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Pedestrians


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.

Development


Businesses no longer want office parks, and that can mean more revenue for cities

Businesses are making moves toward neighborhoods that are accessible by transit and easy to walk around in. For cities, it's a smart financial move to view the change in preference as one that's here to stay.


Pike + Rose. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

A recent story in the Washington Post covered a move by Merrill Lynch from a Montgomery County office park you can only get to by driving to the Metro-accessible Pike & Rose development on Rockville Pike. Though commercial lease terms are typically confidential, experts say Merrill Lynch chose to pay 40% higher rent for the new location, which is a five- to ten-minute walk to the White Flint Metro station.

This isn't an aberration. Just a few miles south of Merrill Lynch's office, Marriott is considering move its headquarters from a conventional office park in Bethesda to somewhere else in the region. The CEO told the Washington Post, "I think it's essential we be accessible to Metro and that limits the options."

This preference isn't just limited to two companies. A report in late 2013 found that 83% of the new office space under construction in the region is within a quarter-mile (a five-minute walk) of a Metro station. That is no coincidence.


Headquarters of Marriott International in a Bethesda office park. Image from Google Maps.

Local tax bases will shift

These trends are telling, and local leaders concerned about future budgets should take notice. Buildings like the one Merrill Lynch is moving into command higher rents and are more valuable to investors. And because cities and counties raise much of their revenue from real estate taxes levied ad valorem, meaning the tax is a percentage of the assessed value of the property, they mean more tax money.

Also, local governments often prefer office development to housing development since offices tend to pay more in local taxes than they use in services.

In Loudoun, for instance, the county claims that each new home costs the county $1.62 in added county services—schools, roads, sewers, etc.—for every extra dollar collected in taxes. Homebuilders say the cost is more like $1.20, but either way, each new house is a net cost to the county under its current tax structure. Communities with a healthy mix of commercial and residential development can provide excellent public services at manageable tax rates.

The moves of Merrill Lynch and Marriott as well as the Metro-proximity of new office space show the direction the office market is moving. If state and local governments want to attract and retain the offices of large Fortune 500 companies like Marriott and Merrill Lynch (a subsidiary of Bank of America), they need to plan for and support the types of mixed-use, walkable, transit-rich development companies seek and are willing to pay a premium for.

The future is already here

Fortunately, much of the infrastructure is already in place. The Washington region still has plenty of Metro stations that have not met their full development potential. Furthermore, the new development Metro spurs doesn't necessarily burden the existing infrastructure. In fact we found that car traffic in Arlington's Rosslyn-Ballston corridor declined while development boomed.

It's too early to tell whether leaders are fully aware of what it's going to take to attract commercial development. In good news, the Silver Line's expansion into Virginia has already sparked office construction in Tyson's Corner and the Wiehle-Reston East station, allowing the commonwealth and Fairfax County to expand and capture more economic activity.

Likewise, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan chose to continue the Purple Line, an investment that will improve mobility and will create more places in Maryland that attract taxpaying office tenants. Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett successfully pressured the state to reconfigure Old Georgetown Road near White Flint as a narrower complete street, not the wide auto-sewer the state had suggested.

But the region has made its share of mistakes, too. The cancellation of the Columbia Pike streetcar with no credible plan for any transit improvements ensures that new economic development will largely bypass that section of Arlington.

Creating neighborhoods that give residents and workers practical options to walk, bike, ride transit, or drive will improve the quality of life and also helps the jurisdiction's bottom line. Leaders who want to continue providing high-quality public services to residents without raising tax rates need to attract commercial tenants who are willing to pay higher rents and thus generate more tax revenue.

Leaders have a choice with limited funds: they can use public money to build new arterial roads and fail to spur economic growth or they can invest in the harder, but rewarding, transformation of places like Tysons and White Flint into the nodes that spur the economic development patterns of the future.

Parking


Montgomery won't make (some) businesses fund parking anymore

Builders in downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Wheaton are now free to build as little parking as they want, without violating zoning rules or paying extra taxes. The change eliminates a major subsidy to driving and will help these suburban centers evolve into walkable urban areas.


Photo by BethesdaNow.com Staff on Flickr.

The new policy, enacted as part of the new county budget, is the result of the simpler, more modern zoning code approved a year ago. The rewrite of the zoning ordinance sharply cut the amount of off-street parking required near Metro stations, upsetting a long-established system for financing the county's public parking garages.

When the county first opened public parking lots, they were a way for stores in old downtown buildings to compete with new malls and their ample free parking. Meter rates were low and downtown buildings paid an extra "parking tax" to meet the expenses. Newer buildings with their own parking were exempt from the tax.

After Metro came to Bethesda and Silver Spring, the downtowns grew denser. But for many years the county kept the tax high to encourage the construction of as much parking as possible when new buildings went up. Unless a building met the parking requirement that the zoning code imposed on auto-oriented development far from Metro, it paid the entire tax.

The new zoning code recognized the downside of too much parking, and it lowered the parking minimums near Metro. When it went into effect last year, many buildings that previously paid the parking tax became exempt. This brought confusion at first, and then a recognition that the parking tax had lost much of its revenue-raising potential.

The new county budget solves this problem by setting the parking tax to zero, and making up the difference with other revenue. (The tax has technically not been abolished. If the county fails to pay back money borrowed to build garages, bond holders can demand its resumption.)

At work here is the interconnected nature of land use planning. Automobile-dependent development has a logic in which parking and highways create a need for more of the same. Once that cycle is broken, a new logic sets in. When things work well, as they did here, advances in livability and walkability beget more progress.

Parking


NIH says: Our scientists are too important to pay for parking or take transit

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) wants to expand at its Bethesda campus, but despite being on top of a Metro station, wants to build a lot more parking. Why is that necessary? NIH thinks its "high-ranking scientists" can't be asked to pay for parking or ride Metro in greater numbers like "regular people."

Sound unbelievable? Just listen to this:

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) slapped down NIH at a meeting on April 2. NCPC has a policy defining how much parking is appropriate for federal facilities. At locations outside the core but right near Metro, like NIH, that level is one space per three employees.

NIH, however, currently offers one space per two employees. It wants to plan for 3,000 new employees and build new parking garages with 1,000 new spaces. That's 1:3 for the new employees, but doesn't bring NIH into compliance for the other employeees with NCPC's policy, which has been in place since 2004.

If, instead, NIH fully met NCPC's standard, it could remove 2,300 spaces even with the new employees, said Drew Morrison, aide to Councilmember Roger Berliner, who represents the area. Berliner and other local elected officials have asked NIH to meet NCPC's standard, so far to little effect.

Morrison said that the traffic from all the cars driving to NIH impedes economic development in downtown Bethesda. "Many property owners in downtown Bethesda are telling us right now that they can't attract new businesses to Bethesda precisely because of this traffic problem." Reducing parking and driving to NIH, Morrison said, would improve that situation.

At the meeting, Ricardo Herring, NIH's Director of Facilities Planning, repeatedly said that it was "impossible" for more NIH employees to get to work by transit. He said this is because many employees live in far-flung areas not near Metro (though he didn't really explain why driving to Metro parking, like at Shady Grove, is not an option).

Of course people drive if parking is free

However, NIH also offers free parking to every one of its employees and contractors. Small wonder that so many people drive when it's subsidized by their employer (and by Maryland, which has to pay for the roads).

Mina Wright of the General Services Administration pressed Herring on why NIH can't try charging for parking. Herring said that was tried in the Carter Administration, but "there was a major rebellion." Wright acknowledged that it might not be popular with everyone, but said that sometimes management has to do unpopular things.

Besides, it's not unreasonable to ask scientists of the National Institutes of Health to respect their impact on the health of people who live around them. Presidential appointee Elizabeth Ann Wright asked, "What does it say when we encourage our nation's top scientists to drive?"

Commissioners noted that the Bethesda Naval medical center, now called Walter Reed after the Army's facility on Georgia Avenue closed and moved in, is able to operate with a 1:3 ratio.

National Park Service representative Peter May said, "There are ways to achieve 1:3 at NIH. There is no doubt about it. Other agencies do it." NIH seems uninterested in trying.

Herring's dismissiveness irritated many commissioners, who ultimately voted to disapprove NIH's master plan. May said, "It seems apparent to me that the policy that NCPC has adopted and has been trying to communicate to NIH for ten years has not gotten through and not been communicated at high enough levels at NIH."

The board's recommendation is technically advisory, but chairman Preston Bryant pointed out that federal agencies rarely if ever directly flout NCPC's express will, and strongly urged NIH not to either.

Watch the juiciest 13 minutes of the video below, or the full thing here or by scrolling in the timeline. Watch Drew Morrison talk at 54:20, then Herring respond at 57:17, May at 1:01:25, and Wright bring up charging for parking at 1:02:42, which elicits some of the most jaw-dropping statements from Herring until 1:07:13 when they move on to talk about bollards.

Oh, and check out those graphics showing the Metro service at 9:46 near the start of the video. Where could they have gotten those from?

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