Greater Greater Washington

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Two plans devise opposite approaches for Rockville Pike

Two separate plans in Montgomery County hope to transform parts of Rockville Pike from disjointed chains of strip malls into walkable districts. Each would reconfigure the road to more urban boulevard layouts, but each does so differently, carrying some leading to a danger of creating two, slightly incompatible configurations adjacent to one another.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

At White Flint, in unincorporated Montgomery County, a multi-year planning process led to development plans and zoning that encourage converting the many large commercial properties into a mixed-use neighborhood that contains parks, day care centers, affordable housing, retail and much more.

One centerpiece of this plan is a configuration for Rockville Pike which places a transitway down the center while maintaining the current number of travel lanes. Buses, and possibly one day light rail, can more efficiently travel up and down the Pike, allowing more people to live in the area without increasing traffic.


White Flint roadway design.

To the north, the city limits of Rockville begin just south of Rollins Avenue and encompass the portion of the Pike around the Twinbrook station. There, the city has conducted another multi-year planning process, also aiming to create a walkable district with street-facing buildings, a more complete street grid, parks and more. In fact, I attended a meeting for this plan over three years ago for one of the earliest articles on Greater Greater Washington.

Rockville came to a different conclusion for the Pike. They want to build a "multi-way boulevard" with through lanes in the center and side roads designed for turning traffic, parking, buses, and bicycles.


Rockville "multi-way boulevard."

Both designs constitute an improvement over the current Rockville Pike, but they solve the problems in different ways. Each has advantages, disadvantages, and simple differences.

Width. The Rockville plan would widen the overall roadway, placing some of the outer lanes on land currently occupied by parking lots. This means that it can't be constructed all at once, but would happen piecemeal as properties redevelop. The White Flint model fits within the existing roadway.

Pedestrians. The White Flint option provides a median so pedestrians, especially ones who move slowly, don't have to cross any large sections at once. On the other hand, the Rockville option keeps the fast-moving through traffic farther from the sidewalks, potentially creating less of a feeling of walking right on a highway.

Bicycles. The Rockville design plans for bicycles to use the curbside lane, which separates them from the main traffic. However, they would still have to mix with turning vehicles, buses, and delivery vans. The White Flint plan, on the other hand, includes a bike lane at sidewalk level between the pedestrian part of the sidewalk and the road.

Transit. Buses will be able to move faster under White Flint's arrangement, and it would be easy to create light rail in the future. The center transitway can also use grass for most of the roadbed except for narrow strips for the buses' wheels, providing opportunities for stormwater retention. On the other hand, Rockville's arrangement puts bus stops closer to the stores that will open onto the street.

Drivers. Drivers might find moving in and out of service lanes confusing or frustrating, as they do on K Street. However, the Rockville plan provides more overall through lanes.

Ironically, DC currently hopes to transform K Street from a model that looks like the Rockville design, though a little narrower (one through lane on each side road plus one parking lane instead of two through lanes, and without a turn lane in the center), into one very much like the White Flint design, though one lane narrower on each side.

Is it necessary to harmonize the two? They could operate next to one another, though there would be some conflict. Buses would have to switch between center lanes and outer lanes. It could be confusing for drivers. And it doesn't lay the groundwork for a rail line along the entire stretch, as ACT has proposed.

Rockville and Montgomery County need to determine whether it's better to let each district go its own way, making their own choices, or whether it's more important to have one, unified street design for the entire corridor, even if that means some areas or some leaders don't get their top choice.

The Rockville Planning Commission is discussing the plan at a meeting tonight, 7 pm at Rockville City Hall.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Based on Oboe's Law--which states that, when planning is involved, suburban jurisdictions will always choose the greater of two evils--I predict that the "K Street circa 1970" layout will be chosen.

by oboe on Mar 16, 2011 2:11 pm • linkreport

Is K st so bad? Given the volume of people, buses and cars it gets the job done. The problems on K st have more to do with law firms moving towards new downtown and being replaced by NGOs and the WB.

Why worry about where a rail line might go? Too far in the future.

I just have a really hard time imagining any of this turning into a city. Probably would have said the same thing about Rosslyn-Ballston 20 years ago, too.

by charlie on Mar 16, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

The White Flint plan created by the larger and more experienced Montgomery County Planning Department is clearly the winner here, and your article on this subject seems biased towards this plan anyway, David. There is a huge amount to be said about the number of trees, green space, pedestrian-friendliness, and overall aesthetic of the White Flint Rockville Pike plan that the City of Rockville plan just cannot match. The point about the coming changes to DC's K Street, NW was an important one, and perhaps one that Rockville's planners ignored or on which they were not educated.

by Eric on Mar 16, 2011 2:28 pm • linkreport

I also have problems seeing this area turn into a city-like urban environment, but unlike Rossyln-Ballston, its not adjacent to the center of a major city. Sadly, I do not see the transitway being possible in MoCo or even D.C. Car drivers HATE anything that is made specifically for buses, even if it also will benefit them.

by thedofc on Mar 16, 2011 2:32 pm • linkreport

Like Charlie said, no one would've anticipated Rosslyn-Ballston becoming what it is today, even if it was next to D.C. (which at the time wasn't doing so well either). What MoCo and Fairfax are doing today in White Flint, Tysons Corner, etc. is basically new territory. No one really knows what these places will become because this model's never been done before.

That said: if you live in western Fairfax County or upper Montgomery County, Tysons and Rockville are "the city" right now, not D.C. Of course, they're all connected socially, politically and economically, but if I live in Gaithersburg, I likely have very few reasons to go into D.C. Jobs, shopping, and increasingly cultural outlets all exist in the suburbs now. So it wouldn't be surprising if people wanted some of the other aspects of city life (walkability, vibrant public spaces, transit, etc.) to meet them there too.

by dan reed! on Mar 16, 2011 2:40 pm • linkreport

Harmonization regardless of which design is vital. To create a cohesive commmunity which spur both residential and retail growth is of the upmost importance.

With that said, the White Flint plan seems to be the superior choice, though I didn't see any mention of street facing buildings. If the strip malls still exist as they do now, street improvements will not do enough to urbanize the Pike.

by cmc on Mar 16, 2011 2:51 pm • linkreport

For what it's worth, using K Street as an example of multiway boulevards is like using Baltimore as an example of light rail... they serve better purposes of traits which probably aren't the best :)

A good read-
"The Boulevard Book" by Allan B. Jacobs, Elizabeth Macdonald and Yodan Rofé. It's surprisingly interesting for something that may not sound to alluring at first.

by Bossi on Mar 16, 2011 3:04 pm • linkreport

White Flint, hands down.

by jag on Mar 16, 2011 5:04 pm • linkreport

I am with Jag. The White Flint plan seems in just about all ways superior. I think City of Rockville ought to reevaluate, because the two layouts are clearly not compatible if trying to create a fully integrated transportation system.

What you can't see in either of these illustrations, though, is the number one benefit to walkers, cyclists, and drivers: the integrated street grid. That will do more for the corridor than any other aspect of either plan.

by Dave Murphy on Mar 16, 2011 5:40 pm • linkreport

Give a new urbanist a hammer and everything they see will be a nail. I am amazed at the love affair with the "multi-way boulevard"...they are all awesome midblock until you get to the intersection and it becomes a nightmare to cross it as a pedestrian, motorist, bicyclist, bus driver, delivery vehicle, taxi....A lot more thinking has to go into intersection design before these things are plopped down everywhere.

I think this group should also keep in mind that the City of Rockville is generally oppposed to bike lanes. They are an awesome experiment in vehicular and trailway cycling. Go ahead - take the lane on 355, Wooten Parkway, I dare ya!

by Joe on Mar 17, 2011 7:00 am • linkreport

I can't wait for the opportunity to take my family on a bike ride in mixed use bus traffic up 355 in the 13 foot wide transit/bike lane!!!! woo hoo!!! Fun

by Joe on Mar 17, 2011 7:03 am • linkreport

Would much rather prefer the St. Charles Ave-like design of the white flint plan to the K st design. Of course, I can't help but feel that if a choice is made to integrate the two, they'll choose the Rockville plan as it seems to better maintain Rockville Pike as a major artery for fast moving traffic...

by Mark on Mar 18, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

A correction is needed to this post. The White Flint Sector Plan calls for a boulevard-style Rockville Pike but doesn't specify whether it will have bus lanes down the median or next to the outside curb. I guess they couldn't make up their minds. If the bus lanes are on the outside, I think right-turning cars would also be able to use them. The plan to put the bus lanes down the middle, as conceived by the Friends of White Flint, also included one-way cycletracks on each side (to the left of the sidewalk), as you can barely see in the diagram posted above. Staff didn't like having bus lanes in the median because these would presumably be local buses that need to turn off the Pike a lot.

The White Flint option to put bus lines on the outside would include a two-way bike path somewhere next to the road. But elsewhere in the plan it says there must be some type of on-road bike space, which I think amounts to 14' outside lanes. If you've ever ridden in 14' lanes with buses trying to pass you, it's not "wide" by any definition. All of this is up in the air of course, since they aren't even deciding where to put the bus lanes yet.

The one option that is NOT called for in the White Flint plan is a multi-way boulevard.

The multi-way design as outlined by Rockville looks like it has two alternatives: one where the service lanes merge into the main lanes before each intersection and one where they continue up to the intersection. Each has pluses and minuses for biking. The option where the service lanes merge in allows bikes to keep going straight via a little cut-through path. The plan seems to assume cyclists will follow traffic controls or dismount at the intersections and not just freely ride straight across. They are dreaming.

The approved and adopted White Flint plan is here: http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/community/whiteflint/documents/WhiteFlintSectorPlanApprovedandAdopted_web_000.pdf .

by Jack Cochrane on Mar 24, 2011 6:17 pm • linkreport

I'll add to my previous post. Of the two alternatives proposed by the Rockville Plan for Rockville Pike, one is so horrible that it never should appear in a plan. If you look in the plan, you can see that Alternative 1 has a pair of service lanes on each side of the road, separated from the main lanes by a divider. The righthand service lane is for buses and bikes only. This alternative has the service lanes continuing up to the next intersection, where buses and cars must then turn right (they can also turn right from the main lanes). Note that the sidewalks are to the outside of the service lanes, but the crosswalks across the side streets are to the inside of the service lanes. That means pedestrians must FIRST cross the service lanes (in a crosswalk), THEN cross the cross street, and FINALLY cross the service lanes again. What's worse, bicyclists coming up in the bike/bus lane will have to stop when they reach the side street (at a stop sign) and then, while in the middle of the road, become a pedestrian and turn to their left, entering the perpendicular crosswalk in the middle and using it to walk across the remaining service lane pavement. That way they can get to the crosswalk across the side street, cross the sidestreet, and then repeat the operation in reverse to get back to the bus/bike lane. All of this is accomplished while cars are right-hooking them from the service lanes to the side street.

Yikes.

by Jack Cochrane on Mar 27, 2011 4:28 pm • linkreport

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