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Roads


Why is Tysons walkability and bikeability so bad?

Virginia officials have known for years that Metro was coming to Tysons. Yet when the four stations opened, commuters found dreadful and dangerous walking and biking conditions. Why?


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by Ken Archer.

The Fairfax County DOT has been making some progress. There are two crosswalks at the intersection of Route 123 and Tysons Boulevard, which FCDOT recently installed. But at the opposite corner, there are no crosswalks. This is where Ken Archer described pedestrians running across nine lanes of traffic without any crosswalk.


The intersection of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. The Tysons Corner Metro station is now on the southwest corner. Image from Google Maps.

According to FCDOT director Tom Besiadny, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will not allow a crosswalk across what is now a double right turn lane. FCDOT has been discussing shrinking it to only a single lane, but that requires negotiating with VDOT, which takes a general stance of suspicion if not outright opposition to any change which slows cars.

(Update: Martin Di Caro reports that VDOT has specifically refused to let Fairfax shrink the double right lane until it conducts a six-month study about the traffic impact of the change.)

In a press release, the Coalition for Smarter Growth said these "show the challenges of retrofitting auto-dominated suburbs." It goes beyond just adding a crosswalk; even if FCDOT had one at every corner, there are still curving "slip lanes" for cars to take the turns at high speed. A more urban design would have just a basic square intersection, and with fewer lanes.

Fairfax plans a more comprehensive grid of streets to take some of the traffic volume off of the existing streets, but it will always be a struggle to make intersections smaller or slower versus continuing to design them for maximum car throughput. Even now, VDOT is continuing to widen part of Route 123 further.


Around Tysons Corner station. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

According to Navid Roshan of The Tysons Corner blog, VDOT also refused a request to lower the 45 mile per hour speed limit on Westpark Drive in a residential neighborhood.

It's not just VDOT, however. Bruce Wright, the chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, pointed out in a comment that many fixes for cyclists were in the Tysons Bicycle Master Plan created in 2011, but which Fairfax County has still not adopted. The plan will go to the county planning commission in October and then the Board of Supervisors.

The original plan called for a first phase of improvements by 2013, most of which are still not done. Those projects were all small, short-term items like adding sharrows and signed bicycle routes, adding enough bike racks at Silver Line stations (which are already almost out of space), and setting up Transportation Demand Management programs with nearby employers.

Roshan created a petition to ask Fairfax and the state of Virginia to prioritize fixing these problems. He points out that all of the improvements together cost less than some of the studies Virginia is doing around adding new ramps to and from the Toll Roadto move cars faster.

They shouldn't ignore traffic, but if Tysons is going to become an urban place, that means building roads that work for all users instead of maybe squeezing in a poor accommodation for pedestrians and/or cyclists as long as it doesn't get in the way of car flow.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission's Tysons Committee will meet tonight from 7-9:30 at the county's (not very transit-accessible) Government Center, 12000 Government Center Drive, Fairfax. The committee will discuss amendments to the Tysons Comprehensive Plan.

As Wright said, the county has been pushing developers to include better bicycle and pedestrian accommodations as they develop or redevelop parcels, but people riding the Silver Line now can't wait for development years down the road. Fairfax and VDOT missed chances to make the roads walkable and bikeable before the Silver Line opened, so there is no time to waste to fix these problems urgently.

Pedestrians


A 12-block "shared space" street will soon line the Southwest Waterfront

"Shared space" is the idea that some streets can work better when, instead of using curbs and traffic signals to separate users, pedestrians get priority using subtle but effective visual cues. Washington will soon have a prime example in Wharf Street SW, part of the Wharf development on the Southwest Waterfront.


Rendering of Wharf Street SW. All images from Perkins Eastman unless otherwise noted.

Streetsblog recently interviewed a key shared space messenger, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, showed off built examples in Pittsburgh and Batavia, Illinois, and discussed the potential of shared space to transform the narrow streets of New York City's Financial District.

Many of the historic examples of shared space that remain, like Market Square in Pittsburgh, Haymarket in Boston, or South Street Seaport in New York, are within what were wholesale markets or ports, where people, goods, and vehicles always intermingled. Old wharves and quays have become distinctive destinations in many cities, from Provincetown to Seattle's Pike Place Marketand an inspiration to others who want to create human-scaled environments today.

Washington, DC, had just such a working waterfront for centuries, but bulldozed almost all of it in the 1950s amidst federal fervor for slum clearance and urban renewal. Just a few weeks ago, developer Hoffman-Madison Waterfront broke ground on the Wharf, which will transform 27 acres of land into 12 city blocks housing 3.2 million square feet of retail, residences, hotels, offices, and facilities ranging from a concert hall to a yacht club. Many architects and landscape architects worked together within a master plan designed by Perkins Eastman.

I talked with Matthew Steenhoek of Hoffman Madison Waterfront about how the Wharf's public spaces have been designed to accommodate pedestrians first and vehicles (from semi trucks to the occasional police helicopter) when necessary. Below is an edited transcript.

What are the various kinds of streets and alleys that visitors will find at the Wharf?

Maine Avenue [on the land side of the site] has a pretty traditional street section with four lanes: vehicular traffic, turn lanes, parallel parking, and street trees. There will be a grade-separated, bidirectional cycle track on Maine's south side, outside of the existing street trees but separated from the sidewalk by a second row of trees. We're using permeable asphalt for the cycle track because it goes over the critical root zone for those big old street trees.

On Maine, you have a channelized design: traffic moves faster, there's a lot of through bicycle traffic connecting to the [Potomac and Anacostia riverfront] trails, so the through traffic happens there. We'll leave the median lanes utility-free and streetcar-ready, so if the District decides to build a line through there they can do so at a much lower cost.

As you move into the site, it transitions into the shared space approach. Besides the two major [entry] intersections at 9th and 7th, it's all curbless. The public street ends at the Maine Avenue cycle track, and from there in they'll be private streets. This gives us much more latitude in terms of our design approach, so we can vary from traditional street standards and requirements.


A circulation plan for phases one and two shows both shared spaces and pedestrian spaces.

Differences in paving material, texture, color, and pattern will help differentiate the spaces within the major public spaces. There's also bollards to separate the edge and center of the street in busier locations.

There are a lot of clues built into the paving, which will use a kit of different pavers. There will be a smooth and continuous path dedicated for pedestrians, while the places where vehicles are allowed as guests will have a split-block finish with a little rougher texture. In order to slow the speeds down, the paving patterns will change as you transition from one zone to anotherlike where you might be introducing pedestrians or bikes into the space. The smooth surface in no way limits where the pedestrians can go, though, and the curbless environment invites pedestrians to really use the entire space.


Most of Wharf Street's right-of-way is dedicated for pedestrians.

There aren't a lot of obstructions within the spaces. They're straightforward and kind of utilitarian, designed to be able to be closed, or partially closed, [to cars] when it's busy. Restaurant seating can spill out there, and the shared space can become a true public space.

Wharf Street runs directly along the water's edge. It has a typical section of 60 feet across, with three modules: The closest 20 feet [to the buildings] is a café seating zone, where the paving is smooth and flat so that they can move furniture around. Right outside there is a dedicated pedestrian path, then the shared movement, or travel, zoneone way for vehicles moving or parking or loading, but cyclists and pedestrians can go any which way. The movement space is the center 20 feet, using smaller, more textured pavers.

The outside 20 feet has a dual allée of trees, and it's where the fixtures and street furniture areno bollards, but there are trees. That zone, again, has a smooth texture. Along the bulkhead [seawall], there's a huge wooden timber down the side for people to sit on. We also have flexible seating all throughout. Having the flexible seating is part of the traffic calming: things are going to change and feel different every day.

Throughout the parcels, there are alleyways that come through. Those are much tighter, more intimate spaces, from 25 to 40 feet wide. The alleys are not back alleys, they're public spacesnot a place for stinky exposed dumpsters leaking things. DC got rid of most of its alley buildings [via the early 20th century's Alley Housing Clearance Commission], but the few alleys that are left are pretty great.


Alleys will welcome pedestrians, not just service vehicles.

The only place where 55 foot long trucks are allowed is at the concert hall [at the west edge of the development]. Everywhere else will only have deliveries on 30 foot trucks. Since we have retail on all sides of the buildings, it's tricky to find the "back of house" space [service entrances]. The idea has been to work with [retail] operators on loading hours, so that during prime pedestrian hours there's not loading happening, and to screen and integrate the loading areas so that they can function as good public spaces when they're not being used.

The way that the shared space is set up will encourage everyone to slow down. It's not a highly predictable zone, which gives people a false sense of securitythey don't look around themselves. The character of the space will allow it to do what it needs to do, while remaining safe and accommodating for all the different users.

Like around 7th Street Park, cars are allowed, but it's not going to be the fastest route to anywhere. There's a splash fountain and benches in the middle of the street that you have to make a one-way loop around, and another one down at the District Pier where cars will have to go around to get to Blair Alley.

There's another totally pedestrian zone at District Pier. That's the most intense area of pedestrian activity, since there's lots of things happening here [with the pier and concert hall]. We'll have another [pedestrian zone] over at M Street Landing across from Arena Stage, and a third at the Waterfront Park, which we designed through a community charrette process. At Waterfront Park, vehicular access is only to dinner cruise boats, and to the police and fire pier. Ninety-nine percent of the time that will be a nice broad path, but the open space is so a police helicopter can land right in the middle.

Can you describe the process of deciding upon a shared space approach?

That was one of the really upfront visions that [design architect] Stan Eckstut had for the site. He saw it as a true, mercantile, flexible space. Having hard curbs really does limit what you can do with the spacewhat it wants to be in 2017, and in 50 years, may be really different. Very early on, in 2008 probably, we had that 20-20-20 allocation set up for Wharf Street. It's tight enough to create a comfortable space and encourage that vitality along the water.

A lot of thought went into how to execute it, but we always knew it was going to be shared. From the start, everyone bought in on that vision of flexibility. It will be a nice change from most of the new streets and places that are being constructed around the city, some of which are very rigid and kind of sterile.


A piazza adjacent to Wharf Street will allow cars access to a hotel entrance, without providing through access.

We have a healthy storefront allowance [for retailers to design their own spaces]. Also, these blocks are relatively small by city standards, around 250 feet square. Since the citywide average is 300-500 feet, our fabric is much more porous than that. [Our historic preservation consultants] came up with a list of old alley names from the neighborhood, some of which we'll resurrect here as a link to that past. Hopefully, these approaches will mitigate the fact that everything's new. Ultimately, it needs to get lived in to feel real.

What primary benefits did the shared space approach offer?

Our reason was placemaking. For us, it was starting with a question of "what's the space going to feel like?" We wanted to bring something interesting and uniquea space that'll work tomorrow, and in 50 or 99 years, when our ground lease is done. Vehicular capacity wasn't important, since these are not continuous routes through to anywhere. Most cars will just want to go to and from the garage.

Shared space just made sense for any number of reasons. We wanted to slow the traffic down, but not with obtrusive traffic bumps. These are second-generation traffic calming ideas: adding uncertainty, variety, texture. It's saying, "Hey, you're welcome to come in as a motorist, but behave." Everyone else is going to behave. [Since they're internal streets] we could have some fun with the signage, something like "walk your car."

The exponential drop in injuries when cars only move 15 or 18 mph is very telling. At that speed, people can still communicate nonverbally, with eye contact or a nod. Get above that, and that all breaks down, and instead you have to rely on lights and signs and bumps and those crazy things. We're going a little more low key than that. If everyone's moving at or below 15 mph, you can negotiate those intersections without the need for stop lights and all that equipment.


The Maine Avenue Fish Market, a fixture of DC's waterfront that has long mixed crowds with cars, will remain at the west edge of the Wharf's site. Photo by D.B. King on Flickr.

Were there other examples that sold you on the concept?

We think that we have the right solution for this place, of course, but we did travel to see other waterfronts. Along Nyhavn, the famous slip in Copenhagen, there's two strips of smooth pavement that are the width of the pushcarts they used to unload the boats. That street section, how it feels and meets the water, was definitely an inspiration, just because it's a wonderful place. It's pedestrian only, because there's just so many people, but we have the ability to do the same.

Stavanger, Norway, did a really nice thing with the paving to differentiate parking, driving, and walking spaces. We adapted that solution here: It's all the same tone and all looks about the same, but the textures break things up without putting thermoplastic stripes and giant yellow signs. That makes for a more visually pleasing public environment, creating a public space instead of a traffic sewer.

And of course, right now on the site, the shared space that we already have today is the Fish Market. It's more of a mixing bowl, and it's functioned that way for years. It works just fine because it doesn't "work" in a conventional sense, and that's how it really works.

A version of this post originally appeared on Streetsblog USA.

Transit


MoveDC plan proposes more cycletracks, transit, and tolls. Will it become a reality?

The latest draft of DDOT's citywide transportation plan, moveDC, calls for a massive expansion of transit and cycling facilities throughout the District, plus new tolls on car commuters. If it actually becomes the template for DC's transportation, the plan will be one of America's most progressive.


The moveDC plan summary map. All images from DDOT.

DDOT released the latest version of moveDC last Friday, launching a month long public comment period in anticipation of a DC Council hearing on June 27. Following that, the mayor will determine any changes based on the comment period, and adopt a final plan likely this summer.

What's in the plan

Amid the hundreds of specific recommendations in the plan, a few major proposed initiatives stand out:

  • A vastly improved transit network, with 69 miles of streetcars, transit lanes, and improved buses.
  • A new Metrorail subway downtown.
  • A massive increase in new cycling infrastructure, including the densest network of cycletracks this side of Europe.
  • Congestion pricing for cars entering downtown, and traveling on some of DC's biggest highways.
Transit


Proposed high-capacity transit network (both streetcars and bus). Blue is mixed-traffic, red is dedicated transit lanes.

The plan proposes to finish DC's 22-mile streetcar system, then implement a further 47-mile high-capacity transit network that could use a combination of streetcars or buses. That includes 25 miles of dedicated transit lanes, including the much requested 16th Street bus lane.

Although the proposed high capacity transit corridors closely mirror the 37-mile streetcar network originally charted in 2010, there are several new corridors. In addition to 16th Street, moveDC shows routes on Wisconsin Avenue, both North and South Capitol Streets, H and I Streets downtown, and several tweaks and extensions to other corridors.

The plan endorses WMATA's idea for a new loop subway through downtown DC, but explicitly denies that DC can fund that project alone.

MoveDC also shows a network of new high-frequency local bus routes, including Connecticut Avenue, Military Road, Alabama Avenue, and MacArthur Boulevard.

Bicycles

MoveDC also includes a huge expansion of trails and bike lanes, especially cycletracks.


Proposed bike network. The pink lines are cycletracks.

Under the plan, DC would have a whopping 72 miles of cycletracks crisscrossing all over the city. From South Dakota Avenue to Arizona Avenue to Mississippi Avenue, everybody gets a cycletrack.

Meanwhile, moveDC shows major new off-street trails along Massachusetts Avenue, New York Avenue, and the Anacostia Freeway, among others.

Tolls for cars

Congestion pricing is clearly on DDOT's mind, with multiple proposals for new variable tolls in the plan.


Proposed downtown cordon charge zone.

The most aggressive proposal is to a declare a cordon charge to enter downtown in a car. This idea has worked in London and has been discussed in New York and San Francisco, but so far no American city has tried it.

Meanwhile, some of the major car routes into DC would also be converted to managed lanes. Like Maryland's ICC or Virginia's Beltway HOT lanes, managed lanes have variable tolls that rise or fall based on how busy a road is.

MoveDC proposes managed lanes on I-395, I-295, New York Avenue, and Canal Road.

What will the council think?

DDOT has produced a very strong plan, but is it going anywhere? The DC Council will discuss moveDC on June 27, at which time we'll find out if the same people who pulled the rug out from under streetcar funding are interested in progressive policy-making, at least.

Even if DC does adopt this plan, whether the council will actually provide the funds necessary to build it is anybody's guess.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the DC Council will approve or deny this plan. Actually, the mayor has authority to adopt the plan entirely on his own.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Politics


ACT scores Montgomery County candidates on transit and smart growth

Where do candidates in Montgomery County and statewide in Maryland stand on the Purple Line, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly road designs, Bus Rapid Transit, M-83 and adding housing? A new scorecard by the Action Committee for Transit helps shed light on these issues.


Scorecard for countywide offices.

Maryland voters will be choosing nominees in a primary on June 24th. ACT asked candidates for Montgomery County Council and County Executive, state delegate from Montgomery County, and governor about these issues. ACT then rated the candidates based on their voting records, questionnaire answers, records in office (especially important for candidates who have held executive offices), and public statements.


Scorecard for County Council district races.


Scorecard for candidates for governor.

Here is more detail about the questions ACT asked, and why.

1. Do you support funding and advancing the Purple Line to groundbreaking as described in the Locally Preferred Alternative and the Environmental Impact Statement without qualification?

In the quarter-century and more that activists have worked for the Purple Line, plenty of politicians and citizens have claimed to support the Purple Line. However, that support has sometimes come with qualifications that would make the Purple Line either prohibitively expensive to build or ineffective.

There are those who support the Purple Line only if it were built as a heavy rail line or only if it were bus rapid transit. Some public officials have claimed to be for the Purple Line but then pushed for alternative routes that were impractical or wildly expensive. Others have said they supported the project but then added qualifications that neatly dovetailed with the arguments opponents were making against it.

The Locally Preferred Alternative Governor Martin O'Malley and the County Council selected for the Purple Line includes an at-grade light rail line with a trail alongside it on the Georgetown Branch right of way between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Although the Purple Line is widely considered a done deal, the fact remains that any public works project this large can falter. The Purple Line has uniquely well-funded and well-connected opponents. As activists, our job is to consistently advocate for the Purple Line until the trains are running and the trail is full of bikers and hikers. ACT only gave candidates pluses if they supported the Purple Line without any qualification.

2. Would you support more transit, pedestrian, and bicycle-friendly road design in our school zones and urban centers even if it slows drivers down?

Many officials claim they want safer and more convenient roads for pedestrians and cyclists, but advocates have consistently found that support vanishes if any design changes would lower speed limits or otherwise inconvenience car traffic. It's easy to support pedestrian and bicycle friendly road design; it is very hard to support it when it requires slowing drivers down. Sadly, this is true even of school zones.

For this question, ACT gave pluses only if candidates were willing to support complete streets policies even when a change might slow down some drivers.

3. Do you support changing existing traffic lanes to dedicated bus lanes for BRT?

The basic idea of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is that the most efficient use of road space is for those vehicles that carry many passengers. When lanes are reserved for exclusive use by buses, a road can carry more people faster. Stranding buses in the same congested traffic as cars takes the "rapid" out of Bus Rapid Transit; effective BRT requires dedicated lanes for buses.

Unfortunately, if implemented improperly, this gives highway builders an opportunity to further widen roads for extra bus lanes. In Montgomery County, the temptation exists for politicians to support dedicated bus lanes in the upcounty by widening roads, while opposing any bus lanes in the downcounty. That would mollify those who can't imagine taking lanes away from cars. It is easy for a candidate to support generic BRT; it is harder for a candidate to support changing some existing car lanes to bus-only lanes.

The BRT plan approved by the County Council last fall does not rule out widening roads to create dedicated bus lanes, and includes several chances for residents to delay or stop repurposing car lanes to bus only lanes. Advocates must continue to pressure the County Council to make sure Montgomery County gets the rapid Bus Rapid Transit system it needs.

ACT specifically asked candidates if they support changing existing traffic lanes to dedicated bus lanes, and only gave candidates a plus if they supported that.

4. Will you support stopping all spending on the M83 highway?

M83 is an environmentally destructive highway that would run from Montgomery Village to Clarksburg and cost the county at least $350 million to build. It was put in the master plans over 50 years ago, before major modern environmental laws existed.

To be sure candidates opposed it, we asked if they would support stopping all spending on M83. The question covered money from both the capital budget and operating budget, as well as any money to study it further.

The questionnaire answers are the first time all at-large county council Democratic candidates stated their opposition to any further spending on the M83 highway, marking an important turning point in the fight against the "zombie" highway.

5. How would you increase the housing supply in our urban centers?

For transit to work, it has to be where people can use it: near their homes. And if more people live near transit, then more people can use it. Therefore ACT has consistently supported development in urban areas like downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda.

In areas like these, politicians who support this sort of development frequently take a lot of criticism from people who don't want any new development whatsoever, and who feel it threatens the character of single-family neighborhoods.

Two recent projects, the Chelsea Heights townhouse development in Silver Spring and the Chevy Chase Lake plan, have typified this debate in the downcounty. ACT considered candidates' statements on those two development projects when rating them on this issue.

Many candidates chose to interpret this question as one about affordable housing programs, which misses the point. The intense market demand for transit-accessible housing means that less affluent residents will inevitably get squeezed out unless we greatly increase the supply. To ensure that housing near Metro does not become a luxury good, we must promote construction of transit-accessible residences at all price levels, including high-end and middle-income housing as well as subsidized housing.

6. Would you support a 2nd road crossing of the Potomac?

At the moment, there are no plans for a second highway crossing over the Potomac which would make an "Outer Beltway." However, some Virginia advocacy groups regularly bring the idea up at Council of Governments meetings, and there are Marylanders who are very interested. The highway lobby in both states is very supportive.

A second road bridge would invite more highway-building at the expense of funds for transit. Although the issue is currently dormant, it might become active in the future and so the ACT board wanted to know what politicians would say about it. It also seemed to be a good opportunity to find out candidates' general attitudes towards highway building and sprawl development.

7. Do you support including the 3rd track needed to allow all-day MARC service?

Right now MARC only runs a few times a day between Martinsburg, Frederick and DC. MARC runs on CSX tracks, and CSX uses those tracks for its own trains, limiting MARC service. For MARC to run more frequently, it needs a third track.


Scorecard for state senator and delegate.

"Why did my candidate get a minus when their questionnaire answers are perfectly correct?"

Some candidates answered "yes", and then followed that with an answer that made it clear they didn't get it. For example, an imaginary candidate who responded to the M83 question by saying "Yes, there should be no further spending on M83. The money should go to a highway that runs from my house to I-270," would receive a minus because they do support building more highways in our county. For the record, no candidate said any such thing.

Candidates who served in executive offices, such as the County Executive, were evaluated on their records in office as well as their public statements, voting records and questionnaire answers.

There have been a considerable number of candidate forums and other opportunities to hear candidates speak. ACT board members have attended as many as possible, not just because we are political junkies in need of help, but because we wanted to see if candidates were consistent in their positions.

We found that some candidates were inconsistent in addition to just not being clear. If a candidate's statements at a public event conflicted with the answer he or she gave on the questionnaire, that factored into the rating. The questions were deliberately written using very specific language to see who would go beyond generalities and commit to a position that might be unpopular.

Candidates running unopposed in primaries were not rated. However, their answers to the questionnaires, along with those of all the other candidates, are posted in full on the ACT website.

Roads


Berliner presses for a transit alternative to Montgomery sprawl highway

Montgomery councilmember Roger Berliner (District 1) took an important step toward defeating plans for the costly and damaging Midcounty Highway and replacing it with transit.


Berliner discusses M-83 at the Council's budget hearing.

Berliner, who chairs the council's Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and the Environment, sent a letter to County Executive Ike Leggett asking him to direct the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT), to study a robust transit alternative to the highway project, dubbed M-83.

MCDOT is nearing the end of an 11-year environmental review of M-83 and its alternatives, and hopes to receive a federal environmental permit later this year. In all that time, the agency has avoided considering a transit alternative, despite repeated requests from the community.

When Montgomery County Council's transportation committee discussed M-83 during their budget review last month, the committee voted to allocate no future planning funding beyond the highway project's current environmental review. Berliner made his opinion clear to MCDOT officials then:

It's been part of my own goal with respect to our county's approach to transportation to move into a transit first orientation. From my perspective, I want some assurance that we've looked at every transit option in this corridor prior to our getting a recommendation with respect to this project.
He joins four other councilmembers, Phil Andrews (District 3), Marc Elrich (at large), George Leventhal (at large), and Hans Riemer (at large) who have called for a transit alternative.

Berliner's letter urges MCDOT to consider all viable transit options, including combinations of the Corridor Cities Transitway, express bus service on I-270, two-way service on the inner portions of the Brunswick MARC line, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on MD-355, and completion of the Clarksburg Town Center to reduce local trip demand.

One of the options in MCDOT's road study, Alternative 5, would have added a service lane along MD-355 for cars. Berliner urges MCDOT to study the possibility of transforming that concept into a transitway for BRT. 355 BRT to Clarksburg would provide a straight, rapid transit option for Clarksburg, Germantown, and Gaithersburg commuters to Shady Grove, Rockville, and points south.

Comparative travel times from other BRT systems suggest a 25 minute ride from Clarksburg to Shady Grove Metro, including wait times, which is comparable or better than driving, depending on traffic.


BRT plan for 355 to Clarksburg. Map from Communities for Transit.

According to MCDOT head Art Holmes, the County Executive "is not in favor of moving M-83 forward into construction," but Leggett hasn't yet made clear to the public or his agency what he plans to do instead to improve transportation for gridlocked upcounty communities.

The question remains whether Leggett will stand up to his own agency, which has a reputation for favoring roads over transit, and demand they take a serious look at transit alternatives.

Roads


Sprawl-inducing M-83 highway gets thumbs down from Montgomery County Executive

Last Thursday, Montgomery County transportation director Art Holmes told the County Council that County Executive Ike Leggett does not favor building the M-83 "Mid-County Highway Extended" highway project.


Photo from Google Maps.

This could be an important signal that the outdated project, which would take hundreds of millions of dollars from transit projects and incentivize more sprawl development in the northern tier of Montgomery, is falling out of favor with more and more county leaders.

At an April 23 meeting of the Transportation and Environment Committee, Holmes said:

I want to make sure that there's no misunderstanding. ... The County Executive is not in favor of going forward with M-83 into construction. He's put nothing in his CIP for design or engineering or construction, and the staff is not in favor of that. What we were talking about and which might have given people some indication was the [environmental] study and what the study is about. The study is not a recommendation for construction.

M-83 appeared to be moving forward earlier this year when Leggett first released his proposed capital budget in January. That budget funded facility planning for the M-83 highway.

The controversial highway has been under environmental review for the past 11 years because of the potential impacts on wetlands and stream valleys.


Alternative routes being studied for Midcounty Highway. Image from MCDOT.

After significant community protest, Leggett said in March that M-83 wouldn't receive future planning funding. Now, it appears he has decided to take an even more decisive stance on the project.

A consensus is beginning to emerge amongst county leaders to focus on viable, high quality transit alternatives serving Clarksburg before building more highways. With Frederick County continuing to grow to the north, many recognize that new roads will only fill up with traffic in a matter of time, and that the investment of $350 million (at minimum) of county funds would hardly bring any benefit.


Eugene EmX BRT. Photo used with permission from Lane Transit District.

Instead, supporting Clarksburg's original vision as a walkable, transit-oriented community could do much more to improve the quality of life for upcounty residents. Based on comparable speeds from other BRT systems, a trip on BRT on MD-355 from Clarksburg to the Shady Grove Metro would take about 25 minutes, which is similar to the driving time.

Completing the town square combined with an array of transit investments could provide residents real alternatives to sitting in traffic to reach the grocery store, Metro, or work.

Until now, the county's Department of Transportation has resisted developing and modeling a robust transit alternative to M-83, but that could change with the transportation director's recent comments. Given the enormous fiscal and environmental cost of M-83 to the county, it would be in all residents' best interest to examine all possible transit alternatives first.

Development


Will Charles County choose sprawl?

On the fringe of the metropolitan Washington area, a suburban county is poised to make a momentous decision. Despite the vigorous objections by many residents, Charles County could promote sprawling development that could harm Maryland's environment, the county's economic vitality, and the metro region as a whole.


Mattawoman Creek. Photo by Tom Zolper, Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

On May 13, the county could adopt a plan that could add some ten thousand new homes, many of them with septic systems, on land that is now forest. This is precisely what a Maryland water quality law in 2012 aimed to avoid. It would fuel a demand for new roads for long-distance commuters and severely pollute a rare and precious tributary to the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay.

If the vote goes the other way, Charles County could promote a future that most of its residents say they want, have a positive impact on Prince George's County and other neighbors in the region, and comply with Maryland's environmental laws and goals.

From rural to rapidly growing

Twenty years ago, Charles County was still a fairly sleepy place. Mostly rural, with wide expanses of rolling farmland and thousands of acres of forests, this county just south of Prince George's was just then beginning to build bedrooms for commuters in the greater Washington region.

Most commercial and residential development clustered in and around Waldorf, a stretch of urban strip commercial centers along US 301; the large planned development of St. Charles; and the county seat of La Plata, a slightly more compact town to the south. The county also hosted the tiny cross-roads communities of Bryans Road and Port Tobacco, and the government naval munitions research center in the village of Indian Head, on the Potomac River.


Charles County (outlined in pink) and the Mattawoman Creek (in blue). Base image from Google Maps.

The county has grown significantly since then, and is now a full-fledged part of the metropolitan Washington region. Yet there is still a vast amount of rural land in Charles County. There are still thousands of acres of forest, along the Potomac across from Stafford County, Virginia, and on either side of the lazy Mattawoman Creek. One of the best bass fisheries on the East Coast, it hosts big money tournaments and weekend fishers alike.

According to Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, the Mattawoman is also a high-quality, productive aquatic ecosystem that ranks eighth among the state's 137 watersheds for freshwater stream biodiversity. It is a jewel which, while stressed with farm and urban runoff and very near the knife edge of system overload, is still a rare and wonderful place.

The Cross-County Connector and sprawl plans threaten Charles County

That's the thing about Charles County. It's a place of contrasts.

Incomes are rising. Growth is happening, as it is all across the region. That's not necessarily a bad thing if it brings jobs to the folks who live there now. But what form will the growth take, and at what cost to the County's natural resources, agricultural heritage, and way of life? What do county residents really want?

Three years ago, some county leaders and businesspeople pressed forward with a plan to build a new highway, the so-called "Cross-County Connector." Many residents felt the road was unnecessary, and local funds could instead jump-start light rail transit or improve maintenance and safety on other east-west roads without slicing through and opening up a new suburban sprawl corridor.

From an environmental perspective, it was an especially bad idea. Federal and state agencies uniformly commented adversely, refusing to issue the necessary permits.

But highways never seem to die. Nor do the dreams of bulldozed forests, carved up farmland, and unmitigated sprawl which dance in the heads of a few developers, like the dreams of sugarplum fairies in little children. At the same time, good local land use plans are sometimes stillborn.

Who killed the good plan for Charles County?

Just two years ago, the county planning staff labored over a new land use plan. It complied with a new state requirement to designate land in one of four "tiers." It reflected existing land uses and key environmental attributes. It designed around public sewer and water to avoid septic systems, which can pollute groundwater, as much as possible.

The county held public meetings galore with local residents and businesspeople, and obtained extensive feedback. The plan that emerged seemed to reflect local desires and state requirements. It supported a prosperous and environmentally sustainable future.

The Connector was gone. The plan would keep many areas rural, conserve forests and farms, and focus growth in sensible development zones in and around existing communities. It would protect the Mattawoman, and keep additional polluted runoff out of the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay.


Mattawoman Creek. Photo from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

But this sensible plan didn't last long.

A group of businesspeople and developers quietly promoted their own version of a plan: the wonderfully-named "Balanced Growth Initiative," or BGI. A slim majority of County politicians, in a stunning reversal, made the BGI their own instead of the plan from their own professional staff.

The BGI would have enabled an extensive amount of new sprawl, allowing spread-out development on tens of thousands of acres of forest and farmland. It would have put back the Cross-County Connector highway that had not previously received support from any federal or state agency.

Up to 52,000 new homes would have become possible, including almost 350 major subdivisions on septic systems. Additionally, with all the new hardened surfaces, more than 200,000 pounds of nitrogen-polluted runoff could have been added to the county's waters annually, challenging the Chesapeake Bay clean-up.

In an unprecedented reaction, 14 Maryland cabinet secretaries co-signed a letter to the county slamming the BGI plan from their various perspectives. At a subsequent public hearing, hundreds of county residents expressed their strong opposition, in addition to the several thousand similar reactions the county otherwise received.

2013 polling provided comparable results, revealing what residents overwhelmingly want and what the first, good plan reflected:

  • Nearly two-thirds of residents believed the county is growing too fast, and 81% opposed the plan that could add 52,000 new homes within the next few decades.
  • While 70% viewed traffic as a major problem, 71% opposed the Cross County Connector, and most folks preferred bringing good jobs closer to where people live.
  • 93% of the community said that if they were writing the plan, protecting local waterways like the Mattawoman, and areas like Port Tobacco, would be a high priority.
Faced with near revolt, the County Commission created a six-person, even-handed special task force to come back with a new Tier Plan. The plan the task force finally returned to the Commission was similar to the original one that the planning staff had drafted, placing thousands of acres in the two most protective land use "tiers," as Maryland law requires.

Still dissatisfied, three of the five commissioners edited the plan. They added 9,000 acres (14 square miles) of large-lot development back into the sensitive areas of the Mattawoman watershed, which would allow 8,000-10,000 new homes on what is now forest (likely doubling impervious surface in that watershed), along with some other changes.


Left: Land use "tiers" in the original plan. Right: The current proposal from the County Commission. Note the extra developed area (yellow) around the Mattawoman Creek.

Once again, Maryland officials reacted adversely. This was not, they wrote, what state law intended for managing growth and reining in septic systems. It would lead, they said, to development in especially sensitive areas. In 30% of the development area the Commissioners added back in, it would introduce houses and people into sub-watersheds that have especially high-quality streamswhich could possibly trigger a federal Clean Water Act-related review. The state's comments force another public hearing, now scheduled for May 13th in La Plata.

Charles County is surely at a crossroadsor a precipice. This has been a long story, and of course it's not over yet. The back-and-forth nature of this planning process is enough to produce whiplash.

As a suburban jurisdiction in the greater Washington region, the county can succumb to the seductive pull of quick development bucks and short-term revenue. It can squander precious natural resources and a way of life that its citizens obviously hold dear. And it can let obligations to provide public services to far-flung extensions of new development sap economic strength.

Or, the county can help carve out a more sustainable future for itself and the metropolitan region. More focused growth would provides genuine economic progress and strong, resilient communities for its residents and businesses. That would also let the county's cherished farmland, forestland, wetlands and streams continue to afford a rich, balanced quality of life for its residents, and for the greater region, for many years to come. The choice is stark.

Roads


Montgomery's most congested intersections aren't in its downtowns

Where do you think the most congested intersections are in Montgomery County? Maybe right by the Bethesda Metro? In downtown Silver Spring? University, Georgia, and Veirs Mill in Wheaton? Actually, no. A review of Montgomery County's 50 most congested intersections found only one inside one of the county's urban centers.


There are busy intersections in the more car-oriented neighborhoods around downtown Silver Spring, but not in the core. Map by the author.

County planners ranked the 50 busiest junctions for the Mobility Assessment Report, a regular review of Montgomery's transportation needs. Notably, the report found that the amount of driving in the county has stayed the same since 2002 even while 100,000 new people came in.

The busiest intersection is Rockville Pike at West Cedar Lane in Bethesda, next to NIH and Walter Reed, which had a critical lane volume of 1,957 cars during morning rush hour. In other words, that means that nearly 2,000 cars pass through a single lane of that intersection each morning. In second place is Rockville Pike and Nicholson Lane in White Flint, which is slowly evolving into a new downtown.

Other than that, the top 50 didn't contain a single intersection in the downtowns of Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Wheaton, in Friendship Heights, or Rockville Town Center. For decades, Montgomery County has had a policy of directing growth to walkable, urban neighborhoods near transit stations with an aim of reducing car traffic.

RankIntersectionCommunityAM CLVPM CLV
1Rockville Pike at West Cedar Ln.Bethesda1,9571,612
2Rockville Pike at Nicholson Ln.White Flint1,2341,929
3Old Georgetown Rd. at Democracy Blvd.North Bethesda1,4231,923
4Darnestown Rd. at Riffle Ford Rd.North Potomac1,0611,898
5Shady Grove Rd. at Choke Cherry Ln.Rockville1,3631,853
6Connecticut Ave. at East-West Hwy.Chevy Chase1,6841,848
7Georgia Ave. at 16th St.Silver Spring1,1221,816
8Great Seneca Highway at Muddy Branch Rd.Gaithersburg1,4641,800
9Frederick Rd. at Montgomery Village Ave.Gaithersburg1,5361,795
10Rockville Pike at 1st St./Wootton Pkwy.Rockville1,7681,610
11East Gude Dr. at Crabbs Branch Rd.Derwood1,7421,211
12Veirs Mill Rd. at Twinbrook Pkwy.Rockville1,4261,721
131st St. at Baltimore Rd.Rockville1,4221,718
14Connecticut Ave. at Plyers Mill Rd.Kensington1,3491,710
15Shady Grove Rd. at Epsilon Dr./Tupelo Dr.Derwood1,7041,403
16University Blvd. at Piney Branch Rd.Silver Spring1,5791,703
17East Gude Dr. at Southlawn Ln.Rockville1,6921,450
18Randolph Rd. at Veirs Mill Rd.Wheaton1,6831,679
19Piney Branch Rd. at Philadelphia Ave.Takoma Park1,2281,680
20Columbia Pike at Fairland Rd.Fairland1,4161,678
21Connecticut Ave. at Jones Bridge Rd.Chevy Chase1,4901,672
22Montrose Rd. at Tower Oaks Blvd.Rockville1,6631,232
23Bradley Blvd. at Wilson Ln.Bethesda1,6601,603
24Falls Rd. at Maryland Ave./Potomac Valley Rd.Rockville1,3841,658
25Georgia Ave. at Norbeck Rd.Aspen Hill1,6561,592
26Frederick Rd. at Shady Grove Rd.Shady Grove1,6471,486
27Colesville Rd. at Dale Dr.Silver Spring1,6041,645
28Shady Grove Rd. at Midcounty Hwy.Derwood1,6441,323
29Clopper Rd. at Waring Station Rd.Germantown1,6361,589
30Montgomery Village Ave. at Stedwick Ln.Montgomery Village1,6331,170
31Connecticut Ave. at Bradley Ln.Chevy Chase1,4151,628
32Georgia Ave. at Forest Glen Rd.Silver Spring1,3181,626
33Colesville Rd. at Sligo Creek Pkwy.Silver Spring1,5081,624
34Georgia Ave. at Columbia Blvd./Seminary Ln.Silver Spring1,5201,624
35Veirs Mill Rd. at 1st St.Rockville1,6101,475
36Aspen Hill Rd. at Arctic Ave.Aspen Hill1,6091,467
37Norbeck Rd. at Muncaster Mill Rd.Aspen Hill1,6091,238
38Columbia Pike at Greencastle Rd.Fairland1,6071,575
39Old Georgetown Rd. at Tuckerman Ln.North Bethesda1,6041,261
40Great Seneca Highway at Quince Orchard Rd.Gaithersburg1,6021,547
41Randolph Rd. at Parklawn Dr.North Bethesda1,6011,165
42Democracy Blvd. at Falls Rd./South Glen Rd.Potomac1,5941,167
43River Rd. at Holton-Arms SchoolBethesda1,5911,358
44Norbeck Rd. at Bauer Dr.Aspen Hill1,5861,329
45Randolph Rd. at New Hampshire Ave.Colesville1,4401,580
46Layhill Rd. at Ednor Rd./Norwood Rd.Olney1,5791,425
47River Rd. at I-495Bethesda1,579957
48River Rd. at Willard Ln./Greenway Dr.Bethesda1,5791,530
49East-West Hwy. at Jones Mill Rd./Beach Dr.Chevy Chase1,0871,574
50Colesville Rd. at Franklin Ave.Silver Spring1,4131,571
Data from the Montgomery County Mobility Assessment Report. CLV = Critical Lane Volume. Click on a column header to sort.

As a result, while these areas do have higher-than-average rates of foot and bike traffic and high rates of transit use, they're not as congested as more suburban parts of the county. Just 16 of the top 50 intersections were inside the Beltway.

Not surprisingly, some of the busiest junctions are along major commuter routes like Rockville Pike, Connecticut Avenue, and Georgia Avenue. But many are on small, two-lane roads in suburban or rural communities like #4, Darnestown Road and Riffle Ford Road in North Potomac, or #46, Layhill Road, Ednor Road, and Norwood Road near Sandy Spring. These places are spread-out and far from transit, jobs, and other amenities, meaning residents have to drive a lot.


Layhill Road and Norwood Road. Image from Google Street View.

This report shows that if you build places on the assumption that people will drive everywhere, you'll get a lot of traffic, while if you give people options, you'll get less. Not everyone may want to live downtown, but those who choose to do so are keeping the roads clear for everyone else.

Roads


Turn on a bulb-out to protect White Flint pedestrians

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

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

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


Image from Google Maps.

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

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

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


Photo by Peter Blanchard on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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