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Parking changes could fix holiday traffic on Rockville Pike

Reports of congestion near malls across the region this holiday season make it sound like the recession never even happened. They also raise questions about how we handle traffic throughout the year.

Photo by thecourtyard.

Many strip malls along Rockville Pike were built in the 1950's for local shoppers. Today, they've evolved into multi-story, multi-building campuses, drawing customers from across the region with a variety of high-end speciality goods. More shoppers means more cars, which has made Rockville Pike notorious for nasty traffic.

Here are some solutions property owners could implement in time for next year's holiday shopping season. They're meant to be completed with minimal public intervention, though they would require some cooperation among private developers. They will reduce congestion within the parking lot, at the mall's entrances, and on The Pike itself.

Drop the "walk-off" policy. It prevents nearby office workers or Metro commuters from taking up parking spaces. But it also means that someone visiting two adjacent shopping centers has to drive and park twice, creating congestion on the property and on Rockville Pike as well.

Last week, I went looking for a store in Congressional Plaza at Rockville Pike and Halpine Road. I then realized that the store was in the next block at The Shops at Congressional Village. Instead of getting back in the car, I walked two-fifths of a mile to the store, passing every other store in both shopping centers and stopping in a few of them.

Shopping centers could create a privatized version of Montgomery County's Parking Lot Districts in Silver Spring, Wheaton and Bethesda. Property owners may resist sharing parking and customers with other malls, but it could benefit them. Visitors would spend less time trying to park and more time spending money at a greater number of stores. Disabled shoppers or those with large packages may continue driving from place to another. But it would reduce traffic from those able and willing to walk the extra distance.

Raise awareness of all parking options. Each shopping center has a lot facing Rockville Pike, advertising to passing motorists that parking was available. But many shopping centers and even stand-alone stores and restaurants along Rockville Pike have additional parking areas that are often unknown to customers.

Half of Federal Plaza 's parking is in a rear lot facing East Jefferson Street. Congressional Plaza sets aside spaces in the garage of an adjacent apartment building. And Montrose Crossing (pictured above) has not one, but two parking garages. They all usually sit empty because visitors see the lot in front and assume it's the only one.

In a study of a Los Angeles neighborhood, UCLA professor Donald Shoup discovered that a lot of traffic comes from people looking for parking spaces. The same goes for parking lots along Rockville Pike. If motorists knew that were available in back or in a garage, they could go straight there rather than looking for a space in front.

Charge for the most convenient spaces. People will seek out free parking if they're using a space for hours at a time. But those in a hurry or running multiple errands will pay for the guarantee of open, easy-to-reach parking.

Install meters at (non-handicapped) spaces within the first few rows of store entrances, give customers thirty minutes to shop and charge fifty cents. These spaces will turn over quickly, meaning more shoppers can visit the center. Those staying longer can park in free spaces further out or in garages, which in many cases are just as close to the stores. Not only will people know about other parking options, but they have an incentive to use them.

Charging for all spaces could potentially backfire so long as a nearby shopping center still offers free parking. But it's a good way to ensure that parking spaces are available for customers. Both the City of Rockville and Providence, Rhode Island, which made public parking free during this year's holiday season, found that lots filled up with Metro commuters or office workers at the expense of shoppers who couldn't find a space.

Long-term plans call for turning Rockville Pike between Shady Grove and White Flint into a string of urban villages akin to those along the Orange Line in Arlington. This will deal with many of the current issues surrounding The Other Pike today as it becomes easier for people to live, work and shop along the corridor without a car. But until that happens, implementing creative ideas like those above could provide quick relief to frustrated shoppers come next Christmas.

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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Great post. City of Falls Church has a similar problem with all the parking being divided into tiny individual lots, with the spaces often marked for individual stores. There is little to no on-street parking which would be used by people expecting to stop for multiple errands.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 31, 2009 1:05 pm • linkreport

In general, I don't understand why places allow these ridiculous amounts of parking spots that never fill up except a few times in December. Bulldozer them and put a wider sidewalk in and perhaps some grass. Or, even more significant, a bus stop that serves the area.

In Europe, due to of space, downtown areas becomes more and more hostile to cars, while completely embrasing pedestrians and transit. Interestingly, shoppers love it. And now you see more and more smaller places implementing tge same things.

People in DC howl over $2 an hours for parking. Try parking in Amsterdam for less than €6 an hour on a Sunday<\b>.

by Jasper on Dec 31, 2009 4:28 pm • linkreport

The Montrose Crossing shopping center, above pictured, was designed to accomodate future infill development, hence its parking garage. The second garage was built for the Target in the rear, which has no surface parking. Private developers tend to keep parking free, even if structured, in retail destination locations like Washingtonian and Congressional. Mixed-developments tend to charge, i.e. Bethesda Row and National Harbor. No one is going to start charging for parking until Rockville Pike is redeveloped. Doing otherwise would be economic suicide.

Rockville Pike is very walkable, it has a fine sidewalk system with crosswalks at most intersections, unlike wastelands like Tysons.

Plus all that traffic probably serves to bring more business to local shops. Slower traffic gives people the opportunity to see the people holding signs (are they called some specific name?) pointing to smaller shops in the more isolated shopping centers. Speed traffic too much and you get Burtonsville. And traffic is key to encouraging transit usage.

by Cyrus on Dec 31, 2009 6:14 pm • linkreport

Rockville Pike is very walkable, it has a fine sidewalk system with crosswalks at most intersections, unlike wastelands like Tysons.

You're kidding, right? I hope so.

Who needs credibility when we can be mindless cheerleaders for an unsustainable, dying car culture?

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2009 7:04 pm • linkreport


This is a great thought provoking post.

The UCLA study is nice and tidy where driver behaviors are successfully altered via a monetary incentive, but I'm having some trouble seeing the comparison to the front/back parking lot scenarios found along the Rockville Pike. In the Rockville Pike scenarios, I'm not so sure that drivers would always choose to park out back if they knew the parking existed. There are always people that are willing to wait in their cars for a coveted up front spot even when there is room to park just 15 parking spots away. I think these people are in the minority, but there are enough people doing this that it creates mini traffic jams near the front of some busy stores, and in a case like the Rockville Pike, the traffic jams can extend out into the street. A similar situation can exist when people wait in their cars in the fire lane while a passenger runs into the store to "quickly" get something. I'm not so sure that awareness of parking spots in the back would change this behavior.

I'm always amazed to see this same behavior in large grocery store parking lots or at big stores like Target. I always go to the sections of the lot where there is ample parking, and I almost never drive directly in front of the store because of the traffic congestion. But there are always plenty of people wasting their time trying to park up front to save a few steps.


by Bowie Mike on Dec 31, 2009 7:34 pm • linkreport

I would think that if they ever got light rail down Rt. 7 that Falls Church could really be transformed. A lot of the parking lots would no longer be needed and could be used for better purposes..

by Jack Russell on Dec 31, 2009 7:45 pm • linkreport

I live right behind Congressional Plaza. I left for a couple weeks around Christmas and was very glad to get away from the holiday traffic. But really, these strips malls are a mess throughout the year. I don't there's a huge surplus of parking. At least, not compared to other shopping centers I've seen. Federal Plaza is always a zoo, and even the lower lot gets quite a few cars on the weekends now that MicroCenter is around. Congressional Plaza is busy on the weekends, although with the giant lot it never fills up completely. But, I think the overall layout of that shopping center is very inefficient, and there probably isn't a lot of parking space that can be used for much else. Montrose Crossing is an odd case. The surface lot is always full. But the ramp, which is pretty convenient to use, is always empty. I think the signs in the ramp are confusing. They say "Private Parking- Violators will be towed at the Owners expensive". I've seen lots of people drive into the ramp, drive around for a while, then drive out without parking. I think they're worried they're going to get towed.

I don't really think the solutions proposed here would really help. In spite of what one commenter said, the Rockville Pike corridor isn't pedestrian friendly. Things are spaced really far apart. There are narrow sidewalks close to speeding cars that aren't used to dealing with pedestrians except at certain intersections (355 & Halpine, mainly). You're not going to get anyone parking at Montrose Crossing and walking to Congressional Plaza, or even Federal Plaza. Without cutting down on the number of car trips between shopping centers we're not going to see a decrease in traffic on the pike.

I don't even know what we could reasonably expect to happen that would improve traffic in the lots themselves. I think many people know where less convenient, open parking spots are, but choose to drive around waiting for one of the closer spots to open up. But, I think there's room for improvement at the Montrose Crossing ramp, since that is actually a pretty convenient place to park. Maybe less threatening signs would help.

Really, I don't think we'll see much of an improvement without massive redevelopment along the pike. Between Rockville, Twinbrook and and White Flint, it seems like there's so much wasted space near metro stations dedicated to surface lots at strip malls. Take a look at the area around Congressional Plaza/Village (and the strip malls on the other side of the pike). That's right next to a metro station, but half the land is just parking. It's too bad Congressional Plaza is so new. ThatÂ’s not going anywhere for a long time.

by Andy R on Jan 1, 2010 4:46 pm • linkreport

The Pike is not a pleasant place for pedestrians (not enough crossings, confusing lights), but it is relatively servicable for walking in the areas below Congressional Plaza. I know because I walk to work everyday from White Flint Metro and usually run an errand or two during the work day at some point during the week. I also sometimes hike over to the Twinbrook area for work. Pointing this out does not make one an apologist for car culture.

Federal Plaza is a mess for driving, as is Montrose Crossing, which has odd undeveloped patches and problematic routes for pedestrians. I would guess that there are a large number of landlords of varying size in the area and that would be the main impediment to rationalizing parking or at least improving pedestrian circulation. The number and varying size of the properties also is an impediment to real redevelopment and wholesale redevelopment would drive out the little local places in the smaller strips.

Contrary to the portrait here, most of the development is on the same single story (and occasional 2 story) scale that has characterized the area since the 50s. Beyond a handful of places like REI, the reach of the area is probably the same as it was 40 years ago when Congressional Plaza was in its heyday and stores like Korvette's were draws. If anything, with the enlargement of Montgomery Mall in the 90s and the construction of Lakeforest before that, along with the long decline of White Flint, the area is probably less of a regional factor now than it was in the past. The Pike has a huge number of local businesses, including some great one of a kind restaurants. The side streets and nearby arterials include a large number of service businesses (tile stores, body shops) that are otherwise difficult to find in relatively close-in locations within Montgy County.

by Rich on Jan 1, 2010 8:57 pm • linkreport

Use technology such as pay-by-cell to charge for the most convenient spaces in many of these parking lots at the shopping plazas on Rockville Pike of White Flint. No need for them to invest in the meters. Software is cheaper. This is now being trialed in Bethesda Row.

by Erik on Jan 27, 2010 8:09 pm • linkreport

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