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Bethesda's planning survey loads the dice against urbanism

Planners drafting a master plan update for downtown Bethesda are running an online "visual preference" survey to get public input. But the choices they offerand, even more, the questions they choose not to asktilt against the urban style of development that Montgomery County's most successful downtown needs.


The choices in the survey contrast higher-density streets with one-way traffic (top) with lower-density buildings facing two-way streets (bottom).

The survey compares two patterns of development. One is low-density development with two-way streets; the other, mid-rise and high-rise buildings on one-way streets. But these aren't the only options. Two-way streets are much more inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists, and there is no reason a dense area can't have them.

Equally important is what's left out of the images entirely. A low-rise shopping district, like the one in the lower right of the picture, could never survive in Bethesda on customers who come by Metro from DC. It needs either dense housing and jobs nearby, or lots of parking.

The parking cannot be underground because single-story stores can't support the expense of underground garages. A realistic picture of low-density retail must include big parking lots or multistory above-ground garages.

Something else is missing from all of the images. Montgomery County zoning requires empty land (known by the Orwellian name of "public use space," although productive use of the space is banned) next to all mixed-use buildings.


Zoning forced the Lionsgate mixed-use high-rise to include this little-used plaza where busy sidewalk-facing storefronts once stood. Photo by the author.

This rule, fiercely defended by homeowner groups protective of the county's suburban image, gives us the empty plazas which blight Wisconsin Avenue and are spreading into the Woodmont Triangle. To be accurate, the survey should offer a choice between the attractive streetfront stores in its images and the bleak streetscapes that may emerge if the master plan preserves the status quo in this realm.

Missing entirely from the survey is the relationship between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Although most nearby single-family homeowners enjoy their proximity to downtown, neighbors opposed to urbanism often seek to wall themselves off. The connections that emerge from contentious development debates are of widely varying quality.



Three ways Bethesda connects (or doesn't) to adjoining neighborhoods: the Giant parking lot, the Whitney, and the Chevy Chase Bank building. Photos by the author.

The public should get to choose whether to border downtown with attractive buildings, walkways, and streets, or "buffers" made of walls and parking lots. This choice should not stay hidden, only to emerge later out of closed negotiations between individual builders and the opponents of their projects.

The last page of the survey reveals its authors' bias once again. There, it asks voters which category they belong to: resident, property owner, development professional, student, or special interest/activist. There are no categories for a regular shopper/diner or office worker.

Nearby homeowners are stakeholders, even if they hate the downtown and never go there. But if you work or shop in Bethesda, you're off the planners' radar screen. And never mind the rest of the region, all of which suffers from car traffic that's made worse by Bethesda's overly auto-oriented design.

Politics


In Montgomery's District 1, more differences in leadership than policy

Both of the Democratic candidates running in Montgomery County's District 1, stretching from Chevy Chase to Poolesville, agree on most smart growth issues. Both of them have past experience on the County Council. But one candidate has a stronger record of leadership on transit and complete streets.


District 1 is the green area on the left.

District 1 is geographically diverse, containing urban, suburban, and rural communities. The wealthiest of the five council districts, it's home to some of the county's most engaged residents, generating twice as many constituent requests as other districts.

This year, incumbent Roger Berliner is running for a third term against former at-large councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg, who lost her seat in 2010. Both candidates scored identically on ACT's questionnaire, each professing strong support for the Purple Line, bicycle and pedestrian-friendly road designs, dedicating existing traffic lanes for BRT, opposing the M-83 highway, and increasing housing in urban centers.

Candidates agree on most things, but Berliner pushes to make them happen

As District 1 is the most expensive part of Montgomery County, both candidates focused on ways the county can preserve and increase the supply of affordable housing, especially near transit. Berliner has sponsored legislation that requires the co-location of affordable housing with any new capital projects in the county, such as police or fire stations. In her answers, Trachtenberg supports amending the zoning code to favor denser development near transit.


Roger Berliner.

Notably, Councilmember Berliner, a former legislative director on Capitol Hill and well-known environmental lawyer, has made sustainability and utility reform some of his top priorities. He has demonstrated a significant willingness and capability to champion transit, cycling, and pedestrian issues in the county.

As the current chair of the County Council's Transportation and Environment committee, he effectively shepherded the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan to a unanimous vote last November for an ambitious plan that preserves dedicated lanes on most of the system. He has also authored an update to the county's Urban Road Code designed to create more complete streets in urban areas like Bethesda, and been a strong supporter of the major suburban redevelopment efforts in White Flint.

Surprisingly, Berliner has done all of this while retaining support in some unlikely places; Pat Burda, mayor of the Town of Chevy Chase and a Purple Line opponent, is publicly supporting him in this election.

Trachtenberg's views on development evolved over election cycles

Trachtenberg, a dedicated local and national advocate for women's equality and mental health issues, joined the council in 2006 on a slow-growth platform with Councilmember Marc Elrich and County Executive Ike Leggett. But she may be best known for two bills she successfully passed in 2007, one prohibiting transgender discrimination and the nation's first countywide ban on trans fats in restaurants.


Duchy Trachtenberg.

Campaigning to slow development appealed to voters in 2006, during the midst of the housing boom, but Trachtenberg changed her tune as the recession took hold and people were eager for economic growth. During her 2010 reelection campaign, she expressed support for the redevelopment of White Flint and the Great Seneca Science Corridor, citing them both as examples of how to build near public transit.

This year, meanwhile, Trachtenberg accepted support from developers who were upset by the council's vote to significantly limit development in the sensitive Ten Mile Creek watershed near Clarksburg. Councilmember Berliner helped make that happen, but Trachtenberg's campaign tried to make it sound like he did the opposite while claiming she opposed the development.

Both candidates have said all of the right things when it comes to sustainable transportation and smart growth. But for voters, it's less clear whether both candidates are able to take a leadership role on those issues, shepherding in a more urban, sustainable equitable future along District 1's transit corridors while protecting the farms and parkland elsewhere.

Parking


Thousands of public parking spaces in Bethesda and Silver Spring sit empty every day

Ask someone about driving in Bethesda or Silver Spring on a weekend night and he or she will give you a mouthful: "There's nowhere to park!" But as those communities have grown, their parking demands have actually gotten lower. On an average day, thousands of spaces there sit empty.


Montgomery's downtowns have lots of empty parking spaces. Image by the author using data from MCDOT.

This Friday, transportation planner Tom Brown and I will talk about parking and placemaking at Makeover Montgomery II, a conference about strategies for urbanizing suburban communities organized by the Montgomery County Planning Department and the University of Maryland. In 2011, Brown led a team at Nelson\Nygaard, where I now work, that recommended ways Montgomery County could better use its parking to promote and strengthen its downtowns.

Montgomery County has had its own municipal parking authority since the 1940s. A 1952 spread in the Washington Post's "Silver Spring Advertiser" section boasted, "Look at all the parking space!" in downtown. But downtown Silver Spring couldn't match the sea of free parking at new suburban malls like Wheaton Plaza, and it began to languish.


1952 Washington Post article about all the parking in Silver Spring.

Many communities around the country faced the same story, especially older suburban communities that have more in common with revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods than in greenfield developments on the fringe. Yet these older suburban communities often have the power of place: unique, local shops and businesses, walkable streets, and vibrant public spaces. Today, people will eagerly deal with the hassle of parking to visit places like this and, increasingly, to live in them.

When Silver Spring started competing on place, not parking, it started to take off as an urban destination for the entire region. And a funny thing happened: as more homes and offices and shops were built around the Metro station, filling downtown's gaps and vacant lots, the demand for parking actually decreased.

According to the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, the demand for parking in Silver Spring actually peaked in the early 1980s, when it had fewer residents and jobs. Today, a majority of downtown residents get to work without a car. Over 40% of downtown's 9500 parking spaces are vacant all the time.

Realizing that its parking policies needed to reflect how people actually got around in its downtowns, county officials asked Nelson\Nygaard to offer suggestions. The resulting Montgomery County Parking Policy Study recommended reducing or eliminating parking requirements in urban areas, since there was already a glut of parking spaces, and finding ways to direct drivers to underused lots and garages.


Focusing on people, not cars, makes downtown a more attractive place to go. Photo by the author.

Officials are starting to take the advice. Last year, the county passed a new zoning code that still mandates parking in new developments near transit stations, but requires far fewer spaces than it does for more suburban, car-dependent areas. That will conserve land and reduce building costs, as structured parking garages are very expensive to build lowering the barrier for potential residents and businesses who want to come here.

Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has introduced demand-based pricing in Bethesda, setting higher rates for on-street parking spaces and lowering them in garages to encourage drivers to park there instead. This frees up on-street spaces for drivers staying for brief periods; reduces circling for a space, which causes congestion; and sends a message to drivers that they'll be able to find a space.

People will choose to live, work, and hang out in Montgomery County's downtowns not because it's easy to park there, but because they're great places to be. Some parking will be necessary, but these places will thrive if our community leaders focus on urban design and create complete streets that welcome everyone who already comes to Silver Spring or Bethesda by foot, bike, or transit.

Makeover Montgomery II runs from this Thursday through Saturday at the Silver Spring Civic Building in downtown Silver Spring. We'll be part of a panel discussion this Friday afternoon at 1:45 pm. For more information or to register, visit the conference website.

Events


Events roundup: Better buses on a budget

Talk about how to make bus service better, have a drink with Greater Greater Washington readers, and much more at this week's events.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Better buses in DC: There's long been talk about ways to make bus service better in DC, but some, like rush hour bus lanes on 16th Street, still haven't become a reality. On Wednesday, April 30 from 6-8 pm, a panel will discuss proposals for better bus service and what it takes to make them happen.

Speakers include Mary Cheh, DC councilmember and transportation committee chair; Joseph Barr, former Director of Transit Development in NYC; WMATA bus planner Jim Hamre; and Sam Zimbabwe, Associate Director of Policy, Planning, and Sustainability at DDOT. The forum is at the Chastleton, 1701 16th Street, NW. RSVP here.

After the jump: A happy hour in Bethesda, a walking tour of Falls Church, a chance to learn about biking with kids, and more.

Circulator pop-up meetings: There are still three chances to give DDOT feedback about the DC Circulator. As part of the system's Transit Development Plan update, there is a series of pop-up meetings to discuss the current system as well as future routes. Here are the remaining ones:

  • 14th and U St NW: Tuesday April 29 3:30-6:30 pm, Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center (2000 14th St NW)
  • Anacostia: Thursday May 1 3:30-6:30 pm, Anacostia Metro station
  • Georgetown: Saturday May 3 12-3 pm, M St NW & Wisconsin Ave NW
GGW happy hour: Also this Wednesday, join Greater Greater Washington, CNUDC, YIPPS, and guests from the Montgomery County Planning Department for a planning-and-drinking gathering where you can learn about the Bethesda Downtown Plan. The happy hour is 6-8 pm on April 30 at Tommy Joe's, 4717 Montgomery Lane, in Bethesda.

Tour of East Falls Church: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's walking tours continue this Saturday, May 3 with a look at East Falls Church. Come hear about the history of the neighborhood and learn what's being planned to make the area more walkable and bikeable. Space is limited so RSVP today!

Bike with the family: Do you have kids? Are you interested in learning how to safely bike with them around the city? The third annual "ABCs of Family Biking" event is Saturday, May 3, 11-2 at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan.

Family biking experts will show parents what equipment they might need, and local bike shops will have some for sale. Parents can try out equipment on a special obstacle course and can also trade or sell each other gently used equipment. WABA instructors will teach free classes for parents and kids to bike alone or together. And you can get in practice for Bike to School Day, Wednesday, May 7!

Open houses for Montgomery zoning update: The Montgomery County Planning Department's zoning update open houses resume on Tuesday, April 29. Planning staff will be available to discuss the updates. The full open house schedule is below:

  • April 29: Park and Planning Headquarters, Silver Spring (5-8 pm)
  • May 1: Marilyn J. Praisner Library, Burtonsville (6-8 pm)
  • May 5: UpCounty Regional Services Center, Germantown (6-8 pm)
  • May 6: B-CC Regional Services Center, Bethesda (6-8 pm)

Events


Events roundup: Urbanism, past and future

Learn about the history of urbanism nationwide, then give input on downtown Bethesda, the DC Circulator, Courthouse Square and more. See how the past influences the future in Shaw and East Falls Church. All this and more at events this week and beyond.


Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Two happy hours this month! Instead of having one Greater Greater Washington happy hour this month, we're cosponsoring happy hours around two interesting and informative events.

Tomorrow, come hear Greater Greater Washington contributor Ben Ross talk about his new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, with a happy hour afterward.

And next Wednesday, join us, CNUDC, YIPPS, and guests from the Montgomery County Planning Department to learn about the Bethesda Downtown Plan while enjoying a drink.

Ben Ross' talk starts at 5:30 pm on Tuesday, April 22 at APTA headquarters, 1666 K Street NW. After the talk, head over to The Meeting Place (1707 L Street NW) for the happy hour at 6:30.

The following week's Bethesda planning-and-drinking gathering is from 6-8 pm on Wednesday, April 30 at Tommy Joe's, 4717 Montgomery Lane, in Bethesda.

Discuss pedestrian safety: Join the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee for a lecture and discussion on pedestrian safety. Hillary Poole, Alexandria's Complete Streets Coordinator, will talk about design concepts that make streets safe for walkers, bikers, and drivers. The discussion is 6:15-7:30 tonight, Monday, April 21, at the Nannie J. Lee Rec Center, 1108 Jefferson Street in Alexandria.

Tour Shaw and East Falls Church: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's walking tours resume with two great ones this month. On Saturday, April 26 from 10 am-noon, see how new development is bringing a renaissance to the historic Shaw neighborhood in DC. And on Saturday, look at ways the area around East Falls Church Metro could become more walkable and bikeable. Space is limited so RSVP today!

Envision Courthouse Square: Arlington County is considering plans for transforming Courthouse Square into a town square. The second community workshop is Wednesday, April 23 from 7-9 pm at the Key Elementary School, 2300 Key Boulevard in Arlington. Help develop an action plan for the area to help make it a vibrant public destination.

Circulator pop-up meetings: DDOT is looking for feedback from current and future riders of the DC Circulator to shape the system's Transit Development Plan update. They are holding a series of six pop-up meetings to discuss the current system as well as future routes. Here is the complete schedule:

  • NoMa: Tuesday, April 22, 3:30-6:30 pm at NoMa/Gallaudet Metro (M St. NE entrance)
  • Southwest: Thursday, April 24, 3:30-6:30 pm at Waterfront Metro
  • Capitol Hill: Saturday, April 26, 12-3 pm at Eastern Market Metro
  • 14th and U: Tuesday, April 29, 3:30-6:30 pm at Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center (2000 14th St NW)
  • Anacostia: Thursday, May 1, 3:30-6:30 pm at Anacostia Metro
  • Georgetown: Saturday, May 3, 12-3 pm at M St NW & Wisconsin Ave NW
Open houses for Montgomery zoning update: The Montgomery County Planning Department's zoning update open houses begin this Tuesday, April 22. Interested in asking questions or providing feedback? Planning staff attend to discuss the updates. The full open house schedule is below:

  • Rockville: Tuesday, April 22, 6-8 pm at Rockville Memorial Library
  • Wheaton: Thursday, April 24, 6-8 pm at Wheaton Regional Library
  • Silver Spring: Tuesday, April 29, 6-8 pm at Park and Planning Headquarters, Silver Spring
  • Burtonsville: Thursday, May 1, 6-8 pm at the Marilyn J. Praisner Library, Burtonsville
  • Germantown: Monday, May 5, 6-8 pm at Upcounty Regional Services Center, Germantown
  • Bethesda: Tuesday, May 6, 6-8 pm at Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, Bethesda

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."

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