Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Maryland

Roads


Montgomery's traffic tests for new developments encourage sprawl, but that could change soon

Montgomery County is expected to gain 232,000 new residents over the next 30 years. Currently, Montgomery's traffic tests measures whether development leads to people driving faster rather than whether development leads to more people driving. Reforming this practice could help discourage sprawl.


Under the current system, development like this one in Silver Spring, where it's easy to walk around, doesn't get credit for reducing how often and how far people drive. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

Montgomery County is currently updating its four year "growth plan", known formally as the Subdivision Staging Policy (SSP). The SSP governs everything from school infrastructure needs to the amount of taxes developers pay for new projects.

While any number of those issues have a huge impact on guiding growth, it's hard to say any are more important than revising how Montgomery tests the way new developments impact traffic.

Here's how Montgomery currently tests traffic

The test Montgomery County uses measures just car speed at intersections. Incoming development, whether located in dense areas or not, is projected to generate X amount of car trips, and therefore create Y amount of car delay at intersections.

The test does not take into account the number of people walking, biking or busing-- it assumes that a project a block from a Metro station will produce the same amount of car traffic as a project in Clarksburg. If a project is found to create an "unreasonable" amount of traffic, developers have to pay to mitigate the impact----even in an area where many folks may not drive.

Currently, a single occupant car is valued the same as a bus carrying 80 passengers. Even though a dedicated bus lane could carry vastly more people than a lane of single occupant vehicles, that bus lane would fail current traffic tests because it hurts the speed at which single occupant vehicles can drive.

In real terms, this often means a developer paying to widen a road in order to pass a traffic test-- an outcome that's inherently contradictory to Montgomery's transit and environmental goals. We're rewarding sprawl and making infill development more difficult.

Evaluating car delay ensures we aren't looking at all the possibilities for moving the most people-- we're just looking at how to move single-occupancy vehicles the fastest. These tests prize car speed over increased mobility options, rewarding development that is far from urban centers. Why build a new grocery store in Downtown Silver Spring, which would require a traffic mitigation payment for a failing intersection, when you can build one five miles away near the highway and pass your traffic test with flying colors?

In fact, the type of traffic tests Montgomery uses has been called the "Transportation Planning Rule Every City Should Reform". Focusing solely on automobile congestion has the strange effect of making transit improvements like bike and bus lanes look bad but road widening look good.

The county is considering another way of doing things

The good news is that the Montgomery County Planning Department is considering adopting less auto-centric traffic evaluations. A possible solution might be using the Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) standard, which measures how many miles residents are actually driving-- not just speeds at arbitrary intersections.

VMT takes the total amount of vehicles being driven on a daily or annual basis and divides it by the total number of miles being driven. For example, 10,000 vehicles each travelling an average of 15 miles per day, would result in 150,000 vehicle miles travelled per day.

By attacking traffic tests from this angle, we can set goals to decrease the amount of car trips residents take. Montgomery could set a goal of reducing VMT by 10% over ten years, and evaluate how future development fits in with that vision.


Building near transit and retail can mean people won't need cars at all, but that doesn't show up with Montgomery's current testing system. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

To appreciate the difference, imagine CVS plans to build two new pharmacies in the county, one in Downtown Silver Spring and the other in Germantown. Under the current system, both projects would be projected to generate the same amount of new trips using a standard formula.

Because Silver Spring is already more densely developed, those new trips would be added to roads that are likely already failing from a car delay perspective, forcing the developer to fund costly "mitigation" efforts. In less developed Germantown, those same trips are unlikely to cause any intersections to "fail" the car delay test, so no mitigation is required.

VMT ends the incentive to build in less dense areas, many of which are far from transit. It provides a holistic look at mobility options in an area.

This is about equity for residents, too

The current test is inherently unequal, giving priority to single occupancy vehicles and completely overlooking those who are transit reliant (by choice or by necessity). This is especially important, as study after study shows transit access is a huge indicator of someone's odds of being socially mobile.

This issue is even more important when we consider that Montgomery saw the most significant increase in poverty of any jurisdiction in the DC region. Inequality of mobility leads to inequality of opportunity.

If we want an equal county, measuring traffic in a way that encourages inclusive growth, not just destinations that can be reached exclusively by car, is certainly an important step.

Can you get involved? Yes!

You can help be a part of the change. The Montgomery County Planning department is currently producing their staff draft of the growth policy. Send the planning board emails, write them letters, make your voice heard.

Tell them: "I am a transit reliant Montgomery County resident. Every day, I am confronted with both the positives and negatives of our transit infrastructure. Far too often in planning meetings, or County Council hearings, the voices of people who actually need transit are not in the room. We need better approaches to how we grow."

If we want a county that is more walkable, and inclusive we need to make our voices are heard. The fight to change our traffic tests should be a rallying cry for environmentalists, progressives and transit advocates. This is a critical opportunity for Montgomery to fufill its reputation as a bastion of progressivism.

Education


Schools are still segregated in Maryland, and state legislators want that to change

Studies have shown that while our country is becoming more ethnically diverse, our schools have become more segregated. In fact, studies by the Civil Rights Project have found that Maryland to be among the most-segregated state in the country for black students. A bill hoping to change that just passed through the Maryland state legislature.


Photo by US Department of Education on Flickr.

Segregation is still a problem in our schools

I am an elementary school teacher in Prince George's County. In our school of over 700 students, nearly 90 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced meals. We have fewer than ten white non-Hispanic children, and most of our students speak Spanish as their first language.

It's not that we do not have white or middle class children in our neighborhood. But at present, the majority of these families are choosing private schools, charter schools, magnet programs or homeschooling. They do anything to avoid sending their kids to the predominantly low-income local public school.

Looking at Prince George's County on the whole, nine out of 10 black students attend a school where at least 90 percent of students are minorities. Nearly four out of 10 black students attend what the Civil Rights Project report called "apartheid schools," where more than 99% of the school is African American; nearly all of the 400 "apartheid schools" are in Prince George's County or Baltimore City.

As early as the 1960s, we have understood that the two greatest predictors of student academic success are the socioeconomic status of the student's family, and the socioeconomic status of the student's peers. That is to say that low-income children who attend mixed income schools will achieve at higher rates.

With a state as segregated as ours, it is no wonder that Maryland's achievement gap is also one of the greatest in the country. According to our 2013 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores, the gap in average math scores between black and white fourth-graders in Maryland was the fifth-worst in the nation, and in reading the gap was the ninth-worst.

A new program called EDCo wants to confront these issues

Senator Bill Ferguson, a democrat from Baltimore City, proposed legislation to create the Maryland Education Development Collaborative (EDCo). The collaborative would make recommendations to the state Board of Education, the General Assembly, and local school systems about how to make schools more diverse in terms of socioeconomics and demographics.

The EDCo bill has now moved through the Maryland state legislature. If signed by the Governor, the new educational entity will be a big step to addressing the greatest civil rights issue and roadblock to educational equity in our state: socioeconomic segregation.

While equitable education is elusive, there's plenty of reason to think it's not impossible. The challenge is collecting, analyzing and sharing best policies and practices across schools, districts and regions.

In 1998 the Maryland Legislature founded TEDCo (Technology Development Corporation) to foster innovation and entrepreneurship communities across the state. In under two decades, the organization has created thousands of jobs and impacted hundreds of companies through granting and mentoring programs. The goal with EDCo is to bring the same level of growth and innovation to the field of education by connecting universities, research institutions, venture capitalists, and school districts. Hopefully, this would mean turning research into policy and practice.

For example, last year Governor Hogan launched the P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) partnership with IBM. EDCo could assess the impact of this collaboration and work to disseminate progress.

Another way that EDCo could help is by developing a model to make magnet programs more inclusive and economically integrated. While magnet programs were designed to diversify schools by drawing students from across boundary lines, the current system in Prince George's County favors families who are actively engaged in their children's education by requiring parents to apply. That leaves the neediest children isolated in their increasingly segregated schools.

EDCo would seek to break down these barriers to comprehensive integration by supporting programs that attract a broad demographic clientele, and developing lottery systems that do not discriminate against poor, under-resourced children. Rather than relying on a competitive application or lottery, magnet programs would instead use strong marketing and weighted lotteries to build demographically diverse school populations across the state.

Teachers need an organization that considers broad policy changes

Public school systems aren't in a great position to push for change because teachers, principals, and superintendents are consumed with making sure they're educating kids every day. There's little time or energy to zoom out and think about policy.

An entity like EDCo, on the other hand, can provide perspective, make connections, and help us evolve towards a better future, where all children of all colors and classes learn together in high quality schools that would make any parent proud.

Transit


The Purple Line will have America's longest railcars

According to the latest plans for Maryland's Purple Line, it will have the longest transit railcars in America. Each train will have a single 136-foot-long five-segment railcar. They'll practically be open-gangway trains.


A Purple Line railcar compared to Metro and DC Streetcar. Image by the author.

Purple Line trains will be Urbos model trams, built by Spanish company CAF. Urbos trams are modular; you can make them as long or as short as you want. These will be unusually long ones.

At 136 feet long, they'll be 2 feet longer than the closest US competitor: Austin Metrorail's 134 foot cars. But Austin's cars are DMUs, a sort of commuter rail / light rail hybrid, built for longer distance and fewer stops compared to the Purple Line.

The next biggest US light rail cars are Dallas' 124 foot cars.


Dallas light rail car. 12 feet shorter than the Purple Line's cars. Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Longer is better

Having one long railcar rather than multiple short ones has a lot of advantages. There's less wasted space between cars, less expense per rider, and passengers can move back and forth inside the train to find the least crowded spot. Overall, having one long open interior increases the capacity of a train by about 10%, and it costs less.

The downside is you can't pull individual cars out of service if something goes wrong. It's all or nothing. But as long as everything works, long railcars are great.

Since the Purple Line will be operated by a private company that faces penalties if it doesn't meet service requirements, the onus is on them to keep trains in service.


An open interior train on the Paris Metro. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In transit jargon, these open interior trains are called "open gangway," and almost everyone else in the world uses them, except the United States. For the Purple Line to move in that direction makes it a national model.

Using these long trains was one of the changes project officials made in response to Maryland Governor Hogan's demands to reduce the Purple Line's costs. One long railcar rather than two short ones coupled into a train saves money and keeps train capacity high enough to work.

Hogan's other changes made the Purple Line a lot worse. They reduced train frequency, eliminated the direct transfer to Metro at Silver Spring, and reduced the electrical power of the line, limiting its capacity. But the move to longer railcars with open interiors may be a silver lining.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Pedestrians


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Why is this?

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


Image from the Federal Highway Administration.

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

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

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

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

Transit


To save Maryland's second oldest tree, the Red Line moved

You probably didn't know that Maryland's oldest tree is Metro-accessible. It could have easily been sawdust without a shift in the Red Line.


The Linden Oak at center-right. The Metro viaduct at far left. Image from Google street view.

In the late 1970s, Metro planners moved the proposed alignment of the Red Line just south of Grosvenor station to fly above the median of Rockville Pike (MD 355) instead of running along the eastern side. That shift was to save what was then the second-oldest tree in Maryland, the Linden Oak.

In 2002, Maryland's oldest tree, the Wye Oak, died at the ripe old age of 462 when it was felled in a thunderstorm. The death of that tree promoted the Linden Oak to oldest tree in the state. Today, the white oak is about 300 years old.

The tree's champion was Montgomery County councilwoman Idamae Garrott, who successfully fought to get the proposed Metro tracks moved west.

Today, the Red Line tracks make an odd curve to the west after emerging from the subway and crossing the Beltway. After passing the Linden Oak, the tracks bend eastward to end up on the east side of Rockville Pike. Along the way, passengers on the right side of a northbound train can catch a glimpse of a tree older than the country.

Transit


Is The Bus "always late?" No. Not even close.

"This bus is always late." People say it so often while waiting for Prince George's County's The Bus that it's basically become a conversation starter. But I tracked my last 101 trips on The Bus, and my bus was either on time or very close to it 86% of the time. That's a lot better than what common complaints suggest.


Photo by the author.

I've been tracking each of my trips to and from work on The Bus since December of last year. For each, I noted the time I arrive at the bus stop, the time the bus left the stop, and the time I exited the bus. I compared this with the scheduled arrival times to see how much time I spent waiting, how many minutes the bus was late (or on-time), how many minutes I spent traveling on the bus, and the total travel time (the wait time + the travel time).


Graphs by the author.

Generally, transit agencies consider buses to be on time if the bus arrives at a stop between one minute before or up to five minutes after the scheduled time. For the 101 trips tracked, my bus was on time by definition 75.2% of the time (76 trips)—36 of the trips were exactly on time. On average, my bus arrived at the stop 3.4 minutes after the scheduled time.

My bus was 5-9 minutes late 9.9% of the time (10 trips). That's technically late, but the wait isn't bad. It isn't until the bus is more than 10 minutes late that using transit becomes noticeably inconvenient. Of the 101 tracked trips, there were 11 trips where the bus was later than 10 minutes.

Unfortunately, when I recall my transit trips, the longest waits are the trips I remember most easily.


Graphs by the author.

Knowing how long my commute will take is key to scheduling my day and making transit convenient. On average, I spent approximately 10.8 minutes waiting for the bus. The average time spent on the bus was approximately 29.2 minutes. Together, the average total trip time was 40.1 minutes and 80.1% of the trips were under 45 minutes, which is the amount of time I set aside to ride The Bus.

Although the length of my bus commute is less than ideal, the expected wait time and travel time is fairly consistent, and I can easily fit my bus schedule into my daily work schedule.

The Bus does not always run perfectly, but claiming that it is always late is simply not true. Based on the last 101 trips, The Bus is a generally predictable and dependable transit service. For a transit service that's outside of an urban environment and whose resources are constrained, The Bus is a solid service. Among some of its key strengths:

  • Dispatch number. All stops list a contact number you can call during business hours, and a helpful live dispatcher can find out exactly where a bus is and when it's expected to arrive. Some stops also have countdown timers, which help inform users when to expect the next bus.
  • Professional and positive bus operators. Operators for The Bus are friendly and perform their duties with a high level of care, respect, and customer service, often while responding to frustrated and discourteous riders.
I've also got some thoughts on how The Bus could get better:
  • Add The Bus to online mapping apps. The Bus is not currently on Google Maps, Apple Maps, or other transportation apps. This makes it very difficult to plan a trip on The Bus without reviewing all of the timetables. However, the County is in the process of collecting the GTFS data and it is possible that The Bus will be available on transit apps later this year.
  • Higher frequencies, especially during the peak. It's expensive for any transit service to run buses more often, and will be a definite challenge for Prince George's County. But a late bus feels especially inconvenient when the next bus isn't arriving for another half hour.
  • Early buses. These are a double-edged sword: While it's great to arrive at a stop early, leaving a stop early means passengers who arrive on time have to wait for the next bus. It's helpful when drivers wait until the scheduled time to leave.
Bus transit in non-urban areas has to serve low densities of people over long distances; making it work can be difficult. Prince George's County provides a reliable service to many areas of the county that are not easily accessible without an automobile and helps connect to the regional rail and bus services.
Support Us