Greater Greater Washington

In White Oak, the region's east-west divide becomes an urban-suburban one

The DC area has long faced an east-west divide, with more of the wealth going to the west side. Increasingly, investment is also heading to urban areas over suburban ones. For struggling suburban areas on the east side, the only answer is to take on more urban features.


All photos by the author unless noted.

One of those places is White Oak in eastern Montgomery County, where the County Council will vote tomorrow on a plan to create a new town center. Local residents are eager to have more jobs and amenities close to home, but civic and environmental groups want to limit the amount of density in White Oak because it's several miles from a Metro station and roads are already congested.

But the kind of compact, dense development proposed for White Oak could allow residents to access jobs, shops, or other amenities by walking, biking, or simply driving a shorter distance than they would otherwise. It would generate less traffic than the alternative: more of the sprawling, car-oriented development that's currently allowed in White Oak, plus additional sprawl farther out.

Residents say it's East County's turn

East County has experienced little of the prosperity that more affluent parts of Montgomery County take for granted. One reason is the county's traffic tests, which prohibit development when roads reach a certain level of congestion until more roads are built. This standard led to a 20-year development moratorium in East County that ended in 2004.

Development simply moved to the western, more affluent side of Montgomery County or farther out to Howard County while East County roads remained congested. Today, White Oak consists largely of aging strip malls, office parks, and industrial brownfields surrounding the Food and Drug Administration's new headquarters near New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29, which will eventually hold 9,000 workers.


LifeSci Village rendering courtesy of Percontee.

The White Oak Science Gateway plan, which councilmembers will vote on tomorrow, would allow them to transform into urban, mixed-use neighborhoods with up to 8,500 new homes and 40,000 new jobs. Much of this development would occur at LifeSci Village, a concrete recycling plant that the county and developer Percontee want to turn into a research and technology center.

Local residents say it's their turn, speaking out in favor of the plan at two public hearings. At a public forum last fall, community members called the White Oak plan their highest priority for economic development.

Traffic tests won't solve traffic

But the Science Gateway plan would still fail the traffic tests. County Executive Ike Leggett and some councilmembers have recommended excluding Route 29 from traffic counts, arguing that it's a regional highway that would be congested no matter what.


An abandoned office building in White Oak.

As a result, some civic associations and environmental groups around the county have criticized the plan, arguing that urban development shouldn't be allowed away from a Metro station. They say Montgomery County should follow its own rules and stick to the traffic tests.

But the traffic tests can't really fix congestion if their required solution is always to build more roads, which is proven to cause more traffic. And East County residents know that they haven't solved congestion, since they have to travel longer distances for work, shopping, or other things they can't find closer to home.

That's not to say that White Oak doesn't need better transportation. Councilmember George Leventhal has asked Leggett to put together a financing plan for Bus Rapid Transit within two years, so the county can figure out how to fund and build it as development moves forward.

East County's future depends on having a town center

More development doesn't have to mean more driving. Montgomery County added 100,000 residents over the past decade, but the rate of driving actually stayed the same. That's because as the county grows around Metro stations, more people can get around without a car. But even in town centers away from Metro, like what's proposed at White Oak, people would have more transportation options than they do otherwise, whether that means walking, biking, taking the bus, or even driving a shorter distance.


It's possible to create urban places away from Metro stations, like Shirlington in Arlington County.

We know that people increasingly want to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods. We've seen businesses gravitate to more urban locations in the region, like Choice Hotels, which moved from an office park near White Oak to Rockville Town Center.

For decades, there's been a growing divide between the east and west sides of Montgomery County. East County increasingly lags the rest of the county when it comes to new town centers like White Flint, Crown in Gaithersburg, and even Germantown. If we're going to close the east-west gap in Montgomery County, White Oak can't stay a land of office parks forever.

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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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How would you apply this analysis to Konterra or Westphalia, which breaks ground tomorrow. Does relatively dense development at these three suburban locations come at the expense development elsewhere in the same counties? Or sprawl in Howard and Charles?

by JimT on Jul 28, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

Building housing with walkable shopping and amenities takes lots of local car trips off the road. In a transit-poor location like White Oak, rush hour congestion could get worse, but non-rush congestion could get better. And since people do lots of local trips in rush hour too, rush hour congestion might not necessarily get worse.

The assumption that one more residence = one more car on the road isn't necessarily true I don't think with sufficiently mixed uses. Sadly, most people in the burbs have only had the experience of car-only pod development, which does lead to more cars on the road from additional housing.

by Greenbelt on Jul 28, 2014 2:08 pm • linkreport

Is there a Choice Hotel in Rockville Town Center?

by jcp on Jul 28, 2014 2:08 pm • linkreport

The difference is that White Oak already has (frequent, well-used) bus service, will be tied to an expansion of transit service, is in the middle of a built-up area, and most development would involve replacing strip malls and industrial sites (i.e., not greenfields) with other things.

Meanwhile, Konterra is sort of a brownfield (gravel mining) but still mostly open land, and Westphalia is totally a greenfield. Both sites currently have no transit service, and are on the edges of existing built-up areas.

I don't have a strong opinion on Konterra or Westphalia, though I do feel that even building there would be better than a greenfield community further out. But building (or really rebuilding) in White Oak is better than either of those two projects.

by dan reed! on Jul 28, 2014 2:10 pm • linkreport

As an East County resident, I can confer with much of what you're saying. It's the only affordable part of the county, but it's also the most devoid of dining and shopping options. Beyond the Target shopping center and the one off Tech Road with the IHOP, this is basically a wasteland of strip malls and subdivisions. My area (Tanglewood) seems light years away from Downtown Silver Spring because of the obvious congestion on 29 South. We usually end up going to Columbia, which pains me in ways I can't even explain.

I've driven by the LifeSci Village site for years now. I'm anxious to see how the council votes tomorrow, but I won't believe anything's coming until I see construction with my own eyes.

by Jay on Jul 28, 2014 2:22 pm • linkreport

As has been discussed in my blog and here, it's not unreasonable to consider a yellow line extension "out New Hampshire Avenue" from Fort Totten to White Oak, especially if the Science Center/FDA projects intensify.

However, the problem with FDA is that it isn't so much a research institute, but a regulator, so it doesn't have the same opportunity to spin off research businesses and jobs in the way that the NIH does.

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2014/02/maryland-gubernatorial-campaign.html

by Richard Layman on Jul 28, 2014 2:35 pm • linkreport

They should extend the Yellow line up NH ave and then up Rt29.

by Cyclone on Jul 28, 2014 2:56 pm • linkreport

If they truly want to develop a more urban form. I mean if there is commitment. Why don't they start making plans for a transit expansion in the future. Plan a ROW, buy up the land, and then build the development. Sure it would be easier to have the transit built or locked in before the development started, but you can't always get what is best. It is chicken and egg in some places, build the density to support transit and then a light rail or BRT route becomes an option.

by Richard on Jul 28, 2014 3:32 pm • linkreport

a Rt. 29 BRT that isn't planned to come from Howard County won't be helping to diminish traffic, and is a giant waste.

Council members - the Committee's agenda is unclear on all fronts - who is it, anyway, who plans to be paid the 2 billion in construction? Don't bypass procedures, environmental studies, waste our money and ignore the negative reviews the County's own studies have concluded about BRT in Montgomery. Don't make an experiment of East County traffic and roads, if you live near Gaithersburg, tehn build BRT in Old Town Gaithersburg and build road infrastructure upcounty before planning to break ground on unwise decisions and ridiculously bad plans ala Georgia Avenue.
Rt 29 traffic concerns shouldn't be bypassed - the whole POINT of millions spent on new interchanges is to reduce driver congestion. Respect the constituency, not the lobbyists.

by asffa on Jul 28, 2014 3:33 pm • linkreport

They should extend the Yellow line up NH ave and then up Rt29.

They should, or at least in the long term they should. Set aside some land in the planning phase now for a dedicated bike path + bus route that can later be converted to light or heavy rail(by adding in more grade separation)

by Richard on Jul 28, 2014 3:35 pm • linkreport

@asffa

Actually, Howard County is looking at Bus Rapid Transit along Route 29 from Burtonsville to Columbia, which would hook up with BRT along Route 29 in Montgomery County.

by dan reed! on Jul 28, 2014 3:42 pm • linkreport

Dan Reed - "Looking" doesn't mean all that much - especially with a 2030 projection date - Do they have actual committment from Howard County, and are they planning to build in the medians?
I doubt Howard County is going to support "repurposing" 29, many there just aren't that foolish.

by asffa on Jul 28, 2014 3:48 pm • linkreport

Richard -- good point about bike and bus. When I wrote the draft bike and ped plan for Western Baltimore County, one of the recommendations was the inclusion of a bike trail in the routing. The thing is that MTA doesn't see that as a part of their responsibility. I don't know what happened on that wrt "the Red Line" but separately, the SHA proposal for a cycle track on University Boulevard wrt the Purple Line was in part a response to a memo that I wrote that the then SHA bike and ped planner distributed within the agency.

... but yeah, I agree that a separated yellow line should continue down Rte. 29 and that BRT not from HoCo makes a lot less sense.

by Richard Layman on Jul 28, 2014 4:25 pm • linkreport

Richard -- good point about bike and bus. When I wrote the draft bike and ped plan for Western Baltimore County, one of the recommendations was the inclusion of a bike trail in the routing.

What I meant was that if they want to develop the land into a more urban setting and that is a big if.
They should plan around eventually having quality transit. They should build around eventually having quality transit.

Build the town center with a strip of grass/pavement going through it that is labeled for transit development and nothing else. Have that strip be separate from the main roads that no pedestrians want to go near. Face some buildings and the town center right onto the strips of land. Extend that strip as far north and south as possible. Where impossible mark it out on a map anyway and make it a long term goal to acquire the land. Put a cycle track and nice pedestrian facilities next to the track. Build a few overpasses over the biggest roads.

Then when there is sufficient development put a bus down the strip in it's own dedicated lane. When there is sufficient passengers up it to an express and a local bus. When there is even more build a few overpasses to help the bus cross the largest roads. Make them at the same grade as the cycle track so a train can at some point cross it.

It's chicken and egg alright. Right now it is tough to justify high quality transit spend outlays to the area because of lack of density. If you build the density, getting the transit out there might be tough because there is no easy ROW and too much expensive land/expensive tunneling/overpasses needs to be acquired/built to make it work.

Surely there is a better way. A way that development can be planned around a long term goal of eventually realizing high quality transit. Even if the strip is little more than a cycle track for 20 years, in some places it might be the best option.

by Richard on Jul 28, 2014 5:07 pm • linkreport

"As a result, some civic associations and environmental groups around the county have criticized the plan, arguing that urban development shouldn't be allowed away from a Metro station"

I read the letters. You are misrepresenting what is said in them. They don't say that at all. In fact they support development for primarily employment and some residential, since there is already an imbalance that was supposed to be addressed in this plan. They want a plan that works and by all accounts from Staff and from DOT, this plan as is, doesn't work even with 3 BRT routes.

The Councilmembers made grand statements before the primary election that the priority will be employment in this Master Plan. But then they heard from all the developers that they want to build residential. So now after the primary we are left with the opposite of what the plan was supposed to be. No amount of language in the Master Plan about jobs will change the zoning for those properties which allows up to 100% residential, including the existing shopping centers. It doesn't matter what grandstanding statements are made or what the text in the master plan says. What matters is the zoning.

After it's passed the Council will have no control over what exactly gets built. Everyone has acknowledged lately that all we are seeing in Downtown Silver Spring is residential development. If we can't get commercial development and additional jobs there, what does that mean for White Oak?

No one is saying no residential, just that the promised emphasis was on jobs.

People want a better plan, one that's in balance like all the other plans in Montgomery County. We are tired of settling for less than what was promised because our representatives won't take the time to learn the details or ask questions and figure out solutions.

There's no reason there can't be a town center and revitalized shopping centers. But it doesn't require something twice the size of Downtown Silver Spring which has Metro, MARC, future light rail and very substantial bus service.

By the way, there hasn't been a twenty year moratorium. That is another myth perpetuated by certain stakeholder whose property has zoning that didn't allow everything he wanted. Anyone who lives here knows there hasn't been a moratorium. The last one was a result of previous bad planning policies like the 1980s East County plan which was based on protecting a certain western part of the County to put high density residential without adequate infrastructure in the Eastern County. This caused overdevelopment without infrastructure. Unfortunately this plan picks up where that one left off and will have even worse results without staging. But the County only seems to do staging in the western part of the County. The existing residents in East County just have to put up with the perpetual lack of balance that will be reinforced with this plan.

Our representatives have such low expectations and settle for so much less than we deserve. They perpetuate the negative image of East County by discussing it in such negative terms so that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

But this plan can be fixed if Councilmembers take the time to do it instead of rushing out the door for vacation.

by wbc on Jul 28, 2014 5:38 pm • linkreport

@wbc

I grew up in East County. Except for college and graduate school, I lived there from 1998 to 2013. I know how excited people were when the Target opened on Cherry Hill Road, or when the shopping center on Tech Road opened, because there are so few places to shop or eat in the area.

The other week, my 15-year-old brother wanted to go to the bookstore. My choices were Barnes & Noble on Rockville Pike, a 30-minute drive away, or the other BN in Ellicott City, another 30-minute drive away. Of course, bookstores are probably on their way out, so maybe that's not the best example. But if there was a bookstore in White Oak, I could've taken a 5-minute drive or, even better, walked or biked there, as my brother and I often do to the shopping center on Cherry Hill Road.

Like I said, the traffic tests really aren't effective as a tool for managing development, because they tend to overestimate car trips (even in areas designed to give people alternatives) and assume the only solution is to build more roads, which just creates more traffic. So development goes somewhere else. And that's the experience East County's had for decades. Why should we do that again, knowing it didn't work the first time?

by dan reed! on Jul 28, 2014 5:55 pm • linkreport

Whether they get jobs and residential or just residential seems besides the point. Unless it's some government facility, you can't create an office market without a demand, but there's residential demand through out the region due to the jobs the region is getting. Thus, getting a BRT or some other kind of dependable transit seems all the more important. Howard might not want it because it might not suit the stake holders today, but if MC goes ahead, you'll see Howard getting on "the bus" asap like NOVA is doing after seeing the success in Arlington.

by Thayer-D on Jul 28, 2014 6:09 pm • linkreport

Dan Reed -
Tech Road shops are pretty boring, no doubt - all that seems to be there is the DMV. There's Cricket bookshop in Olney, and the hugely popular used bookstore in Wheaton library, but yes, bookstores are in general going out because of Amazon or Council dislike of the design of older buildings.

How do tests overestimate car trips? And the idea that building more roads just leads to more traffic isn't quite accurate - in rural areas people don't want to live, big huge roads go very lightly used.
I think HoCo charter buses and locally, improved MetroBus and RideOn service could be a more immediate and cost-effective treatment of the situation. I see many times on popular routes going through White Oak (or much of 355, or Georgia Ave, or many places) that there's no bus shelters or bike racks, though replacing the "flag poles" costs a pittance next to BRT. Maybe I'm incorrect, but I sense resistance. Maybe I've missed this, but I've yet to hear Berliner, Navarro, or Elrich say anything like "we're taking down the flag poles and treating Grandma to a seat outside of the rain". I want to see committment to improving existing service and to bus riding customers today. I think in 2030, multi-billion dollar BRT will look wasteful, dated, and dirty. I think there's just needing to think about today, with looks to the future for clean, fast alternatives.

by asffa on Jul 28, 2014 6:30 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D If you build it they will come works in movies, but no, I think that idea is a mistake. They need to be on-board.

by asffa on Jul 28, 2014 6:32 pm • linkreport

I agree with Thayer-D, I don't see the office market wanting space in this White Oak Plan. Does Peacontree have some magical company or companies lined up for this new campus of theirs? Lets be real, the office market region wide is way over built with the reduction in federal jobs, the reduction in defense and the space efficiency companies are achieving. Maybe the pendulum will swing the other way and office space will increase again in the future, but right now the region could not build another office building and still have room for tens of thousands of office jobs. All of Montgomery County is struggling to get new office construction, the difference is the western part of the county did have some back in the 1990's when the market was hotter. Being concerned that Silver Spring has seen way more residential than office construction - well that's not new either, other than Discovery and the one office building over the Staples, it's all been residential there since the renaissance began over 10 years ago.

If I actually did want to have office space near the FDA away from rail transit, I'm much more likely to locate in Konterra where I have high visibility on a major freeway, and access to west county on another. These sites in the White Oak Plan are tucked away adding time it would take a commuter to get to work or a client to get to your office if they were not already in the immediate area. I think it would do the economic developers well to market DT Silver Spring to the FDA campus because Silver Springs office market will come back before I see White Oak.

While i'm at it, don't we already have a large 'research' campus for the medical field in the Great Seneca Science Corridor on the west end of the ICC? Is this White Oak plan trying to compete with that - and therefore itself since they're in the same County? Even if the mission of the research is slightly different, it's related enough to seem silly. All the institutions of education are in Great Seneca and has a better chance of being where most companies would want to locate.

I wish White Oak could succeed - it could be a great place, but hanging your hat on a non existent office and laboratory market away from high quality transit just seems foolish. the BRT system may become a great people mover one day, but as long as we have METRO, BRT will always be seen as a sub-standard transit system.

Rant over!

by Gull on Jul 28, 2014 6:50 pm • linkreport

Gull - Interesting rant, I got one, too. As for whether White Oak could be great - residents aren't complaining about their pretty homes. I think NH avenue has a whole lot of churches, temples, etc. which use up lots of land space and bring lots of people, but religious institutions don't pay county taxes, and the coffer counters want other businesses.
Bus systems don't have to be seen as substandard - what people want is to have a nice place to wait and to not have to wait too long for it to arrive, and for it to go close to where they need it.
I keep seeing BRT implemented in a way that keeps sacrificing what people find most important - RideOn's beauty is how close it gets to where people live, that it goes through people's own neighborhoods. BRT plans to cut and lose that. I read of brand new BRTs with long waits between trains, sort of like what's wrong with Metrorail lately, and the advantage of speedy service enroute is now lost. BRT as reducing the number of cars because people prefer buses since the service is great, that's what's desirable - not any plans to reduce the number of cars because all those who can afford to manage to do it are going to be finding alternative routes since the local roads been cut to too few lanes.

Riding a bus that stops everywhere people pull to be let off and pick up sounds slower, and perhaps it is - but if it runs regularly and reliably, and picks up shortly after you wait at a stop and goes almost the way to a person's destination, so someone doesn't have to walk a long way after their ride - that can feel fast, even if technically it's not as fast as a car can go. That comfort standard isn't BRTs - but it is a gold one, and it works, and where it exists, people like their bus.

by asffa on Jul 28, 2014 7:26 pm • linkreport

For those who are against this plan and want to see White Oak prosper, please tell me if not now then when will there be a chance to bring jobs to the area?

By the looks of the comments, it seems the only option is bringing heavy rail to White Oak which will not happen unless there is already demand. Dense development can create that demand. However, waiting around to get this plan to have the "right" balance of development and transit is foolish.

If there is no movement now, then we can wait another decade or so (or next real estate boom) when the issue is forced to develop because there is no where else to build. In the meantime, Konterra will take the jobs and retail that could of been here, allowing more east county decay.

I live here and will most definitely move my family out if plans to improve (at this point improvement means anything but nothing) the area aren't set in motion soon. You can bet many other young educated families will do the same.

At least with this plan, there is a chance for the east county to turn around and attract jobs and better retail resulting in more demand and ultimately improved schools. It may not happen soon (or ever) but it's worth the try and better than doing absolutely nothing.

by Lane on Jul 28, 2014 9:55 pm • linkreport

While I'm pleased to see such praise of Ride On (which does an excellent job and is unfairly looked down on) it's not true that BRT will remove buses from near where people live. Actually, it will allow more buses near where people live, as Ride On will remain as a neighborhood service, often feeding BRT routes (as well as Metro Rail, MARC, and the Purple Line).

by Ethan on Jul 28, 2014 10:02 pm • linkreport

@Lane: Totally agree. Montgomery County has let Fairfax eat its lunch. And, a 20-year(!) moratorium on development? I'm sure Navid Roshan chortles with glee at the thought of that. And, I mean no offense whatsoever to him--this is MoCo's fault.

Anyone who supported that should be ashamed of themselves. What community ever stagnated itself into prosperity? Note to Four Corners: you are not Chevy Chase. Hell, even Chevy Chase will eventually have rapid transit running through it. And, resisting development in Montgomery County will just push it out into Howard County, and all they will do is further clog the highway you need to use to even run banal errands.

@Asffa: I disagree with you about BRT, as long as it's coordinated properly with Howard County. But, RideOn definitely is a model for other jurisdictions in the area. It's not fancy, and doesn't run as late on most routes as I'd like, but as a resident of Takoma Park a block from the Silver Spring border, it's remarkable how much of the area I can get to within a 15-minute walk and bus ride of my house. And not just to trendy areas like DC's Circulator or rush-hour oriented like services in other jurisdictions. It truly is mobility enhancing, even on weekends, at least where I live.

And, asffa, I'm totally with you on enhancing local bus stops.

by EMD on Jul 28, 2014 10:08 pm • linkreport

asffa,There are so many examples of 'if they build it, they will come" in terms of transit, it's hard to know where to start. I'll start in the mountain west with Denver and Salt Lake City.

There's just too much empirical evidence to make this argument worthwhile. It's just a matter of how and when. I respect the alternate view, but the climate is warming and dependable transit is the only sustainable alternative in an increasingly urbanizing city.

by Thayer-D on Jul 28, 2014 11:28 pm • linkreport

EMD - From what I understand, the plan is to cut RideOn and current MetroBus routes back to help pay for BRT or give that preference.
BRT costs means planned cuts elsewhere - whether its for shelters, night owl service, more buses sent more often on other Metrobus routes, repairs and replacements, expansions, all of it. That's not even beginning to address whether there's a balanced cost-benefit likely for traffic congestion or how that'll be paid for.
Already I've seen some BRT proposals being used as an excuse not to build strongly advisable road improvements upcounty. I suspect its also being circulated as reasons not to improving other bus service right now.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 2:04 am • linkreport

BRT should be cheaper to operate than regular buses, since you have more passengers per bus/driver and shorter trip times.

Building BRT to White Oak should also be cheap and easy. Just put separate BRT lanes on Colesville Rd/Columbia Pike, leading to Silver Spring. In most places you would need to take a lane from cars. But there would still be 2 lanes per direction for cars, and many people would be able to switch to quick buses, so traffic would not necessarily get worse at all.

by Eric on Jul 29, 2014 7:30 am • linkreport

Eric limiting Rt. 29 to 2 lanes per direction when its a major 95 alternative route to Baltimore is inadequate and insane. It also causes defeat to the purpose of hundreds of millions already spent building interchanges to make it fast for cars.
Most of Old Columbia still exists if you want to go 25-40 mph - They aren't talking BRT, walkability, and traffic stalling there, though.

And as for BRT being CHEAP in any way - it isn't. You can't ignore the vast capital costs, eliminating other opportunities. BRT bus will probably be at least double in cost both in projected capital costs, and for bus ridership.

The other thing about rush hour traffic being mostly people going from Howard County - Howard County's bus service is dreadful. All they currently have on the proposals for 2030 is a BRT line from the Columbia Mall, so assumes first people will have transportation there. The buses taking people to the mall- they have to step up and be better for people to take them for transfer. Howard County hasn't solved the 1 mile situation at all. However, if there's demand, why not start express busing/charters irregardless of BRT? Where they've been started in Montgomery already on popular routes, they're succeeding. Even the Council been quoted as saying "We could make them happen tomorrow"
That's possibly a very good idea.
Where I'm not sure is whether the Mall is willing to be a park-n-ride or if they'll ticket. I'm reminded of there was express buses about 15 years ago from Lakeforest to Tysons. Many people working in the area sure didn't want to drive to Tysons, but Lakeforest Mall would ticket everybody who wanted to use that bus. Customers couldn't use the service - that bus route failed. Planning and coordination, "balance" etc. is vital, putting things in without it may mean failure and cause people to think there's no demand.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 9:06 am • linkreport

Let's finish developing Wheaton, Glenmont and White Flint before we start spending our tax dollars on developing additional town centers. We've got plans and no action in Wheaton/Glenmont.

by Redline SOS on Jul 29, 2014 9:26 am • linkreport

Living in Prince George's County, I'm all for getting the ball rolling. I think communities get so hung up on traffic studies that they miss the main goal of development. That is to bring a higher quality of life closer to where you live which would and should ultimately reduce your time on the road. Which is a good thing. Waiting for heavy rail or more roads before developing is a sure way to stagnate growth.

Building more roads does not help. Eventually, people will use up the extra capacity and so you have more roads but the same amount of congestion unless you can expand all roads that lead to the destination. expanding RT. 29 does nothing if you can't expand Georgia Avenue, 16th Street, or the Beltway. You'll still run into the same choke points down the line.

by adelphi_sky on Jul 29, 2014 9:27 am • linkreport

The benefits from bus service improvements that actually improve service and travel times (not amenities at stops) are obvious and well-documented. RideOn may be sufficient for the way the suburbs are configured right now, but in 20-30 years MoCo is going to be playing catch-up if they don't make a plan for improved transit now.

However, if there's demand, why not start express busing/charters irregardless of BRT?

There already are commuter buses from Howard County to Metro stations in MoCo and DC. They are well-ridden.

by MLD on Jul 29, 2014 9:27 am • linkreport

MLD There already are commuter buses from Howard County to Metro stations in MoCo and DC. They are well-ridden."
Good. More of that.

MLD the studies about BRT that the County bought, that came out against BRT considered the future.

Of course MoCo needs to consider the future, which requires flexibility. It means that refusing to build roads upcounty and fix 355 is short sighted.
It means spending all the budget on an elite bus service that reduces service to those who use the bus right now in favor of potentially luring "choice" ridership with expensive branding and exclusive lanes, taken from use of the general public doesn't make sense.
It means that reducing lanes on 29 looks pretty crazy.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 10:03 am • linkreport

adephi_sky Regarding "Building more roads does not help. Eventually, people will use up the extra capacity and so you have more roads"
This argument is like saying "Don't build what people will want to use, instead make something that doesn't cause people to come, don't add a bed or they won't sleep on the floor, don't buy food people want to eat or the shelves will shortly be empty."
I think you're wrong. I think roads that there's no need to build won't get a lot of users - Come with an argument proving I'm wrong about that.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 10:13 am • linkreport

asffa

we charge for beds, we charge for food. The problem is not the tendency of people to use stuff, but to excessively use what is provided for free or underpriced. How that impacts the decision to widen a given road, or to add transit capacity instead depends on local conditions, and requires a locally focused BCA. I am not familiar with the MoCo analysis, and detailed corridor analysis would be useful, but I don't think general claims about elites, regular people, etc are terribly useful.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jul 29, 2014 10:24 am • linkreport

Adelphi_sky "expanding RT. 29 does nothing if you can't expand Georgia Avenue, 16th Street, or the Beltway. You'll still run into the same choke points down the line." Let's think about this, then -

16th street SHOULD have a Rush hour bus lane. I'm for that. Some paint, some signs, sweet talk to the local churches, and that can happen. Hopefully very soon and not 15 years from now.

Regarding Georgia - The planning for the BRT is disastrously bad. If they'd planned building a BRT on the median when they planned ICC on it and coordinated the building of the two, and didn't take lanes from the local traffic - that could have been great. Instead ICC took local lanes already from Georgia Avenue and used the medians, making a mess of things and BRT and bike lanes don't have homes. The most optimistic projections gave it running 11% faster, and the design - DREADFUL.

Georgia Ave BRT - little or nothing in rewards and a big dangerous, damaging boondoggle of a design.

The Beltway - The 1 mile problem comes in again - where are people going to get on the express/ charter buses that will use the Beltway? People still use it to get on 95 to go all the way to Florida. Virginia solution was to make Lexxus lanes - Maryland could follow suit. What do you suggest?

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 10:29 am • linkreport

@Asffa: I agree with your concern about losing RideOn service, but BRT doesn't mean losing RideOn. BRT wouldn't replace local bus service.

I'm an advocate for BRT, but would never want to see local service get wiped out as a result. It's important to BRT's success - especially where the development is less dense and local buses create accessibility to stations. (Is there a particular route you care especially about?)

The good news is that in other cities that have built BRT, local service has been maintained and integrated with the new system. It's usually rerouted so that it doesn't duplicate what the BRT does (trips down major roads), but still reaches into the neighborhoods where people need to access the first (or last) leg of their trip.

As to the $2 billion capital cost, it ain't cheap - but it's the least expensive option. Per mile of route, it's under half the cost of the Purple Line, under a quarter of the cost of the ICC, and under an eighth of the cost of extending the Yellow Line. For the cost of building one highway overpass (and the county wants to build several on 29, as well as others on 355 and Georgia), you can build 3-4 miles of BRT. The county will spend this money, one way or the other.

As to who stands to earn the $2 billion? It's a construction cost, paid to general contractors and their subs. Construction is fairly labor-intensive and a short-term job creator. But every dollar the county can save, through clever design or innovative partnerships or any other strategy that still produces quality transit, is a good thing.

by Scott Williamson on Jul 29, 2014 10:32 am • linkreport

CrossingBrooklynFerry - Roads aren't free (especially not in Virginia or NJ) but they aren't anyway.
Building what won't get used is mindless.
You may not like the talk over "choice" riders, elites, etc. but when it comes to 355 BRT plans and bus priorites in general, it's extremely relevant.
Even this article shows it. College students at MCC campuses on 355 don't deserve special consideration (there's 60k students going to the 3 MCC campuses) - "355 only" BRT would require they walk an extra mile per day and the leaks in the shelters haven't been fixed, White Flint C8 ridership going to College Park doesn't deserve a shelter or bench, but this is about the 9K that might come work for the FDA.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 10:36 am • linkreport

The Georgia overpass (if the Georgia/Randolph one is what was meant) is planned in conjuction with making Glenmont station area more walkable and making some developers really rich. I'm not sure how much it cost, but finished it'll speed up all forms of transit by more minutes than the 150 million dollar Georgia BRT would.
Have you looked at the numbers at that intersection? Blocking it is a safety issue - the hospital, fire department, police departments are in the area. You really looking at that as shouldn't be done? It's too late, they already began busting buildings there anyway.
The 29 overpasses is a continuance of what I already mentioned - that 29 is meant to not be a slow route mostly of just 2 driving lanes, but instead they've been spending millions already to make it a 95 alternative route.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 10:48 am • linkreport

assfa

Roads are underpriced. the gas tax does not come close to covering the deferred maintenance needs in the highway system, and even if it did, that does not account for the very high coss of adding new capacity in congested developed areas - the only way to address that is to toll any road capacity expansions, which is what Virginia is increasingly doing.

And yes, trying to divide people by SES the way you are doing, though you may like it as a rhetorical strategy, is misleading. BRT can help current bus riders, and choice riders who switch from cars are not necessarily "elite" - unless you think all motorists are elite, which would seem to contradict your view that leaving lanes to motorists makes them available to ordinary people.

The better way to analyze a BRT is to look at the time savings to existing bus riders, the benefits to riders who switch to transit, the impacts to the community of that mode switch, the impacts on motorist of the reconfigured road, the changes in bus operating costs and weigh net benefits against the costs of building the facility.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jul 29, 2014 10:58 am • linkreport

CrossingBrooklynFerry -
That was not all the meaning of the phrase used here. And besides, if someone *has* to use the bus, why should their future service be made inferior? How's that make sense?

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 11:27 am • linkreport

CrossingBrooklynFerry - btw I AGREE with you about looking at the needs of existing bus riders, looking at impacts, etc. and whether such decisions such as road changes, etc. will help life in their homes and communities.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 11:28 am • linkreport

assffa

but you need to look at the impact on current bus riders of the BRT itself, not of hypothesized improvements you could make with the $2 billion - if you count those AND the 2 billion, you are double counting.

Note current riders will include both people who continue to use non-BRT services, and folks who use BRT services (which may be the same people on different days)

I think the implication that captive riders are absolutely distinct from choice riders, and that capative riders get no benefit from BRT, is mistaken.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jul 29, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

And besides, if someone *has* to use the bus, why should their future service be made inferior? How's that make sense?

The debate is over whether their future service actually is being made inferior. You seem to think so despite evidence to the contrary.

More service and a dedicated lane for some reason means "inferior service" to you. You pick out a couple specific examples where some people may have to walk a bit more, while ignoring the other people currently riding that same bus who are inconvenienced because the bus deviates to stop directly in front of a destination.

You ignore the fact that the way things are laid out currently is not the way they will always be - businesses and destinations can and will reorient around new transit stops that have high-quality service. That is the entire point of building high-quality service.

by MLD on Jul 29, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

@CrossingBrooklynFerry: Good points all. We actually looked at some of these points of analysis you raised.

We looked at BRT travel times vs. current bus. For any trip that isn't served by two Red Line stops now, BRT would cut rush hour travel time by 10% to 50% (average 30%) over the best transit option. Cross-county trips and trips from one Montgomery College campus to another saw the largest improvements. Happy to share the data and methods on this with anyone.

Switching to transit has a small effect on transportation costs if you leave your car at home, but a far bigger effect if a family is able to avoid adding a car when someone gets a new job or a teenager gets a driver's license. Avoiding the total cost of an average new car and paying the max possible transit fare still saves the family a bit over $5k a year.

Impacts on operating costs is are often reported as cost per passenger mile, or cost per trip, or share of expenses covered by farebox revenue. Well-used transit always does better on all counts. BRT ridership results have been good in every case we've found in the US - actually above expectations in most cases - and these per-trip and per-rider costs have correspondingly been better with BRT than under regular buses.

As to community impacts, these are measured in economic development around stations, larger commutersheds (indicating access to jobs for workers, and access to workers for employers), reductions in the growth of congestion, and avoided road widening in the future. More travel lanes for regular traffic (and $100M-a-pop overpasses) are hugely expensive too, and don't show these benefits. Cleveland saw $4 billion in investment along its BRT route, and Eugene saw about half of all new jobs occur along its BRT route.

There's a factor, though, that you didn't mention: regional competition. The DC area's counties (and DC itself) are competing, and they compete on transit now - not on roads. Transit attracts the next generation of workers and families more than roads. Employers also follow transit. BRT will open up in Alexandria this fall, as will the streetcar in DC, and the Silver Line will give Tysons Corner a massive advantage.

The county can't build a 21st-century future on a 20th-century transportation vision; it'll get left in the dust.

by Scott Williamson on Jul 29, 2014 11:38 am • linkreport

Scott Williamson I'm curious - I want to see your arguments. I already know such results aren't universal and that a lot of current ridership will have worse service. Also - Which campus?

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 11:43 am • linkreport

MLD More bus service to less places, and worse traffic, more accidents likely - those aren't improvements.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 11:45 am • linkreport

Scott Williamson I haven't seen full environmental studies about BRT. I want to know who is sped up, who is slowed down - the percentages on both, whether side roads not meant to take heavy traffic get added cars from the diverted lane traffic, etc. and the accident results.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 11:50 am • linkreport

@asffa
I already know such results aren't universal and that a lot of current ridership will have worse service.
You know? I'd love to see your data on that.

More bus service to less places, and worse traffic, more accidents likely - those aren't improvements.
1. "Less places" defined in what way? You are not defining them in terms of the number of people using those places which is the important metric - not every place is equally valuable.
2. "Worse traffic" for whom? If the point of the transportation network is to move PEOPLE around then BRT is giving us a huge capacity upgrade in terms of PEOPLE movement. Some SOV drivers may experience worse traffic - their trip times may *GASP* be lengthened to the trip times lowly transit riders experience! And those people can always try riding the bus.
3. "More accidents likely" this is a made-up argument. What evidence is there for that? Transit is much safer than driving overall.

by MLD on Jul 29, 2014 11:50 am • linkreport

MLD If someone isn't using the bus on these streets, they haven't any strong reason to talk or care about service.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 11:53 am • linkreport

1. Fewer routes, less stops = less places. I think that's pretty solidly logical.
2. Worse traffic is obvious - are more people getting about more smoothly, quickly, safely etc. than before. PEOPLE are in cars, too, in fact, most.
Transit doesn't have to suck. Lower expectations and slower commutes and no "night owl service", too are a fault of bad planning and not something to perpetuate on everybody.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 12:03 pm • linkreport

fewer stops can mean faster service for existing users. Thats been done in NoVa on the 29K bus.

It not obvious traffic will get worse with a BRT line. First of all you get the existing buses into the BRT lane. Plus you will get some mode switching to transit. The net result cannot be determined a priori.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jul 29, 2014 12:09 pm • linkreport

CrossingBrooklynFerry I've no objection to adding more express buses.
30+ million per mile isn't spent, nor years of traffic congestion created by express buses. They're a win for everybody.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 12:17 pm • linkreport

So then the issue is NOT the impact of changing bus service on existing riders, its the impact on motorists, and the cost. But I already said those have a place in Benefit Cost Analysis.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jul 29, 2014 12:21 pm • linkreport

Fewer routes, less stops = less places. I think that's pretty solidly logical.
Not if the places you are skipping are visited by 10 people and the places you are hitting with more service are visited by 1000. Again, "places" is the wrong metric.

Worse traffic is obvious - are more people getting about more smoothly, quickly, safely etc. than before. PEOPLE are in cars, too, in fact, most.
OK - MOST of the road will still be reserved for SOV use. Again, you are ignoring the people on transit who will be getting around more smoothly/quickly/safely. You have to look at it in the aggregate - no plan is going to be a win for every individual user. The county has an obligation to plan for what will be a win in the aggregate over the long term.

Transit doesn't have to suck. Lower expectations and slower commutes and no "night owl service", too are a fault of bad planning and not something to perpetuate on everybody.
You're right - transit doesn't have to suck. That's why the county is developing a plan to improve it - faster transit serving the most popular locations. A plan which you hate apparently.

by MLD on Jul 29, 2014 12:35 pm • linkreport

Why is the subject about building a new town center turns into special interest groups high hacking it into supporting reduction of highway lanes in favor of modern trolleys that most tax payers do not support especially since we are used to high speed subways and limited access highways????

by rich on Jul 29, 2014 2:31 pm • linkreport

wait - bus in BRT is a modern trolley? I thought a streetcar was a bus on tracks?

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jul 29, 2014 2:48 pm • linkreport

Council just approved the plan

by Lane on Jul 29, 2014 3:40 pm • linkreport

"So then the issue is NOT the impact of changing bus service on existing riders"

Yes, that issue is there. They've added express buses without changing other bus services - but they'd do the latter with BRT.

"its the impact on motorists, and the cost. But I already said those have a place in Benefit Cost Analysis."

There was some of that - the study the County paid for says BRT is not advised. And that's even when they spent 7 million for environmental impact studies that DIDN'T look at what it'd do to traffic.

As for the Councilmembers ignoring the study they paid for because it doesn't support their assertions - perhaps they should have to turn in their cars. Council members is supporting the proposed Georgia Ave BRT plan for example - they need to get out of politics. Boondoggle.

Council rushed through several approvals last year, all mostly BRT plans that are NOT in their own districts (isn't that NIMBYism?!), and without adequate public input." Committee for Transit"-run Lobbyist Happy hours and information displays aren't public forums.

"Not if the places you are skipping are visited by 10 people and the places you are hitting with more service are visited by 1000. Again, "places" is the wrong metric."

No, its a legit metric. First, that future metric would be misleading if you forced those thousand to drive over to meet where the new station goes rather than have their stop near them anymore.

Second, when the current situation is people not waiting in a spot or using the bus is because people aren't providing shelters, benches, and bike racks, and also, if they don't run buses often enough to meet demand, then getting mad there's not enough people you see waiting is stupid.
If anybody wants to be proud of the Council, have them show action right now that's not in the couple billion dollar range. Theyt could replace 1000 "flag pole stops" with a shelter and bike rackfor the price of just one mile of BRT. Haven't done the price, but for how much could they double the number of Q buses serving Veirs Mill Road. For how much more could "night owl" service happen?

When the committment to improving service right now is laggard or spotty, why would some of you want to invest all ones eggs in the BRT pile? What is really going to make all the bus systems work better?

About road building - look at the M-83 alternative lists and study. Just because a plan involve road building doesn't mean it's not forward-thinking and the best plans.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 4:17 pm • linkreport

Also, I see how the needs of the many busriders (today) are ignored if they aren't the wealthiest dynamic - just see how the Council will hurry to act for the FDA, but want to make worse things for the MCC ridership.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 4:24 pm • linkreport

apparently the study DID support BRT on 355.

I will need to look more to see how it dealt with the proposed science center. It probably did not reflect that people would object to that center based on traffic being too bad.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jul 29, 2014 4:26 pm • linkreport

CrossingBrooklynFerry - read the whole thing, keep the congestion on 355 listed as a pro-BRT item in mind while reading the M-83 alternatives paper, and keep in mind the Council kept turning down the suggested road improvements and construction needed to reduce 355 congestion and plan for upcounty expansion.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 4:32 pm • linkreport

assffa

I am not going to keep chasing down reports that you do not link to, and that do not in fact say what you said they said.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jul 29, 2014 4:36 pm • linkreport

Regarding BRT lanes -are all kinds of buses going to be allowed to use them or only the express buses?
Like where is RideOn going to go?

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 4:36 pm • linkreport

@asffa - all good questions. My responses are below. After this, I'm happy to trade emails with you (or anyone else interested) about BRT specifics. This comment thread is about White Oak so I don't want to dominate it with BRT discussion. I'm at swilliamson@communitiesfortransit.org. Send me a note and I can email you my travel-time numbers.

I looked at 30 routes around the county along the proposed BRT corridors. I spoke specifically of the Silver Spring to Rockville campus trip, up Georgia and Veirs Mill and then 355. I think BRT could save students a half hour or more on that trip. It's the largest improvement I found.

There's no RideOn route that HAS to get worse. Doesn't mean the county won't bungle it, though. That's something that the community of riders will need to engage with MCDOT on. Improving transit service for everyone is attainable.

Diverting traffic to side roads is a worry in every place where BRT is done. It's a case-by-case problem and there are solutions. Chevy Chase has done a lot of this cut-through prevention. This county doesn't have a lot of attractive side roads (since we have no grid system), so that reduces the problem. By that token, though, if traffic stays on the main road, we need to make BRT truly high-quality to attract riders immediately.

Express buses: don't oversell them; when traffic's stuck, they're stuck too. Chicago's BRT will almost double bus speeds from 8.5 mph to 16. Express buses only get 9.5mph, by contrast - barely faster at all. Also, one of the biggest benefits of a transit line is access to transit, and express buses have only one access point - the end of the route. Everyone who lives along the route just watches it go by.

Who goes slower/faster, and how much? It depends on a lot of things. Numbers vary, NYC does "BRT Lite" and saves 20% on travel time, while LA's full BRT sees more like 40%. Ridership is way better in LA, unsurprisingly. As to traffic, that also varies, but great fears of road-system collapse in other towns never came to pass.

Safety and accidents: No indication that BRT has special dangers, though it requires some careful design around a) left turns for cars, and b) pedestrian access (see today's GGW story about Silver Line riders sprinting across busy streets with no crosswalks - we do NOT want that, anywhere.) Fears that these are "high-speed" buses sometimes get brought up - they drive safely at normal speed, but being outside of traffic is what improves travel times.

by Scott Williamson on Jul 29, 2014 4:37 pm • linkreport

CrossingBrooklynFerry- since you asked so politely -
http://www.montgomeryplanningboard.org/agenda/2013/documents/20130718MidCountyHighway130709_StaffReport-REVISED_000.pdf

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 4:38 pm • linkreport

Scott Williamson - "I spoke specifically of the Silver Spring to Rockville campus trip, up Georgia and Veirs Mill and then 355. I think BRT could save students a half hour or more on that trip. It's the largest improvement I found. "

Did you? I have to see more details. Don't forget that the BRT plan is to drop people an extra half mile away from inside campus, a big problem for disabled students currently using the bus.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 4:43 pm • linkreport

asffa

I do not see a comparison of benefits and costs - just a statement that the no-build does not meet stated needs.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jul 29, 2014 4:44 pm • linkreport

CrossingBrooklynFerry Now you've lost me. I don't think we're understanding each other. So anyway.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 4:46 pm • linkreport

There was some of that - the study the County paid for says BRT is not advised.

This is a gross oversimplification. What the study actually said was that the current development levels on many of the corridors won't support enough ridership for BRT. And it recommended BRT on several corridors.

Council members is supporting the proposed Georgia Ave BRT plan for example - they need to get out of politics.
Why? This isn't actually a fact-based argument - just emotion.

shelters, benches, and bike racks
Why would these amenities increase ridership significantly? Bike racks? Nobody wants to leave their bike at a rack at a bus stop all day. They want it somewhere where more people will be (security) or they want to put it on the bus so they can ride to a destination at the end.

Haven't done the price, but for how much could they double the number of Q buses serving Veirs Mill Road.
It would cost a lot, but it would cost less with dedicated lanes as buses could run faster and so the same number of buses could do more runs every day, increasing frequency.

What is really going to make all the bus systems work better?
Improving service so that riding transit is a legitimate choice many people WANT to make over driving alone.

by MLD on Jul 29, 2014 4:52 pm • linkreport

asffa

I am certainly not understanding you.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jul 29, 2014 4:55 pm • linkreport

MLD
"Why would these amenities increase ridership significantly?"

Because people like to sit down if they have to wait somewhere, some even must sit down if they have to wait, due to their health. And because DC gets weather, so shelter protect them from rain.

"Bike racks? Nobody wants to leave their bike at a rack at a bus stop all day."

I perhaps in the past I would have claimed the same, except everywhere local I've seen a bike rack set up, within a month I'll see bikes tied to them, especially if they're near bus stops.
Maybe it's people at their bus stop destination resting their bikes while they shop before they come back and go home, but that would still, to my mind, be a good use and good reason to put them up.
In the "build it and they will come" game, putting up bike racks everywhere leave little to lose if you happen to be wrong.

by asffa on Jul 29, 2014 5:04 pm • linkreport

asffa, you keep insisting that "build it and they will come" is a fantasy with regards to transit despite all the evidence to the contrary.

'You have to see more details' or maybe you'll argue every detail to cloud the issue like the anti-purple line folks. You want to talk about boondoggles?

by Thayer-D on Jul 29, 2014 6:59 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D - Every detail should be argued on billion dollar projects, including the Purple Line, to make it better, more efficient, and maximize its benefits to the community. Plan twice, pour (asphalt, concrete) once.
Governments sometime scrutinize over small details on matters costing a couple hundred dollars, jumps with eyes closed on million dollar projects, and leap off spinning trebuchets for billion dollar ones. Only the public can help keep them in line.

New BRT in Virginia - model of the things to come - 6 minutes some times - which I'm sure is nice, 12 minutes most of the time - completely unimpressive, 20 minutes weekends - stinks. Occupies road space all the time, but doesn't run all the time - in other words, isn't earning its rent. IMHO ridiculous. Wouldn't Rush Hour bus lanes make more sense?
http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/23450/brt-comes-to-northern-virginia-on-august-24/
If a BRT is just blocking a major traffic lane and not moving much of the time, it should be towed away. It shouldn't be put in in the first place if there's not going to be the usage to justify it. And if there's going to be usage to justify it - its service should be planned to be excellent.

by asffa on Jul 30, 2014 12:29 am • linkreport

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