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Roads


Turn on a bulb-out to protect White Flint pedestrians

If Montgomery County is serious about creating walkable places, it must fix dangerous intersections like Hoya Street and Montrose Road in White Flint. Drivers turning right from southbound Hoya to Montrose can't see pedestrians beginning to cross. A bulb-out would make pedestrians visible and the intersection safer.

Last fall, my mother tried to cross here, and told me that she would have been run over here if she had crossed when the walk signal turned green. So I went to see for myself. Recent pedestrian safety improvements had not made the intersection safe. Drivers turning right from Hoya onto Montrose can't see pedestrians on the north side of Montrose Road because a wall at the Monterey Apartments complex blocks drivers' view.

That wall was there before the pedestrian improvements. Why hadn't the changes included a solution for this hazard?


Image from Google Maps.

The Hoya/Montrose intersection was part of the $117 million Montrose Parkway West project. Before 2010, Montrose Road intersected Old Georgetown Road here, before crossing Rockville Pike and becoming Randolph Road on the other side. But in 2010, Montgomery County finished building the adjacent Montrose Parkway at a cost of $70 million.

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) also finished their own $47.2 million project, which removed the intersection between Montrose Road and Rockville Pike. The end result is that Montrose Road now ends at what used to be part of Old Georgetown Road, now renamed Hoya Street, while Old Georgetown meets Rockville Pike farther south.

Pedestrian safety improvements followed between 2010 and 2012: new curb ramps, a pedestrian refuge in the median of Hoya Street, an improved pedestrian island between the main part of Montrose Road and the slip lane onto southbound Hoya Street, and a marked crosswalk across the slip lane. And yet, nobody in MCDOT or SHA fixed the hazard the wall causes. Why not?


Photo by Peter Blanchard on Flickr.

When asked via email how to make this intersection safe for pedestrians, Bruce Mangum, head of MCDOT's signals engineering team, said that they will add two signs reading "Turning Traffic Yield To Pedestrians." One will put one on the traffic signal and the other at street level just behind the curb.

Mangum added that "[n]o amount of engineering (signs, signals, pavement markings) can assure safe intersection operations unless motorists and pedestrians alike know and recognize their respective responsibilities." But a few more signs won't make this intersection safe. Research shows that these signs don't significantly increase the likelihood of drivers yielding to pedestrians during right turns. So extra signage likely won't help. And that's at intersections where the drivers can see the pedestrians. Even the most responsible drivers and pedestrians can't see through a wall.

Fortunately, there actually is an engineering solution that can make the intersection safe: a bulb-out (also called a curb extension), where the sidewalk extends farther toward the middle of the road.

With a bulb-out into Montrose Road, a driver making a right turn would be able to see pedestrians waiting to cross. Also, pedestrians would only cross one lane of traffic, instead of two.

It's true that a bulb-out would reduce westbound Montrose Road from two lanes to one at the intersection. But since Montrose Road no longer connects with Rockville Pike, it doesn't need two lanes there anyway. Plus, since this intersection is part of Montgomery County's transformational 2010 White Flint Sector Plan, pedestrian safety and walkability should be the priority.

Signs alone won't make this intersection safe for pedestrians. Sooner or later, a right-turning driver will hit a pedestrian here. Installing a bulb-out would prevent this from happening. MCDOT, please do it.

Roads


Engineers find a new approach to solve traffic congestion and pedestrian delays

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Drivers and pedestrians alike often have to face unacceptable levels of delay when they drive or walk around roads in the state of Maryland and Montgomery County. Engineers recently announced new approaches that they believe will make these problems disappear.


Image from photo by Google Earth.

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is developing a new Pedestrian Level of Service standard to ensure that pedestrian delays are not unacceptably long, while the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) will make traffic changes that ensure smoother flow of traffic.

On state highways, pedestrians sometimes have to cross three legs of an intersection, as SHA often does not stripe a crosswalk on one leg. Under federal guidelines, walk signals must last long enough for those on foot to traverse the crosswalk. But the crosswalks need not go straight to a pedestrian's destination, so the state and localities often remove crosswalks so avoid having a long walk signal.

The new Pedestrian Level of Service (PLOS) will address this. It will work similarly to the motorist Level of Service, which grades intersections based on how long people have to wait to cross. Vehicular LOS defines an intersection as "failing" if, on average, a driver has to wait 90 seconds or more to get through the intersection.

Since a pedestrian trying to go straight across the leg where the crosswalk doesn't exist has to cross the other 3 legs of the intersection (waiting for the signal each time), they often encounter more than 90 seconds of delay, so SHA will instead define a failing intersection as one where a pedestiran has to wait 3600 seconds or more to cross.

A statewide analysis of intersections under these new standards to determine which intersections need to be upgraded didn't find any problem spots. Deputy Administrator Ida Driven is pleased. "Clearly, this study shows that Maryland is doing well with pedestrian safety. Over the past 15 years, SHA has spent tens of dollars to make sure that active transportation users can get around safely."

A representative of AAA, Hugh Jestkarr, lauded the change. "Clearly the study shows that pedestrians benefit from roadway improvement projects. It shows that drivers can have fast roads and pedestrians can still get what the government defines as adequate."

The State Highway Administration hopes the new standards and the study will help determine where to spend money. As has been done in many areas, if the PLOS does show a poor grade, state officials will simply remove the crosswalk to ensure that the intersection continues to meet the standards.

Meanwhile, MCDOT has been conducting a detailed analysis of places where the vehicular Level of Service is too low. The test measures how much time it takes cars to get through each intersection, but the county has faced increasing difficulties in meeting this test.

County rules, in fact, block construction where roads have a "Level of Service" that is too low. This test measures how much time it takes cars to get through each intersection.

A particular problem is left turns, which slow down the performance of each intersection. Therefore, beginning next year, left turns will be banned throughout the county.

"When turning cars aren't in the way," explained chief traffic engineer Ample Wandering, "drivers get through intersections faster." Current LOS defines an intersection with an excessively backed-up left turn lane as "failing," but the same intersection passes when left turns are forbidden.

LOS rules prescribe how fast cars must go through intersections, noted deputy transportation director Edsel Gasoline, but they say nothing about how quickly drivers get where they are actually going. "Our drivers will finally be free from the curse of failing intersections," boasted Gasoline.

If any intersections still have Level of Service F without left turns, the county will ban right turns there too.

AAA's Jestkarr cheered the plan. "Drivers," she said, "will at last have the fast-moving roads we crave."

Roads


Will Montgomery County study a transit alternative to M-83?

M-83, also known as Midcounty Highway Extended, is an environmental calamity that will cost hundreds of millions. Yet Montgomery County continues to pursue its construction. Will county leaders consider a transit alternative to a new highway?


Seneca Creek Greenway Trail. Photo by Vicki’s Pics on Flickr.

When Montgomery County planners put M-83 on the master plan of highways in the early 1960s, the county's population was 340,000. DC's streetcars had recently gone away. And highways were the future of transportation. Today, the county population is one million, DC is about to bring back the streetcar, and highway removal is common. But M-83, the county's zombie highway, is still around.

This Thursday, the Planning Board will review alternatives for the proposed highway between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg. But planning staff recommends that they ask the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) to study a transit alternative as well, and remove the alternative with the most property takings.

Highway laid out according to 1960s standards

Midcounty Highway was supposed to be an 8.7-mile, limited access, four to six lane highway east of Route 355, connecting the planned corridor cities of Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Clarksburg. The county has built the southern end, a 3-mile divided highway between Shady Grove Road and Montgomery Village Avenue in Gaithersburg. And developers recently built the northern end, called Snowden Farm Parkway, in Clarksburg.

The Planning Board last reviewed the remaining middle part of M-83 in 1992, but for over a decade, not much happened due to a lack of money. In 2003, MCDOT began to study building the rest of M-83 along the master plan route. But that route dates from before the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), when planners thought it was a good idea to put highways in stream valleys.

So the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) got involved. And MCDOT had to follow NEPA's requirement to identify alternatives and evaluate the environmental effects.

In May 2013, MCDOT issued its draft report on the environmental effects. The Army Corps of Engineers and MDE then held a public hearing in August about MCDOT's application for a permit to build M-83. They have yet to publish their findings.

Planning staff recommend studying a transit alternative

But this week, the Planning Board will nonetheless review the master plan route and its alternatives. In a report issued last week, planning staff say that MCDOT should evaluate a transit alternative, including the planned bus rapid transit (BRT) route along 355, and that MCDOT's transportation systems management/transportation demand management (TSM/TDM) alternative should also include BRT along 355.

Their analysis suggests that the area can meet its transportation needs through 2040 without M-83. They also note that the 355 BRT corridor would have the second-highest daily ridership of the 10 proposed transit corridors in the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan.

MCDOT says they didn't look at a transit alternative because Montgomery County has not adopted any plans for BRT. They also did not consider transit in their TSM/TDM alternative, even though TSM/TDM usually includes transit.

The staff report's recommendation will please M-83's opponents, including Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended (TAME) and the Action Committee for Transit, who have been calling for years for MCDOT to study a transit alternative.

County planners also recommend asking MCDOT to eliminate the alternative route through Goshen, which would involve widening existing two- and four-lane roads. The Planning Board already recommended eliminating the route in 1992. Some community groups have strongly opposed this alternative in favor of the master plan route so that M-83 wouldn't go through their neighborhoods. If the threat from this alternative route goes away, some of the support for M-83 along the master plan route will probably go away as well.

MCDOT's report underestimates environmental and property impacts

In addition, the staff report points out problems with MCDOT's evaluation of environmental effects. For example, MCDOT reports that if M-83 isn't built, 16 intersections will exceed traffic congestion standards. But the staff report notes that at least 6 of these intersections are south of M-83 and would also exceed the standard under all of the alternative routes, including the master plan route.

Similarly, MCDOT's traffic modeling estimates a 55% reduction in travel time for the master plan route and a 37% reduction for Alternative 5, compared to not doing anything at all. (Alternative 5 proposes widening Route 355 and adding service roads.) The staff report notes that the 37% reduction represents a trip that is 3 minutes shorter.

The staff report also points out that MCDOT used a roadway width of less than 150 feet to estimate how many properties each alternative route would disturb or displace. However, 150 feet is the standard roadway width in the current county road code. In addition, MCDOT did not estimate how many properties stormwater management and noise abatement measures might affect. Thus, MCDOT's estimates of the number of affected properties are probably too low.

As for the cost of building M-83, MCDOT estimates for the build alternatives range from $41 million for the TSM/TDM alternative to $357 million for the master plan route. But these estimates are probably too low as well.

According to the staff report, MCDOT's estimates of environmental impacts do not account for stormwater management and the effects of retaining walls. For example, the master plan route would require a retaining wall 400 feet long along Great Seneca Creek, most of which would be in the flood plain within 20-30 feet of the stream channel.

Along Whetstone Run, the master plan route would have to be built on fill, with a retaining wall next to the stream channel. And while the smaller stream reaches may not have delineated flood plains, they have wetlands that function much like flood plains.

What's more, much of the master plan route goes through parkland, including Great Seneca Creek Park and the North Germantown Greenway Stream Valley Park. According to the staff report, the master plan route would have "calamitous" effects on 3 of the largest biodiversity areas in the county, far beyond the official limits of disturbance. And the staff report recommends mitigating impacts on parkland through a combination of trails, environmental projects, and replacement of parkland with land of equal or greater value.

So how much would it cost to build M-83, including parkland mitigation and the environmental requirements of building across streams and along stream valleys? Presumably more than MCDOT estimates.

For now, asking MCDOT to evaluate a transit alternative is a good idea, and so is repeating the Planning Board's 20-year-old request to remove the alternative route through Goshen. But ultimately, it's time for Montgomery County to say no at last to this environment-destroying, obsolete, expensive highway.

Perhaps in the early 1960s, transportation meant moving cars, and the environment was supposed to make way for progress. But it's 2013. Shouldn't we know better by now?

The Planning Board will review the alternatives for Midcounty Highway in Silver Spring on Thursday, November 21, beginning at 6 pm. If you want the Planning Board review to include your thoughts about this project, you can send written comments by e-mail through Wednesday.

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


Maryland considers boulevard design for Georgia Avenue

Georgia Avenue between 16th Street and Forest Glen Road in Silver Spring's Montgomery Hills neighborhood is currently a dangerous mess of a suburban arterial. The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is looking at ways to transform it into an urban boulevard.


Image from Maryland SHA.

At a meeting last week at Woodlin Elementary School, SHA planners presented 7 alternatives to improve pedestrian, bike and transit access on Georgia Avenue. This stretch of road has the most vehicle collisions of any state highway in Maryland, as the reversible lanes make drivers confused. There's no median and the lanes are all at least 12 feet wide, making Georgia incredibly dangerous to cross on foot.

But this stretch of Georgia Avenue also has a number of notable small businesses in early 20th-century buildings close to the street. The popular Y and Q route Metrobuses stop here, and it's also within walking distance of the Forest Glen Metro, though few make that walk due to safety concerns. This area is ripe to convert to an urban boulevard.

SHA has produced 7 alternatives for this portion of Georgia Avenue, including not doing anything at all or using Transportation Systems Management, basically reworking the traffic lights but not actually building anything.


Alternative 3. All images from SHA unless otherwise noted.

Alternative 3 is based on the North and West Silver Spring Master Plan. It includes 13.5 foot wide sidewalks but no specific bike facilities. A 16 foot grass median would replace the existing reversible lane. SHA also proposes narrowing each intersection to make it easier and safer for pedestrians to cross the street.


Alternative 4.


Alternative 5.

Alternatives 4 and 5 build on the Master Plan option by including a 14 to 16 foot curb lane that could accommodate a striped bicycle lane. It would also close the off-ramp from southbound Georgia Avenue to southbound 16th Street, which encourages motorists to drive as if they were on an interstate highway. It has no place in a dense residential area that's in walking distance of two Metro stations.


Alternative 6.

Alternative 6 would place 2 Bus Rapid Transit lanes in the median and room for a station at Seminary Road. The Planning Board is currently considering a countywide BRT network which would include a route on Georgia Avenue.


Alternative 7.

Alternative 7 would build a tunnel underneath Georgia Avenue between the Beltway and 16th Street. Not only would it be the most expensive choice, but it would move Montgomery Hills in the wrong direction in the Whirlpool of Induced Demand.

All 5 of the alternatives that involve building things would require widening the road, meaning that businesses may lose some property or even their entire building. Everyone I talked to at the meeting preferred Alternatives 4 and 5, with its median and bike lanes.

Most agreed that Alternative 7 was not a good choice. Not only would make the pedestrian experience even worse, it would cause more driver collisions due to its confusing nature. Where the tunnel ended at the Beltway, drivers would have to merge across three lanes to get to the on-ramps.

It's surprising how different SHA's work in Montgomery Hills is compared to what the Montgomery County Department of Transportation's proposed redesign of Old Georgetown Road in White Flint, which encourages speeding and has few accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists. While Montgomery County transportation planners have chosen to ignore the county's vision to turn White Flint into an urban area, SHA planners have embraced an urban future for Montgomery Hills.

SHA's urban boulevard alternatives for Georgia Avenue are a step in the right direction. Hopefully, they'll find a solution that can make this street a place worth spending time in, not just a traffic sewer.

Bicycling


Berliner hammers MCDOT for bad road designs

Plans for White Flint call for roads that accommodate people walking, biking, and sitting at cafes as well as driving, but Montgomery County transportation officials are disregarding those plans, as Dan Reed reported. Councilmember Roger Berliner took them to task in a recent letter.


Photo by Dome Poon on Flickr.

Berliner, who is the County Council's transportation chair and whose District 1 also includes White Flint, points out how the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) didn't design the same road as in the approved Sector Plan.

That plan specifies a road with bike lanes as well as a path for walking, and enough room for sidewalk cafes. Instead, MCDOT squeezed all of these into less space in order to move even more cars faster.

MCDOT officials told Berliner they plan to redesign Old Georgetown a second time in the future to fit in bike lanes, but only once traffic drops in the area!

That's rightwhile the White Flint plan aims to encourage bicycling as one of several ways to reduce dependence on driving, transportation officials are saying they want to see the effects of this lesser dependence before putting in the basic infrastructure to make it possible. That wasn't in the plan, and they haven't specified how much of a traffic drop is enough to make them willing to tolerate biyclists on the road.

As Berliner more circumspectly points out, MCDOT seems to have a pervasive attitude that it should design its roads solely around driving needs, and then only if there's extra room, it can accommodate other users, or just promise to do so at some vague future time. This is similar to county officials' baffling attitude in Clarksburg that they won't build an important crosswalk until after an planned but unfunded multi-lane road gets built, who knows when.

MCDOT treats pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure as "nice to have" extra features on roads, not integral parts of a transportation network that shares space and balances needs among all userseven when a plan says otherwise. Elected officials like Berliner will have to keep calling out this bad behavior in hopes that the department will eventually get the message.

Here is the relevant part of Berliner's letter:

I am very concerned that the current design for Old Georgetown Road between the current Executive Boulevard alignment and Rockville Pikethe first and one of the most important areas being developedis inconsistent with the approved White Flint Sector Plan.

As you know, the Sector Plan calls for both a shared use path and bike lanes along this stretch of road (p. 56). Regrettably, MCDOT's 35% design drawings include no bike lanes and only a 13 foot shared use path/sidewalk as opposed to a sidewalk and a shared use path. The combined facility would not be wide enough to allow for the desired café seating in front of the adjacent properties, customers exiting and entering retail establishments, and safe access for pedestrians and bicyclists. exiting and entering retail establishments, and safe access for pedestrians and bicyclists. These functions simply cannot coexist in a 13 foot span directly adjacent to retail structures. The shared use path should be ten feet wide according to ASHTA [I think he means AASHTO] standards.

Adding to these concerns is the fact that this segment of Old Georgetown Road is also supposed to accommodate the Recreation Loop called for in the approved Sector Plan (p. 59). In the current design you shared at the meeting on Monday, there is no Recreation Loop. If it will not be possible to accommodate this element, important to manyif not allresidents involved in the WF Sector Plan process, then I am interested in hearing what options are being considered as an alternative route.

MCDOT has stated that the current realignment for Old Georgetown Road is a temporary measure and that when the Plan meets its mode share goals and traffic has lessened, a second realignment of the road will be considered/constructed and that this realignment would include bike lanes. The problem with this approach is threefold:

(1) MCDOT's statement is predicated on an assumption that bike lanes are only warranted where vehicular traffic meets a certain, but yet unspecified, level. This creates great uncertainty regarding the future of bike facilities, the shared use path, and recreation loop as called for in the Plan;

(2) In order to meet the Plan's mode share goals, we should implement multi-modal, complete streets on the front end, not at the end stages of the Plan; and

(3) It is costly and a potential waste of scarce tax dollars to reconstruct Old Georgetown twice as opposed to taking a long term approach and reconstructing it once, integrating multimodal elements into the design.

Read the whole letter and thank Councilmember Berliner for his action on this isssue.

Roads


Road designs stand in the way of White Flint's urban future

White Flint's future as an urban place depends on a street network that welcomes people on foot and bike, not just in cars, and roads that are pleasant to spend time in, not just move through. But county transportation officials may not make getting there easy.


Old Georgetown Road today. Photo by the author.

On Monday, representatives of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) gave a presentation to the White Flint Implementation Advisory Committee about the Western Workaround, a planned network of new streets on the west side of Rockville Pike.

"We want to provide an environment that's pedestrian and bicyclist friendly and will encourage people to get out of their vehicles," said Bruce Johnston, MCDOT transportation engineering chief, citing the county's Road Code, which describes how to make streets in urban areas. But the streets he presented continue to prioritize moving cars over pedestrians and bicyclists or creating enjoyable urban spaces.

Old Georgetown Road will get wider, not more pleasant for people

The White Flint Sector Plan calls for Old Georgetown Road to have 4 car lanes, a median where pedestrians can wait while crossing the street, a "shared use path" for bikes and pedestrians, and one of the few actual bike lanes proposed for the area.

With ground-level shops and apartments at Pike + Rose going up on the north side and White Flint's future Civic Green on the south, this street needs to be a place for people, not a highway.

Instead, MCDOT proposes keeping the 6 existing lanes and adding 2 more at intersections for right and left turns. The bike lanes are gone, and the wide sidewalks have been reduced. The speed limit would remain at 40 miles an hour, which is totally inappropriate in an urban environment. Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, pointed out that the speed limit on Old Georgetown in downtown Bethesda, which has 4 lanes and a turn lane, is just 30 miles per hour.


The sector plan's street network (left) and bike network (right).

Johnston blamed the Maryland State Highway Administration, which controls state roads like Old Georgetown and has resisted attempts by MCDOT to lower speed limits or reduce the number of lanes.

"The state has the authority to say 'I know that's in the sector plan, but traffic volumes are what they are,'" he said, adding that if White Flint residents and landowners want bike lanes and safer, pedestrian-friendly streets, they can "go over their heads" and speak with Governor O'Malley.

Cars, not people drive design choices

But even streets that are entirely under MCDOT's jurisdiction, like an extension of Executive Boulevard, have been designed for cars first. Johnston described it as a business street with tall buildings up against the sidewalk, which might make you think of Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda, one of the best urban streets not just in the county, but in the region.


Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda. Photo by eddie welker on Flickr.

Instead, Executive Extended will be 5 lanes wide, including a turn lane. Landowners who have willingly agreed to give up land for the new street have asked MCDOT for on-street parking, which would not only serve future businesses but give pedestrians a nice buffer from traffic. Instead, on-street parking will only be available during rush hour.

Meanwhile, pedestrians and bicyclists would get a 10-foot "shared use path" on either side of the street and a 6-foot buffer. To compare, the sidewalks on Woodmont Avenue are about 20 feet wide, and there's also a separate, 6-foot wide bike lane.

When asked why there's so little room for pedestrians and cyclists, Johnston said they need all 5 lanes "because of the anticipated traffic volume of the road."

But as Fred Kent from the Project for Public Spaces likes to say, "If you design for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you design for people and places, you get people and places." It's not a given that Executive Boulevard needs 5 lanes, especially if there are legitimate alternatives to driving. But MCDOT officials seem unwilling to entertain that possibility.

Mary Ward, a White Flint resident and regular cyclist, was disappointed by the new street designs. "This kind of needs to be rethought," she said. "The Complete Streets vision is that it's all levels of cycling, not just experienced cyclists."

Better street network means baby steps

Thankfully, MCDOT's street designs are only 35% complete, meaning there's still room for improvement. Evan Goldman, vice president of development at Federal Realty, which is building Pike + Rose, says the plans are flawed, but are better than what MCDOT has presented before. For instance, lanes on many streets including Old Georgetown would be 10 or 11 feet wide, compared to 11 or 12 feet today. That means slower traffic speeds and extra space for sidewalks.

"There are a lot of good things happening here," Goldman said, though he admitted that he will go to the governor to ask for "appropriate" street designs on Old Georgetown Road.


This short stretch of Woodglen Drive will get a bike lane. Photo by the author.

Until then, the only bike lane White Flint's getting anytime soon will be on Woodglen Drive between Executive Boulevard and the Bethesda Trolley Trail, a distance of less than 1/3 mile. MCDOT will remove 6 parking spaces in front of Whole Foods to make room for a northbound bike lane. They'll also paint sharrows, or lane markings that tell drivers to watch out for bikes, in the southbound traffic lane, which will become 5 feet wider.

"There's a lot of competing uses among our roadways," said Pat Shepherd, MCDOT bikeways coordinator. "We need to reallocate this space."

Shepherd has it exactly right. The White Flint Sector Plan calls for the creation of a new downtown where people have real alternatives to driving. To make that happen, we need streets that prioritize and celebrate pedestrians and bicyclists, rather than treating them as an afterthought. And we need transportation planners, both at the state and county level, who are willing to fight for them. We shouldn't have to go to the governor to ask for bike lanes because MCDOT won't stand up for us.

Crossposted on the Friends of White Flint.

Pedestrians


Small changes can make walking to school safer

Montgomery County could do a lot to make walking to school safer and more convenient, and at little cost. All it takes is a few changes to the law, signs and paint, and retiming some traffic signals.


Photo by The Tire Zoo on Flickr.

These are the recommendations from the Safe Walk to School campaign, which launched last week. The Action Committee for Transit, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the mother of a high school student killed while walking to school last October, and others started the campaign because walking to and from school in Montgomery County can be hazardous.

In this school year alone, at least 8 kids and one parent have been struck by cars:

Unsafe walks to school cost Montgomery County residents millions of dollars a year. Montgomery County Public Schools must provide "hazard busing" for children who live within walking distance of school but can't walk there safely. Parents driving children to and from school adds meaningfully to traffic congestion. Children who don't walk to school experience decreased physical activity and mental well-being. And the air pollution from school-related car trips contributes to asthma and premature deaths.

To make walking to and from school safer for children in Montgomery County, the Safe Walk to School campaign calls on the Montgomery County Department of Transportion (MCDOT) to take the following low-cost but effective steps:

Expand school zones: Amend the county's criteria for school zones to include all county roads within a half-mile radius of a school. This would allow MCDOT to reduce speed limits and increase fines on roads near schools.

Lower speeds and limit unsafe right turns: Change the following rules in the amended school zones and post new signs to inform drivers:

  • Establish a maximum speed limit of 20 miles per hour during school hours, including arrival and dismissal. This could decrease the risk of child pedestrian crashes by up to 70%.
  • Double the fines for speeding violations, to motivate drivers to slow down.
  • Prohibit right turns on red during school hours to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and drivers at traffic signals.
The engineering cost would be about $350 per sign, including installation. (For comparison, the estimated cost in 2011 of the 1.62-mile Montrose Parkway East project was $120 million. That's equivalent to the cost of roughly 340,000 signs.)

Retime traffic signals: Change traffic signal timing in the amended school zones in the following ways, to make it safer for pedestrians of all ages to cross the street:

  • Put in leading pedestrian intervals for traffic signals at intersections where at least one of the roads is an arterial, to allow walkers to get a head start crossing busy streets.
  • Use a walking speed of 2.5 feet per second to calculate the minimum pedestrian clearance interval, to give everyone, including children and adults pushing strollers, sufficient time to cross.
  • Have the walk signal appear during every signal cycle during school hours at intersections with traffic signals, without pedestrians having to push a button. This can be done either by putting the signals in pedestrian "recall" during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) or by removing the pedestrian pushbuttons altogether.
  • Shorten traffic signals during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) so kids don't have to wait longer than 40 seconds for a walk signal on any leg of an intersection. This would lead more pedestrians to wait for the walk signal to cross.
The engineering cost for retiming the traffic signals would be about $3,500 per intersection. (For comparison, the estimated $120 million cost to build Montrose Parkway East would be equivalent to the cost of retiming roughly 34,000 signals.)

Change road markings: Add paint to the pavement in school zones in the following ways:

  • Mark all crosswalks with a "ladder" or "zebra" crosswalk, using material embedded with retroreflective glass beads. This increases the visibility of crosswalks, raising driver awareness and encouraging pedestrians to cross at crosswalks.
  • Narrow traffic lanes to 10 feet, to reduce vehicle speeds, increase drivers' compliance with the 20 mph speed limits, and reduce the length of pedestrian crossings across traffic lanes.
Ladder crosswalks cost about $300, and lane restriping costs about $1,000 per mile. (For comparison, the estimated $120 million cost of Montrose Parkway East would be equivalent to the cost of roughly 400,000 crosswalks or 120,000 miles of lane restriping.)

Montgomery County says they support safe walks to school. To encourage them to show they mean it, go to SafeWalktoSchool.com and send an e-mail to the Montgomery County Council.

Bicycling


Ride shows the need to expand Montgomery's bike network

Capital Bikeshare could come to Montgomery County this year, along with an influx of new riders. It's time to look at how to improve the county's bike network. To do so, a group of 20 bicyclists took to the streets of Silver Spring and Takoma Park last Saturday on a 5-mile ride organized by myself and the Montgomery County Sierra Club.


Photo by the author.

Last summer, I began working with Ethan Goffman, bicycle and Smart Growth coordinator for the Sierra Club, on a Bicycle Statement outlining 6 principles that policymakers, community leaders, planners and transportation engineers should follow to make bicycling safer, more efficient and more enjoyable for everyone.

The statement echoes calls from other bike advocates to improve the county's cycling network, particularly in the Downcounty, where the 29 new bikeshare stations will be.

The six principles are:

Make a complete network: Bicycle lanes and paths should connect to each other and to major destinations like schools, transit stations and job centers, making them a reliable way to get around.

Be context-appropriate: A network with different kinds of bicycle facilities will best be able to fit into different neighborhoods.

Provide comfort: Bicyclists will be more likely to use the network if it provides multiple route options, is easy to navigate, and has conveniences like secure parking.

Safety: Bicyclists will feel safe on facilities that are well maintained, well-lit, and have "eyes on the street" to watch over them.

Engage the public: Making community members part of the bicycle planning process will build public support for bicycling while showing that bicyclists are valued and respected by the county.

Education: All road users, whether they are cyclists, pedestrians or drivers, should understand their rights and responsibilities and the rights and responsibilities of others.

Keeping those in mind, I designed a route that takes riders on different kinds of bicycle routes, ranging from a trail through a park to bike lanes to riding in mixed traffic.

We had a pretty diverse crowd with a wide mix of ages and skill levels, ranging from kids just out of training wheels to experienced bicyclists. Most riders came from inside-the-Beltway Silver Spring, though one person came from Takoma Park and another from Capitol Hill. The ride was pretty smooth, though there were a few spills and some emergency repairs.


Sharing the road with drivers and pedestrians in Silver Spring.

Along the way, we stopped to talk about each principle, along with things the county and local municipalities are doing well, like the extensive trail network in Sligo Creek Park. While none of the neighborhood streets have bike lanes, they're slow and quiet, making them a nice alternative to busy main roads when they're not closed to through traffic. In a few places, our group had its own cheering section of neighbors.

Riders pointed out places where the bike network needs improvement. Many off-street trails are poorly maintained, leading to ruts and standing water. The Metropolitan Branch Trail abruptly stops a half-mile short of the Silver Spring Metro station, held up by historical preservationists who don't want it passing by the historic, but empty B&O rail station.

On-street riding can be equally frustrating. We used the block-long Cedar Street bike lane in Silver Spring, which was once named "America's stupidest bike lane" before being redesigned by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, streets like Maple Avenue in Takoma Park are wide enough for bike lanes but were given sharrows instead, which means bicyclists have to share the road with drivers that are encouraged to speed because the street is so wide.


Riding past a construction site on Carroll Street in Takoma, DC.

Another issue was the need to educate everyone on how to share the road. On narrow Carroll Street NW in Takoma, drivers came too close to our group or sped into oncoming traffic to pass us, violating both DC's and Maryland's 3-foot passing laws. Meanwhile, on the Sligo Creek Park trail, a pair of joggers reminded us that we have to ride single-file so as not to block the whole path.

How can we improve the cycling environment? One recurring theme in our discussion was that the Department of Transportation made bike improvements based on their idea of what bicyclists want or need, like the Cedar Street bike lane, but were surprised when bicyclists actually didn't use them.

Casey Anderson, Planning Board member and Silver Spring resident, and Jack Cochrane of MoBike stressed the need to for bicyclists to let county officials know what they need. County officials need to listen to bicyclists, but they can only do so if bicyclists make themselves heard.

Overall, this was a great bike ride. I was blown away by the turnout and the enthusiasm of all our participants. It's been about 20 years since the Montgomery County Sierra Club last held a group bike ride, but this is definitely a tradition that they should resume. Ethan and I are already talking about when our bike ride will be.

Thanks to everyone who came! This wouldn't have been a success without you. And if you were unable to make it, check out this slideshow of our ride.

Roads


Montrose Parkway undermines White Flint's urban future

After 40 years of planning, an extension of Montrose Parkway through White Flint could soon become a reality. County and state transportation officials say the highway is needed to move cars, but residents and county planners say it contradicts their goal of making White Flint an urban center.


The existing part of Montrose Parkway. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Yesterday, the Montgomery County Planning Board recommended that the State Highway Administration and Montgomery County Department of Transportation change their plan to build a $119 million, 1.62-mile extension of Montrose Parkway from Rockville Pike to Veirs Mill Road. They questioned how it fits into the White Flint Sector Plan, which calls for the creation of a place "where people walk to work, shops and transit."

"It's hard to see this as consistent with a pedestrian-friendly environment," said Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier, who lives near White Flint. "It detracts from our efforts to create a grid of streets ... it makes our transportation goals harder."

Work on Montrose Parkway began in the 1970's, when it was planned as part of the Outer Beltway, which was eventually built as the Intercounty Connector. Later, a portion of the highway's route between Veirs Mill Road and New Hampshire Avenue was turned into Matthew Henson State Park.

Planning for the current version of Montrose Parkway began in 1998 and resulted in the construction of the segment west of Rockville Pike, which opened in 2010. The Planning Board's recommendations, which aren't binding, will next go to the County Council for a vote. SHA officials say that construction won't begin for at least 5 years.

The proposed four-lane highway would have a stoplight at Chapman Avenue and overpasses at Nebel Street and the CSX railroad tracks. At Parklawn Drive, there would be a single-point urban interchange or SPUI (pronounced "spooey"), where drivers on Parklawn would stop at a light before turning onto the highway. A SPUI already exists at the junction of Falls Road and I-270.

SHA and MCDOT representatives insist that Montrose Parkway is needed to handle anticipated traffic from the redevelopment of White Flint. "If you build more density, you're going to have more traffic congestion," said Edgar Gonzalez, MCDOT's deputy director for transportation policy.

However, recent studies and local examples suggest that compact, mixed-use development like what's proposed here will actually reduce traffic, raising the question where MCDOT and SHA's concerns are actually valid.

Parkway would reduce east-west connections


Plan showing Montrose Parkway at Parklawn Drive if Randolph Road is closed.


Plan showing Montrose Parkway at Parklawn Drive if Randolph Road is open.

Since the latest plans for Montrose Parkway were first presented two weeks ago, residents have expressed concerns about the state's plans to close Randolph Road, a major east-west thoroughfare running parallel to the parkway, where it crosses the railroad tracks.

"One of the biggest problems in White Flint planning is the lack of east-west crossings," wrote Barnaby Zall last week. "We've been trying for years to figure out a way to bridge that gap."

SHA officials say it'll improve safety. The Federal Railroad Administration calls it the 4th most dangerous crossing in Maryland: there have been 21 collisions there in the past 35 years, including one death. Since 2007, there has been just one collision. Separating the road from the railroad tracks also means trains won't have to blow their horns when they pass through, something many neighbors have complained about.

Randolph Road would end in a cul-de-sac just east of the tracks, and anyone who wanted to go further west would have to get on Montrose Parkway. Chair Carrier worried that this would hurt access to shops along Randolph Road. "It would be hard to imagine that the businesses there would remain viable," she said.

Gonzalez said it could be a safety hazard. "You have to weigh the benefits [of access to Randolph Road] with the possibility of a future event occurring," he said. "Nobody wants to be in a train collision."

Nonetheless, board members voted to keep Randolph Road open at the railroad crossing, which planning department staff recommended because it gives travelers more options, reducing the traffic burden on any one road.

Debate over whether interchanges are "barriers"


Plan of the entire eastern segment of Montrose Parkway.

Much of the debate about Montrose Parkway revolved around the proposed interchange with Parklawn Drive. Board members worried it would become a barrier between White Flint and Twinbrook, making it difficult for people to walk or bike from one side to the other.

"We should rethink what we're doing in the context of the future land use of White Flint," said Planning Board member Casey Anderson. "We're not trying to build these huge slabs of asphalt that divide communities into pieces."

In the past, county planners have recommended putting a stoplight there instead. Former planning director Rollin Stanley argued that interchanges in White Flint "[reinforce] the view that Rockville Pike is a runway to get through White Flint versus moving through the area as a destination itself." Last fall, acting planning director Rose Krasnow wrote a letter asking MCDOT and SHA to consider it, but was rebuffed by MCDOT director Arthur Holmes, who said the interchange would "improve safety and reduce barriers by separating conflicting flows" of cars, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Likewise, Gonzalez said that an at-grade intersection, which would require that Montrose Parkway be 9 or 10 lanes wide to handle projected traffic, which would be just as bad for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Planner Larry Cole argued that it's because the county and state's plans are "overdesigned" and overestimate the amount of future car traffic in White Flint. "The reason [Montrose Parkway] is this big is that the space is available," he said.

Nonetheless, the board eventually voted in favor of keeping the interchange after officials from MCDOT and SHA promised to look at ways to make crossing the interchange safer and more pleasant for pedestrians, such as restricting right turns on red. The parkway will already have a 10-foot path for bicyclists and pedestrians on the north side and a 5-foot sidewalk on the south side.

Over time, the vision for White Flint has changed a lot. Forty years ago, the Outer Beltway was supposed to pass through it. Twenty years ago, the Planning Board sought to build multiple interchanges along Rockville Pike. Even the White Flint and Twinbrook sector plans, which are less than 5 years old, included the Montrose Parkway.

However, these neighborhoods are envisioned as urban places where people will be able to drive less, and to succeed it needs a street network where people feel comfortable and safe not driving, and Montrose Parkway as proposed could undermine that. The Montgomery County Department of Transportation and State Highway Administration work for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users, not just drivers, and their plans for places like White Flint must reflect that.

Crossposted on the Friends of White Flint blog.

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