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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."

Events


Events roundup: Spring has sprung

This week, celebrate spring by helping clean up the Anacostia River and learning about trees in urban environments. You can also talk about bicycling in Montgomery County, bus technology, and safer streets in DC.


Photo by The City Project on Flickr.

Clean up the Anacostia: On Saturday, April 5, the Anacostia Watershed Society is organizing clean-up events in DC, Montgomery, and Prince George's. Organizers will talk to volunteers about the river and its watershed, and then volunteers will help remove trash from neighborhoods, streams, and the river.

The cleanup activities run from 9 am to noon at 20 sites Volunteers of all ages are welcome. You can register here. At noon, join other volunteers at RFK Stadium for free food, drink, music, and speakers for a post-cleanup celebration.

Montgomery County bicycle summit: Discuss the future of biking in Montgomery County at a bicycle summit on Saturday, April 5. The summit includes a family bike ride, presentations from local bike groups and the Montgomery County DOT, and a panel discussion. It will be at the Jane Lawton Recreation Center (4301 Willow Lane) in Chevy Chase from 9:15 am to noon.

Bus hack night: On Thursday, April 3, find out if data visualizations can make buses sexy (hint: ART and WMATA think so). Speakers from WMATA, ART, and Conveyal, a consulting group, will talk about ways to use data from bus GPS devices to improve service. ART and WMATA have provided data to discuss at this event.

The discussion will run from 6:00 to 8:30 pm at the Mobility Lab, 1501 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1100, Arlington. You can RSVP here.

Florida Ave transit study: DDOT is holding a public meeting on Wednesday, April 2 to discuss the Florida Avenue Multimodal Transportation Study. This study is evaluating traffic safety, streetscape enhancements, and operational improvements for the section of Florida Ave NE from New York Ave to H Street and Benning Road and surrounding roads.

Tony Goodman has written about the options DDOT will present at the meeting, which will take place at the Two Rivers Public Charter Middle School (1234 4th Street NE) from 7:00 to 9:00 pm.

Learn about urban arboreta: Nate Heavers, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Virginia Tech, and Ray Mims, of the US Botanic Garden and Sustainable Sites Initiative, will give a presentation on the history of planting trees in public spaces in DC and Alexandria.

After the talk there will be a Q&A session and a reception. This free event takes place on Tuesday, April 1 from 7:00 to 9:30 pm at 1021 Prince Street in Alexandria. You can RSVP by emailing udseminar@vt.edu.

Who hears opinions on public projects?: Many of you share your thoughts on public projects on social media, but that doesn't mean agencies making decisions see it. The National Capital Planning Commission is having a panel discussion about how public agencies handle official versus unofficial feedback and resident input that comes in using newer technology.

NCPC's William Herbig will moderate a conversation with Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert, Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Don Edwards from Justice and Sustainability Associates, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood. The event is Wednesday, April 9, 7:00-8:30 pm at NCPC, 401 9th St NW, Suite 500.

Bicycling


Is Gaithersburg the next frontier for Capital Bikeshare?

Gaithersburg is considering joining Capital Bikeshare with up to 21 additional stations. But with turbulent bikeshare rollouts in College Park and Rockville, it may not be easy.


Proposed bikeshare stations in Gaithersburg. Map by the author, using Google.

The Gaithersburg City Council is mulling whether or not to join Capital Bikeshare, and how to fund the program if they join. At a meeting on Monday, the council worked out preliminary plans for 8 initial stations, to be followed by around a dozen more later.

Gaithersburg has a growing collection of mixed-use neighborhoods that will someday be connected by the Corridor Cities Transitway. Adding bikesharing to that mix makes sense, and can help Gaithersburg transition to be a less car-dependent community.

But is expansion even possible right now? And if it is, does Gaithersburg have the right plan?

Trouble in College Park and Rockville

Theoretically the next expansion of Capital Bikeshare in suburban Maryland should be underway in College Park right now. But with Capital Bikeshare's parent supplier company in bankruptcy and reorganization, no new bikes or bike stations are rolling off the assembly line. As a result, College Park's expansion is on indefinite hold.

Eventually the assembly line will start rolling again. But how long will it take, and how huge will be the backlog of existing orders? It may be some time before anybody can accept new orders.

Meanwhile, nearby Rockville has its bikeshare stations already, but they're poorly used.

One big problem appears to be that Rockville's stations are spread too far apart. Instead of placing stations every couple of blocks, Rockville only put one or two stations in each neighborhood. Cyclists have to commit to a long ride to use the system.

Based on the map of proposed stations, it looks like Gaithersburg is shaping up to make the same mistake. It might be better for both cities to rethink their stations, and cluster them together in a smaller part of town.

But implementation details aside, it's great news to see more and more communities looking to progressive transportation options.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Bicycling


In Rockville, a quiet bicycling transformation takes place

In the past five years, DC and Arlington have dramatically expanded their bicycle infrastructure, becoming national leaders in cycling. Meanwhile, a quieter transformation has been taking place in Rockville, which has built a 68-mile bike network and is looking to expand it.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

As one of the few incorporated cities in Montgomery County, Rockville is in a unique position to plan its transportation. Since 1999, volunteers on the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee (RBAC) have worked with the city to expand infrastructure and develop bicycle-friendly policies. Today, the city has 34.3 miles of separated bikeways and 33.5 miles of shared lane designations.

Through the group's advocacy and the city's efforts, Rockville built the Millennium Trail in 2000, since renamed the Carl Henn Millennium Trail after its biggest advocate. A "bicycle beltway," the multi-use path connects together a number of neighborhoods and parallels several major roads that would scare off all but the most experienced cyclists.

Rockville makes bicycling a priority

Rockville has also developed Maryland's first Safe Routes to School curriculum, built the Sister Cities bridge over I-270, and added bicycle safety classes to Montgomery College's course offerings. Recently, the city has made even more significant investments in cycling as a mode of transportation.


Bicycling facilities in Rockville from Google Maps. Click for an interactive map.

With encouragement from RBAC, the city hired a full-time pedestrian and bicycle coordinator in 2011. While previous bicycle-related work was located in the Department of Recreation and Parks, the coordinator's position is in the Department of Public Works, showing how the city is recognizing non-motorized transportation's role in the larger system.

The bicycle and pedestrian coordinator has played a key role in system-level activities such as analyzing crash data, developing heat maps, running bicycle counts, and coordinating activities across the city government.

Most recently, Rockville collaborated with Montgomery County on the Job Access Reverse Commute (JARC) grant for Capital Bikeshare. Because of the matching grant funds from the City, as well as its site development work, Rockville has 13 stations. Because the grant is designed to increase transportation access for low-income citizens, the county is offering free memberships, helmets, and cycling classes to residents who qualify.

Showing that it's safe to bike

RBAC works to complement the city's work by organizing activities that educate and encourage citizens to ride. The RBAC booth is a reliable presence at the Rockville's farmers' market throughout the spring and summer. Volunteers hand out bike maps, answer questions, and carry out bicycle safety checks.


A RBAC community ride. Photo from Bike Rockville's Facebook page.

Through weekly community rides, RBAC members introduce participants to routes and demonstrate safety techniques. Past rides have included trips around the Millennium Trail, rides to local landmarks like Lake Needwood, and a "progressive dinner" ride to local restaurants. This summer, RBAC is launching a series of Kidical Mass rides geared towards families with young children. By showing parents that it's safe to ride on the street, these rides will set the stage for the next generation of cyclists who can be less reliant on cars.

The efforts of the city government and RBAC are paying off. In 2012, the League of American Bicyclists recognized the city as a bronze level Bicycle-Friendly Community, a step up from its previous Honorable Mention status. Results from yearly bicycle counts show an increasing number of cyclists, with more than 300 people a day riding through one of the busiest intersections in Rockville.

Last year, more riders signed up for Rockville's Bike to Work Day than ever, with a 48% increase in participants from 2012 to 2013. Attitudes are changing as well. Bicycling has become so mainstream that major developer JBG is using bicycle-friendliness as a selling point for its new development at the Twinbrook Metro station.

Rockville considers expanding its bike network

As encouraging as these changes are, Rockville still has substantial room for improvement. The update of the city's Bikeway Master Plan, the first one in 10 years, sets a long-term vision. Based on extensive research and analysis, the draft plan proposes 24.5 miles of new dedicated bikeway facilities, including 15 miles of traditional bike lanes, 4.3 miles of shared-use paths, and 5.2 miles of cycletracks. In addition, it also proposes 18.1 miles of shared lane designations, including sharrows.


Bicycling on the Millennium Trail. Photo from Bike Rockville's Facebook page.

The plan maps these proposed locations, as well as new north-south and east-west crosstown priority bicycle routes. It also recommends updating zoning ordinances, improving maintenance of existing bikeways, increasing signage, and adding two-way cycletracks to both sides of Rockville Pike, which would be Montgomery County's first protected bicycle lanes. The draft master plan is currently on the city's website, and the city is accepting public comments through April 30.

While there are many improvements yet to be made, Rockville holds this vision: that it may be a city where bicycling is for all types of trips, for all types of people, and for all parts of the city.

Transit


With federal approval in hand, the pieces needed to build the Purple Line fall into place

The Federal Transit Administration has just issued a Record of Decision for the Purple Line, basically approving the 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It's one of the last pieces needed to build the line, which is scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2020.


This just got one stop closer to reality. Image from Montgomery County.

Maryland Transit Administration officials made the announcement this morning during a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting about the Purple Line, which Purple Line NOW! and BethesdaNow subsequently tweeted.

The FTA will make a formal announcement next week. The agency's decision means Maryland can start purchasing right-of-way to build the $2.37 billion Purple Line, and makes it eligible for federal funding. President Obama recently included it in his 2015 budget, which Congress will have to approve later this year.

With state funding in place and an ongoing search for a private partner in the works, nearly all of the money needed has been secured. As a sign of how likely the Purple Line is to get built, the Planning Board is meeting today to make detailed recommendations about how it should interact with surrounding neighborhoods, like what materials to use for retaining walls.

Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney has a column today urging the affluent Town of Chevy Chase, which has been fighting the project for years and recently hired a congressman's brother to lobby on their behalf, to lay down their arms and use their money to make the project better instead.

"Some people have more money than good judgment," he wrote. "The town should end its obstruction of a worthy project. Burning money is unwise even if you have it to spare."

Budget


Montgomery's proposed budget takes transit funding and gives it to wealthy homeowners

Yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett unveiled his proposed budget, and it has no good news for transit riders. Ride On will get more state aid and hike fares, but it will not run any more buses. Instead, transit revenue will be used to cut real estate taxes.


Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

The cost of running Ride On, as shown in the budget will go up $3.5 million, from $98 million to $101.6 million. Meanwhile, the county will receive $7 million in new revenues, double the cost increase. $5 million in new state aid will come from the gas tax increase passed last year. And fares will rise $2 million, likely a result of matching Metro's fare increase.

Where will this money go? The county's "mass transit tax," a component of the real estate tax, will drop by $5 million. Bus riders, many of whom have low incomes or are renters, will pay more while a tax cut disproportionately benefits the county's wealthiest homeowners.

When Maryland discussed a gas tax increase last year, many groups complained about "raids" on the state's transportation trust fund, including county governments, legislators, conservatives, and the highway lobby. It will be interesting to see how these groups react to this diversion of trust fund money to non-transportation purposes.

Ride On could put the new money it is getting from the state and its riders to good use. The system lacks relief buses, or vehicles on standby, stationed around the county to fill in when other buses break down.

The county counts all late buses equally when it tracks Ride On's performance, but for a rider, there's a vast difference between a replacement bus that comes late and a bus that doesn't come at all. If there's no replacement, the next bus half an hour later might be so full that you can't get on.

Other needed upgrades include restoring the connection to Frederick County buses in Urbana, straightening out the tangle of bus routes around downtown Bethesda, and better weekend service. Funding is also needed for Metrobus's Priority Corridor Initiative, which would improve service on several of the county's highest-ridership routes.

The budget now goes to the County Council for approval. Hopefully, bus riders will find friends there.

Transit


Better sidewalks? A tunnel? How can Bus Rapid Transit work in Rockville?

Under Montgomery County's newly-approved Bus Rapid Transit plan, two BRT lines would converge in the heart of Rockville. How can the city fit them into its space-constrained downtown?


Photo by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr.

BRT lines would run along Route 355 between Clarksburg and Friendship Heights and on Veirs Mill Road from Wheaton to Rockville, meeting at the Rockville Metro station. Both lines are currently under study: the State Highway Administration expects to have a preferred alternative for Veirs Mill later this year, while Montgomery County has received state transportation funds to begin studying 355 this year.

But BRT will have to contend with busy roadways, a major transit hub, and a town center still being built out. "[BRT] would provide our residents with more travel options, so that would conceptually be a good thing," Rockville planner Andrew Gunning told the Gazette, "but we have challenges, too." We asked GGW contributors how they would approach this problem, and these were the principles and ideas they suggested.

Make walking safer and more comfortable

One key issue will be creating an inviting and safe environment for pedestrians trying to access BRT stations. Both 355 and Veirs Mill are currently dangerous environments with multiple lanes of traffic that alternate between congested and high-speed, depending on the time of day. It's a long way across 355 even with surface-level pedestrian improvements, and sidewalks are typically narrow and right against the roadway.


How Route 355 (Rockville Pike) in White Flint could become a boulevard. Image from the White Flint Partnership.

Wider sidewalks with buffers, shorter crossings for pedestrians, more time to cross at lights, and protection around crossings for median stations would be excellent first steps to creating a more welcoming environment for pedestrians, and could create more of a boulevard, as is planned for White Flint further south.

Rockville could also consider working with WMATA to improve the at-grade pedestrian entrance to the Metro station, which currently features a fence and two narrow, inconvenient walking routes.

Accept lane repurposing

To avoid creating an even more unsafe pedestrian environment, it's critical that Rockville repurpose street space for transit. Widening 355 to add bus lanes runs the risk of making it even more inaccessible to people on foot.

Last year, Montgomery County planners found that there's more than enough forecasted ridership to justify dedicating an existing lane for transit on both Veirs Mill and 355. Already, Ride On's 55 bus, serving 355 from Germantown to Rockville, carries an average of 8,000 passengers each weekday, making it one of the busiest bus routes in Montgomery County.

A broad study of cities that reduced street space for cars, even in congested areas, showed that traffic stays the same, or even disappears. With Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle and other cities moving to repurpose lanes for transit, Rockville would be in distinguished company.

Balance local convenience with corridor function

One of the central questions facing planners will be whether to stay on 355 or deviate onto local streets to better serve Rockville Town Center. Having a stop at the Metro station to facilitate transfers seems obvious, but all of Rockville's main destinations, including the county government, shops, and restaurants, are closer to East Middle Lane and North Washington Street.

Keeping BRT on 355 would speed up running times and provide an impetus to make it more of a pedestrian friendly boulevard, but deviating could pick up more riders by serving the popular town center. On the other hand, existing local bus service could connect the town center to a BRT stop at the Metro station, particularly for those that have limited mobility.


Montgomery College Rockville campus map.

Serving Montgomery College, many of whose 60,000+ students are transit dependent, will also be critical, but it's not yet clear where the best station location might be. Currently, buses deviate from 355 onto Mannakee Street to serve the college. However, it is not a far walk to the corner of 355 and Mannakee, and an improved walking path could make it desirable to keep BRT on 355 to save time. An alternative could be a BRT station between Mannakee Street and North Campus Drive, where a new path could provide a shorter connection to classroom buildings.

Think creatively

Planners should consider how underutilized spaces could play a role in accommodating BRT. One example is Metro's parking lot just north of the Rockville station across Park Road. This area could become a BRT station, or have buses rerouted there to make room for BRT directly in the existing bus bay.


Parking lot adjacent to Rockville Metro to the northwest. Image from Google Maps.

Alternatively, a station at the Rockville Metro could utilize an existing vertical asset: the pedestrian bridge crossing Route 355. A station in the median of the road directly below the bridge with staircases or elevators going up could provide a direct, covered connection to the Metro.

While we're dreaming, a really ambitious overhaul of the area from the intersection with Viers Mill to the Metro station would create a Dupont Circle-like intersection that carries express traffic on 355 under Route 28 and continues underground past the Metro station. With through traffic passing underground in a tunnel, the city could extend the local Rockville street grid to reunite its town center with the Metro, creating a much more connected and attractive access to Metro, MARC, and BRT.

Ben Ross, David Versel, Dan Reed, Ethan Goffman, and Dan Malouff all contributed to this post. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Transit


Montgomery voters strongly support Bus Rapid Transit

A new poll finds that a large majority of Montgomery County voters support more transit, including a proposed Bus Rapid Transit network. It may seem surprising, but it reflects overall trends favoring better transit.


Montgomery BRT supporters at a hearing. Photo by Aimee Custis.

In January, the Coalition for Smarter Growth commissioned polling firm Mason-Dixon to survey voters' attitudes towards the 81-mile, 10-line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal, which the county approved last November and is now studying specific corridors. In a historically suburban county that is urbanizing quickly, debates over better transit have been contentious, and we wanted to understand where people really stood.

Out of 400 Montgomery County voters that Mason-Dixon surveyed by phone, 71% support the BRT plan and 22% oppose it after hearing common arguments from naysayers and supporters alike. Support is fairly uniform across age groups and race, though is much higher amongst Democrats (76%) than Republicans (57%), and amongst women (77%).

Voters agree that BRT could reduce traffic, but unsure about taking lanes from cars

While contentious arguments over transit projects often dominate the public debate, the reality is that a solid majority favors it. But they're not always present at public hearings or community meetings, perhaps in part because few people are aware of Mont­gom­ery's BRT plans to begin with: just 31% knew about the plan at the time of the poll.

Poll respondents were read a series of statements that reflect the main arguments for and against building a BRT system. 80% of voters agreed with statements that BRT was the most affordable option compared to other modes of transit. They also strongly agreed that BRT could reduce traffic by moving more commuters through congested corridors (76%), and that BRT supports the right kind of development by supporting walkable communities (78%).

Meanwhile, respondents disagreed with nearly all of the negative arguments about BRT. Just 26% agreed with the statement that BRT will "ruin the character" of existing neighborhoods, as some opponents say. But voters were split over whether repurposing general traffic lanes for buses would make automobile traffic worse, with 50% believing they would.

That may seem intuitive, but dozens of examples from around the country and around the world show that repurposing street space for transit and other modes typically has no impact on traffic as commuters shift modes or alter their routes. It may take a pilot or new local examples like Alexandria's BRT, which will open this summer and include repurposed lanes, for people to see for themselves how BRT can work.

Regional and national trends favor transit

A solid majority of Montgomery residents believe that transit investments, not new highways, are the right way to move forward, with 63% of voters agreeing. Washington Post polling data suggests public opinion in the region has been shifting on this question over the past few decades. In 1998, 51% of respondents to their survey supported investing in transit over roads, but in 2010 and 2013, approximately 60% did.

Those opinions are in line with a national survey of attitudes about transit RCLCO conducted in 2011. It found that 50% of Americans said better transit would improve traffic, and that a majority of people want to live in walkable, transit-served communities.

So are government investments reflecting the public's growing interest in transit? While Montgomery’s latest transportation priority letter represents a major shift in the right direction, there are still many expensive road widenings and interchanges on the books in Montgomery and around the region.

With public opinion shifting, people driving less, and climate change on the rise, the time is now to shift our spending priorities to transit and other sustainable travel options.

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