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Transit


Montgomery and DC officials start talking about working together on transit

DC is designing a streetcar that could end just shy of the Maryland line, while Montgomery County is planning Bus Rapid Transit lines that could dead-end at the border with the District. Can the two transportation departments work together? Officials from both jurisdictions met last week to see if they could build some cooperation.


Image from the DC Office of Planning's streetcar report.

Montgomery and DC leaders recognize that their residents don't consider political boundaries as they go about their daily lives, yet have so far been planning new transit lines in their own silos. New transit lines will be more successful if leaders ensure they serve the right destinations and have integrated schedules, payment, and pedestrian connections.

Will the streetcar go to Silver Spring?

DDOT planners have specified either Takoma or Silver Spring as possible endpoints for the Georgia Avenue streetcar. Jobs and housing density, not to mention the "vast majority of comments" that DDOT has received, point to Silver Spring as the best destination.

Montgomery planner Dave Anspacher said that the county's master plan includes dedicated lanes for transit on Georgia Avenue south of the Metro. But DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe noted that there would be many challenges. Montgomery County would probably not let DC construct the streetcar into Silver Spring on its own, so any connection would require very close coordination.

Will BRT connect to DC?

Several routes in Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plan run up to the DC line, but there are no plans for what to do beyond that. Officials discussed how these lines could reach into the District to either get farther downtown or end at a suitable Metro station.

New Hampshire Avenue: The line for New Hamsphire Avenue could end at Fort Totten Metro, just like the current K6 and K9 WMATA buses that serve that corridor. Zimbabwe said that leaving New Hampshire out of MoveDC "may have been a gap," but also expressed skepticism about dedicated lanes within DC because New Hampshire narrows from six to four lanes at the DC line.


WMATA's K buses on New Hampshire Avenue currently cross into DC to serve Fort Totten Metro. Map from WMATA.

Wisconsin Avenue: Last fall, the Montgomery County Council approved a "dotted line" for the 355/Wisconsin Avenue BRT line to Friendship Heights (and beyond), pending collaboration with the District. The idea, said Anspacher, would be to bring BRT south towards Georgetown to serve the parts of Wisconsin without Red Line service.

Wisconsin Avenue is in fact a "high capacity transit corridor" in the moveDC plan, DDOT officials pointed out, so this connection is a distinct possibility, though potentially far off.


Proposed transit lanes in DC from the moveDC plan.

16th Street: The BRT master plan includes the short part of Colesville Road/16th Street to the DC line south of the Silver Spring Metro for dedicated transit lanes. Anspacher said the county would be willing to explore uses this space to help with DC and WMATA's efforts to improve the overcrowded S bus lines.

There's more work to be done

Arlington and Fairfax counties have worked together on the Columbia Pike streetcar. Arlington and Alexandria are collaborating on the Potomac Yards-Crystal City BRT project. And of course Montgomery and Prince George's have worked together on the Purple Line. These show that cooperation is possible.

At the same time, all of those examples sit entirely within one state, so it may take more work to create a Montgomery-DC transit service. WMATA could also help serve a convening role and has the authority to act as the regional transit planning authority.

Montgomery and DC officials agreed to meet again soon on specific projects, with 16th Street and Wisconsin Avenue as the top priorities. As Montgomery County's transportation committee chair Roger Berliner said, "Every day tens of thousands of commuters clog our roads to get to you, and then clog your roads. We have a mutual interest in solving that problem."

This meeting was a great start, but there will have to be many more at many different levels to truly build the best transit projects and the most effective integrated network for riders and the region.

Public Spaces


"Let's use this space!" say mysterious signs around Silver Spring's unfinished transit center

While repair work continues on the Silver Spring Transit Center, the entire block around it remains roped off. On Friday morning, big signs appeared asking to turn the space into a temporary park.


Photo by the author.

Six black-and-white posters hang from the fences around the transit center on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue, reading "Move the fence? Let's use this space." They sport photos of different activities that could happen there, like outdoor movie screenings, musical performances, and festivals. In the bottom-right corner is the hashtag #DTSS, meant for people to respond on social media.

Two Silver Spring residents placed the signs early Friday morning. They asked not to be identified to keep the focus on the message, not the act itself. "The Montgomery County election has just happened; people have gotten reelected," they said. "This is an issue a lot of people ran their campaigns on, but not a lot has happened."

They added, "We wanted to do this to bring back the bigger discussion…which is: what is the future of the transit center? What are the short-term uses of the site?"

Montgomery County broke ground on the transit center in 2008, which was supposed to tie together local and regional bus routes, the Red and future Purple lines, and MARC commuter rail. Work stopped in 2011 after workers discovered serious structural defects within the $120 million complex.

After some disagreement between the county and builder Foulger-Pratt about who was responsible and how to fix the building, repairs began in June. County officials say the transit center could open next year.


The transit center in 2012. Today, the space around it is covered in grass. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Recognizing that the fence is necessary because the transit center is still an active construction site, the sign-hangers say they hope WMATA, who owns the land, would be willing to move it away from the sidewalk. "We talk about Silver Spring being this urban, vibrant place, but our biggest asset, our front door, is horrible," they said. "What is a chain-link fence for us to be presenting to the region when we're trying to attract people to live here, to work here?"

Moving the fence even 20 feet away from the sidewalk, they argue, could still keep people out of danger while creating space for aesthetic improvements or other activities. "This can significantly improve the experience of people who use the transit center," they say. "You could add some trees and planter boxes, so you could move them easily."

This isn't the first time community members have discussed the land around the transit center. Earlier this year, Councilmember Hans Riemer and former Planning Board chair Gus Bauman proposed turning it into a park.

The sign-hangers say that's not their goal. "It's a prime development site, not a future long-term open space site," they say. "But we can enjoy it while it's here, and help inform what happens here in the future."

So far, the two signs immediately outside the Metro station have been taken down, but the other signs on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue remain.

Parking


Shepherd Park neighbors tell car2go users to stay out

While car2go is mostly limited to the District, more and more users live in surrounding areas, and often leave their cars at the edges of the city. One resident of an adjacent DC neighborhood warned car2go drivers to stay away in this note:


Photo by George Branyan.

Reader Roya Bauman found this handwritten note on a car2go in Shepherd Park, a DC neighborhood that borders Silver Spring. It reads:

This street is NOT a garage for these ugly little cars! Be more considerate. Do not park in front of a private home. It is rude and a breach of residential etiquette. We do not care what the owners of this car company tell you. You Silver Spring transients are ruining our neighborhood.
Car2go users can can park the vehicles anywhere within the "home area," which includes all of the District (except the National Mall) and two small areas outside of DC, at Tysons Corner Center and National Harbor. As a result, many people who live in neighborhoods just across the District line, like Friendship Heights, Silver Spring, and Mount Rainier, often park their cars in DC and walk home.


Map showing car2go vehicles lined up along Eastern Avenue between DC and Silver Spring. Screenshot from the author's phone.

It's not illegal to park in front of someone else's home, but whether it's "rude" varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. In denser parts of the region, where the number of residents exceeds the available parking spaces, cars belonging to other people might constantly occupy the curb in front of one's own home. In low-density areas such as Shepherd Park, on the other hand, many people have come to expect that except for the occasional party, only their own family and visitors will park in front of their own houses.

Residential parking regulations stop residents of Silver Spring and similar border communities from parking private cars for long periods near the border, but car2go creates a new legal use that doesn't fit into the established etiquette as residents of those neighborhoods see it.

The ideal solution would be for car2go to expand its home area to include these surrounding communities. Company representatives have previously said they're planning to expand into Arlington and Alexandria. Expanding to closer-in parts of Maryland as well would allow car2go users to leave the cars in their own neighborhoods, and maybe even in front of their own houses. That's something that neighbors on both sides of Eastern (and Western and Southern) Avenue could agree on.

Transit


America can learn from this French city's complete streets

Strasbourg, France is a beautiful city that takes its complete streets to heart. The roads through the old city gracefully mix street trams/light rail with bicycle paths and friendly traffic calmed streets. Pedestrians move easily. Its central intercity train station is a glamorous historic building sheathed in a chic, modern glass shell.


Strasbourg's train station. Photo by barnyz on Flickr.

My family moved to Strasbourg when I was 12. In French school, I comprehended little, and regularly escaped the gates of Le Lycée International des Pontonniers to explore the city by foot and public transportation. It was liberating to take my lunch money and spend it in boulangeries around town or even into Germany across the Rhine River. My parents thought I was in school and I may not have been in the country!

Given the quality of its infrastructure, it would be easy to think the French city is quite large. In fact, Strasbourg is a metro area with a population the size of Albany, Little Rock, Colorado Springs and would rank 73rd in US metro size behind Columbia, SC.


Complete Streets in Strasbourg. Photo by Spiterman on Flickr.

6 tram lines ply this small city

The Strasbourg metropolitan area of 760,000 people contains six tram lines, 56km (36 miles) of track, 72 stations, and daily ridership of 300,000 as of 2010. No US city near this size has this kind of rail system.

During the day, trams run every 6 minutes Monday to Friday, 7 minutes on Saturday and 12 minutes on Sundays. Yearly passes are 456 euros ($620 dollars) with discounts for those over 65 and under 25. A single fare is 1.60 euro ($2.18).


Trams glide from suburbs into the dense city with a dedicated right of way. Photo by michallon on Flickr.

Strasbourg's trams function as a hybrid of what in the US we would call streetcars and light rail. The rail vehicles are similar to streetcars because they are mostly in the roadbed and integrate into the city's fabric, but unlike streetcars, they operate with their own right of way separate from traffic, as light rail does.

Bicycle infrastructure abounds

To complement the tram system, Strasbourg has almost 500km (311 miles) of cycling paths, 18,000 bike racks that serve over 130,000 cyclists. Secure bike parking lots and tire inflation facilities are available at bus and tram stops for transit card holders.


Across the city, bicycles get their own space in the street network. Photo by NACTO on Flickr.

Baltimore County, a national leader in Complete Streets, still lags far behind Strasbourg

Many US cities have adopted complete street ordinances and individual streets have been retrofitted. Locally, Baltimore County has been recognized as a national leader for Complete Streets, ranking 6th among 83 communities in the US with Complete Streets programs.

Despite this recognition, the county's on-road bike network is minimal; members of the Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee have been frustrated by the lack of commitment to projects; the county has missed the mark on its pedestrian safety campaign; and now its county executive struggles to find a $50 million contribution for the $2.4 billion Red Line his administration says it supports.


The future home of the Towson Bike Beltway in Baltimore County. Image from Google Street View.

In Baltimore City, Council Bill 09-0433 was adopted in 2010 directing the Departments of Transportation and Planning to apply "Complete Streets" principles to the planning, design, and construction of all new city transportation improvement projects.

Despite the accolades and the policies, "complete streets" in Baltimore County and Baltimore City still feel foreign. Too many incidences of tragic pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle crashes get blamed on user error than engineering design.

Only a few of the most progressive US cities are scaling up Complete Streets projects. On the ground implementation in many jurisdictions remains the elusive prize. Complete Street advocates look forward to seeing first rate projects in the city and the suburbs get designed, funded, and become reality.

You can see a gallery of pictures of Strasbourg's complete streets infrastructure at Comeback City.

Parking


It's a little harder to pay for parking in Montgomery County

Montgomery County's limited options for paying for parking, besides using piles of quarters, shrank some more yesterday, as the county announced it will not longer support popular Parking Meter Cash Keys.


Photo by the author.

These keys allow drivers to load and store value on the key at a county parking office. When parking, the driver can insert the key into the meter, which will then deduct money every 15 minutes at short-term meters and 3 hours at long-term meters. There is no charge other than a refundable deposit for the keys.

Many people use the cash keys instead of having to carry about $5.50 in quarters to park for a full day. But Tuesday morning, the county's Division of Parking Management announced in a press release that the program will be discontinued. The keys will continue working in meters, but people will not be able to get new keys or add value to existing keys after Monday.

County spokesperson Esther Bowring stated that she does not have information about how many cash keys are in circulation, but estimated the number to be in the tens of thousands.

Bowring said the sudden discontinuation came because of a software glitch that the manufacturer of the cash keys (Duncan Technologies) was not willing or able to fix. As a result, the county is transitioning to a new contractor for all of its payment-related services.

Other alternatives to quarters are limited

The county's press release touts a "Smart Meter Debit Card" as a replacement for the cash keys, but these smart meters are only available in Bethesda. That means that the only non-coin option in the Silver Spring and Wheaton garages is a monthly "Parking Convenience Sticker" (PCS) that costs $113-$123 per month. This is not a valid option for residents that mostly use transit, but may need to drive occasionally.

New meters that accept credit and debit cards will be on street in Silver Spring "later this year," according to the press release. It does not mention whether the credit card meters will also go inside the garages.

Cell phone payment is available in some garages, but not all. That's because enforcement officers were not able to get a reliable wireless signal in underground garages, preventing them from verifying whether someone has parked with pay-by-phone or just has an expired meter.

When the county rolled out pay by phone, to great fanfare in 2011 and 2012, I tried to park in a Silver Spring garage, but noticed the sticker denoting the space was missing. A parking services manager on the phone blamed this on homeless people vandalizing the meters (which seemed odd for a garage that was 3 stories below ground level.) But the "Go Park Now" (Now "MobileNow") application did not recognize the number, meaning that, in fact, the county had not programmed it to work with those meters.

Officials could extend cell phone service inside the garages with "PicoCells" or "Network Extenders." Residential versions are available from the mobile phone companies for approximately $250, and act as miniature cell towers that connect to a land line.

According to Bowring, county officials did examine this option, but initially ruled it out as each floor of each garage would need a separate unit for each mobile carrier. But now that the meter keys are not an option, she said that the county will revisit the possibility.

Though units suitable for garages plus maintenance will cost more than the $250 a resident would have to pay, it would be worthwhile for the county to spend some of its parking revenue to make the phone-based payment system work while Silver Spring residents wait for their transit center, Purple Line, Metropolitan Branch Trail, Bus Rapid Transit, longer VanGo hours or other long-promised alternatives to driving.

Transit


Maryland SHA needlessly draws community ire with poor Georgia Avenue Bus Rapid Transit options

Last November, Montgomery County passed a master plan envisioning high-quality Bus Rapid Transit on its eight busiest corridors. Unfortunately, Maryland officials are pushing to design BRT in an unreasonable way that would harm the community along the route, and have unnecessarily stirred up opposition to BRT as a result.

The Maryland State Highway Administratrion (SHA) hosted an open house in May to discuss alternatives for BRT on Georgia Avenue from Olney to Wheaton. This image from SHA's map of the area shows how it would add two bus lanes to a three-block stretch north of Glenmont:


Image from Maryland SHA.

On this segment, SHA shows a 200-foot wide right of way. The current road is only 88 feet wide, with 6-foot sidewalks on each side, meaning that SHA wants to widen the road by 100 feet just to add two bus lanes. This would require destroying 34 residencesthe red R's on the mapalong with a business and a church.

And that's just one small part of the corridor. From Wheaton up to Olney, SHA estimated that adding a single reversible dedicated transit lane in the median would mean destroying 142 properties. Adding two dedicated BRT lanes brings the number to 155.

Not surprisingly, these numbers have generated concern along Georgia Avenue. Opponents point to them as one more reason to stop BRT.

Thankfully, there's no reality to these numbers. This is true for two reasons.

First, SHA's assumptions for road widths, busway widths, and necessary buffers are unnecessarily large. For example, SHA assumes six traffic lanes and two bike lanes are 88 feet wide, while the Montgomery County Planning Department scopes the exact same road at 66 feet wide. SHA overestimates the width of a two-lane busway by six more feet as well, making the road 28 feet wider than the county believes necessary.

Second, on top of these bloated road widths, SHA routinely tacks on anywhere from 28 to 62 additional feet of width for no clear reason. Here, just adding two bus lanes to a regular 6-lane road somehow adds a full 100 feet to the cross-section. Clearly, the lanes are not each 50 feet wide.

A better study of BRT alternatives for Georgia Avenue would have applied the standards used by Montgomery County's planning staff when they developed the county's BRT master plan last November. The planning staff's cross-sections for the exact same roadway (meaning the same number of travel lanes, turn lanes, and bus lanes) are more than 20 feet narrower curb-to-curb than the cross-sections used by the SHA. Excluding the extra unexplained width in the SHA cross-sections makes an even bigger difference.

To illustrate this point, here's the same three-block stretch of Georgia Avenue north of Glenmont, preserving all lanes and turns, drawn using the Planning Department's design standards:


Image by Communities for Transit using Google Maps base image.

Just by changing which agency's assumptions we rely upon, the number of endangered properties drops from 36 to exactly 1 (marked with a red pin). The reason is simple: instead of requiring around 200 feet of right-of-way, as SHA does, this layout requires only 106 to 112 feet, with sidewalks adding another 12 feet. All this space is saved without changing the number of traffic lanes, turn lanes, and bus lanes.

Switching from SHA to Planning assumptions totally changes the story of BRT's impact on the community along Georgia Avenue. Under the Planning standard, the number of endangered properties would drop by more than 80%.

And this is just a first cut. Shifting the road's centerline or using a narrower sidewalk and planting strip than Planning's recommended 20 feet could save nearly all of the remaining threatened properties.

Finally, repurposing a traffic lane to transit-only won't affect any properties. That's an important option to consider, especially in constrained areas.

The question remains why SHA ignored the planning department's recommended BRT cross-sections and instead produced alternatives that affect so many properties, which they must have known would provoke opposition. If SHA repeats this unnecessarily destructive approach when it studies BRT alternatives on MD-355 (Bethesda to Clarksburg) and on US-29 (Silver Spring to Burtonsville), it will only compound the harm.

The county's residents deserve a realistic assessment of how BRT would fit in our communities. If you live nearby, you can submit a comment to SHA asking them to create community-sensitive BRT alternatives for Georgia Avenue.

Government


Casey Anderson is Montgomery's new Planning Board chair

Montgomery County's new Planning Board chair will be Casey Anderson, a strong advocate for growing the county's urban areas and improving its transit network. The County Council voted 8-1 to appoint him this morning.

An attorney who lives in Silver Spring, Anderson has been a community activist on smart growth, transit, and bicycling issues, previously serving on the board of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. He stepped down to join the Planning Board in 2011, and can be seen walking or biking to meetings there. The council will have to find a replacement for his old seat.

Councilmembers appeared to rally around Anderson last week over four other applicants for the position. "Anderson comes closest to holding the vision I have for our County's future," wrote Councilmember Roger Berliner in a message to his constituents. "He is a strong proponent of smart and sustainable growth, served by world class transit. These are the key components of a strong future for our county."

The Planning Board chair is responsible for giving the County Council recommendations on land use and transportation issues, meaning they can play a big role in how and where the county grows. As chair, Anderson says he'd like to look at the way Montgomery County uses the amount of car traffic as a test for approving development. The tests often discourage building in the county's urban areas, where people have the most options for getting around without a car.

As a board member, Anderson has advocated for more transportation options and more nightlife as ways to keep the county relevant and attractive to new residents. He was the only vote against approving an extension of Montrose Parkway through White Flint, where the county wants to create a pedestrian- and bicycle-oriented downtown. He also served with me on the Nighttime Economy Task Force, which sought to promote nightlife in the county.

Anderson was a strong influence in favor of the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, and persuaded some of his fellow commissioners to support repurposing existing lanes for BRT. Anderson also pushed for performance standards for BRT which aim to prevent BRT from being watered down in the future.

Upcounty, he opposed the board's unfortunate vote in support of the M-83 highway last fall. He did support keeping development in a part of Clarksburg near Ten Mile Creek which turned the Montgomery Countryside Alliance against his candidacy.

Councilmember Marc Elrich was the only vote against Anderson. Though he didn't nominate her this morning, Elrich favored former Planning Board member Meredith Wellington, who had support from some civic activists who feel that the county is growing too fast. The field of candidates also included current board member and real estate developer Norman Dreyfuss, current deputy planning director Rose Krasnow, and former County Councilmember Mike Knapp.

Montgomery County offers a wide variety of urban, suburban, and rural communities. Anderson's appointment suggests that the county's ready to embrace its urban areas while preserving the suburban and rural ones, providing a greater variety of community types and transportation choices for an increasingly diverse population.

Architecture


To turn this Silver Spring street around, one building owner put in fake stores

For years, the ground-floor shops at the Guardian Building in downtown Silver Spring have sat empty. To lure new tenants, the building's owner brought the space to life with fake storefronts.


All photos from Devin Arkin.

The Arkin family has owned this six-story office building, located at Georgia Avenue and Cameron Street, for decades. But as owner Michael Arkin's health declined and he wasn't able to keep the building up, many of the retail tenants moved away, retired, or passed away. After a stroke a few years ago, his sons took over management of the building. "We had our work cut out for us," said son Devin Arkin, who grew up in Silver Spring but now lives in Chicago.


The Guardian Building before.

The sons renovated the building and commissioned an sculpture for the lobby of 1950s-era hardware they found in the basement. But they weren't sure what to do with its nearly 7,400 square feet of empty retail space until they read about towns in Northern Ireland who disguised their empty shops with murals depicting open, lively businesses.

Arkin's advertising firm Huckleberry Pie crafted scenes of busy stores, like a men's wear store and a bakery, and fitted them over the empty windows. Workers toil away behind the counter as ducks and chickens peer out from door frames. Discrete "For Lease" and "Build to Suit" signs appear between images of food and goods.


The fake storefronts seen from across the street.

Cameron Street is a few blocks away from the shops and restaurants along Ellsworth Drive, and as a result there isn't a lot of foot traffic. The Guardian Building isn't alone in having an empty first floor. The Cameron, an apartment building across the street, lost one of its two ground floor tenants, an outpatient surgery center. And two blocks away at Cameron and Spring streets, there are ground floor spaces at United Therapeutics' new headquarters that have been vacant for nearly four years.

If all of the storefronts on Cameron Street were filled, it might actually become a compelling destination that could draw shoppers and diners from other parts of downtown Silver Spring. But since most of them are empty, nobody wants to be the first to take the risk. (Other than Jimmy John's sandwich shop in the first floor of the Cameron, which as a chain can draw customers on name recognition alone.)

Hopefully, the Guardian Building can buck the trend. Its fake storefronts may not convince anyone, but it does look better than it did before. Hopefully, they'll catch the eye of potential tenants soon. According to this marketing brochure, the space is still vacant.

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