Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Silver Spring

Roads


In Silver Spring, cutting travel lanes doesn't make traffic backups worse

Last year, a segment of Silver Spring's University Boulevard shrank from six lanes to four to accommodate work to replace the bridge that passes over the Capital Beltway. There's less room for cars to pass through the work zone, but traffic congestion hasn't gotten worse.


The University Boulevard Beltway bridge under construction in May. Right now, the roadway is four lanes wide so it can accommodate the project. Photo by the author.

Prior to the construction project, University Boulevard had six total travel lanes, three that ran east and three that ran west. There was also a 14-foot wide exit lane onto the Beltway.


University Boulevard before work began, with six travel lanes and an exit lane. August 2010 image from Google Earth.

To replace the bridge, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) had to make room for demolition and replacement work on the bridge deck. It did so by shifting all the traffic onto one side of the bridge and by narrowing the four remaining lanes to 11 feet.


University Boulevard reduced to a 4 lane undivided road during construction. October 2014 image from Google Earth.

Traffic congestion hasn't gotten worse

Because it connects to the Beltway, this stretch of University Boulevard is one of the road's busiest segments. According to SHA traffic counts from 2014, this part of University carries ~43,000 vehicles per day. Before the project began, some nearby residents were concerned that fewer lanes would mean backed up traffic.

But over a year into the project, that hasn't happened.

I live in a nearby neighborhood and use the bridge daily to get to downtown Silver Spring. Even when schools are in session (Blair High School and Eastern Middle School are both on this segment, and the road sees heavy school bus traffic), I have not encountered any significant delay when passing through the bridge's work zone.

Evan Glass, the immediate past president of the Indian Spring Citizens Association, the organization which represents the residents of the neighborhood adjacent to the bridge, hasn't noticed any serious congestion issues on the bridge either.

"I haven't experienced any major problems from the bridge reconstruction, aside from some noise due to nighttime work," he told me. "I drive across the bridge regularly and drivers quickly learned to follow the new traffic pattern."


Even on weekdays, traffic on the bridge is often light. This picture was taken on a Monday afternoon around 4 PM. Photo by the author.

This is a noteworthy outcome for the State Highway Administration

This construction project presents a rare opportunity to study the effects of narrowing an arterial road from six lanes to four.

An official study of this segment during this construction project could confirm and quantify what seems to be the case: that making a road narrower hasn't made congestion worse.

It is generally accepted that adding traffic lanes actually makes congestion worse because it induces demand. Conversely, it's not uncommon for less volume to travel on a road after you reduce its number of lanes (within reason).

This happened on Riggs Road in Chillum, with traffic volumes dropping 20% from 2010 to 2011 after the road shrank from six lanes to four (see page 31 of each PDF).

If such a well-traveled section can lose a travel lane in each direction without issue, concerns over congestion seem even less credible when applied to lesser-used parts of the road.


It's not uncommon to see large stretches of University Boulevard empty, even at rush hour. Photo by the author.

Other nearby roads have been narrowed without adverse traffic impacts

Two nearby roads nearly identical to University Boulevard have been narrowed from six lanes to four lanes without problems.

Riggs Road got narrower a few years ago, with it's former right travel lanes becoming bike and parking lanes. Queens Chapel Road in Hyattsville was narrowed about 10 years ago by closing the left lanes with striped paint, and it is currently undergoing a construction project to make the changes permanent.

This construction project has shown the University Boulevard is a good candidate for a similar lane-reduction treatment.

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Public Spaces


Silver Spring is a more complete place thanks to its new library

Downtown Silver Spring's library opened just over a week ago, and it's more than just a building full of books. The new library is full of things that are there to help the community, like meeting spaces and a coffee shop and, in the future, a transit stop.


Residents at the new library's grand opening. Images by the author unless otherwise noted.

Downtowns and town centers are reemerging as increasingly important parts of their communities, and libraries are a big part of that. Parents, for example, can bring their kids during the day before hosting a book club meeting later that evening, and community leaders can use the space to host their meetings.


Meeting space at the library.

Libraries are also not strictly quiet places like they once were. Vibrancy and social connections are a big part of the library experience. You can meet friends, or have kids' play dates—here, you'd do that in the new "Early Literacy Center" on the 5th floor. If you do want the traditional solitude, you can go to a designated "quiet" room, where you can join students quietly typing on their laptops or visitors reading the newspaper.

The library's design puts community first

Why has Silver Spring's library become such a community focal point for residents? After the closure of Border's Books and the rather large Mayorga coffee shop, downtown Silver Spring was left few community gathering areas. Back in 2008, when it came time for the community to give input on the library, people knew they wanted an urban, community-friendly structure.

Among the items included a bulky pedestrian bridge that would connect the library to Silver Spring's main parking garage. Although the bridge concept was cancelled, the library's final plan actually included even more add-ons and amenities. For example, when residents learned that the new plan would include a coffee shop within the building, they raised over $53k to support the opening of a "second location" of the popular local Kefa Café, right inside the library's main entrance.


Kefa Cafe at the library.

In addition to a coffee bar, the library also features other unusual features such as the "Genius Bar" like reception desk, where patrons can check out an E-Reader or a laptop as well as get traditional research expertise from librarians.

Finally, the soon-to-open "Bonifant - Library Residences" will feature 149 mixed-income condos focusing on seniors that will also include 10,000 square feet of additional retail space directly next to the library.


Bonifant Library Residences image from Montgomery County.

This isn't the first time Silver Spring residents have come together to shape their community. Back in 1992, when Mall of America wanted to build the "American Dream" mega-mall in downtown Silver Spring, the residents rose up to fight the behemoth structure. What they wanted instead was community-focused development that truly represented the neighborhood. Today, the Silver Spring Library represents a legacy of this kind of community engagement and is a model for downtown libraries all over the nation.


A rendering of the Purple Line in front of the Silver Spring library. Image from Montgomery County.

The library will have its own Purple Line stop

The new Silver Spring Library has a host of features that aren't traditional for libraries.

For starters, a Purple Line stop is going to run through it, setting it up to become one of the first in the nation to include a built-in train station that will connect it to major regional transportation lines.


Purple Line route map from the Maryland Transportation Authority.

In the future, library patrons will be able to take the Purple Line directly to University of Maryland's campus for further research or take a quick ride to the Silver Spring Transit Center to connect to Metro lines.

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Parking


Montgomery won't make (some) businesses fund parking anymore

Builders in downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Wheaton are now free to build as little parking as they want, without violating zoning rules or paying extra taxes. The change eliminates a major subsidy to driving and will help these suburban centers evolve into walkable urban areas.


Photo by BethesdaNow.com Staff on Flickr.

The new policy, enacted as part of the new county budget, is the result of the simpler, more modern zoning code approved a year ago. The rewrite of the zoning ordinance sharply cut the amount of off-street parking required near Metro stations, upsetting a long-established system for financing the county's public parking garages.

When the county first opened public parking lots, they were a way for stores in old downtown buildings to compete with new malls and their ample free parking. Meter rates were low and downtown buildings paid an extra "parking tax" to meet the expenses. Newer buildings with their own parking were exempt from the tax.

After Metro came to Bethesda and Silver Spring, the downtowns grew denser. But for many years the county kept the tax high to encourage the construction of as much parking as possible when new buildings went up. Unless a building met the parking requirement that the zoning code imposed on auto-oriented development far from Metro, it paid the entire tax.

The new zoning code recognized the downside of too much parking, and it lowered the parking minimums near Metro. When it went into effect last year, many buildings that previously paid the parking tax became exempt. This brought confusion at first, and then a recognition that the parking tax had lost much of its revenue-raising potential.

The new county budget solves this problem by setting the parking tax to zero, and making up the difference with other revenue. (The tax has technically not been abolished. If the county fails to pay back money borrowed to build garages, bond holders can demand its resumption.)

At work here is the interconnected nature of land use planning. Automobile-dependent development has a logic in which parking and highways create a need for more of the same. Once that cycle is broken, a new logic sets in. When things work well, as they did here, advances in livability and walkability beget more progress.

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Transit


A new entrance at Forest Glen Metro could strengthen two disconnected neighborhoods

Forest Glen and Montgomery Hills, two neighborhoods north of Silver Spring, are closed off from each other by I-495. A new entrance to the Forest Glen Metro station could bridge the two communities, sparking economic revitalization for both.


A southern Forest Glen Metro entrance could go here. Base image from Google Maps.

Located on roughly 18 acres along Georgia Ave between I-495 and 16th Street, Montgomery Hills is an older commercial district that has been plagued by traffic issues and limited commercial and office development.

Forest Glen, divided by Georgia Avenue, is a quiet neighborhood that boasts a Metro stop, a 443- bed regional hospital, Army base, and national museum. It's currently the focus of redevelopment efforts by WMATA, namely the possibility of converting an eight-acre surface parking lot into a mixed-use development with an emphasis on supporting the local Holy Cross Hospital.

Montgomery County recently decided to consolidate these two neighborhoods' master plans, which has been accompanied by a stronger emphasis on pedestrian access and urban design that promotes redevelopment.

The county intends to complete the master plan consolidation by 2018 and to potentially complete development by 2020.

Connecting the neighborhoods via Metro

A new southern entrance at the Forest Glen Metro station would make Montgomery Hills less isolated and more appealing to developers.

Although no formal studies have been done on the viability of such a metro entrance,speaking off the record, Montgomery County staff have said it was possible to add an entrance on the southern side. On that side, Georgia Avenue directly lines up with the end of the Forest Glen platform.

WMATA already owns property where the Forest Glen Metro power station sits, right next to a historic shopping center. The site is big enough to add a southern entrance to the Metro station.


WMATA's land on the Montgomery Hills side of the Forest Glen Metro station. Base image from Google Maps.

Right now, Metro users who want to go from the Forest Glen station to the other side of I-495 have to use the Georgia Avenue Pedestrian Bridge. The bridge's height and exposure to the elements can make it cumbersome to use while a second Forest Glen station entrance could connect the neighborhoods in a way that the Georgia Avenue Pedestrian Bridge cannot.


WMATA could build a southern Forest Glen Metro entrance here. In this image, north is to the left. Base image from Google Maps.

History

Interestingly, Montgomery Hill's own development history can be a lesson on how new projects can account for what the community needs.

As Silver Spring began to grow in the 1910s and 1920s, corner grocery stores started to appear in suburban areas where these kind of developments were isolated as commercial structures in mostly residential neighborhoods. Communities such as Chevy Chase deliberately banned commercial development, deeming it "unfitting" of prestigious residential neighborhoods.


Montgomery Hills in 1987. Base image from Google Maps.

Montgomery Hills, though, was a place where a few forward-minded developers recognized that such shopping centers were inevitable, and took it upon themselves to design and build a block of stores in areas designated for commercial use.


Montgomery Hills today. Base image from Google Maps.

Even though the Montgomery Hills Shopping Center was rejected as historic property in 1987, the Tudor revival styled area remains one of the largest operating shopping centers in the county which has retained its original architectural features.

Forest Glen and Montgomery Hills are plagued by traffic and congestion. A new Forest Glen Metro entrance could breathe life into this once-thriving neighborhood shopping center and create a new urban oasis between downtown Silver Spring and Wheaton.

New Metro stations may be tough sells, but a new entrance at a station that already exists isn't so inconceivable. If Forest Glen and Montgomery Hills develop as their soon-to-be-collective master plan suggests, the roughly 25-acre combined area could brand itself as a mini city. The hardest part is coming up with a name. Forest Glen Hills, anyone?

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Development


As Silver Spring urbanizes, neighbors disagree on who "belongs" there

Some members of a Silver Spring civic association recently tried to keep their new neighbors from joining. While residents rejected the measure, the fact that the issue got consideration at all illustrates how people disagree on who "belongs" in urbanizing communities.


The new townhouses rise behind single-family homes in Seven Oaks-Evanswood. All photos by the author.

The Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association (SOECA) sits in the shadow of downtown Silver Spring, just a few blocks from the Metro station. Nearly all of its 220 households live in single-family homes, though the association recently lost a years-long battle to stop Chelsea Heights, a development of 63 townhomes on the site of a former private school on Ellsworth Drive.

Last week, the SOECA board proposed an amendment to the civic association's bylaws that would limit membership to "residents of the R-60 zoned areas," or people living in single-family homes. The amendment would effectively bar the new townhouse residents from joining. The association already keeps out people living in a handful of small apartment buildings within the neighborhood's borders, which are drawn to exclude nearby high-rise apartment buildings.

The proposal unleashed a fiery conversation in the normally sleepy neighborhood, both online and at a community meeting last night that 50 people attended. But after a vote, neighbors voted 32-17 against the change.

Neighbors worried townhouse residents would "out-vote" them

Why propose barring the future residents of Chelsea Heights from the neighborhood association? On the community listserv, some residents worried that the Chelsea Heights residents could join the civic association and "out-vote" existing residents on neighborhood issues, such as whether to restrict cut-through traffic.

"Will their interests as members of a higher-density tract development coincide with, complement or be in conflict with those of a neighborhood association composed of residents in single-family homes?" asked one resident.


A new street in the Chelsea Heights development.

SOECA president Jean Cavanaugh noted that Chelsea Heights will have its own homeowners' association, and says that her organization would be willing to cooperate with it. "There are other civic associations that work side-by-side with large townhouse developments that have their own association," she told me.

She added that this had nothing to do with the fight to stop the development. "We have no issue with the people buying property in Chelsea Heights. Our issue's with the Planning Board, the county, and [Chelsea Heights developer] EYA," she told me. "We can distinguish between who we had our battle with and the innocents who are gonna move in to Chelsea Heights."

Other area neighborhoods welcome all comers

It's not unusual for neighborhood groups anywhere to fight development. But in Silver Spring, a community that's generally progressive and tolerant and where many neighborhoods have a mix of housing types, it's unusual for associations to deliberately exclude people based on what kind of home they live in.


Homes in SOECA are literally next to the high-rises and businesses of downtown Silver Spring.

Next door to SOECA, the Woodside Park Civic Association has a long history of opposing townhouses from being built there, but remains totally open to anyone who wants to join. And the East Silver Spring Civic Association is open not only to townhouse dwellers, but apartment and condominium residents as well.

"The fact that I live in an apartment does not mean I am any less impacted by a nearby development or the loss of a local park, than say a homeowner would be," says ESSCA president Megan Moriarty. "Furthermore, I think we can come up with better solutions if all voices are considered in the debate."

Liz Brent, a real estate agent and Seven Oaks-Evanswood resident for 20 years, says that the disagreement reflects a disconnect between how long-time residents and newer residents see the neighborhood.

"There are people who come [to Silver Spring] for the transportation, come here for the walkability, come here for the diversity," she says. "I'm not saying the people who came here 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago don't want the diversity. But people who are coming here now...that's critical. It's a sea change for people who have been here for 30 and 40 and 50 years."

Keeping people out weakens community

Civic associations have a lot of sway in Montgomery County politics, largely because they're so organized. They provide a voice to thousands of residents, and they have done a lot of good in the county, from organizing community events to fighting highway extensions that would have cut across Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

But civic groups also disenfranchise many people, whether by restricting membership to certain residents or by becoming adversarial towards people who disagree. That's one reason why participation in civic associations across Montgomery County is in decline.

Just 20% of eligible households in Seven Oaks-Evanswood are members of SOECA. I've spoken to SOECA residents who supported Chelsea Heights and say they stopped participating because of the group's eagerness to vilify anyone who supported the development. "I couldn't think of a decision that had been made that I agree with," Brent said as to why she left.

While neighbors who fight new development say they're doing it to "preserve" or "strengthen" their neighborhood, they ultimately weaken community organizations when they push out people who might otherwise want to get involved too. Change is a fact of life, but so is difference and disagreement. Community organizations do themselves a disservice by trying to squelch both.

Besides, I bet that people buying houses in Chelsea Heights, or the renters who are already excluded from participating in SOECA, probably moved there because they like and enjoy the neighborhood. I bet they have a lot more in common with their single-family dwelling neighbors than some would like to admit. And now, we'll get to find out.

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Transit


See the beginnings of the Purple Line in Silver Spring

The Purple Line may still face some hurdles in Annapolis, but Montgomery County is already planning for its arrival. This construction project at the Silver Spring Library is making room for the light rail:


Construction at Silver Spring Library. Photo by Matt Johnson.

The worker on the right is installing a detectable warning surface, which most people know as the bumpy strip that tells a blind person they're about to step into a road or rail line.

Once the surface is complete, it will be very obvious that the space, which connects to a larger public plaza, is part of a transit station.

The station will be one of two in downtown Silver Spring, a major destination for the Purple Line. It will anchor a new mixed-use development going up, which will include a coffee shop, gallery space, and affordable housing for seniors in addition to a new library.


Rendering of the completed station. Image from MTA.

Purple Line rails and trains are still a ways off. Still, it's nice to see the beginnings of such a major project coming together already.

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Transit


Expand a highway to get a sidewalk? How about just build the sidewalk.

Maryland highway planners say four new interchanges on Route 29 in eastern Montgomery County will cut congestion, improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, and make it easier to build bus rapid transit. But the designs they've proposed would actually make all three of those things worse.


One of four proposed interchanges along Route 29 in Montgomery County, with north on the right side. Image from the Maryland State Highway Administration.

For decades, Maryland highway planners have been trying to turn Route 29 between New Hampshire Avenue in Montgomery County and I-70 in Howard County into a freeway. They recently unveiled new designs for a $128 million interchange at Route 29 and Fairland and Musgrove roads, just south of the Intercounty Connector. Today, both roads intersect Route 29, also known as Columbia Pike, at separate stoplights.

Under the state's proposal, Musgrove Road would become a dead end street on the west side of Route 29, while on-ramps and off-ramps would connect the east side of 29 to its northbound lanes. Fairland Road would go from four lanes to six and only have access to 29 going south.

If the project gets funding, construction could get underway in 2018.

Maryland has already built interchanges along Route 29 in Howard County and in Montgomery County at Cherry Hill Road, Briggs Chaney Road, and Route 198. In 2002, plans to build four more interchanges at Fairland and Musgrove roads, Stewart Lane, Tech Road, and Greencastle Road were put on hold and the focus shifted to the Intercounty Connector. In 2013, then-Governor Martin O'Malley revived the projects.

Better for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit?

Proponents of the Route 29 plan tout its benefits for people walking and riding bikes. They note that the plan includes a shared-use path along 29, new bike lanes on Fairland Road, and filled in sidewalk gaps on Musgrove Road.

Meanwhile, acting Montgomery County DOT head Al Roshdieh says building the interchanges planned for the 29 corridor are necessary for the bus rapid transit line the county wants to put in there.

But accommodating people on foot, bikes, and transit shouldn't be an excuse to build more highway interchanges that simply dump more cars on Maryland's roads. In fact, dumping more cars on the roads will only make traffic worse in the long term.

More roads mean more car traffic

The amount of driving on all of Montgomery County's state highways has remained steady for over 10 years even as the population has grown by 100,000 people. But even though Route 29 is one of those highways, its traffic has increased 10% since 2006.


A family tries to cross Route 29 in White Oak. Photo by the author.

Part of that is because of new development further north in Howard County, whose residents drive on 29 to jobs in Montgomery and DC. But it's also because of the three other interchanges that Route 29 gained over the last decade.

Research shows that building more roads in an effort to cut congestion is actually counterproductive. The roads eventually just fill with more cars as drivers use the new road space to drive more or longer distances than they used to.

Meanwhile, the interchange will create more congestion by taking away local connections. Today, drivers on Musgrove and Fairland can directly turn onto Route 29 to go either north or south. But with an interchange, everyone will have to go to Musgrove to go north on Route 29, or go to Fairland to head south, putting more traffic on both roads. Making Musgrove a dead-end on the west side of 29 also pushes more east-west trips onto Fairland or Cherry Hill Road.

Another interchange will simply make it easier to speed down Route 29 from points north. But there isn't any room to widen Route 29 or build more interchanges further south, meaning drivers will end up at the same existing bottlenecks in Four Corners, downtown Silver Spring, and in the District. Speeding people through the area also undermines Montgomery County's efforts to create town centers in White Oak and Burtonsville.

What should we do instead?

The bottom line is that if you want to reduce congestion on Route 29, you've got to get people out of their cars and on to something else. The current plan doesn't do that. So what's the alternative?

In Montgomery County's annual transportation priorities letter to state officials, county councilmembers ranked a bus rapid transit line on Route 29 as a higher priority than the interchanges on Route 29. This is a reversal from previous years.

County planners estimate that a BRT line on 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville would cost just $351 million, compared to $472 million for the four new interchanges proposed on Route 29.


BRT can be cheaper and way less disruptive than more interchanges. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Not only is transit cheaper than turning Route 29 into a highway, it is easier to build and ultimately more effective. We can fit bus lanes in the median of Route 29 north of New Hampshire Avenue without building any more interchanges or widening cross streets.

Transit gives drivers an alternative, meaning that car traffic along the corridor may grow much more slowly than it would otherwise. It allows both existing downtowns like Silver Spring and future town centers like White Oak to grow without putting as much pressure on already congested areas.

We don't need interchanges to make it safer for pedestrians or bicyclists either. Filling in sidewalk and bike lane gaps, creating more crosswalks at stoplights, and reducing the speed limit along Route 29 can improve safety without spending nearly as much money.

Route 29 doesn't need to become a freeway

Maryland completed its environmental study for Route 29 in 1995. Since then, the communities along Route 29, and Montgomery County as a whole, have changed.

County residents and companies alike want transit and walkable neighborhoods. Route 29 is now one of the region's busiest bus corridors. Meanwhile, East County neighborhoods are grappling with disinvestment as growth moves out to Howard County.

Turning Route 29 into a freeway might have made sense 20 years ago, but now it's time to reconsider. There are better, cheaper, less disruptive ways to get people where they're going.

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Transit


Long Branch is primed for revitalization, but it needs the Purple Line to make it happen

For some neighborhoods, the Purple Line is more than a transit line. Without the Purple Line, revitalization might not happen in Long Branch, on the border of Silver Spring and Takoma Park.


The location of Long Branch. Image from Montgomery County Planning Department.

Long Branch has long been an immigrant hub. Tens of thousands of people from Central America, West Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere have moved to the area in recent years, attracted by low-cost housing and economic opportunity. Nearby Langley Park is widely known as Maryland's International Corridor.

But the neighborhood is also isolated from opportunities in the larger DC area. While it's a mile away from the revitalized downtown Silver Spring, Long Branch continues to struggle with crime, disinvestment, and a lack of economic opportunities.

Laying the groundwork for a new Long Branch

Attempts to give Long Branch new life have come in fits and starts. In 2002, the Long Branch Task Force began planning for how to bring down street crime and code violations in rental housing, both of which had become rampant. Two housing organizations with close ties to county government renovated hundreds of units nearby, preserving affordability for qualifying residents and providing resident services such as after-school programs.

But there's been little momentum in Long Branch's commercial core, centered on what planners refer to as Long Branch's "superblock," centered on Flower Avenue and Piney Branch Road. While Flower Avenue is a lively, walkable street that already attracts people, Piney Branch is a commercial strip designed for heavy car traffic, with oversized lanes and retail parking lots that doesn't match Flower Avenue's forward thinking.

Commercial landowners who have failed to invest in their properties over the years would see increasing land values with two Purple Line stations, at Piney Branch and Arliss Street and at Piney Branch and University Boulevard. With Purple Line trains passing down the center of Piney Branch Road, they'll finally have an incentive to remake the area as a more walkable urban place.


Arliss Street will get a Purple Line station (if the line is built). Photo from Google Maps.

To attract and shape redevelopment, Montgomery County passed the Long Branch Sector Plan last year. A theme of the county's planning approach is a "road diet," redesigning Piney Branch Road with a median and wider sidewalks to create a safer pedestrian environment. As a light rail line that runs in the street, the Purple Line can build on existing neighborhood connectivity and not create new impediments.

The plan also creates a "commercial revitalization overlay zone" for most of the town center. This is one of the new overlay zones in a revised 2014 zoning code designed to encourage higher-density, mixed-use development in many locations around the county where high volume transit exists or is planned.

Meanwhile, the City of Takoma Park is leading the Flower Avenue Green Street project, which will make this walkable street even better with traffic calming features, improved sidewalks and advanced stormwater management.

Long Branch needs the Purple Line to stay on the right track

The Purple Line's two stations in Long Branch will solidify the groundwork that the county has laid there. Long Branch is already a transit-dependent community; ridership on the area's eight existing bus routes is significantly higher among Long Branch residents than elsewhere, and household car ownership is sharply lower than other suburban areas.

The Purple Line would put important job centers like Silver Spring, College Park, and Bethesda a short train ride away, instead of a long and inconvenient bus trip as it is today. It will also makes Long Branch more attractive to investors, meaning residents will get the amenities they need and that Long Branch will become a more pedestrian-friendly urban district, which is what the county wants.

The effect the Purple Line will have on Long Branch is also important at the state level, as Maryland has started to recognize that transit that links inner-Beltway communities is a must if we are to avoid suburban sprawl.

However, new Governor Larry Hogan could stop this project altogether, and his intentions aren't clear yet. Much is at stake for Long Branch and other neighborhoods along the International Corridor as they wait to see if the new governor takes the logical next step to overcome blight and unlock economic opportunities for residents.

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Pedestrians


The neighborhood where everybody "jaywalks"

When I moved to East-West Highway in South Silver Spring last fall, I quickly noticed one thing: people cross the street without using crosswalks all the time. Even as the surrounding area becomes more urban and walkable, this street remains a relic of its industrial, car-oriented past.


Drivers stop to let a man and his dog cross East-West Highway. All photos by the author.

East-West Highway was built in the 1920s to connect Bethesda and Silver Spring and provide an alternative to Military Road in the District. (An extension to Prince George's County came later.) Industrial uses like bottling plants, commercial bakeries, and repair shops sprouted up along the road in Silver Spring. When the Blairs complex was built in the 1950s, the developers purposefully faced it away from East-West Highway because it was so unattractive.

When the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring took off about 10 years ago, those buildings gave way to apartments and condominiums. More recently, businesses including Denizens Brewing Company, Bump 'N Grind, a coffeeshop/record store, and Scion, a restaurant based in Dupont Circle, have flocked to the area.

South Silver Spring is now one of the region's youngest neighborhoods, with a large number of transit commuters. Even the owner of the Blairs is embarking on a redevelopment plan to face the street again.


Parents run across East-West Highway with their kid.

As Silver Spring redeveloped, it became more walkable. But East-West Highway never caught up.

Even though it's fairly narrow, it's still designed like a high-speed commuter route, even as more and more people are walking and bicycling in the area. In some places there are no sidewalks, and the two crosswalks between Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road are each a quarter-mile apart, at least a five-minute walk. Even when you get to a crosswalk, the signals are timed to move cars through, making pedestrians wait for up to two minutes to cross.


People line up to cross East-West Highway at one of the few stoplights.

So people choose to cross where it feels convenient, or safer. In four months of non-scientific observations, I noticed that everyone seemed to cross in a few specific places. I started crossing there as well, and realized that most drivers will stop for you. And when I drove out of my building's garage, I always waited before turning, knowing that someone might be crossing.


Where to cross East-West Highway. Stoplights are in red, popular informal crossings are in blue. Click for an interactive map.

But this isn't ideal. A century of training people not to walk in the middle of the street means that nobody, including drivers, expects this to happen. Thus, informal crossing points aren't as safe as formal, designated places to cross that pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers can all recognize. And the unpleasant experience of walking in South Silver Spring depresses foot traffic, which hurts both existing businesses and prevents new ones from opening.

Even if it wasn't built for walking, East-West Highway became a place with lots of walkers. It's time for this street to adapt. More crosswalks would be a good start, as would filling in the missing gaps of sidewalk. More stoplights, or pedestrian-only signals called HAWKs, would be even better, as would a median where people could wait while crossing.

Yes, these things might cause additional delays for drivers. But as one of those drivers, I'd rather have a slower, safer street with more places to shop and hang out. As its surroundings become more urban, East-West Highway is a highway in name only.

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