Greater Greater Washington

Downtown Silver Spring provides freedom for couple

Reader David Fronapfel sent us this letter on Friday evening about his experience becoming a walking, biking and transit-riding resident of a mixed-use neighborhood.

I've just returned home from a great commute, and am in the best mood I've been in all day. How many people say that regularly?


Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

My girlfriend and I grew up in, and until recently, used to live in the outer suburbs of Baltimorespecifically the area around BWI and the horrible development at Arundel Mills. You know, the type of neighborhood that does not contain sidewalks.

You have to drive absolutely everywhere that you want to go. The Arundel Mills mall, for example, was less than a mile away from our home. However, it was virtually impossible to walk there. It still took 10-15 minutes by car (which, strangely enough, would have been about the same amount of time it would have taken were there pedestrian options available).

We worked in the also automobile-centric community of Columbia, which we drove to daily. Cars were as much a part of our lives as food and water.

I ended up getting a job in downtown DC, which was precisely the moment when both of our lives changed. We'd never been too familiar with the DC area, so we started to explore the neighborhoods after work every day.

We were especially struck by downtown Silver Spring, which seemed vibrant and diverse beyond anything we were used to in Anne Arundel County. The mix of proximity to DC (and our families in central Maryland) and the affordability, combined with the transit options to downtown DC sealed the deal.

As soon as we were financially established enough to make the leap, we found an apartment right downtown in Silver Spring, a block from the Metro.

We consolidated our cars, and own only one now. We started taking Metrorail to work (my girlfriend got a job downtown as well), but soon found the bus routes and exploited them as well. It wasn't long before we started thinking of the possibility of cycling to our jobs.

After finding that we could easily cycle to work, we purchased a couple of road bikes. Now, we each have four different modes to choose from (rail, bus, bike, or car) any particular day. I'd say that any given week, my choices are almost evenly distributed between the first three.

The first time I rode my route to work (which involves going around Walter Reed then down 14th street, utilizing the bike lanes), I almost threw up from exaustion. Now, a year and a half later, the commute barely fazes me, and I'm in the best shape I've ever been in. My girlfriend would easily state the same about herself. (She uses the Capital Crescent trail).

I couldn't have imagined the change my life would take just a few years ago. My car sits in my apartment's garage, barely getting any use at all. When once I saw a car as an indelible, constant part of every day life, kind of like underwear, or music, I now could never see myself living in an area that required me to use it in order to get the groceries, go to work, see a movie, or any of the countless other things that I can walk to in my immediate neighborhood.

Your blog embodies the values that I now hold. I just wanted to state my appreciation for your mission, and hopefully my story will play itself out again and again as people in situations similar to ours realize that car dependency is a burden.

Thanks for your time. It's Friday night, and my neighborhood beckons!

David Fronapfel
Silver Spring

Greater Greater Washington occasionally posts letters that raise questions or make points we feel our readers would enjoy seeing and discussing. If you would like to submit a letter, please send it to letters@ggwash.org. If you have feedback on an article you would like to share with other readers, please post it in the comments section of that article instead. 

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I would venture to add that one's understanding of their ecology and society increase accordingly with this lifestyle becasue of isolating the car commute can be. Traveling in an airconditioned vehicle at 35 mph, with Jack Diamond in the morning blathering on, it's harder to appreciate the newly budding plants, or the fine brickwork on a cornice, when provided. I'm glad to hear your change was so benificial to you, and by extension (pollution, traffic accidents) everyone else. Hopefully the "market" will respond accordingly as we continue to learn about how unhealty static lifestyles are for us. And when people start in with the criticism of "market" manipulations, I hope they understand that it's government's job to work for the betterment of everyone's lifestyle, and help pruduce outcomes such as Martin O'Malley's push for smart growth that will improve the "market" for all of us.

by Thayer-D on Mar 14, 2011 10:11 am • linkreport

what a wonderful letter. I'm glad he wrote it and allowed you to share it. I'm happy for both of them. I know being fit, and being able to achieve fitness as part of daily living (like biking to and from work/walking to and from the bus/metro) is an important ingredient to overall happiness and "successful" aging (without onset of chronic diseases). Getting the physical activity this way is superior to trying to build it into your already busy schedule by going to a gym. You have to go to work anyway - you don't have to go to the gym. It becomes an "extra".

I also know the freedom of choice David describes seems impossible and ridiculous to live w/o once its experienced.

This is the point I am most mystified by in the traditional libertarian or conservative resistance to investing in public transit, including intercity HSR. Multiple mode choices of transport enhance standard of living and expand personal freedom, as David eloquently describes.

by Tina on Mar 14, 2011 10:27 am • linkreport

This is great. I moved to downtown DC and the while I pay more in rent, my quality of life has improved tenfold. It's great to have options and not be tied down to a single mode of transportation.

by cmc on Mar 14, 2011 10:38 am • linkreport

What a communist. It's people like him who destroyed Detroit what with there car-hate. U-S-A! U-S-A!

by crin on Mar 14, 2011 10:44 am • linkreport

...if only Detroit had made rail-cars, buses and bikes in addition to fully loaded Lincoln Nav Ls...

by Tina on Mar 14, 2011 10:47 am • linkreport

Bicycles are a communist plot! Wait a minute - communism is not a threat anymore? Bicycles are produced by socialist organizations such as Trek, Giant and Cannondale!

by Fred on Mar 14, 2011 10:51 am • linkreport

Thanks for publishing the letter. While it's primary purpose was to exhalt the benefits of living where you can take advantage non-auto transportation options, it was also a nice plug for Silver Spring. Too many still think of Silver Spring as just a faux-main street of chain stores and restaurants but there is so, so much more here... and so much more coming (either under construction or planned) that will continue to make Silver Spring a terrific option for a car-free lifestyle. Now, onto my other blog posts supporting the building the Purple Line and completing the Capital Crescent & Met Branch Trails...

by Woodsider on Mar 14, 2011 11:00 am • linkreport

Great letter. I've lived car free in downtown Silver Spring for 4 years now and haven't regretted it for a second. It's the most walkable community I've ever seen and also exceptionally balanced with regard to race, culture, economic status, age, household size, greenspace v. high density v. established neighborhoods, etc. It's a truly remarkable example of revitalizing a previously left for dead first ring "suburb."

by jag on Mar 14, 2011 11:13 am • linkreport

Yep. Silver Spring's pretty great, and still actually somewhat affordable.

I wonder if they're living in Summit Hills...that place always struck me as being a bit odd, and certainly has its own set of issues surrounding it. It's an extremely auto-dependent community just 2 blocks from Metro (and a block further from downtown), and it would be an interesting discussion to make that 20,000+(?) person community more urban without destroying its affordability.

by andrew on Mar 14, 2011 11:15 am • linkreport

Oh, and definitely let's finish the Met Branch Trail! (In the interim, it wouldn't hurt to make biking within downtown silver spring a bit more friendly and less dangerous. There's really no safe way to move about in the urban center on a bike.)

I'm a bit less enthusiastic about the Purple line, simply because I love the Capitol Crescent trail, and don't particularly love the fact that the Metro system is being comingled into a network of incompatible heavy/light rail lines that are being built without a master-plan.

by andrew on Mar 14, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

Thanks for posting this!

@Thayer-D
You are correct that our understanding of our ecology and society have increased since moving. We never really felt to be part of a community while living in Anne Arundel county (not to say that you can't), but it seems that every change - whether it is a change in the bus routes, legislation on transit funding, zoning laws, a new store, or even deciding on which particular brick style to use on a sidewalk - has direct implications in our very lives.

@andrew
We are not at Summit Hills, though I know of the development. We are in the immediate downtown area.

by David Fronapfel on Mar 14, 2011 11:22 am • linkreport

@andrew
Agreed that Summit Hills has a lot of cars, and that the parking dominates the views, but many, many people live there without cars. It's not so bad of a walk to get around town.

by SHresident on Mar 14, 2011 3:43 pm • linkreport

@andrew & @SHresident: I lived for over two years at Summit Hills without a car and didn't think it was that auto-centric. In fact, the relatively cheap rent there (coupled that a fair amount of apartments are roommate situations) mean there there are more people that heavily or exclusively use transit than you'd think.

Those towards the back of the complex/far from the main gate on East-West Highway are a bit disadvantaged though. From the far NW corner of the complex, it's about as far to get out of the complex than it is to walk from the exit to Metro.

by Jason on Mar 14, 2011 4:26 pm • linkreport

This is a great story. I really wish I could afford to live closer into the city, and find an area that had very good schools, and at least somewhat affordable rents. But every place I have looked around on the Red Line is still just too pricey for our budget. :/

by LTParis on Mar 14, 2011 7:26 pm • linkreport

LTParis: you and lots of others. One of the biggest conceptual barriers, IMO, is that people expect a lot more square footage for the price.

by SJE on Mar 14, 2011 11:41 pm • linkreport

Actually I am not as concerned about the square footage, we had learned to live in < 1000sq ft with two kids. It's more just the raw numbers for rent. $3000-4000/mo rent just seems awfully steep, and when you consider in utilities, food, etc. it is just unattainable.

by LTParis on Mar 15, 2011 6:13 am • linkreport

Nice report of urban development done right! I live in Rosslyn and would love to see Rosslyn reunited with Foggy Bottom. The Kennedy Center and the Mall are in easy walking distance of Rosslyn, but the routes are few and dangerous for both pedestrians and bicycles. There is no way that I know of to walk from the Iwo Jima Memorial to the Kennedy Center and Foggy Bottom across the Roosevelt bridge. The bridge isn't the problem, there are sidewalks on both sides. You just can't get to the sidewalks! A plan that includes some overpasses and underpasses across land mostly owned by the Federal Government would reunite Foggy Bottom with Virginia without having to take the G-Town/Key Bridge route.

by Paul D on Mar 15, 2011 7:49 am • linkreport

LTParis,

How many bedrooms did you have when you lived with your children with less than $1,000 sq feet? Downtown Silver Spring doesn't have $3,000-4,000 a month rent for two bedrooms. Only the most luxury units approach $3,000 and many are under $2,000.

Because of the market right now, I did find it cheaper to buy a two-bedroom in Downtown Silver Spring than rent a comparable unit.

by Patrick Thornton on Mar 17, 2011 10:08 am • linkreport

That was a 2 bed we had in Upstate NY. It was very tight, but we did manage.

To be honest I have not seen a ton of aparments that really interested me in the SS area that didn't cost a lot. I may just be looking in the wrong places.

by Lou Paris on Mar 17, 2011 2:09 pm • linkreport

Thank you for this letter. My husband and I seem to have had an identical experience to yours. We moved to downtown Silver Spring this past July, and our quality of life has never been better. Our car now just sits in our apartment garage, only to be taken out for the occasional trip to Target or Trader Joe's. It's actually incredibly liberating to live such a car-free lifestyle - I couldn't even tell you how much gas prices are right now, because I don't remember the last time we had to go to a gas station.

I've found that most people who bash downtown Silver Spring have never actually been here - not in the last couple of years, anyway. I'm always getting comments - "Oh, you live out THERE." Out where?! My apartment is a whole FIVE BLOCKS from the DC border, and I probably live in a more complete, urban neighborhood than most people in the District.

by R. on Mar 29, 2011 5:01 pm • linkreport

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