a way for appropriate differences between urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Even arterials in the current set up don't have to be gross. It's just a matter of changing the urban design requirements to put the buildings up at the street and the parking behind.

2. Fischy -- the 20mph streets in those places are strictly residential (in Garrett Park they have no arterial capabilities, and not really in Chevy Chase either) and the speed limit makes perfect sense.

3. WRT state vs. county roads and enforcement, I don't see how there would be differences. All these roads are under local police jurisdiction. Only on freeways is policing provided primarily by the state. (PG and MoCo have a couple issues with DC, because Eastern, Western and Southern Avenues lie 100% within DC, so on the "maryland side" they still don't have jurisdiction.)

by Richard Layman on Jan 7, 2014 11:07 am • linkreport

@Gray -- That was my point. Development in the 'burbs happens around main arterials. Trying to turn them into something they're not now won't encourage more development. It might make it more pleasant to cross them on foot, which would be nice thing, but is not a particularly valuable end in itself. It might even slow down the growth the author wants to promote.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jan 7, 2014 11:21 am • linkreport

@Fischy: Okay. So you appear to be imagining some policy which has no relation to this proposal, and then arguing that that's a mistake. I'm not sure I see the point of that exercise.

by Gray on Jan 7, 2014 11:57 am • linkreport

" It might make it more pleasant to cross them on foot, which would be nice thing, but is not a particularly valuable end in itself. It might even slow down the growth the author wants to promote. "

for the growth in Bethesda itself its hard to see how changing 355 into a complete street would hurt, and it might help.

For say North Bethesda, White Flint, Rockville, complete streets IF it meant a major deterioration in auto LOS (which may not be the case, as Gray implies above) would be a negative - to the extent that folks who live along the arterials are driving south on 355 to get to DC. Though even then it would be offset by making it easier to get around on foot/bike for local errands. To the extent that new residents along 355 will heavily be relying on transit to get to DC, that might not be an issue at all. And of course complete streets improvements that do not significantly harm LOS on 355 shouldn't be a problem in that regard either.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 7, 2014 12:05 pm • linkreport

I'd be more hopeful that this would pass and help ensure the the basic right of walking around safely if the same council members hadn't approved more hideous high-rises, with more cars and underground garages, and no green, pedestrian-friendly gathering spaces at all. The lack of green space in downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring makes the "neighborhoods" feel just like transit points for motorists zooming somewhere else.

This bill is a good start, but we need a lot more: In addition to green spaces, we need more two-way streets instead of one-way; no right turn on red; raised crosswalks; little neon flags to carry across the street to show motorists that yes, there is a crosswalk here and we have a right to cross here. I very much doubt those things are in this bill, but the bill is a good start towards challenging the Car Culture that dominates in too much of Montgomery County.

by Wendy, a Walker in Bethesda on Jan 7, 2014 1:05 pm • linkreport

I'm a young professional, living in a rowhouse neighborhood in the District. However, living there is expensive, and I'd love to live in a more urban location, where I can walk to more things. Downtown Silver Spring would be high on my list of places to consider, except so many of the streets there are really terrible to walk and bike on. Fix the streets and I'll give Silver Spring another look.

by TransitSnob on Jan 7, 2014 1:12 pm • linkreport

Excellent point, Wendy: density is the single most important factor in producing an environment unfriendly to pedestrians.

I certainly hope that we can avoid more density in the future! Lower density, if combined with giving brightly colored flags to pedestrians, will surely give us the pedestrian-friendly built environment that we want.

by Gray on Jan 7, 2014 1:17 pm • linkreport

Density is NOT "the single most important factor in producing an environment unfriendly to pedestrians." I'd rather walk in Manhattan than Gaithersburg.

by Capt. Hilts on Jan 7, 2014 1:21 pm • linkreport

I'm with Wendy except for the anti-density bit and the pedestrian flags.

Raised crosswalks, no right turn on red, and two-way streets would help out a lot.

by TransitSnob on Jan 7, 2014 1:31 pm • linkreport

I'm sorry my trademarked subtlety reared its head there, Capt. Hilts. I was being ever so slightly sarcastic. In fact, density is a necessary (but sure, not sufficient) condition for an environment friendly to pedestrians.

I'm all for working to see that new buildings in DTSS and Bethesda are more connected to the surrounding environment and thereby more pedestrian-friendly. But the problem with declaring density evil is that it tends to either result in nothing new to improve walkability, or what ends up being built doesn't take walkability into account since nobody is working to engage developers on that dimension.

by Gray on Jan 7, 2014 1:54 pm • linkreport

The more pedestrians on the sidewalk the lower the accident rate anyway. Putting more people on the sidewalk (by building things close together) is far more effective than flags. Of course design matters (and the diversity of uses, the three "Ds" of urban planning) but density correlates very well with pedestrian safety.

And silver spring at least has lots of public spaces and more coming.

by drumz on Jan 7, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

@drumz: Not to mention that DTSS doesn't have any one way streets, and also has very few intersections where right turns on red are allowed. Many crosswalks are a mess, but that's a problem pretty much all over the area unfortunately.

So I guess Wendy is saying that Bethesda needs to become more like DTSS before this further change is enacted?

by Gray on Jan 7, 2014 2:09 pm • linkreport

I suggested red flags for pedestrian crossings because it seemed to me that it's a quick, inexpensive solution to increase pedestrian visibility and indicate that the roads are to be shared among drivers and walkers. Heaven knows I dream of more: can we extend the pedestrian zone, if only on weekends, from one street, Bethesda Row, to Bethesda Avenue, the street with the Apple Store that joins the pedestrian zone? Can we have another pedestrian bridge (there's one over Old Georgetown Road)? Can we have parking on some side streets to calm traffic that is zipping towards the arterial roads that bisect our neighborhoods? And no turn on red would really help pedestrian safety, especially around schools like Bethesda Elementary and BCC High School.
As to the high-rises/density argument: the high-rises the county council is approving all seem to REQUIRE underground parking garages. This means the sidewalks are cut to allow driveways--huge, wide driveways--for cars that move in and out and threaten pedestrians. One currently walkable street, Montgomery Avenue, leads directly to Bethesda Library. TWO enormous high-rises have been approved for that little avenue, with another on the corner ("The Lauren. Starting in the millions.") Farewell, nice little sunny walk to the library. Hello, anxious time dodging cars pulling in and out of the garages in the shadows of the ugliest blocks of concrete you've ever seen.

by Wendy, a Walker in Bethesda on Jan 7, 2014 3:07 pm • linkreport

Well, I for one would like to see elimination (or extreme relaxation) of parking minimums.

But, prices are incredibly high in the area and especially in places like downtown silver spring which is close to transit and walkable. I think it's necessary to build more housing in order to meet some of the demand causing the high prices. It sucks that sometimes too much parking is built but I think the benefits of having more people in an already dense/built up area outweighs potential added risk from vehicles entering a garage. As I said, as the number of pedestrians in an area increases the likelihood of being struck decreases.

by drumz on Jan 7, 2014 3:19 pm • linkreport

who is "they"? I66 will not be widened east of Ballston. And yes, Complete Streets to improve walkability is policy supported by Alexandria, Arlington and also Fairfax counties. This is easier to achieve in ArlCo and Alex which control there own local roads. In FFX VDOT has more power. But even VDOT is starting to examine the Complete Streets concept.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 7, 2014 4:56 pm • linkreport

"I'd rather walk in Manhattan than Gaithersburg."
by Capt. Hilts on Jan 7, 2014 1:21 pm

Don't have 2013 numbers for Manhattan alone, but in 2012, there were 41 pedestrians killed in Manhattan. That's killed. The number hit must be exponentially higher. Given that people walk gazillions more pedestrian miles in Manhattan, but are you really sure you want to stand by that statement?

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jan 7, 2014 5:23 pm • linkreport

Yes, because as you say. There are so many more pedestrians in manhattan.

This 2001 survey puts walking/biking as 21% of all mode trips in the city. If we stick that to just manhattan (it's likely higher though) that means 300,000 people were walking/cycling everyday in Manhattan that year. That means a low fatality rate for the island. I could do more math and try to estimate which rate is higher but the sheer number of fatalities doesn't add to proof that walking in a dense environment is more unsafe than a dense one.

by drumz on Jan 7, 2014 5:51 pm • linkreport

MoCo could start with their useless pedestrian signals that don't affect the cycle time at all, even in the middle of the night when there's no traffic.

Don't even get me started on the highway ramps everywhere, and free right turns where there's no reason for them. A lot of this is just left over from 50-year-old plans for development patterns that never materialized -- like Montrose being part of a new Outer Beltway. There's a lot of extra corridor space that could, and should, be re-purposed.

by Matt O'Toole on Jan 8, 2014 12:32 am • linkreport

@ Matt O'Toole, what do you mean by highway ramps everywhere???

by eric on Jan 8, 2014 5:11 pm • linkreport

@ Matt O'Toole, what do you mean by highway ramps everywhere???
by eric

Clover leafs to minimize traffic lights. They're terrible for pedestrians. And smoothing corners to ease turns for large trucks discourages cars from stopping completely.

by Capt. Hilts on Jan 8, 2014 6:16 pm • linkreport

I'm all for complete streets, but it must be balanced by safety in design. Ten foot lanes will increase accidents and create bottlenecks from trucks, etc. 20 mph in "smaller residential streets" changes expectations and can also lead to increased accidents with pedestrians, especially if drivers don't abide by the lower speed limits. It is my understanding that it also does not apply to state routes and roadways, so the picture of Colesville Road is a bit disengenuous. It probably would not apply to Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue, Veirs Mill Rd, Conneticut Ave, and other state routes either.

by Jim on Nov 20, 2014 10:55 am • linkreport

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