Posts about Bethesda
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last year, drivers hit nine people walking to school in Montgomery County, and residents are agitating for change. With classes starting this week, the county's Department of Transportation has taken a few small steps toward making the walk there safer, but it's not enough.
Tracy Simmons walks her two kids a mile to Bethesda Elementary every day. She says it's simply not safe, citing sidewalks too narrow to walk on, poorly-timed stop lights, and drivers who speed and don't yield to small children crossing the street. "Drivers need to stop thinking about their destination and be aware of what's going on around them," she says. "The streets are for everyone and everyone has the right to be safe while on them."
The Action Committee for Transit, a transit and pedestrian advocacy group, joined with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and area parents to launch the Safe Walk To School campaign last spring, asking MCDOT to make small improvements that could make walking to school safer.
According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, nearly half of all children between 5 and 14 walked to school in 1969. 40 years later, just 13% did. Studies show that kids who walk or bike to school are healthier, more independent and even learn better. But many parents won't let their kids walk to school due to fears about safety. Fast, wide streets that favor drivers can make walking to school quite dangerous.
Last year, a student died while walking to Seneca Valley High School in Germantown. Photo from Google Street View.
However, students at 2 county schools got a safer walk when classes started on Monday. At Bethesda Elementary in downtown Bethesda, MCDOT has lowered the speed limit on adjacent Arlington Road from 30 to 25 when school is in session. In February, a driver of an SUV hit a baby in a stroller in a marked crosswalk in front of the school.
Yesterday morning, members of ACT and local parents handed out flyers and balloons outside Bethesda Elementary to raise awareness about their campaign. Safe Walk to School's list of recommended safety improvements are small: they include a maximum speed limit of 20 and banning right turns on red in school zones, higher fines for speeding violations, more visible crosswalks, and changing traffic signals to give pedestrians more time to cross. But together, they could have a big impact on pedestrian safety.
ACT board member Ronit Dancis says one parent told her that he's physically pulled kids out of the intersection in front of the school to avoid cars making illegal right turns at a red light. "I've spoken with parents throughout Montgomery County who want their children to be able to walk (and bike) safely to school," says Dancis. "They are frustrated by how difficult it is."
And at Galway Elementary School in Calverton, MCDOT added new bumpouts and crosswalks, slowing cars down and making it easier for students to cross. Many students live within walking distance of Galway, which is one of the county's largest elementary schools with over 800 students, almost 2/3 of whom come from low-income families.
The school is located on a busy neighborhood street with other things kids might walk to, like a park, a church, and a swim club. But even those who live 4/5 of a mile away like my brother, a former student, rode the bus there instead.
Montgomery County is finally beginning to take pedestrian safety seriously. County police held a sting for drivers who didn't yield to walkers last spring, writing 72 tickets in 2 1/2 hours at one crosswalk on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton. MCDOT is also doing community outreach, hosting events to raise awareness about safety issues.
The improvements are a small step in the right direction, but more work needs to be done. As recently as last year, MCDOT recommended that the school system bus students living across the street from Clarksburg Elementary to school so the agency wouldn't have to install a crosswalk.
And the agency has been reluctant to accommodate walkers outside of school zones as well. Traffic engineer Bruce Johnston told residents at a meeting in White Flint in June that if they want "complete streets" designed for pedestrians and bicyclists in addition to drivers, they should tell the governor.
Downtown Bethesda resident Wendy Leibowitz notes that walking to school isn't as new or foreign an idea as some make it sound. "I challenge [transportation officials] to think back to their own trips to school when they were young. Can we provide a similar safe walk to our kids?" she says.
"Or do we have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to bus children small distances so the kids can be home by 3:30 in front of a screen of some kind?" adds Leibowitz. "Then we hear lectures about childhood obesity and screen addiction."
The Federal City Council, an association of business leaders, wants DC to ease driving in and out of the city. At the same time, it wants walkable, livable neighborhoods. But what about when these two conflict?
The group took a survey of its members, mostly business CEOs and presidents and the like. 68% say that traffic congestion is a "significant" problem facing DC businesses (though, actually, I'm surprised 32% don't think it's a problem!) and 71% say car-driving commuters are "very important" in making decisions about where to locate businesses.
99% want a more modern signal system "to ease the flow of traffic," which usually means timing signals for commuters, though 89% also want to see "active neighborhoods that provide a variety of amenities and services for all residents within a 20 minute walk."
This is, essentially, the decision planners are wrestling with in the MoveDC citywide plan: should transportation policy favor driving in and out of the city, or work to make neighborhoods more livable? The problem is that, in many situations, the two forces are in diametric opposition.
On arterial roadways through DC, like Wisconsin, Connecticut, Georgia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania Avenues, immediate residents want a road with slower-moving traffic, shorter crossing distances, longer light cycles on cross streets, and maybe medians. Commuters want the exact opposite.
Which kind of places will Tysons, Bethesda, Silver Spring be?
It's easier to think about this in places that are on the tipping point between walkable urban place and suburban office park, like Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, or Tysons Corner as Fairfax County envisions it. There's a strong consensus behind these being places where you can live and/or work; arrive by car, transit, bike, or foot; and while there, walk to enjoyable restaurants and shops, buy groceries, and so on.
But there's an obstacle to Silver Spring being even more of a walkable place where people both live and work: Colesville and Georgia. Both are very wide "traffic sewers" that take a long time to cross on foot, creating a barrier. Wisconsin and Old Georgetown do this, though a little less fiercely, in Bethesda.
Routes 123 and 7 will form massive barriers at Tysons, especially since the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is widening the already-huge Route 7 even more, and the signal timings will force people to cross in two separate phases. All of this is because their priority is to move cars most efficiently.
And traffic is bad in these places even today. As they grow, officials can focus on walkability and livability and not worry so much about worsening traffic, or they can keep commuters happy and sacrifice the goal of creating the next Dupont Circle or Columbia Heights or Clarendon. Traffic in Columbia Heights can be really frustrating, and it's a great place.
Congestion pricing, anyone?
There is, indeed, a solution to this conflict of congestion vs. walkability: congestion pricing. Keeping the roadways free of choking traffic only requires wider and wider roadways if you hold constant the assumption that everyone can use that road, anytime they want, completely free.
DC could charge each driver heading into downtown, and dedicate that revenue to expanding bus and rail options that give people an alternative to driving. Traffic could be lighter for people who do need to drive, and people who have an option not to drive will find their choices more appealing.
The biggest obstacle to this has always been that people perceive it as unfair. It's good for the business leaders who could easily pay the tolls, and even good for people like contractors for whom time is money. It's good for the poorer residents who don't have cars anyway, and who struggle with sub-par bus options.
But there are a lot of people in between who drive, don't want to pay any more for it, and would rather just deal with congestion (or lobby for wider roads or mythical magic timed signals). In the District, not only would the DC Council have to get past the politics, but Congress would likely interfere unless Maryland and Virginia representatives were supportive.
Barring that, DC, and Silver Spring, and Bethesda, and Tysons, and every other walkable or potentially walkable place will have to wrestle with whether to put placemaking first or high-speed driving. It's not a surprise that the CEOs of the Federal City Council want both, but until and unless they can help make congestion pricing happen, the survey still does not really help prioritize between the two.
Late this summer, Capital Bikeshare will expand into Montgomery County with 51 stations and 500 bikes. County officials have released maps of where they hope to put the stations, and they will hold meetings later this month to talk about the new service.
30 stations will go in the downcounty area, including Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Bethesda and Friendship Heights. In conjunction with the City of Rockville, the county will also place 21 stations in Rockville and the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center as part of a pilot program to see whether bikesharing can work in suburban areas, especially for carless low-income residents and reverse commuters.
County Department of Transportation officials will hold 3 meetings later this month where residents can learn how Capital Bikeshare works and offer feedback on the proposed stations. For more information, visit the county's new bikesharing website.
All 3 areas where Capital Bikeshare will go already have higher-than-average bicycling rates, like downtown Bethesda, Takoma Park, and even Rockville Town Center. That's not surprising, as these communities have an older, urban built form that easily lends itself to bicycling.
Bikeshare stations will also serve major employment centers, like NIH and the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, along with local schools, like Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park and both the Rockville and Silver Spring campuses of Montgomery College. This will make bikesharing a real option for residents who live too far to walk, while helping students who either can't or don't drive.
However, the maps also show the need for improved bike infrastructure. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association and MoBike have proposed a network of new bike lanes to compliment the CaBi stations, but it'll be a while before the county actually builds some.
In addition, it looks like some of the stations are spaced too far apart to be useful. The station at Flower and Piney Branch in Silver Spring, for example, is over a mile from any other station and at the top of a hill. That means users are likely to bike from there and not come back, creating a rebalancing problem.
What do you think of the station locations?
Montgomery County has lots of empty parking garage roofs with great views, but they're closed to the public. We could take advantage of this wasted space by turning them into event spaces.
Last week, a map of rooftop bars in DC made by Petworth resident Tom Allison circulated on social media. Produced with the help of contributors on Reddit, the map shows several lofty watering holes in the District and Arlington, but just one in Montgomery County, at the Doubletree Hotel in Bethesda.
There have been some rooftop parties in the county, like Sky At Five in Rockville Town Square and one hosted by the apartment building formerly known as Georgian Towers with a model-turned-sushi bar. But how can we do more? On Twitter, reader Joshua Gorman joked about having a speakeasy on the top floor of a parking garage in downtown Silver Spring.
It sounds far out, but it might actually work. Montgomery County is blessed with a number of above-ground public parking garages in the downtowns of Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Wheaton. Their rooftop levels have great views, but outside of a few events each year, most of them are empty.
Our parking garages may not be as pretty as the Herzog and de Meuron-designed garage in Miami Beach which doubles as an event space. But since many of our garages are intended for commuters, they're usually next to Metro stations or bus stops, meaning you don't have to drink and drive.
People and cars are forbidden from using the top floors of many public garages in Montgomery County.
Unfortunately, most parking garage roofs in Montgomery County are blocked off with chains when they're not being used for parking. County police threaten to arrest anyone who tries to go up there.
In 2011, photographer Chip Py attempted to do a photo shoot of a popular go-go band atop a parking garage in downtown Wheaton. He'd been detained by police for taking pictures there before, so he decided to contact the Department of Transportation, which manages the garages.
"It was 13 people, lights and everything. And I didn't want to risk going in there and getting it shut down," Py said. But officials from the county said he'd get arrested for trespassing. "You can't do anything in there except park a car," he remembers being told.
Of course, people go anyway. One Saturday afternoon last year, I decided to visit the top floor of every parking garage in downtown Silver Spring. As with any forbidden-but-accessible place in the urban realm, I also found teenagers. On one garage roof, I walked into a stairwell to leave and stumbled on two kids sketching and listening to music on a little boombox. The smell of pot wafted through the air. I wanted to ask, "Why are you here?" but before I could, they freaked out and packed up.
To me at least, the answer is obvious. I remember sneaking onto the roof of the Town Square Garage on Ellsworth Drive with my friends from high school before it opened in 2004. There's the thrill of breaking the rules, yeah, but there's also the great view and the feeling like you're in the middle of everything and completely alone at the same time.
That's not too different from being in a great urban park or plaza. Public parking garages belong to the public, and we should think about them as part of the public realm. In other words, Montgomery County should take advantage of all this empty space they have, especially since it's not being used for parking. Of course, not all parking garages are engineered to actually hold people, like this one in Phoenix that violently shook when Arizona State University students held a dance party on top. We'd have to make sure that our garages were up to the task.
In recent months, there's been a lot of talk about growing the county's nightlife scene. However, it's primarily been about street-level drinking, or in the case of the Quarry House Tavern in downtown Silver Spring, subterranean drinking.
Not only would rooftop events on parking garages be a good use of wasted space, but they might be unusual enough to draw people here for a night out. The DC area may have a lot of rooftop bars, but definitely not one like this.
For more examples, check out this photoset of views from parking garages in downtown Silver Spring.
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