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Posts about LOS Mentality


Montgomery DOT rolls out another cars-first traffic test

Fresh from yesterday's interesting Montgomery County Council discussion of the failed car speed tests, I received a leaked copy of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation's proposed replacement.

Rockville Pike. Photo by thisisbossi.

McDOT will announce the new policy this afternoon. The explanatory memo can be found here.

The new Transportation Policy Area Review will replace the existing Policy Area Mobility Review (PAMR) and Local Area Transportation Review (LATR) tests. These tests, which have been widely criticized, focus on how fast cars move through intersections, blocking development and imposing new infrastructure requirements whenever cars slow down.

These tests may have their places, but not in modern pedestrian-friendly plans. The reason is simple: you can't have a pedestrian-friendly community if cars move fast.

The Council wrestled for months to reconcile a pedestrian-friendly White Flint with its existing car speed tests, a struggle which was resolved only when the Council realized that the answer to congestion was not to move cars faster but to get people out of cars. That works in Arlington County, and it should work even in Montgomery County. That, at least, is the premise of the White Flint Plan.

But there's an aphorism that, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. That's the problem with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, which is tasked with the huge job of handling the County's traffic problems. MCDOT sees everything in automobile terms: Rockville Pike, for example, is a big pipe from NIH and Navy Med in Bethesda to Rockville (oh, by the way, White Flint in between isn't anything at all to worry about, except if it slows cars).

That's why, when faced with a nice opportunity for a park or community facility on the unused SHA land at the northern intersection of Montrose Parkway and Rockville Pike, McDoT gave us a ... surface parking lot. In White Flint. Where we're trying to replace those. To protect the environment. And make a pedestrian-friendly community. I'm sure they had a good reason.

And just so with the new TPAR. The product of a high-powered consultant's report, the proposal to be issued today is fascinating more for what it does NOT do than what it does. There are some good parts of the proposal, mostly dealing with the techniques for measuring and analyzing traffic.

But you hit the real problem on the very first page of the Introduction: transit and travel demand management (getting people out of their cars) are to be considered "separately" (emphasis in original) from arterial roadways and bicycle and pedestrian improvements. See page 3. Um... why?

Maybe that comes from treating roads out of context. That's reinforced by the wide and differing areas which are treated as if they were the same. Downtown Bethesda, with its urban character, access to Metro, and full streets, is in the same transit access zone with Cabin John, with its more suburban or rural vocabulary and NO transit access. Really, only roads matter to McDoT, not transit access, and not transit-orientation. (And, a wiser analyst than I pointed out, the new TPAR means that McDoT can build what it wants, when it wants, without a lot of outside control, as long as a road is in a master plan.)

So, there's a lot of good in the new proposal, but at bottom, this is a continuation of the "car is king" philosophy. Understandable in a department of Transportation, but not really where the County is going. This is more rearranging the deck chairs, rather than a holistic approach to solving a variety of mobility issues.

And it totally ignores the big gorilla coming down on us all: carbon limitation laws that will begin strangling road construction in just a few years. Sustainability (read demand management) will become the main driver in the future, not congestion. Soon what comes out of the tailpipe will become more important than how fast we can move that pipe.

Perhaps this is the wrong place to do that type of overall "quality of life" analysis, but if this TPAR is intended to replace PAMR and LATR, then TPAR will determine our government priorities and spending. Road construction is, and will be important, but the County shouldn't lock into a system which expressly intends to separate transit and demand management from road needs.

This is, again, the same problem the County faced with the White Flint Plan: how do you use these car-oriented tools in a transit-oriented space? The answer is: not very easily.

Wouldn't we be better served, as a County, if we did what the Planning Board tried to do in White Flint: measure a variety of elements which make up "quality of life," rather than just how fast cars move through intersections? Spend as much time on getting drivers out of cars as on moving them through intersections as fast as possible.


Leggett wants direct pedestrian paths except when they'd interfere with traffic

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett's isn't giving up on proposals for an anti-urban skybridge connecting the Silver Spring library to a parking garage.

Book-like facade of the new Silver Spring library.

This past weekend, Leggett unveiled concept sketches for the new library at Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street. It strongly evokes images of "an open book," along with large glass windows said to represent "the openness of government" and limestone similar to that in other Silver Spring buildings. A coffee shop and art gallery will line the ground floor, with artist studios above, followed by three stories of library. Two more floors on top will contain community meeting space and some county offices.

The design also leaves room for a future bridge across Wayne Avenue to the adjacent parking garage. Original plans contained the bridge, but urbanists protested that this costly endeavor would only draw pedestrian traffic off the surface streets, encouraging faster traffic and road designs hostile to those who wish to cross at ground level.

Existing Silver Spring plans prohibited bridges, and the Montgomery County Council voted to sustain that plan, with only Councilmember George Leventhal (at-large) voting for the bridge. Instead, to accommodate persons with disabilities, the library will contain a small amount of handicapped parking on site. Nevertheless, Leggett hasn't given up on the opportunity to put cars above pedestrians by building the bridge, and Duchy Trachtenberg might be wavering on the issue.

In his letter to the County Council this summer (large PDF), Leggett insisted that "accessibility and sustainability" drove his recommendation:

The primary rationale is not one solely of safety; it is primarily one of accessibility and sustainability. The use of the existing underutilized parking garage is a "green" decision which saves the use of materials and taxpayer dollars which would have been otherwise needed to provide new on-site parking for the library. The disadvantage of utilizing the existing garage is the greatly increased travel path to the library for many patrons—including, but not limited to, the elderly and disabled. The bridge is being proposed to address this concern.
It's funny Leggett should mention a "greatly increased travel path." That's exactly what county DOT staff would create with their secret vehicular underpass at the Medical Center Metro that forces pedestrians to walk over 100 feet out of the way, just to facilitate greater car volume in and out of the NIH and future Walter Need National Military Medical Center site. The direct Metro station entrance would have added both accessibility and sustainability, but apparently speeding up cars is more important.

Leggett's and his staff view transportation through the lens of the driver. Sure, Montgomery is a suburban county with a lot of drivers, but it also has fantastic walkable places and some of the best transit of any suburban jurisdiction in the nation. But Leggett sees auto-oriented development as natural and walkable development as dangerous. He views the proper role of streets as carrying as many cars as possible above all, with the needs of pedestrians and transit secondary.

As with Gaithersburg West versus White Flint, Leggett cleverly ties in themes of sustainability, "Smart Growth," and more to justify suburban development patterns and oppose urban ones. His PR staff are remarkably defensive about it, too, saying I "just don't get it." It's Leggett who seems not to get it. He doesn't seem like a stupid man, but is listening too much to traditionalist transportation officials who can rattle off Level of Service letter grades but, despite some terrific examples in their county, don't recognize the value of walkable places designing around people and transit instead of driving above all.


Lt. Gov. Brown open to new ideas, needs to hear them

On Thursday, July 23rd, I joined other Montgomery County-based bloggers for a conversation with Maryland Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown. Adam Pagnucco of Maryland Politics Watch organized the forum, and MPW contributor Marc Korman also attended. Many thanks to Adam for inviting me. Overall, I found Mr. Brown to be a competent and capable person. He clearly had a lot of experience communicating with people. He was open to new ideas, but still perceives traffic through the "Level of Service" lens and traffic solutions from the standpoint of moving cars.

Maryland State House. Photo by bcostin

Mr. Brown's duties include heading up the BRAC subcabinet. I argued that planning for Bethesda Naval Hospital needs to be completely different than for a place like Fort Meade. Bethesda Naval is adjacent to downtown Bethesda, one of the flagship examples of post-war Smart Growth in the United States. It has its own Metro station. It's nothing like Fort Meade, which is located in a low-density exurban area.

When I asked why the vast majority of the BRAC infrastructure improvement funds are planned to go towards road widenings, Mr. Brown responded, "The intersections that we plan to improve are already at failing Levels of Service. We're using the BRAC funds to improve already failing intersections." I replied, "Level of Service is an antiquated, rigged metric. Cars won't do those new jobs. People will." Antiquated Level of Service metrics generate bad ideas like a new reversible lane on Connecticut Avenue, despite their poor track record in Silver Spring.

Mr. Brown conceptually supports a twin strategy of auto infrasturcture and transit for BRAC. However, I don't think that he fully understands what that means. Most people automatically assume that traffic flow is like water: widen the path and the water flows faster. They, like Mr. Brown, aren't familiar with induced demand, where a new road's very existence actually creates more demand for new roads.

To his credit, he does view additional bus service as a key tool to accommodate BRAC. But once again, he didn't seem to know what that would mean at a detailed level. Most people, including hardcore transit users like myself, dislike riding a bus stuck in heavy automobile traffic. If you want to make a bus more attractive, take it out of mixed automobile traffic by giving it its own right-of-way. Give it a time savings over the private automobile. Mr. Brown's sub-cabinet needs to revise their BRAC-oriented plans. If they're going to add asphalt to our roads and intersections in Montgomery County, they should build bus-only lanes, separated by a curb from the regular lanes.

Mr. Brown supports Representative Chris Van Hollen's efforts to secure funding for improved access to the Medical Center Metro from the eastern side of Rockville Pike. He was not familiar with the various proposals, including the pedestrian tunnel that doesn't connect directly to the Metro station. Mr. Brown said that he had not seen the engineering proposals and didn't really have an opinion, leaving the decisions up to the county and the engineers.

Maryland isn't raising its gas tax anytime soon. Mr. Brown said that both the O'Malley/Brown Administration and the legislature oppose raising any taxes while the state and nation are experiencing current crippling job losses. While it would be a good idea, such a proposal would be politically infeasible at this time, he said.

Wha about I-270? Brown reiterated the Administration's support for both the Baltimore Red Line and the Purple Line. He was also shocked to hear about the $4 billion price tag for the I-270 proposal. This issue does not directly involve his office, but Mr. Brown is now aware of this study and its potentially harmful implications.

Marc asked about MARC, which he rides regularly to commute to Baltimore from Bethesda. The Lt. Governor described long-term plans for MARC such as opening more stations and increasing parking at rural and car-dependent suburban station. He also mentioned that the funding currently isn't in the pipeline. I also praised the state for employing a "fix-it-first" policy to transportation stimulus money. It is a much better use of funds than covering more land in asphalt.

After meeting Lieutenant Governor Brown I came away with a positive impression of the second ranking executive in Maryland. While I was disappointed with some of the details of his sub-cabinet's BRAC plans, I understand that he is not an engineer or an expert in urban planning. I was very impressed with his ability to sit, listen, and absorb new ideas. Meeting with him gives me hope that our county and state can improve our plans so we can absorb all the new BRAC-related jobs in a sustainable manner.



Gaithersbungle, part 2: Old, tired formulas generate old, disastrous solutions

The Montgomery Planning Department just recommended widening I-270 between Rockville and Clarksburg to 12 lanes, and adding two new lanes north of Clarksburg. The project would cost $3.8 billion, and would be a disastrous move for the County. The analysis relies on antiquated Level of Service analysis that downplays the side effects of the widening on sprawl, and ignores other alternatives such as pricing existing lanes which would alleviate congestion more cheaply and with much less damage.

Bye, bye Md. countryside. Photo by bettinche.

Widening 270 would fuel the greatest expansion of auto-dependent sprawl in Montgomery County in over a generation. In 1980, foresighted Montgomery County leaders created the Agricultural Reserve, protecting 90,000 acres of farmland in the county's rural area. They created a program to transfer development rights from agricultural land to the denser, downcounty areas, to focus growth around existing infrastructure and existing jobs.

The Reserve excludes several large areas around Clarksburg and Germantown, and as the Planning Board notes, the County has added significant amounts of new housing there, as well as in Frederick County. However, the report ignores the huge, real effect of induced demand. New lanes would spur even more auto-dependent single-family homes out in these areas, homes very, very far from jobs. The development would put pressure on future County leaders to narrow the Reserve. And, most of all, it would drive even more sprawling growth in Frederick County.

Instead of seeing freeway expansion as driving demand, the Planning Department report simply takes development as static and focuses almost entirely on vehicular Level of Service (LOS). That's entirely the wrong measure.

Planning Staff have taken a small bite out of LOS-centrism in the proposed Growth Policy, recommending a change in the standard from D to E. But if you're only designing a transportation network with the goal of moving as many cars as possible as fast as possible, you end up with distorted answers. As the saying goes in transportation planning, "If you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places."

The staff report dismisses the "no-build alternative" simply because it will not relieve congestion on the roadway. But it doesn't challenge the basic assumptions that speeding the drive from Frederick during rush hour should be the County's priority with $3.8 billion.

Worst of all, the staff never consider better options, like congestion charging on existing lanes. FHWA itself concluded that charging tolls on 270 during peak periods could move enough "discretionary" car trips to other times to alleviate the congestion problems on 270. Freeways behave somewhat paradoxically, where very small changes in demand cause big changes in congestion. Brookings just released a paper recommending a road-use pricing system.

Next: Another way to improve transportation in the corridor, for less than $3.8 billion.


Washingtonian features Greater Greater Washington

The Washingtonian's "Blogger Beat" interviewed me about how we can make Greater Washington greater. Here are a few the topics we covered; check out the article for the more detailed responses.

Photo by macwagen.

Three reasons Washington is great: Walkable neighborhoods (and not just in DC), Metro, and resident engagement in local government.

Three ways it could be greater: More transit, more affordable housing, and transportation departments that aren't beholden to vehicular "level of service."

How would you fix Washington's traffic congestion problem? Priority bus corridors (in the short run).

Local leader you most wish you could fire: VDOT head Pierce Homer.

Purple Line or Silver Line? Both!

The best thing Barack Obama could do for Washington is: continue moving it toward [full] self-government, including the parks, prosecutors and judges, and voting rights.


Public Spaces

Breakfast links: The morning after (the stimulus vote)

Counting our chickens: State and local officials have started discussing how to spend the stimulus money. Maryland's John Porcari says they'll prioritize repairs over new projects, which is the right choice; VDOT head Pierce Homer wants to pay for repairs and some of the delayed projects, meaning potentially more freeway widenings or new freeways. Most likely, according to COG transportation planner Ronald Kirby, the Purple Line won't get any of this money. Update: Or maybe it will. Nobody really knows yet.

Photo by J-Rod85 on Flickr.

Screw nature: $200 million to repair the Mall's grass and keep the Jefferson Memorial from sinking underwater got cut from the stimulus. MoCo is cutting port-a-potties from Rock Creek Park in winter. And auto manufacturers have confirmed they plan to use public bailout money to keep suing the public for imposing higher clean air standards (via Ryan Avent).

Wires have their high points: That Bombardier wireless streetcar technology looks pretty cool but, writes Manifest Density, it'll probably be quite energy inefficient, likely wasting 20% of the power it consumes.

Thanks for reading, Examiner: It looks like the Examiner noticed GGW's weekend links about the emergency DMV rule for federal judges. Reporter Bill Myers called the DMV, who said "the emergency order sprang from 'a situation' recently," but wouldn't elaborate.

Cut transit and people stop riding transit: Maryland Politics Watch's Marc Korman reluctantly stopped riding MARC after recent service cuts (and falling gas prices). No word yet on whether he's changing his name to I-95 Korman.

Lose the LOS: Streetsblog SF explains how Level Of Service (LOS) warps traffic engineers' thinking and blocked important improvements in San Francisco. city and state planners are trying to dethrone LOS as the primary driver of traffic decisions.

Midwest vs. DC smackdown: President Obama mocks the Washington region for its inability to handle some snow; City Desk's Andrew Beaujon says he'll take this over Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan anytime.

Stop hatin' on K Street: Yglesias points out, "'K Street' is a synedoche for the influence peddling business, but it's also an actual street," which is definitely not full of lobbyists over in the Mount Vernon Triangle. "You wouldn't want to actually crack down on K Street, leaving out all the bad people on other streets but hitting the new Busboys & Poets coffee shop."

And: A new Colesville Wendy's will site the building close to the sidewalk, but still will face a mostly blank wall to the street; Imagine, DC almost loses his wheels after meeting GGW contributors.



Thoughts on bicycle safety

If you've missed the comment threads here and here about yesterday's bicycle fatality, here's a quick guide to some important points.

A ghost bike in Fresno, California. Photo by kurtz on Flickr.

WABA to dedicate "ghost bike": Tonight at 6:30, WABA will be holding a press conference at Q and Connecticut, the fatal intersection one block from the fatal intersection. They will install a "ghost bike" memorial to maintain a reminder of the tragedy, and also to warn drivers and cyclists alike to be careful.

How about a bike box? Bike boxes are painted areas that let cyclists move in front of cars waiting at an intersection. That ensures drivers see them and gives them the opportunity to go first. Perhaps we should install one on R? Thanks to commenter tony for the suggestion.

Absence of bike lanes is worse: No, it wouldn't have been better if we had no bike lanes. An L.A. doctor critically injured two cyclists with his car because he didn't want to share the road. Bike lanes let cyclists use the road network without feeling like they're going to be constantly honked at and berated for daring to drive on our streets.

Language matters: I was surprised by the resistance to changing our use of the word "accident" to refer to any car crash, whether someone was at fault or not. There are mountains of evidence that the language we use influences our thinking—for example, "death tax" versus "estate tax", or "partial-birth abortion" versus "late-term abortion". Transportation departments, like West Palm Beach, Florida have adopted policies to use terms like "crash" or "collision" in place of "accident". (Thanks to commenter thm for the link.)

The West Palm Beach document also suggests "widening" and "narrowing" in place of "upgrading" and "downgrading". I actually had this debate with a traffic engineer in Prince George's County, where they have an "adequate public facilites" law that defines "public facilities" as only drivers' facilities. It forces the county or developers to widen roads and intersections whenever a new development is built, even if that harms pedestrians. At the public meeting, many participants and even the planners suggested narrowing certain roads, but the planners kept calling it "downgrading" the roads. "Downgrading" implies that it's worse. It may slow automobile traffic, but that might improve pedestrian safety, speed bicycles, or redirect traffic to a more desirable route.



One-way schizophrenia from DDOT

I'm confused by DDOT. With one hand, they propose changing one-way 15th Street in Logan Circle into two-way, which is a very good idea (some reasons and some more. From that it seems that DDOT understands how making cars move faster through our neighborhoods doesn't actually improve the quality of life.

Level of Service (LOS) leads traffic planners to
bad conclusions.

But with the other hand, they propose making even more one-way streets in Georgetown, on 30th and 31st, and reversing 33rd Street. The Georgetown Transportation Study, which according to DDOT Ward 2 rep Chris Ziemann has "an emphasis on improving pedestrian and bicycle safety," nonetheless devotes most of its draft report to lane changes and the like.

Any bicycle options are only mentioned at the end of the report as part of alist of other options being considered, without the detail given to traffic improvements. There are some good ideas, such as bus bulb-outs (but only on a few side streets), traffic calming (but only speed bumps, not better mechanisms like making intersections into little tiny roundabouts or bulb-outs beyond just for buses), and widening sidewalks on M and Wisconsin (but only a little). Unfortunately, most of the good ideas are in the Long-Term section, and the bad ideas are in the Medium-Term section. Does this mean the planners in this study would make Georgetown worse before they make it better?

Despite the supposed focus on pedestrian and bicycle improvements, the report spends most of its ink on "Level of Service" (LOS) charts, which measure the average delay a car would wait at each intersection. This is a traditional tool of traffic planners, but thinking of transportation in these terms always leads to planners wanting to widen intersections and add lanes in ways that ultimately make an area more appealing to drive and less appealing to walk, pushing people toward driving over walking and further adding pressure to improve LOS.

So what's up with DDOT? It looks like there are a bunch of people who want to make neighborhoods more livable, other people who just want to make the cars move faster, and others who don't really know the difference. We need a DDOT head like NYC's Jeannette Sadik-Khan to firmly knock DDOT off the fence and over to being a progressive department. Right now, a DDOT study is like a box of partly moldy chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.

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