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It's not about how fast we should grow, but where

Pointing to busy roads and crowded schools, some candidates in this year's Montgomery County primary election say the county is growing too fast. But people are going to come anyway, making the real issue where that growth should happen.

Montgomery County's urban and newer suburban communities are growing, while older suburbs are slowing down. Image by the author.

The county's actually not growing that fast

In 2006, voters weary of the housing boom brought in a county executive and several councilmembers who promised to slow things down. The recession made people hungry for investment again, especially on the poorer eastern side of the county, but some residents and candidates this year are arguing that the county's still growing too fast and that developers need to "pay their share."

Today, Montgomery has just over one million residents, adding about 100,000 residents between 2000 and 2010, a rate of 11%. That might seem like a lot, but it pales in comparison to most of the 20th century, when the county added as many as 180,000 residents each decade and doubled in population during the 1950s. In recent years, the county's grown slower than many other parts of the region, including the District and Arlington.

Growth is going to the county's downtowns and walkable neighborhoods

According to the 2000 Census and 2008-2012 American Community Survey, most parts of the county aren't changing that much. Many of the county's older suburban and rural communities, from Chevy Chase to Poolesville, saw little increase in population over the past decade, and in some cases even lost people.

Instead, much of the county's growth is going to its downtowns, like Bethesda, Wheaton, and Silver Spring, which doubled in population between 2000 and 2010. Dense, walkable neighborhoods like Kentlands in Gaithersburg and King Farm in Rockville also had substantial growth. These places already have infrastructure like schools and transit in place, as well as nearby shopping and jobs so new residents don't have to drive or drive as far.

Montgomery County's population has grown, but the amount of driving miles hasn't.
Graph from the Planning Department.

That's how the county could grow while driving rates have stayed at 2002 levels. Fortunately, the county's urban, walkable places will receive most of its growth in the future.

Clarksburg's exploding, but the services haven't caught up yet. Photo by the author.

But growth is still happening in areas far from amenities and transit. Clarksburg quadrupled in population between 2000 and 2010, making it the county's fastest-growing community. Though it added 9,500 residents in 10 years, Clarksburg didn't even have a grocery store until last year, has overcrowded schools, and few transit connections to the rest of the county.

New development isn't why school enrollment is rising

Some candidates this year blame new development on rising enrollment in Montgomery County Public Schools, which is adding 2,000 kids each year. In a campaign video, at-large challenger Beth Daly describes driving past a school with portable classrooms. She and her kids shake their heads. "Doesn't the county know that additional growth requires additional infrastructure?" she asks.

But many of the county's most crowded schools are in neighborhoods where the population isn't growing. Researchers for MCPS say this happens due to other factors, like older families moving out and younger families taking their place, new all-day kindergarten programs that mean classrooms can't "double up" to hold two half-day classes, or families returning from private school (though in many parts of the county, the reverse is happening.)

Slowing or even stopping new development won't change this. Developers have to pay "impact fees" to cover the cost of schools and roads near new construction, but the county doesn't collect anything in places where nothing's being built.

We can't afford to not grow

In many ways, Montgomery County has moved past the "growth vs. no growth" debate, which at-large councilmember Hans Riemer calls "outdated." Riemer and fellow at-large councilmember George Leventhal have talked about the benefits of new investment, whether it's paying for the things people want and need, like schools and transit, or the ability to attract younger residents.

It's also easy to see the consequences of restricting growth in places like East County, which was in a development moratorium for many years due to traffic concerns. There aren't any portable classrooms at Springbrook High School in White Oak, which has over 400 empty seats. Burtonsville's village center has been hemorraging businesses since a highway bypass opened, and abandoned or unkempt houses aren't an uncommon sight in neighborhoods still wracked by the recession. It's no surprise that residents support plans to create a town center in White Oak.

Building in the right places is the way to manage growth, not simply slowing it down. Photo by the author.

Directing growth to our town centers and areas near transit can meet the demand for new housing and give people what they want. But it also reduces the pressure to develop other parts of the county, whether it's suburban neighborhoods, the Agricultural Reserve, or parks.

That's the real solution to growth: making it easier to build in the right places, so we can provide the infrastructure and be able to pay for it. It may be more complicated that saying "slow down," but it's ultimately the best path for the county's future.

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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Imagine growth being a problem, after the recession we've been through. It's the liberal's version of the conservatives adversion to immigration reform. My family came in the 1920's so now no one else can come in. If the government coordinates development energies in such a way that it's the most resilient for long term sustainability, we all will benefit. Unfortunatley, we seem to favor only the here and now, not thinking of what we are leaving in our wake for future generations to deal with.

This is the question our leaders should be debating.
Thanks Dan.

by Thayer-D on Jun 12, 2014 3:45 pm • linkreport

A good reason to widen 270

by aaa on Jun 12, 2014 4:12 pm • linkreport

So whose idea is it then that Gaithersburg and Clarksburg doesn't need more and better infrastructure and to build new roads?

by asffa on Jun 12, 2014 6:41 pm • linkreport

Quick...lock the doors before THOSE people start demanding sidewalks and bike lanes which will ruin our bucolic quality of life! Gasps and applause from the audience ensues...

by Joe on Jun 13, 2014 8:47 am • linkreport

Excellent. Dan, thank you very much for this.

by Ronit A Dancis on Jun 13, 2014 9:00 am • linkreport

The problem that you kind of miss is about perceptions. The problem is that a "suburb" is a mix of types of land use of varying form and density. As you point out there are more conurbation like spaces ("urban") including cities like Rockville or Gaithersburg, small town like places (Kensington) typical suburban spaces (subdivisions), and rural spaces (the Ag Reserve).

People like Marc Elrich and the group behind the Citizens for Responsible Growth website don't acknowledge the differences in land use. They believe that the entire county is "suburban" and they refuse to acknowledge that isn't the case, and more importantly, they don't want to allow the other types of land use organization to co-exist, seeing it as a diminution of the image of suburbanity that they hold so dear.

They are especially against the increase of the other types of land use vis-a-vis suburban land uses, for the same reason, as a fundamental challenge to the very identity of the county.

So me, where I would say "live and let live," or allow the denser areas to densify, protect the rural, and deal with the suburban--keep some of it and change some of it in response to conditions and need -- they say no, absolutely not.

I haven't worked through the Citizens website yet, but it's really laughable in how they say MoCo doesn't have a plan with specific goals and values (they do and they had such plans since the 1960s, organized under the rubric of "wedges and corridors"), but PG and Howard Counties do.

The reality is that all of Maryland's jurisdictions are required to have Master Plans and to update them every 10 years, and the State Dept. of Planning reviews the plans...

by Richard Layman on Jun 13, 2014 10:22 am • linkreport


widening roads does NOT stop traffic. It temporarily does, but in the long run people move farther from where they work and the traffic rebuilds. When they widened 270 they said it would solve the problem until about 2010. Anyone who lived in this area knows the road was full of traffic by 2000, ten years before planners predicted it would have traffic again.

by bk on Jun 13, 2014 11:53 am • linkreport

Well said and illustrated, Dan -

The diagram clearly shows the end of uniform, single use, low density, car focused development - both in planning policy and in market activity - in many, but not all parts of the County.

Slow growth is actually about resisting change - the real issue is making the changed County work better. Even CM Elrich knows that.

Ralph Bennett

by Ralph Bennett on Jun 13, 2014 12:19 pm • linkreport

There are not my words, but I think they are very supportive of what you have to say, Dan.

Here is a quote from Chris Zimmerman of Smart Growth America:

"The kind of spread-out, sprawl development that we’ve been doing in the United States for about 60 years or so now turns out to have quite a negative impact on government in terms of costs for infrastructure, for ongoing services and also on the revenue side.

What we’ve learned is that Smart Growth-patterned development saves a lot of money because for one thing you’re not paving as many roads, and you spend less on water and sewers which are very costly to provide, both to install in the first place and then to operate and maintain. Even things such as fire services—how many fire stations you need and what’s the coverage of each fire station to get reasonable response time—and police and school buses and snow plowing and a whole range of things that add up, turn out to be very costly when you’re using a very dispersed pattern of development."

by Tina Slater on Jun 13, 2014 2:34 pm • linkreport

Tina -- you shouldn't be quoting Chris Zimmerman. The State of Maryland is a national leader of SG policy (maybe not practice) because Parris Glendening figured out the verysame point. I am sure there are plenty of quotes from him too. But it is the cost of providing and supporting sprawl infrastructure that convinced him, based also on his experience as a County Executive, that SG as an organizing and funding policy makes a lot of sense economically and on other dimensions.

Although based on this article, I guess his understanding of the issue predates his involvement in politics

by Richard Layman on Jun 13, 2014 3:46 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman

Well I guess both Chris Zimmerman and Parris Glendening have smart things to say!! I'm happy there are many people thinking this way.

by Tina Slater on Jun 13, 2014 4:10 pm • linkreport

There is a of talk here about where people should live, but not much about where they will work. To deliver smart growth you have to provide jobs close to where people live. How many jobs will be created in the Clarksburg area? Hard to imagine there being large numbers of good-paying white collar jobs there.

by Steve D. on Jun 13, 2014 4:37 pm • linkreport

Jobs close to where people live is ideal. But transit near homes is good too, in that it allows people to commute to jobs in other locations without clogging up the roads with SOVs. And I think I read that 75% of employers in the DC region are already located near transit (maybe not near a Metro, but at least a bus line).

In fact, I'd much rather a 60 to 90 minute commute via transit (where I can read or work on my iPad) than a 45 minute commute driving (where I have to totally concentrate on what drivers in front/beside/behind me are doing). For me, I'm happier to be glued to a book or a Sudoku, arriving at my destination "calm".

by Tina Slater on Jun 13, 2014 5:54 pm • linkreport

Sing it Tina!

by Thayer-D on Jun 13, 2014 7:15 pm • linkreport

long commutes suck regardless. I used to cycle to Union Station (25 minutes), take the train to Balt. (45 minutes) and cycle to Towson (45 minutes). On the way back, usually I would take the Metro back instead of cycle.

With the wait times here and there, it was an incredible amount of time that was "wasted" even if I got exercise or read. It still takes a lot out of you.

2. the point about Glendening is that in my experience, elected officials relate better to examples within their own state, rather than examples from other places. It's great when you have the examples to tout, and tough when you don't.

by Richard Layman on Jun 14, 2014 3:52 pm • linkreport

Local examples are indeed preferable, but we should be learning from all the best local examples of smart growth, even if they are over the river or accross the DC line. Montgomery County has envisioned a "Purple Line" since the 1980's, but went ahead and built the Inter County connector first.

Maryland, with Glendening was indeed ahead of the curve, but without proper coordination of the various state agencies, it's been difficult to follow through. County officials seem to be getting the memo since almost all local candidates are having to clarify their positions on growth. The current redevelopment of White Flint along it's red-line spine and the building of the BRT lines on dedicated lanes are encouraging signs that more of our neighbors will have more options than having to drive for every little errand. Now's the time to get education, transportation, and economic development officials into the same room to ensure they are not working at cross purposes.

by Thayer-D on Jun 14, 2014 5:45 pm • linkreport

Tina - how is 30+ million per mile plus station costs saving money over building needed roads (plus bike lanes, etc.)

by asffa on Jun 15, 2014 5:23 pm • linkreport

@asffa -- Where would you build the needed roads? We need better East/West connectivity. And the Beltway is already over capacity. No one is proposing widening the Beltway.

The Purple Line is an infrastructure project that will serve the Maryland suburbs and integrate various transit modes for the next 75 years. The Purple Line will provide a future that gives us the option to leave the car behind.

Transportation planning in the Washington region is heavily influenced by air quality conformity, which is a Federal requirement. The Metropolitan Washington Region does not meet the current ozone standard and will likely not meet the standard by the 2015 deadline. Additionally, the MWCOG and numerous local jurisdictions individually have greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction goals for 2020 and 2050 that planners anticipate not being able to meet.

Our strategy should be to accommodate future growth in the Regional Activity Centers [this is what Dan Reed is talking about in his article] to help alleviate traffic congestion and improve air quality. Building more highways is unlikely to improve air quality conformance, but the Purple Line will move us in the right direction.

by Tina Slater on Jun 15, 2014 6:21 pm • linkreport

Much of the growth, especially Clarksburg, would involve need for more approximately N-S connectivity, which is not met by current roads, and BRT won't help with that.
Think Clarksburg, Gaithersburg, Frederick, etc. back and forth towards DC. The M-83 non-BRT alternatives aren't more costly than the 330+ million 11 mile 355 only BRT proposals.

I think "the Purple Line" went through a mission creep from its original goals and costs - it's now projected at 2.3 Billion or 143 million per mile. But I think it'll be partly successful - the Purple Line will be great for some of its purpose, but most people will likely be driving still - at least to the Metro and hoping to find parking there. I think if they want people to bus in, they need to improve RideOn and MetroBus to run on time and more often on busy routes and they also need to replace the stupid "flag pole" design stops with shelters and add bike racks, something they could do for 500 stops for the cost of approximately a tenth mile of Purple line or for the cost of a half-mile of BRT.
And the Purple Line plans to do NOTHING to relieve the need for night owl routes, which should be coordinated with later last trains from Metro times & mean that people won't be stuck relying on their cars for weeknight excursions. Some of the criticisms about the Purple line are weak, but not all, and pointing out its weaknesses doesn't mean someone wants the whole project to go away or are opponents. And more direct to this discussion - having a Purple Line doesn't address the growth shown above very well at all.

by asffa on Jun 15, 2014 7:42 pm • linkreport

@asffa "they need to improve RideOn and MetroBus to run on time and more often on busy routes and they also need to replace the stupid "flag pole" design stops with shelters and add bike racks."

Today, Ride-On and MetroBus vehicles are stuck in the same traffic as cars. The advantage of the BRT Network, approved by the County Council last November, is that 75% of the BRT system would run in *dedicated* lanes. BRT could travel at the posted speed limit (something that drivers are not able to do during rush hour).

Everyone does not agree with me on this, but what I think would work is to reformat/repurpose "existing lanes" (the ones we've already build and paid for) into the dedicated lanes for BRT. By re-purposing existing lanes for BRT vehicles, all we need to do is buy the buses, hire the operators, build the stations, and mark the dedicated lanes. We could be up and running in a short time.

Unfortunately, the majority of these high-traffic BRT corridors fall under the domain of the State Highway Administration. SHA's BRT plan for Georgia Avenue, between Glenmont and Olney, is to widen Georgia Avenue and add "new" lanes dedicated to BRT. SHA's plan would require the purchase and demolition of numerous residential/commercial properties along Georgia Avenue. Re-purposing an existing lane eliminates the need to take properties, does not widen the existing roadway (important for pedestrian crossings), and could be implemented in the near future.

by Tina Slater on Jun 15, 2014 8:12 pm • linkreport

Tina Slater - There is not any good reason to do dedicated lanes in most areas. The most optimistic studies of Montgomery County BRT with dedicated lanes give them a faster speed between 10-30% over buses in normal traffic.
There's also the suggestion that many repurposing lanes would slow other vehicles a percentage over the optimistic speed BRT advantage.
The County Council rushed through approval like crazy last year to get it approved before the Winter Session ended.

If anyone says the public is adequately informed, then tell us all how much added taxes are we going to have to pay, what are the stations they plan to build, what reductions to RideOn and MetroBus are going to occur, and where is the funding.
If the answers to half, most, or all of these are "we don't know yet" then said approval was premature garbage - toss it out and bring out something better. People don't know what will hit them if they go through with their current plans.
And why if these BRT plans are so great, aren't they being first implemented in the most congested wealthy areas? I don't think it's unfair to suggest Gaithersburg (especially Old Town), Chevy Chase, Downtown Bethesda & Silver Spring, etc. are trying to throw Rockville, Wheaton, Forest Glen, Four Corners, etc. under the bus.
Georgia Avenue between Glenmont and Olney would have had a perfect median for BRT if the ICC hadn't been built - OR if they'd coordinated building the ICC exits with BRT. Currently Georgia Avenue traffic problems have increased a ton since the ICC took lanes already, especially at Rt. 28 towards Muncaster Mill (which should be improved, FYI, and plans are available already studied about that, which would include building a pedestrian and bikepath)
Georgia avenue has already suffered in recent years from lane loss from badly planned road repurposing, and suggesting more lanes should go is simply absurd or vindictive toward drivers in the area who don't need the use of the ICC.

by asffa on Jun 16, 2014 10:18 am • linkreport

Tina Slater - also I think when you talk about eliminating the need to take properties - BRT costs already over 30 mil per mile not including station costs - clearly on par with building roads.
About the Purple Line - I'm not really understanding why Purple Line is 148+ million per mile - I want it, too (better than the nothing they have right now), but there MUST be a better, more efficient, longer lasting, and less damaging way to achieve at least equal results (hopefully superior) with that amount of resources or less. It shouldn't be heresy to ask "what kind of waste is going on with this?"
For 10 million, or the public's cost for improving the developer's value on the Apex building - 333 "flag pole stops" could be replaced with a shelter and a bike rack. "Flag pole stops" ARE NOT acceptable transit designs if someone in one's party needs to sit while they wait, the weather isn't permitting, etc.
I notice the financial and importance priority given benefiting already wealthy business developers when it comes to transit plans over substantially benefiting thousands of current and future riders efficiently. Example - "Night owl" transit service shouldn't be a wild dream out of a major city. It should be real, and it could be done if priority wasn't about wasting money on an elite bus transit for rich people, etc.
With the growth and construction plans for upper county, there needs to be new N-S streets. There are plans that involve building them some including how to make transit better as well to the same areas at the same time.

by asffa on Jun 16, 2014 11:16 am • linkreport

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