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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.

Pedestrians


Walking to school in Montgomery gets a little safer

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.


A student at Bethesda ES. Photo by Ronit Dancis.

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."


A new crosswalk outside Galway Elementary School. Photo by the author.

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.


New bumpouts will help slow traffic outside Galway Elementary School. Photo by the author.

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."

Roads


CEOs want faster commutes and walkable places

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?


Photo by Rob Mac on Flickr.

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.

Bicycling


Montgomery announces new bikeshare locations

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.


Bikeshare stations in Rockville and Shady Grove.


Bikeshare stations in Silver Spring and Takoma Park.


Bikeshare stations in Bethesda and Chevy Chase.

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?

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