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Posts about Bethesda


You don't have to push this button to cross the street

If you walk to a corner and see a button to activate the walk signal, you might need to push it. Or you might not. It might only be there to activate a chirping noise for people with vision impairments. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell.

Connecticut Avenue and N Street in DC. Photo by David Alpert.

Some intersections keep "don't walk" signals lit during both red and green phases of a traffic light unless someone pushes a "beg button"—technically an "actuated pedestrian push button"—before the light turns green.

The sign on the picture above clearly implies that that's what will happen when people wanting to cross the street push the button.

But the button actually has nothing to do with the walk signal. The walk signal comes on whether you press the button or not.

What the button does is turn on a loud chirping noise that speeds up when the walk signal begins. The misleading signs have appeared in large numbers in DC, Montgomery County, and elsewhere over the past year, on local roads and state highways.

Unless you can't see the sign, pushing this button won't help you cross Bethesda Avenue. Photo by the author.

Why is this?

Federal guidelines, known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), authorize only certain standard signs for pedestrians. Among them are several variants for buttons that control the walk signal, but no sign for buttons that merely activate the audible signal for people with visual impairments.

Image from the Federal Highway Administration.

In downtown Bethesda, chirper buttons have appeared in large numbers over the last half year, all accompanied by the standard sign. Frequent passers-by soon recognized that the sign conveyed a falsehood, and now, few people push the button.

From my observation, it has become more common for people to simply cross streets wherever and whenever they feel safe. The streets seem no less safe.

Highway agencies take great care to ensure that signs meant for drivers are accurate and unambiguous—and doing so helps keep all who use the roads safe. Pedestrians, as these pushbutton signs illustrate, get very different treatment.

By taking such a nonchalant attitude toward those on foot, traffic engineers implicitly recognize something their profession refuses to officially admit: Drivers in the wrong place endanger others, but pedestrians do not.


There's a new group opposing a more urban Bethesda

Montgomery County is working on a new master plan for downtown Bethesda that would promote continued development and might allow the population to increase from 7,210 today to over 18,000. But a group of people who oppose urbanization are gearing up to fight it.

Downtown Bethesda today. Image from Google Earth.

In an email to Bethesda civic leaders on Saturday, former Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Pat Burda revealed plans to form the Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents. Organizers say that they are "angry" at plans for increased density, with special ire toward the quantity of new housing.

While CBAR hopes to draw support from single-family neighborhoods on all sides of downtown Bethesda, the initiative comes from the Town of Chevy Chase, a 1,200-home enclave located southeast of the downtown commercial area. (The town is just one of the many neighborhoods that make up what is generally considered Chevy Chase.)

A report submitted to the town council earlier this month presents what CBAR is trying to accomplish. The central premise of the 13-page document, which is framed as a history of downtown Bethesda development, is the primacy of the single-family house and its owner. Apartments, stores, and offices are welcome only to the extent they serve the residents of nearby homes.

The document is clear in its opposition to development, skipping the usual pieties about planning and community participation. Land use decision-making, it explains, is an "inherently political process." If one county council can upzone, the winners of the next election can equally well downzone.

The document's author is Scott Fosler, who was among the early architects of the anti-development movement that has flourished in the Chevy Chase area since the 1970s. This movement, acting under a variety of organizational umbrellas, has had a strong influence on land use policy throughout Montgomery County. It was most recently in the news in 2012, when it tangled with county planning director Rollin Stanley after he referred to some of its leaders as "rich white women."

Fosler himself served two terms on the Montgomery County Council in the 1980s. He earlier chaired the town's zoning committee and then served on the town council.

While Fosler insists that homeowners have every right to change the zoning of adjoining properties, there is no reciprocity. He would find it unthinkable to rezone the Town of Chevy Chase to better serve the remainder of the county.

Fosler sees Bethesda's urban center, even when properly subservient, as an alien intrusion that is best kept at a distance. He outlines the strategy by which the Town of Chevy Chase and its allies have obtained the separation they desire. The downtown is encircled with a "comprehensive cordon" of land occupied by parking lots, parks, and house-sized structures. The function of this territory is simply to be as empty and little-used as possible. Property on Elm Street that was made a park would serve the purpose just as well if it were a parking lot.

In the past, the anti-development movement had great influence over land use in Bethesda and Chevy Chase. The 1976 Bethesda master plan imposed a five-fold reduction in the allowable square footage of the downtown. The 1998 plan for Friendship Heights limits buildings on some stretches of Wisconsin Avenue to three stories.

But public opinion is shifting as the demand for urban living grows. Divisions have emerged even within the Town of Chevy Chase. Whether CBAR can achieve the same political power as its predecessors remains to be seen.


NIH 2015: Growing without adding parking is "impossible." NIH 2016: Okay, it's possible.

The National Institutes of Health won't add any new parking spaces to its campus after all. After saying "high-ranking scientists" were too important to take transit or carpool, NIH leaders have seen the error of their ways and modified the master plan to cap the parking.

The NIH Master Plan.

NIH last presented a draft master plan last April. The plan would add 3,000 employees to the Bethesda campus, and NIH wanted to build 1,000 new parking spaces for them.

However, the National Capital Planning Commission rejected NIH's plan. NCPC has a policy that federal facilities outside DC but near Metro stations (like NIH) should have one space per three employees. NIH has 1 space per 2.3 employees, more than the NCPC standard.

When NIH last updated its master plan, NCPC planners pushed NIH to work to reach the 1:3 level. But at the April meeting, NIH facilities director Ricardo Herring irritated NCPC commissioners by insisting that achieving that was "impossible" because "high-ranking scientists" just won't abide not being able to have their own free parking spaces.

Apparently it's not actually impossible, because NIH has now changed its plan. Instead of adding 1,000 spaces, it will add zero, capping parking at the current level of 9,045. That would shift the parking ratio from 1:2.3 to 1:2.6.

NCPC spokesperson Stephen Staudigl said in an email, "In response to our concerns, NIH suggested a cap on existing parking on the campus, as opposed to its previous proposal to add new parking. We see this cap as an interim step towards achieving a long-term goal of the 1:3 ratio. ... Looking forward, we plan to continue working with NIH staff in anticipation of its next master plan update in 2018, which should include a more detailed approach to parking reduction over time."

The plan will consolidate much of the campus' surface parking into a few new parking garages. This will let NIH actually increase the percentage of open space on the campus from 36% to 39% while growing, because parking will drop from 9% of the land area to 5%.

As NCPC commissioners pointed out in April, a public health organization, in particular, ought to recognize the value of having people not dependent on cars. Thanks to NCPC's pressure, it seems to have come around.


This futuristic concept for the Bethesda station entrance has an even more futuristic Metro map

Imagine that one day the Bethesda Metro station's entrance could look like this. Then look closely at that Metro map and imagine that we could have all of the extra, nonexistent Metro lines it shows.

Image from Brookfield Properties.

This rendering shows the escalators and stairs from the street level to the current bus bays. People entering Bethesda station from the street descend to the bus bay level, then continue into longer escalators continuing down.

As Bethesda Magazine reports, Brookfield wants to build a high-rise building on top of what's now a large but mostly inert plaza, and create a "Bethesda Central Park" of more active and greener space.

But Clark Enterprises, another developer in Bethesda whose headquarters are next door, wants to keep the space open to protect views from its buildings, and has designed a competing park plan that puts the park space closer to the street, atop Brookfield's land.

Brookfield recently tried to sweeten the pot by proposing a big facelift for the bus bay level and the entrance. Neither company, however, is in a position to make one piece of this drawing a reality: that Metro map, which is not the real Metro map but actually Neil Flanagan's 2009 fantasy Metro map:

Image from Neil Flanagan.

Flanagan designed a Metro loop that's somewhat like the one WMATA has actually proposed, but larger, stretching out to U Street and Florida Avenue instead of staying downtown, and with a branch east of the Anacostia and out to National Harbor.

This happens to be the same fantasy map Terry McAuliffe's campaign accidentally used in a flyer attacking his 2013 gubernatorial opponent, Ken Cuccinelli:

Imag from the McAuliffe campaign.

Presumably there's a search on Google Images or the like which brings up this map, and some graphic designers less well versed in the Metro system grab it, not realizing what it is. It's happened to maps I've made as well, like this 2008 MediaBistro ad or this graphic from one cheesesteak shop:

It's always worth laughing at this phenomenon, though.

Public Spaces

It's nearly impossible to get into one of DC's national parks by foot or bike

The C&O Canal National Historic Park, which both the Capital Crescent Trail and the C&O Canal towpath run through, is very easy to get to by car but difficult to access on foot or bike.

Canal Road and the Clara Barton Parkway form a barrier to pedestrian and cyclist access to the C&O Canal National Historic Park. Red dots represent existing crossing points, green dots are existing parking lots, and blue dots are two places where people have suggested improvements. Base image from Google Maps.

The park runs along DC's southwest border, with the trail and towpath being side by side between Georgetown and Arizona Avenue. There, they diverge, with the trail going to Bethesda and the towpath to Great Falls (and all the way to Cumberland, Maryland).

Between Georgetown and Bethesda, there's no safe way for people of all abilities to walk or bike to the park. The only options are to climb down a dirt trail, carry your bike, or take your life in your hands with traffic—or do all three.

If you want to visit the park but aren't willing or able to scramble, ramble, or gamble, your choices are to go down to Georgetown or up to Bethesda, or get in a car and go to one of the automotive access points.

The park is very accommodating of cars

The car route, if you have one, is extremely easy. The Crescent Trail website lists ten public parking areas between Bethesda and Georgetown—a distance of ten miles!

These are all dedicated parking lots, not on-street parking. "Whenever possible, avoid using neighborhood residential streets for parking, as this becomes an imposition on residents when substantial numbers of trail users park there," the website even notes.

Getting to the towpath part of the park by car is also very easy. In DC alone, there are two large parking lots at Fletcher's Boathouse, another parking lot at Chain Bridge, and another just inside the DC line at Little Falls. If you keep going there are parking lots every mile or so all the way out to Great Falls, where there is a huge parking lot. In total, there are 15 parking lots along the towpath within its first sixteen miles north of Georgetown!

Access to the park is generally excellent in Maryland. The Clara Barton Parkway forms a barrier to access between the Maryland line and Great Falls, but there are numerous pedestrian bridges, crosswalks and other crossings. It's even not that hard to access the park from Virginia: You have to cross the Potomac River, but there are pedestrian and bike facilities on both the Key Bridge and Chain Bridge.

But for the DC section of the towpath, Canal Road is a formidable barrier and there are no formal crossings. Plus there's high-speed traffic.

Better access points could be on the way

This might be changing, however. In November, DDOT installed a traffic signal at Canal and Reservoir Road. The signal isn't on yet, but when operational it will have a "beg button" that lets people on foot and riding bikes cross.

The intersection of Canal and Reservoir. Base image from Google.

But even with the light, access will be via Reservoir Road, which is narrow and steep, and which lots of cars use to travel at high speeds. Reservoir has an extremely narrow sidewalk on one side, and telephone poles in the sidewalk make it almost impassable in spots.

Installed but not activated lights at Reservoir Road. Photo by the author.

Once across Canal, access to the park itself is via an even narrower part of Reservoir Road, with no sidewalk. Even with the traffic light, the new access point won't work for everyone until the sidewalk is fixed.

DDOT's long-range MoveDC plan calls for an additional access point where the Capital Crescent Trail crosses Arizona Avenue, with a sidewalk down Arizona from MacArthur Boulevard. The National Park Service has also suggested the idea of a trailhead here.

The Arizona Avenue intersection. Base image from Google.

The Palisades Citizens Association recently endorsed this path, calling on DDOT to make the access point a priority. But it's actually been on DDOT planning documents for over a decade, and there aren't any immediate plans for action.

Without some real access points, enjoying the beauty of the C&O Canal in DC will only be for people who can drive there.


My godmother died where a new sidewalk design made her walk in traffic

A motorist killed my 95-year-old godmother while she was crossing the street near her Bethesda home last week. A recent traffic signal replacement makes people walk into a lane of traffic with a posted speed limit of 45 mph to get to the crosswalk she regularly used.

Map's base image from Google Maps, with labels by Ben Ross.

Marge Wydro frequently walked across River Road at its intersection with Springfield Drive, the residential two lane street where she lived. Here, River widens from a four lane divided highway into seven lanes. Her trip from her front door to the bowling alley at the Kenwood Country Club was about 300 feet.

In the past, Marge could walk (in the street) from her house on the first block of Springfield Drive to the corner with River Road. There, a curb ramp and sidewalk let her walk to the beg button (a button that must be pushed to get a walk signal) and the crosswalk across River.

River Road has sidewalks at the northern edge of the Westbard area, but they end about a quarter mile southeast of Marge's house. Farther out on River, the only sidewalks to be found are short connections between side streets and bus stops, like the ones at Springfield Drive.

But at the southeast corner of River and Springfield, the curb ramp and a piece of the sidewalk isn't there anymore. They went out as part of a project to replace the the traffic signal. In its place is a concrete curb with loose soil behind it. Frail walkers or people in wheelchairs are left no choice but to enter a traffic lane to reach the beg button and crosswalk. In the winter, when snow gets dumped on the corner, everyone's in that boat.

The sidewalk before and after reconstruction. The top image is from Google Streetview; the bottom image is by the author.

On the other side, after people have crossed seven lanes of River Road, they're met with more loose soil, weeds, a fire hydrant and utility poles. Here, a section of sidewalk skirts the crosswalk and the obstacles to connect the driveway entrance of the Kenwood Country Club to the bus stop a few feet southeast of the corner.

The Kenwood Country Club side of River Road. Image by the author.

Compounding the lack of safe access to the crosswalk and the fact that the crosswalk exposes pedestrians to seven lanes of traffic is the fragmented nature of the sidewalks on the side streets. The one short block of Springfield adjacent to River where my godmother lived is the street's only block without a sidewalk. On the other side of River Road, pedestrians like my godmother must share the driveway with cars to enter the country club. There's no direct paved connection from the sidewalk serving the bus stop to the closest country club building.

Marge Wydro. Photo by Bill Wydro.

The intersection poses an additional hazard to anyone not already familiar with it: the beg buttons are nearly impossible to see. On both sides of River Road, the buttons face south toward bus stops farther down the highway. With the new traffic signals, engineers have turned the buttons around to face the side streets. Now it's the bus rider's turn to miss the message that the traffic signals require a pedestrian to ask for permission to use the crosswalk.

We don't yet know the details of how Marge Wydro died, and it's possible we never will. But the engineering of this intersection subjected her to an entirely unnecessary safety hazard, which remains for anyone else who tries to cross here.

Tomorrow morning, County Councilmember Roger Berliner will join community members at the crash site to call for a redesign of this section of River Road.

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