6 steps to boulevardize Wheaton's Viers Mill Road
Viers Mill Road (MD 586) in downtown Wheaton sticks out like a sore thumb from its surroundings. It currently acts as a barrier between the historic walkable urban town and the Westfield Wheaton properties. The road should be a celebrated urban boulevard. Its right-of-way goes back to colonial times, but was rebuilt as a suburban arterial in the 1960's.
Despite the fact that Viers Mill Road between University Boulevard and Georgia Avenue was rebuilt for un-walkability by our forebears at the dawn of the suburbanization era, it currently sees a lot of pedestrian crossings. I am one of those pedestrians. Here are some ideas to improve the road so it more accurately reflects its current uses.
- Increase the width of the median. It is far safer to cross a six lane road if you have a safe midpoint. The current median is a tiny ribbon of concrete that's about a foot wide between Reedie Drive and University Boulevard. When I stand on it, I feel very nervous.
- Move the bus stops just south of University Boulevard to the corner of Ennals Avenue. When I ride the RideOn 34 home from Friendship Heights/Bethesda, I'm usually the only passenger who gets off at that stop who then crosses Viers Mill Road at the crosswalk at University Boulevard. I am clearly a part of a small minority of passengers whose final destination is east or north of the bus stop.
Most other passengers diagonally cross Viers Mill Road towards Ennals Avenue. Some cross to the bus stop located across the street in order to connect with the C4/Q's/38 etc to go north on Viers Mill Road into car-dependent suburbia towards Rockville. Consequently, most passengers who get off the bus at that stop end up crossing mid-block... on a six-lane road with a one foot median.
- Create a block at Ennals Avenue. Currently, a motorist on Viers Mill Road has little way of knowing that there is a small cross street between Reedie Drive and University Boulevard. There isn't even a signed crosswalk between the Ennals Avenue sidewalk and the CVS across the street.
On Friday, February 5th, I almost saw a car collision between two motorists because there are no markings to cross Viers Mill Road from the (suburban-style) CVS parking lot. The curb cut for the CVS parking lot aligns perfectly with Ennals Avenue.
Plenty of crossings between strip malls and side streets have blinkers or traffic lights. This would be a reasonable place to put one in to make motorists aware of potential pedestrian and automobile crossings. Better notification of the crossings, along with the wider median and relocated bus stops, would all work together in providing pedestrian vitality. The increased street activity will tell motorists that it is time to slow down.
- Narrow the lanes. Current lane widths are built to suburban arterial guidelines. Narrowing them to 10 or 11 feet (except the one lane that must be 12 for delivery trucks) would cause motorists to slow down and drive more gently, causing fewer collisions. The narrower lane widths would be more consistent with an urban boulevard like Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda.
Most motorists currently ignore the bus lane.
- Fully separate the bus lanes. The right lane on Viers Mill Road has "Bus Only" painted on it just south of University Boulevard. However, just like on 7th Street NW in DC, few personal vehicle operators heed or even notice the markings. Inexpensive rubber poles would explicitly separate the bus lane, similar to the bike lane on 15th Street between Massachusetts Avenue and U St.
There is precedent for using the rubber poles in Wheaton. MCDOT used them on Reedie Drive across from Triangle Lane (in front of the Mid-County Services Building) to create a bulb-out so pedestrians have less asphalt to cross and motor vehicle operators are more aware of the crosswalk. (The MCDOT deseves credit for implementing this good idea.)
CVS's curb cut could remain a place for automobiles to cross the bus lane. It will not add much danger because the bus lane will have much less traffic than an automobile lane and the buses will be stopping at the relocated bus stop right in front of the CVS curb cut/Ennals Avenue crosswalk. The separated bus lanes would be in effect between University Boulevard and Reedie Drive both northbound and southbound.
- Improve the crosswalk across Viers Mill Road on the south side of Reedie Drive. Pedestrian bridges suck for pedestrians. It's that simple. They're a metaphorical middle finger to them. They're always underused, whether it's in Seven Corners, Hyattsville, or proposed at the Silver Spring library.
The pedestrian bridge across Viers Mill Road between Reedie Drive and Georgia Avenue is one of the less offensive examples of its kind because it at least provides a convenient route the the Metro for commuters who park in the upper levels of the Metro garage. Also, when a shopper gets off the Metro, the pedestrian bridge is the most obvious path to the mall.
However, the reverse is not true. Depending on which exit a transit-oriented customer uses to leave the mall, crossing Viers Mill Road at Reedie Drive could be more convenient. The businesses along the eastern side of Viers Mill Road would love the increased foot traffic. Many pedestrians might make a new discovery such as Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center.
Regardless, the increased foot traffic on the sidewalks and crossing the street will further tell motorists that they are on an urban boulevard and to drive accordingly. I personally use this crossing when I walk to the mall from my residence, too.
Looking across from the CVS to Ennals Avenue. Note the lack of even a crosswalk.
The upcoming 2010/11 Sector Plan will lay the framework for Wheaton to better use its existing walkable urban infrastructure and achieve its potential as an economic and social center of place. In order to facilitate this important process, all the infrastructure must be arranged to facilitate this positive growth. With a few small (low-cost) changes, Viers Mill Road between University Boulevard and Georgia Avenue can better serve the town that exists partly because of its historic proximity to the road.
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