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Bicycling


Slow start for Capital Bikeshare in Montgomery County

Since launching in September, the Capital Bikeshare stations in Montgomery County have been slow to draw riders, with some stations being used less than once per day on average. This may change over time, but it'll take a more complete bike network to increase ridership.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

I reviewed Capital Bikeshare's trip history data to find lessons from the first few months after the September 27 launch through December 31. Of the 50 stations in Montgomery County, the highest-performing ones were those in Friendship Heights and Bethesda, and those near Metro stations.

To count each station's number of trips, I included any trip that started or ended at the station. Trips that both started and ended at the same station counted only once, but if those trips lasted less than 30 seconds, I decided not to count them at all. To find the trips-per-day averages, I made sure to account for the fact that some stations were installed after the initial launch.

On the maps, blue dots are stations which averaged 10 or more trips a day; green dots at least 5 trips but less than 10; yellow at least 2 trips but less than 5; orange at least 1 trip but less than 2; and red dots were stations with less than one trip per day. Black dots represent stations that weren't installed until this year.

Bethesda and Friendship Heights

The most popular bikeshare station in Montgomery County so far is the one at the Friendship Heights Metro station, which was involved in about 11 trips per day. It has several things going for it. Metro stations are a popular place for bikeshare trips, as we'll see throughout this analysis. The location is also right on the border with DC, which has its own bikeshare stations nearby and, presumably, residents who were already members before the Montgomery launch.


Map by the author.

The next most popular station was at Bethesda Avenue & Arlington Boulevard, in the dense, mixed-use Bethesda Row area. The third most popular was the station at Montgomery Avenue & East Lane, close to the Bethesda Metro stop. Those two each saw between 7 and 8 trips per day.

The most common trip involving a Montgomery station went from Battery Lane & the Bethesda Trolley Trail to Norfolk Avenue & Fairmont Avenue. But this trip only happened 70 times last year, meaning a handful of users could easily be responsible for all the trips. As a result, I'm hesitant to draw any broad conclusions from the popularity of certain trips.

Rockville

Bike sharing in Rockville started very slowly. The only station involved in more than two trips per day was East Montgomery Avenue & Maryland Avenue, which averaged 2.5 trips per day. It's the closest station to Rockville Town Center, and also less than a half-mile from the Rockville Metro stop.


Map by the author.

The most glaring omission in Rockville is the lack of a bikeshare station at the Shady Grove Metro stop. Capital Bikeshare put stations in the King Farm and Fallsgrove neighborhoods, both of which have bike-friendly routes to the Shady Grove Metro.

The lack of a bikeshare station at the Shady Grove Metro seems like a missed opportunity to connect residents to a major destination. Throughout the system, Metro stations are among the most popular sites for bikeshare stations. The two most popular stations in the whole system were the one near the Dupont Circle Metro stop's north entrance and the one near Union Station. Each was involved in more than 300 trips per day from September 27 to December 31 last year.

Silver Spring and Takoma Park


Map by the author.

Like Bethesda, Silver Spring has some of the highest rates of bicycle commuting in the county. But the most popular station in eastern Montgomery County was the one near the Silver Spring Metro station, at Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue. It saw just 4.3 trips per day.

There's no bikeshare station right near the Takoma Metro station. The closest one is at Carroll Avenue & Westmoreland Avenue. It was Takoma Park's most popular, averaging 4.1 trips per day after it was installed in late October.

Comparing Montgomery County to Alexandria

Alexandria was the first jurisdiction outside of DC and Arlington that Capital Bikeshare expanded to. The cluster of stations there is geographically isolated from other parts of the system in a similar way to the Montgomery County clusters.

The growth of ridership in Alexandria since its stations launched on August 31, 2012 could offer a clue for what to expect going forward in Montgomery.

There were 4,736 trips involving at least one of Alexandria's stations during the fourth quarter of 2012. In the fourth quarter of 2013, that number went up to 5,345, an increase of 13% from the previous year.

All eight stations in Alexandria launched on the same day, and there have been no additional stations since then, so it's easy to compare them from year to year.

Notably, and not surprisingly, the bikeshare station near the King Street Metro station was Alexandria's most popular.

Looking forward

Montgomery County can expect bike sharing to grow over time, but it shouldn't assume that such a slow start is normal.

In DC, the station at North Capitol Street & G Place NE opened in mid-December and managed 14 trips per day during the final few weeks of the year, even during a relatively cold month. The 10th Street & Florida Ave NW station, added in October, saw 25 trips per day for the rest of the year.

No station in Montgomery County really came close to those numbers, let alone those of the most popular stations in DC.

If the county wants its investment in bike sharing to pay off, it should fill in key gaps, especially at the Shady Grove Metro. Providing bike lanes or paths to connect neighborhoods to Metro stations would also encourage the kind of trips that have proven popular everywhere else in the system.

Transit


A Metrobus gap on Wisconsin Avenue makes Georgetown and Bethesda too far apart

Between traffic jams, parking problems, and service disruptions on the Red Line, traveling along Wisconsin Avenue can be difficult. Filling the gap in Metrobus service between Bethesda and Friendship Heights could give travelers another alternative.


There is no Metrobus service (shown in red and blue) between Bethesda and Friendship Heights. Map from WMATA.

Today, the 30 Metrobus line on Wisconsin Avenue in DC ends at the city line in Friendship Heights, two miles south of Bethesda, because that's where the preceding DC Trolley line originally ended. There are a lot of Metrobuses that go to Bethesda, but none of them go down Wisconsin Avenue. And the Ride On buses that do go south on Wisconsin stop and turn around at Friendship Heights.

As a result, riders traveling between Wisconsin Avenue and Bethesda or Medical Center must switch to the Red Line or Ride On, waiting as long as 20 minutes to do so.

Montgomery County is looking at building a Bus Rapid Transit line along Wisconsin Avenue to Friendship Heights. After some recent experiences riding on Wisconsin Avenue, I now understand the support for extending it further south.

I have started taking the bus from my home in Bethesda to M Street on weekends when I have no tight schedule. Twice this past week, I chose to take the Wisconsin Avenue bus on weekdays because of salty roads and the prevailing general logistics of where I was one day.

Recently, I attended a 6 pm event at Georgetown University that let out at 8 pm. In the past I'd always taken Metro home to Bethesda and driven my car to the university. On this occasion I was already downtown, so I took the bus. It was getting home that was the challenge.

I got to the stop on Wisconsin Avenue around 8:15 pm and ended up waiting 15 minutes for the bus. When it arrived shortly after 8:30 it was packed full, and people were standing in the aisles. I managed to get a seat because someone whose stop was coming up decided to stand.

It was a long haul up Wisconsin because the crowded bus meant that it stopped at nearly every stop. When we finally reached Friendship Heights, everybody disembarked. Some people got on the subway.

The rest of us had to transfer to a Ride On bus to get farther up Wisconsin Avenue. It was a 15 minute wait. I was getting off at Wisconsin and Bradley Boulevard. So, the final mile of my journey was going to take me at least 20 minutes. My trip home from Wisconsin and N Street took me nearly 90 minutes. Next time, I'll drive.

The next night I had a dinner date at Tenleytown. Again, I decided to take the bus because the stop is very near where I live and I knew there would be friends there who would drive me home. I assumed incorrectly that since it was rush hour, buses would come frequently.

I waited 15 minutes for the Ride On bus that dropped me off at Friendship Heights. I ended up waiting 20 minutes for the Metrobus to complete the second leg of the trip to Tenleytown. Five WMATA buses came into the station and promptly went "Out of Service" while I was waiting.

In all, starting at 6pm, I did not reach Tenley until 7pm. It should not take an hour to go two miles down one of the region's busiest corridors at rush hour.

Now, I could have taken the Metro, but it was a very cold night and the bus stop is much closer. And, to be frank, Metro is becoming too expensive and I want to use less expensive modes of transport.

Eliminating the forced transfer between buses and transit agencies at Friendship Heights would have taken as much as 20 minutes off of my trip. I don't care if Friendship Heights is the border between the District and Maryland. And I don't care if that's where the streetcar historically stopped.

If the 30 Metrobuses went all the way to Medical Center, they would be more effective in relieving crowding on the Metro and the roads. Even better, a Bus Rapid Transit service with dedicated lanes would encourage more people to leave their cars at home or to avoid the rush hour crowds on the Red Line.

Perhaps, then, Wisconsin Avenue will be known less for bad traffic and parking headaches and instead for positive things such as "record number of bus riders this year."

Pedestrians


One resident really knows how to clear the sidewalk

Uncleared sidewalks are a serious problem in urban areas, but snow makes suburban areas even more impassable on foot. Unless you happen to live near Richard Hoye, who has an actual motorized vehicle to plow sidewalks himself where nobody else will do it.


Photos by Richard Hoye.

Suburban arterial streets can be dangerous to walk on even on clear, dry days, but there's really no consensus about how to clear them for pedestrians after a storm.

Fairfax County closed schools for 3 days partly because students who walk to school couldn't do so safely.

Evan Montgomery-Recht, who lives in Montgomery County, wrote in to the county to ask,

Who is responsible for snow removal on sidewalks along public land or where there is not a clear homeowner or HOA responsible ... I'm specifically referring to Tuckerman Lane, Old Georgetown (including over the 270 spur) and Rockville Pike where there are sidewalks that are actively utilized even in cold weather. Including those who walk to the Grosvenor Metro Station.

I ask as both last year and this year there has been no clearing of the sidewalks. ... Part of the reason I ask because when I lived in MA the towns and counties were responsible for clearing when there was not a clear owner (and yes they would clear them, actually pretty impressive when you realized that all the sidewalks were walkable within 24 hours even when there were many inches of snow.)

Timothy Serrano of the Montgomery DOT's Division of Highway Services replied:
Regrettably, The Department of Transportation is not able to clear sidewalks. We have neither the equipment nor the workforce resources that effort would require. We do rely on residents to be good neighbors and to follow the requirements of the County Code that requires residents and commercial entities to clear the public sidewalks adjacent to their properties.
Hoye, who also knew the county wouldn't do it, decided to take a part of the matter into his own hands, and bought this vehicle, known as "mini-skid steer," to clear part of Old Georgetown Road, where he lives:

Hoye writes,

I bought this slightly used mini-skid steer about a year ago to accomplish a range of tasks. A primary goal was to be able to clear snow from the public sidewalk along Old Georgetown Road from downtown Bethesda to the NIH/Suburban Hospital campuses. I live along that section. My side of 5 Lane Old Georgetown Road has the sidewalk next to the curb.

My mini-skid steer equipped with plow or hydraulic rotary broom is perfect for sidewalks. I'm able to keep up with the snow plows that push the snow back up on a just cleared sidewalk and ram the snow into piles blocking the ADA ramps at street corners.

The machine and accessories has set me back well over $25,000. Hard to justify until you see people walking in the dark, icy street on this major pedestrian route. I got more encouragement a few years ago from our Director of Transportation, who said to one of the County Executive's appointees to to the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee, "I don't do sidewalks."

The DOT should do sidewalks. Since it doesn't, it's good for people who walk on Old Georgetown that Hoye does do them.

Transit


Could transit over the American Legion Bridge work?

For years, there's been talk of improving transit connections across the Potomac River between Montgomery and Fairfax counties. There might be a solution in Montgomery County's newly-approved rapid transit plan, and it could be a big deal for the redevelopment of White Flint and Tysons Corner.


How the North Bethesda Transitway could help connect Montgomery and Fairfax counties. Click to see an interactive map.

As the sole connection between Montgomery and Fairfax, not to mention a key link on the Capital Beltway, the American Legion Bridge is often very congested, carrying over 230,000 vehicles each day. 30% of those vehicles come from outside the DC area, but commuters still make about 32,000 trips between Montgomery and Fairfax counties during morning rush hour, and 25,000 trips in the evening. Up to 92% of those trips are drivers alone in their cars.

Officials on both sides of the river have explored transit as a way to reduce commuter traffic, which could improve travel conditions for everyone. In 1998, WMATA introduced a "Smartmover" Metrobus express route over the bridge, but discontinued it five years later due to low ridership. But as places on either side of the bridge grow, like White Flint and Tysons Corner, there might be a new market for transit. That is, if it's fast, frequent, and most importantly, reliable.

Low ridership, high costs killed Smartmover

The Smartmover struggled to attract riders for a few reasons. Buses ran infrequently and mainly during rush hour, so they could only serve commuters who worked regular, 9-to-5-type jobs. Buses didn't get their own lane on local streets or the Beltway, so they often got stuck in traffic, removing one incentive for drivers to switch over.

Except for downtown Bethesda, the Smartmover's stops at Lakeforest Mall, Montgomery Mall, and Tysons Corner were all really spread-out, auto-oriented shopping malls or office parks. This meant riders had to switch to a shuttle or take a long walk to their final destination, giving them another reason to drive instead. And shopping malls aren't where office workers are headed during rush hour.

The service was also very expensive to run. Its destinations are far apart, and in between are low-density, very affluent places like McLean and Potomac that don't produce a lot of transit riders. Though transit relies on public subsidies, Metro still needs some paying customers from other parts of the route to justify running a bus between them.

White Flint and Tysons Corner plans key to making transit work

Since then, a few things have changed that could make transit between Montgomery and Fairfax more successful. One is that both counties are planning to transform the office parks and shopping malls of White Flint and Tysons Corner into denser, more walkable places, allowing more people to live and work within easy reach of transit, thereby encouraging its use.

Together, the two communities might be able to support transit service over the American Legion Bridge. And transit might also justify denser development around Montgomery Mall, creating a third destination that can generate ridership.


The American Legion Bridge today. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County and the state of Virginia are doing things that could give transit its own lane, at least for part of the route. For 20 years, Montgomery County has set aside right-of-way for the North Bethesda Transitway, which would connect Montgomery Mall to the Grosvenor Metro station via Fernwood Road, Rock Spring Drive, Old Georgetown Road, and Tuckerman Lane.

While working on the now-approved Bus Rapid Transit plan, county planners suggested changing the route to follow Old Georgetown Road all the way to White Flint, which is a bigger office and shopping destination than Grosvenor. Planners have also proposed extending the North Bethesda Transitway to Northern Virginia via the Beltway. The transitway "could become part of a significant transit link between Tysons Corner and White Flint," they note. At Montgomery Mall, buses could follow a yet-unbuilt ramp from Fernwood Road to the I-270 Spur and continue onto the Beltway to Tysons Corner, where they could connect to the Silver Line, which will open next year.

It's unclear what would happen after that. Earlier this year, elected officials in Montgomery and Fairfax had a rare meeting to discuss ways to improve connections between the two counties. One possibility could be extending Virginia's 495 Express toll lanes from Tysons Corner north to I-270, which like in Fairfax would be open to buses.

Of course, that would be extremely expensive, politically fraught, and environmentally destructive. Like most of the plan, it has no funding, and Montgomery County will have to do more detailed studies and design work before anything happens.

Could buses run on the Beltway's shoulders?

A faster, cheaper alternative may be to simply run buses on the shoulder. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has studied whether buses could run on the shoulders of the Beltway, which already happens on Columbia Pike near Burtonsville and the Dulles Toll Road near Falls Church. On some roads, the shoulders will need reinforcing to carry the weight of buses, but it's something that could happen relatively soon.

Across the Potomac, Virginia is already preparing to open the Beltway shoulders to all traffic for about 2 miles south of the American Legion Bridge. The state will rebuild and reinforce the shoulders, meaning it may be able to run transit there one day. But once drivers get used to having the extra lane, it'll be a challenge to convince them it should be used for buses instead.

Successful transit needs more than commuters

Traffic on the American Legion Bridge is bad, but only so much of it is commuter traffic. Most of the people who work in Montgomery and Fairfax counties commute from Maryland and Virginia, respectively, meaning they don't use the bridge. According to the 2011 American Community Survey, 47% of the people who worked in Montgomery County lived there too, compared to 40.6% in Fairfax. Less than 4% of Montgomery and Fairfax workers came from the other county.

Some people on the American Legion Bridge are headed to places far outside the DC area, and transit can't serve them. But there are others who might be headed to shop at Tysons Corner or dinner on Rockville Pike. Transit might serve a purpose for them, but only if it's available.

To not repeat the Smartmover's mistakes, area officials will have to make future transit service competitive with driving. Speed is one factor, and the dedicated lanes will help that. But the length and frequency of service is another. That means buses throughout the day and night, not just at rush hour. And it means service frequent enough that people won't have to rely on a timetable. Only then will people feel like they can use transit not just for work, but for all of their daily trips.

That could be the hardest part of making transit over the American Legion Bridge work. It will be expensive to run, which requires higher ridership, which in turn requires more service that's expensive to run. White Flint and Tysons Corner may become dense, transit-friendly places, but it's unclear for now where there will be enough demand to justify transit between them.

Crossposted on Friends of White Flint.

Pedestrians


Sidewalks aren't just for walking

On narrow sidewalks, there's often a tension between different users and activities. But sidewalks in an urban place need to make room for people to do more than just walk through.


Pedestrians shuffle through the sidewalk on Bethesda Avenue. All photos by the author.

On Black Friday, I went to the Apple Store in Bethesda Row to get my computer checked out. Though the area is a really popular destination for shopping and dining, the sidewalks are surprisingly narrow, and seemingly designed to make walking difficult and unpleasant.

Here's the sidewalk two doors down from the Apple Store on Bethesda Avenue. Next to the curb, there's a row of big, mature street trees in large, fenced-off planters. Where the buildings step back, there's also a little seating area with some benches.

The level of the street falls about a foot here, meaning the seating area is actually below the sidewalk. So there's a brick wall around the benches, just in case anyone falls.

That leaves about four feet for the actual sidewalk, which becomes a narrow channel between the storefronts and the brick wall. Since it's also on an incline, there's a railing to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, blocking off about a foot of sidewalk between the railing and the storefronts.


The woman in the red coat is about to walk into a railing.

On a busy day, or frankly on any day when people are outside, you can watch folks struggle to pass each other through this slalom course: shoppers with bags, parents with strollers, or groups of friends chatting. They look down to avoid eye contact, form a single-file line, or swivel their bodies to squeeze through. The sidewalk discourages strolling or lingering here, which is part of the attraction of Bethesda Row.

Given, this is right across from Bethesda Lane, a pedestrian-only street. And Bethesda Avenue itself is a pretty narrow and slow-moving street, which is much nicer to walk along than Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, where the sidewalks are similarly pedestrian-hostile but there's far more car traffic.

But it still shows what happens when designers and engineers don't really think about the experience of walking through a place. Bethesda Row has most of the pieces to be a great place to hang out and gather, and most of the time it works really well. But poorly-designed sidewalks make it hard to enjoy being here.

Transit


Montgomery may cut Wisconsin Ave BRT line off from DC

Tomorrow, it's likely that the Montgomery County Council's transportation committee will approve a Bus Rapid Transit line along the high-density Route 355 corridor. But Council staff is recommending it end at Bethesda instead of at the District line in Friendship Heights.


Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

The county's BRT plan has progressed through the committee over the last few weeks. Committee members have voted to approve BRT lines on Georgia Avenue, Veirs Mill Road, University Boulevard, and New Hampshire Avenue. They also voted to keep a line along Route 29, which has high ridership but faces neighborhood opposition.

Tomorrow, the committee will discuss the 355 corridor between Friendship Heights and Clarksburg, arguably the most promising route for high-quality, center-running BRT given its existing high population density and coming development at places like White Flint. The Planning Department estimates that BRT could have 44,000 daily riders in 2040, the highest of all 10 proposed corridors.

But we learned today that Council staff is calling for the 355 line to end at Bradley Boulevard in downtown Bethesda instead. Neighbors along this section of Wisconsin Avenue oppose this segment due to concerns about BRT threatening pedestrian safety and impacts to the median and right-of-way. The plan proposes wider sidewalks and an improved pedestrian environment, while recommending no changes to the median or street width.


BRT along Route 355. Montgomery County may eliminate the section in blue. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Cutting short this key route will sever an important transit connection between Montgomery County and DC, which will put more cars on the road and make both Bethesda and Friendship Heights less competitive locations for business. That's why a variety of supporters of the plan from the Friendship Heights area want the line to extend south and bring more transit options for their area, including Chevy Chase Land Company and JBG, both property owners in Friendship Heights, the Friendship Heights Transportation Management District Advisory Committee, and Ward 3 Vision in DC.

While admittedly a long way off, someday there could be a Rapid Transit line from Georgetown all the way up Wisconsin to Friendship Heights and beyond, connecting a high density corridor not currently served by Metro. But that's only possible if Montgomery County is willing to continue BRT to the DC line.

So far the Council's transportation committee has voted to extend dedicated lanes for BRT to the DC line on other key corridors, including New Hampshire Avenue, Georgia Avenue, 16th Street, and Colesville Road. This will help thousands of commuters on packed DC-Maryland Metrobus lines like the S, K and 70.

This is a positive precedent that reflects the interconnectedness of our region, and allows for good transit options between jurisdictions. To that end, it's important that Montgomery County keeps BRT on 355 between Bethesda and Friendship Heights. You can let the County Council know how significant this connection is by sending them an email using this form.

Transit


Montgomery rethinks Bethesda Purple Line station

The Bethesda Purple Line station is currently planned to squeeze into an existing tunnel below the Apex Building on Wisconsin Avenue. But planners are now considering an alternate plan to tear down the building and redevelop the entire site.


Existing plan (top) and alternate proposal (bottom). Images by Maryland MTA.

Between Silver Spring and Bethesda, the Purple Line will run along the Georgetown Branch, a former railroad line. While Montgomery County bought most of the rail line for transit and a trail, years ago the railroad sold the development rights above the tracks in downtown Bethesda. Now there are two buildings atop the rail corridor, the Apex Building and the Air Rights Building.

The Purple Line will pass easily under the Air Rights Building, but the Apex Building needs to accommodate a station. And while the tunnel there was designed to carry tracks, it wasn't originally built with room for much more. The structural columns supporting the building come down into the rail tunnel, severely constraining the space.

Planners can squeeze a station in the existing space, but the result is a narrow platform crowded with building columns.


Apex Building column layout. Image by Maryland MTA.

Meanwhile, there are other problems with the existing arrangement. There's not enough room in the tunnel for both a light rail station and a bike trail, so county planners explored moving the trail to the surface.

Also, building a subway station under the Apex Building would complicate any potential future redevelopment prospects. Since the Apex Building is only 5 stories tall, it's already shorter than most other buildings nearby, and it will become a prime redevelopment candidate after Bethesda becomes a key transfer point between the Purple and Red lines.

Redeveloping now could solve the problem

The new proposal suggests tearing down the Apex Building, building the Purple Line station in a new custom-built trench, adding a 2nd tunnel for the trail, and then allowing the owners of the Apex Building to replace it with a bigger building. Montgomery County is currently in talks with the owner of the building, and is working through a minor master plan amendment to determine the density and height.

If the new plan is approved, all the pieces will work together better. The Purple Line station will be simpler and more spacious, bike riders will have an uninterrupted dedicated trail, and one of the most transit-accessible properties in Montgomery County can be redeveloped at a more appropriate density.

It would be win/win/win. As long as this doesn't delay the rest of the Purple Line, I say let's do it.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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