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Posts about Suburban Sensibility


Bike lane debates move from city hall to late night TV

Bicycling is becoming so popular that even late night talk show hosts are talking about it. The Late Late Show's James Corden recently weighed in on a controversial bike lane plan in California.

Coronado, a town near San Diego, recently tabled plans to paint bike lanes on many city streets after public backlash. Many of the opponents literally did not want to see any extra paint than they felt was necessary on the town's roadways.

Corden apparently found those objections pretty wild.

Despite his jokes, its clear that Corden is in favor of the bike lanes. The news clip he plays points out that lots of people bike in Coronado already and talks about many of cycling's benefits.

He wonders why anyone would hate the idea of bike lanes and he lists a number of benefits to both bike lanes and cycling in general. He also jokes about how the actual objections (like calling bike lanes "graffiti") are hyperbolic and don't really make sense.

Finally, he offers to paint the lanes themselves, rallying his audience to ride in the "Bike Lanes of Justice."


Wheaton Plaza owners successfully block pedestrian path, saying it would "bring crime"

All over the region, malls are opening up to their surroundings, whether by redeveloping in a more urban format or simply creating more street connections. But in Wheaton, neighbors are fighting mall owners who want to close off a popular footpath.

Mall owner Westfield doesn't want this desire path to become a sidewalk. All photos by the author unless noted.

The neighbors call it Mt. McComas. Rising above McComas Avenue, it's a giant mound of backfill from the construction of Wheaton Plaza in 1959. Today, it's a meadow where deer roam and a well-worn dirt path delivers shoppers to Costco and Dick's Sporting Goods. Commuters use it as a shortcut to the Wheaton Metro station.

A new residential development on the property was originally going to include a paved sidewalk, but mall owners Westfield successfully blocked it due to concerns that it would bring crime into Kensington Heights, the neighborhood south and west of the mall.

Neighbors disagree. "Walking is a MUCH preferable way of getting there for the new home residents and everyone nearby," wrote neighbor Karen Cordry in a letter to the Planning Board. "Cutting off this access point is a big concern for us."

Current residents and builder embrace walkability

Neighbors originally fought the proposed development, but embraced the chance to get a new path, which saves people walking to downtown Wheaton and the Metro a lot of time. It's about a half-mile walk from McComas Avenue to the Metro using the path, compared to nearly a mile using the neighborhood's twisting, disconnected streets. There are a couple of other paths between the neighborhood and the mall, but they're not as direct.

That connection would presumably be an asset to 39UP, a new development of 40 townhomes and single-family homes on Mt. McComas and another property adjacent to the mall. The original plans, approved in 2009, included a new, dead-end street branching off of McComas Avenue, with a sidewalk connecting it to the mall.

Rendering of new homes at 39UP. Image from OPaL.

Local builder OPaL, which is building 39UP, emphasizes the neighborhood's urban, walkable character. In the development's other portion, on University Boulevard facing Wheaton Plaza, townhomes will face the mall's entrance road, with sidewalks running along it.

"There is a plethora of things going on in Wheaton that are incredibly promising," wrote owner Sean Ruppert in an email. "Our home owners can expect Wheaton to continue to become a more urban core with more and more things to do every year for the foreseeable future." He expects the homes to appeal to "empty nesters, young couples, and singles…all of whom are looking for a Metro-oriented location."

Mall owners say a path would bring crime to surrounding neighborhoods

But Westfield, the Australian company that owns the mall, doesn't want a sidewalk on Mt. McComas. "Westfield…remains opposed to any condition which encourages and in fact authorizes pedestrian from the general public to cross the Kensington Heights-McComas Avenue development and then enter the mall site," wrote vice president of development Clive MacKenzie, Sr., who appears to be based in New Zealand.

MacKenzie claimed that the path "might encourage [people] to enter the neighboring communities from the mall," causing "a substantial security concern." He added that drivers in the parking lot could hit people trying to walk to the mall.

Site plan showing 39UP (in color) and originally proposed connections to Wheaton Plaza (in brown). Image from OPaL.

As a result, developer Sterling Mehring of Kensington Heights, LLC asked the Planning Board for permission to swap the path for a public access easement, which would allow a path to be built some time in the future. The board approved the change, under the condition that they would revisit the path if Wheaton Plaza were ever redeveloped. In the meantime, Mehring worried that people would still be able to use the property as a shortcut.

"I want to be involved in walk able [sic] communities, its [sic] smart growth and it is smart marketing. The market wants that," wrote Mehring to the Planning Board. "The wording would make it the right of any citizen to ignore the established access and sidewalks, and to walk to the end of the public sidewalk easement in our community, cross our community property and walk up the hill to the mall creating a new volunteer path…and the new community would not be entitled to fence or restrict access on their property."

As malls open up to the neighborhood, Wheaton Plaza turns away

Montgomery County has given Westfield $10 million in subsidies over the past decade to build a parking garage and a Costco, which have drawn more customers to a mall that was struggling. Before that, the mall's previous owner received a grant for mall improvements that required them to improve and preserve pedestrian circulation.

But Westfield hasn't given much in return. Their new parking garage at the end of Reedie Drive blocked pedestrian connections to the mall from downtown Wheaton. And neighbors have been fighting a gas station Costco wants to build, on the basis that it would further weaken walkability.

"The least (and I do mean least!) they could do is to make this connection," wrote Donna Savage, land use chair for the Kensington Heights Civic Association, in a letter to the Planning Board.

The base of Mt. McComas.

Shopping malls aren't as popular as they used to be, and as a result, many area malls are taking on a more urban character. Ballston Common is opening up to the street to attract more foot traffic. Tysons Corner Center will get a new plaza connecting it to a new Metro station. And White Flint Mall, a few miles from Wheaton Plaza, will be torn down and rebuilt as an urban neighborhood. Those mall owners understand that encouraging pedestrian traffic, rather than increasing crime, would actually draw more customers, creating more business.

Unlike Tysons or White Flint, Wheaton Plaza is already part of a walkable and growing downtown. Yet rather than improving connections that could strengthen the mall and the surrounding community, Westfield is severing them.

Public Spaces

Bethesda's planning survey loads the dice against urbanism

Planners drafting a master plan update for downtown Bethesda are running an online "visual preference" survey to get public input. But the choices they offer—and, even more, the questions they choose not to ask—tilt against the urban style of development that Montgomery County's most successful downtown needs.

The choices in the survey contrast higher-density streets with one-way traffic (top) with lower-density buildings facing two-way streets (bottom).

The survey compares two patterns of development. One is low-density development with two-way streets; the other, mid-rise and high-rise buildings on one-way streets. But these aren't the only options. Two-way streets are much more inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists, and there is no reason a dense area can't have them.

Equally important is what's left out of the images entirely. A low-rise shopping district, like the one in the lower right of the picture, could never survive in Bethesda on customers who come by Metro from DC. It needs either dense housing and jobs nearby, or lots of parking.

The parking cannot be underground because single-story stores can't support the expense of underground garages. A realistic picture of low-density retail must include big parking lots or multistory above-ground garages.

Something else is missing from all of the images. Montgomery County zoning requires empty land (known by the Orwellian name of "public use space," although productive use of the space is banned) next to all mixed-use buildings.

Zoning forced the Lionsgate mixed-use high-rise to include this little-used plaza where busy sidewalk-facing storefronts once stood. Photo by the author.

This rule, fiercely defended by homeowner groups protective of the county's suburban image, gives us the empty plazas which blight Wisconsin Avenue and are spreading into the Woodmont Triangle. To be accurate, the survey should offer a choice between the attractive streetfront stores in its images and the bleak streetscapes that may emerge if the master plan preserves the status quo in this realm.

Missing entirely from the survey is the relationship between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Although most nearby single-family homeowners enjoy their proximity to downtown, neighbors opposed to urbanism often seek to wall themselves off. The connections that emerge from contentious development debates are of widely varying quality.

Three ways Bethesda connects (or doesn't) to adjoining neighborhoods: the Giant parking lot, the Whitney, and the Chevy Chase Bank building. Photos by the author.

The public should get to choose whether to border downtown with attractive buildings, walkways, and streets, or "buffers" made of walls and parking lots. This choice should not stay hidden, only to emerge later out of closed negotiations between individual builders and the opponents of their projects.

The last page of the survey reveals its authors' bias once again. There, it asks voters which category they belong to: resident, property owner, development professional, student, or special interest/activist. There are no categories for a regular shopper/diner or office worker.

Nearby homeowners are stakeholders, even if they hate the downtown and never go there. But if you work or shop in Bethesda, you're off the planners' radar screen. And never mind the rest of the region, all of which suffers from car traffic that's made worse by Bethesda's overly auto-oriented design.


Topic of the week: Walking in unexpected places

Even the most hardened pedestrians can find themselves in areas where driving is the default way to get around. In those places, going for a walk can be a provocative act, met with stares and questions.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Still, some of us make the conscious choice to walk or bike somewhere even in places where it's not obvious to others. Our contributors share some of their funnier stories of when people didn't understand why they just didn't drive.

David Versel: I typically walk up to the Metrobus stop for my morning commute, which is about 0.5 miles from my house in Springfield. I am ALWAYS the only adult pedestrian about, but there are usually middle school kids walking to or waiting at their school bus stop. I have gotten scared looks from these kids many times who probably think I'm a pedophile cruising school bus stops.

It's just another casualty of car culture that suburban kids automatically assume that adults should always be in cars, and that those who aren't are probably sex offenders.

Dan Reed: In high school, I usually walked to my friend's house for a study group. One day we had an argument, as 15-year-olds often do, and I stormed out. As I unlocked the front door, her mother ran into the room in a frenzy.

"Where are you going!?" she asked, and I said I was walking home. (This is how far apart our houses were.)

"Don't worry, I'll give you a ride," she said. I said it was okay, but she relented, and went back to get her keys. She came back and said, "Alright, let's go." I felt terrible asking her to go through the trouble, so I said "Um, I changed my mind and I'll stay here," and returned to sulk in the basement with my friends.

David Alpert: When I was in Los Angeles once, I was staying with family friends in Brentwood and was at an event on Wilshire Boulevard just south of Brentwood. When I was ready to leave, I realized that the cross street we were right near was also one of the main cross streets near their house, so I walked the approximately 1.2 miles to their house instead of calling for a ride.

When I got there they were flabbergasted that I had walked.

Matt Johnson: I can do ya one better. And this conversation did happen. Word for word.

The first time I was ever in LA, Ryan and I stayed at a hotel one block from the Vermont/Santa Monica subway station. We got in fairly late, and we really just wanted to go to bed, but we hadn't eaten. On the one block walk from the station, we'd seen a few storefronts, but hadn't really been paying a lot of attention.

So after we got situated in our room, we went down to the front desk, and I asked the receptionist...

Me: "Can you tell me are there any restaurants nearby?"
Receptionist: "Oh, sure. Let me call you a cab."
Me: "Oh, no, no. We don't want to go anyplace far away. Just something close by."
Receptionist: "Yeah, there are lots of places. Let me call you a cab." [picks up phone]
Me: "No, please don't. We really just want someplace close. Is there any place within walking distance?"
[She looks puzzled]
Receptionist: "It's really no trouble for me to call you a cab."
Me: "We don't want a cab. We just want to know if there are any restaurants nearby. Are there any restaurants within a block or two?"
Receptionist: "Yeah. There are a few places at the corner of Vermont and Santa Monica. Are you sure you don't want me to call you a cab?"
Me: "Vermont and Santa Monica is a block away, right?"
Receptionist: "Yes."
Me: "We'll just walk. Thanks for your help."
Receptionist: "Really, it's no trouble to call a cab. Are you sure you don't want one?"

The ironic thing is that LA (the LA Basin at least) is actually very walkable. The problem is that Angelenos don't seem to know that.

I've ridden the 4/704 all the way from Union Station to the Santa Monica pier. And the density/urban form never drops below what you'd find in the Woodley Park commercial strip. That's about the same distance as going from Metro Center to Rockville. There are a few places were the walkability isn't great (Century City), but for the most part, the sidewalks are wide and complete, the street is buffered with parking, and buildings are built right to the street.

Dan Malouff: My example isn't quite so bad. It's a 0.4 mile walk from Fairfax City Hall to Fairfax Main Street. Who wants to guess how many people other than me walked to lunch, back when I worked in Fairfax?

Canaan Merchant: I used to walk to Fairfax City from GMU. It really freaked my roommates out. Thinking back, I have lots of examples of me having to explain that sometimes I preferred to walk for 20 minutes than drive 10 to get to places in Fairfax.

David Edmondson: In fairness to the drive-everywhere crowd, I definitely took the Metro from Mt. Vernon Square to Chinatown a number of times when I first moved to DC before I realized how close it actually is.


In Montgomery's transportation budget, wider streets are "pedestrian improvements"

As Montgomery County asks the state to spend more on transit within the county, its proposed budget pours money into sprawl-inducing highways instead, while calling road widenings near schools and Metro stations "pedestrian improvements."

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Last week, County Executive Ike Leggett sent his proposed $1 billion transportation budget for 2015-2020 to the County Council. It adds new money to build two $100 million highway segments, Goshen Road in Gaithersburg and the 8000-foot-long Montrose Parkway East near White Flint, and lets environmental studies for the even more expensive extension of Midcounty Highway continue.

But many transit, bike, and pedestrian projects have been delayed. The proposed BRT system will get a $10 million state planning grant, but no county funds. The $80 milllion south entrance to the Bethesda Metro station, which the County Council previously funded over objections from the Department of Transportation (MCDOT), was left alone.

Bicyclists get a speedup in construction for a bike path on Needwood Road, required under the terms of a state grant. But the money comes from slowing down work to complete the far more important Metropolitan Branch Trail. Bike projects on Bethesda Avenue, Frederick Road, and Seven Locks Road are delayed too.

MCDOT learned long ago that cars-first policies had to be disguised with lip service to transit and pedestrians, and this budget continues that tradition. While new roads are the first category in the current six-year budget, the new budget lists them after transit.

At first glance, the proposed transit and pedestrian budgets seem large, but this is a mirage. The numbers are inflated with items that belong elsewhere. The county calls a $70 million dollar garage for school buses and park maintenance vehicles a mass transit facility. Road widenings around new schools, previously classified as road projects, are listed as pedestrian improvements this year. Buried in the budget for a new Metro entrance at Medical Center is the cost of a turn lane a block away at Jones Bridge Road.

Montgomery County's ped/bike budget will pay for a turn lane onto Rockville Pike at NIH. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

A telling example of MCDOT's attitude is how it justifies spending money on bike lanes in downtown Bethesda. The county planning board made us do it, agency officials say. The bike lanes must be built before development can proceed beyond a certain point. There's no thought that they might serve a transportation purpose.

In recent years the County Council has shown increasing willingness to challenge MCDOT's priorities. The council funded the $80 million south Bethesda Metro entrance in 2008 and repeatedly fended off requests to reverse that decision. Two years ago, it put off construction of Goshen Road and Montrose Parkway East and budgeted for the Capital Crescent Trail instead.

But MCDOT still clings to the traffic engineering doctrines of the 1950s. The one completely new big project in the budget is yet another upcounty highway, a segment of Observation Drive whose price tag is likely to wind up north of $50 million a mile. The Bethesda Metro entrance stands as the only major county-funded transit construction project.

The time has come to reject once and for all the discredited idea that wide highways are a cure for traffic congestion. The council should zero out all spending on upcounty highways and end the pernicious practice of forcing developers to widen roads. All of the county's scarce transportation dollars are needed to correct the expensive mistakes of the past with better transit and a street network that works well for pedestrians and cyclists, not just for drivers.


GGW debates Facebook's new apartment complex

Facebook will help finance an apartment complex for employees and low-income households near its Menlo Park, California headquarters. It's the city's first housing development in 20 years. Will Anton Menlo be a 21st-century "company town," or could it ease Silicon Valley's transportation and housing issues?

Rendering of Anton Menlo from KTGY Group, the project's architect.

In a new feature, we asked five contributors to offer their thoughts.

Neil Flanagan: Facebook's sponsorship is really the only unusual feature of this project. Developers are already large corporations who must look for investors that believe the profitability of a project. The kind of directness Facebook brings does cast a specter of trying to insulate and isolate the residents. Given that there's not much street life around it, isolation might be unavoidable. If the street urbanizes further, this might get more complicated.

Here, as is common when large suburban properties become residential complexes, developers often fill out street networks that remain private. Perhaps what we should worry about is how much of this new urban vitality remains exclusive. Bringing it closer to home, the private courtyard at CityCenter DC looks really promising as an urban space. How will it shape up as a public space? Will the whole city feel welcome there?

Facebook's current and future headquarters buildings in relation to the Anton Menlo.

Canaan Merchant: I first heard about the new Facebook apartments from ValleyWag, which said the project includes "all the comforts of suburbia" and proceeded to tear down particular aspects on the project including the fact that it is compact and walkable. It's reflective of an attitude that I often see expressed in a lot of thinking about our built areas, that usually boils down to the argument that the suburbs are "fake" and the city is "real."

Instead of worrying about authenticity, I would prefer that we would worry about the factors we can control. Is it walkable? Are the public spaces inviting and successful? Is there diversity in the design? Would I feel comfortable biking in the street? I think those are the important things to consider, rather than the name or company behind the construction.

Payton Chung: I applaud any attempt to build infill multifamily in Silicon Valley, and corporate leadership as part of a broader effort to reshape the Valley, but few individual employers can hope to constructively engage such a vast problem.

Upon first glance, Anton Menlo's site plan doesn't looks too surprising: a typical "Texas donut," similar to other wood-frame apartments you see around, say, the Vienna Metro station. Half of the roadways will read as streets, with sidewalks and parallel parking, and the much-ballyhooed amenities aren't atypical for new apartments these days.

Media ruckus aside, Facebook isn't diversifying into town-building, and understandably so, since such corporate experiments in non-core businesses have a poor track record (perhaps aside from university towns). Instead, it's simply supporting a suburban apartment developer with experience in the matter, but also a formulaic product.

Yet this location contributes to the Valley's record of poorly coordinated planning: it's marooned between warehouses, the Bay, and a freeway, a location perhaps
akin to these apartments in Alexandria's Eisenhower Valley. Building housing close to work is a nice idea, but this particular implementation undermines, rather than facilitates, the Valley's emergence as an urban place.

Tracey Johnstone: Company housing, such as Facebook is developing, could be helpful in creating a sense of community among its employees just as military housing does in the military. The high tech business is a volatile one, and it demands long hours from its employees.

Having neighbors who understand those demands might ease some of the high stress of working in that industry. If Facebook employees/tenants decide they don't like living there or don't want to be so dependent upon Facebook, their salaries make it possible for them to move elsewhere.

Amazon's buildings in South Lake Union. Photo By edgeplot on Flickr. went the opposite direction of Facebook. It chose to locate its offices in a benighted corner of Seattle, adjacent its heart. It turned South Lake Union around and is now a strong anchor along the city's streetcar and light rail stations.

David Edmondson: Investments from other large companies helped turn around downtown Detroit and downtown Las Vegas, too. Though Menlo Park is not a prime urban center like Seattle, its strong bones have been weakened by parking lots and the signs of suburbia.

Yet rather than invest near its high-capacity Caltrain station, the heart of downtown, Facebook chose to redevelop an industrial site 3 miles away, on the other side of a freeway. While housing plus offices is certainly a step forward from the office park, one hopes our cities and suburban town centers will see more Amazons, not more Facebooks.

What do you think about this project? How involved should employers be in the real estate choices of their employees? Got an idea for future GGW debates posts? Let us know in the comments.


Sunbelt cities, urbanizing suburbs can learn from each other

Urbanizing suburbs often suffer from an identity crisis, looking to the big city next door and wondering how to recreate the same vitality and sense of place. But they might find a better comparison with more distant Sunbelt cities, which like many suburbs are only now coming into their own.

Aerial of downtown Raleigh. Photo by FiddleFlix on Flickr.

Take Raleigh, where I spent 5 days last month with my boyfriend and his friend's family, who moved there from Bethesda last year. While it's best known as North Carolina's state capital, we found a lot of fun things to do there. We saw a drag show at a downtown bar. We ate at crunchy, farm-to-table restaurants and Vietnamese holes-in-the-wall.

We also spent a lot of time in our friend's car. She and her newly-retired parents live in a new townhouse development off a strip lined with shopping centers, megachurches and similar-looking townhouse developments. My boyfriend said it reminded him of Fairfax or Montgomery counties, except it's all within Raleigh city limits. And our friend's parents don't hesitate to say they live in a city, either.

Is there really much of a difference between a "city" like Raleigh and a "suburb" like Montgomery? Both grew up mostly after World War II. In 1940, the city had just 46,000 residents, but today, it has 423,000 people, while surrounding Wake County has nearly 1 million residents. During the same period, Montgomery County grew from from 83,000 to over 1 million.

Downtown Bethesda. Raleigh's built form isn't that different from many of our area's suburban downtowns. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

As a result, both places have a distinctly suburban, auto-oriented character, save for a few urban centers. Look at an aerial photo of downtown Raleigh and it could pass for Bethesda or Silver Spring: a clump of tall buildings, surrounded by miles of single-family homes. New town centers are sprouting along the Beltline, Raleigh's answer to the Beltway, while new planned communities sprawl beyond it.

But the difference is that Raleigh embraces its status as a city, while Montgomery County is more hesitant.

Downtown Raleigh bursts with new music venues and restaurants. Planning director Mitchell Silver talks about pushing transit and making Raleigh "one of the world's attractive cities." A student at NC State made signs encouraging people to walk more and posted them around the city, while a group of designers and artists started a T-shirt line inspired by the city's history and culture.

Raleigh doesn't resemble older, traditional cities like New York or Chicago, and despite its aspirations to become a more urban place, it will never become a New York or Chicago. But it attracts ambition and creativity and civic pride like a big city, even if many of its residents live a very suburban lifestyle.

That's the lesson for places like Montgomery County. Like Raleigh, people here live in and seek out different kinds of communities, ranging from urban to suburban to rural. While some folks continue to insist that it's an exclusively suburban, homogeneous place, we can easily hold our own against places that happen to call themselves cities.

Montgomery County already has better transit than Raleigh and a biotechnology hub that some compare to the Research Triangle. There are as many or more people working in downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring than in downtown Raleigh. and after 5pm, Bethesda is a much livelier place. And judging from the bland banh mi I had at that Vietnamese place, Wheaton has vastly better ethnic food.

But Montgomery County and Raleigh also face many of the same challenges. We both seek to welcome new immigrants and serve growing low-income populations. We both want to encourage investment in older, close-in neighborhoods and make it easier to get around without a car. And both places are known for pushing school equity, even if it's thwarted by de facto segregation or a Tea Party school board.

As both places grow and evolve, they have as much if not more to learn from each other than from historically urban places.

Montgomery County isn't a collection of small towns or bedroom suburbs anymore. It's functionally a city of 1 million people that grew from an older, more traditional city. And if we're going to continue to grow and prosper, a little city swagger wouldn't hurt.


Road designs stand in the way of White Flint's urban future

White Flint's future as an urban place depends on a street network that welcomes people on foot and bike, not just in cars, and roads that are pleasant to spend time in, not just move through. But county transportation officials may not make getting there easy.

Old Georgetown Road today. Photo by the author.

On Monday, representatives of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) gave a presentation to the White Flint Implementation Advisory Committee about the Western Workaround, a planned network of new streets on the west side of Rockville Pike.

"We want to provide an environment that's pedestrian and bicyclist friendly and will encourage people to get out of their vehicles," said Bruce Johnston, MCDOT transportation engineering chief, citing the county's Road Code, which describes how to make streets in urban areas. But the streets he presented continue to prioritize moving cars over pedestrians and bicyclists or creating enjoyable urban spaces.

Old Georgetown Road will get wider, not more pleasant for people

The White Flint Sector Plan calls for Old Georgetown Road to have 4 car lanes, a median where pedestrians can wait while crossing the street, a "shared use path" for bikes and pedestrians, and one of the few actual bike lanes proposed for the area.

With ground-level shops and apartments at Pike + Rose going up on the north side and White Flint's future Civic Green on the south, this street needs to be a place for people, not a highway.

Instead, MCDOT proposes keeping the 6 existing lanes and adding 2 more at intersections for right and left turns. The bike lanes are gone, and the wide sidewalks have been reduced. The speed limit would remain at 40 miles an hour, which is totally inappropriate in an urban environment. Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, pointed out that the speed limit on Old Georgetown in downtown Bethesda, which has 4 lanes and a turn lane, is just 30 miles per hour.

The sector plan's street network (left) and bike network (right).

Johnston blamed the Maryland State Highway Administration, which controls state roads like Old Georgetown and has resisted attempts by MCDOT to lower speed limits or reduce the number of lanes.

"The state has the authority to say 'I know that's in the sector plan, but traffic volumes are what they are,'" he said, adding that if White Flint residents and landowners want bike lanes and safer, pedestrian-friendly streets, they can "go over their heads" and speak with Governor O'Malley.

Cars, not people drive design choices

But even streets that are entirely under MCDOT's jurisdiction, like an extension of Executive Boulevard, have been designed for cars first. Johnston described it as a business street with tall buildings up against the sidewalk, which might make you think of Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda, one of the best urban streets not just in the county, but in the region.

Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda. Photo by eddie welker on Flickr.

Instead, Executive Extended will be 5 lanes wide, including a turn lane. Landowners who have willingly agreed to give up land for the new street have asked MCDOT for on-street parking, which would not only serve future businesses but give pedestrians a nice buffer from traffic. Instead, on-street parking will only be available during rush hour.

Meanwhile, pedestrians and bicyclists would get a 10-foot "shared use path" on either side of the street and a 6-foot buffer. To compare, the sidewalks on Woodmont Avenue are about 20 feet wide, and there's also a separate, 6-foot wide bike lane.

When asked why there's so little room for pedestrians and cyclists, Johnston said they need all 5 lanes "because of the anticipated traffic volume of the road."

But as Fred Kent from the Project for Public Spaces likes to say, "If you design for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you design for people and places, you get people and places." It's not a given that Executive Boulevard needs 5 lanes, especially if there are legitimate alternatives to driving. But MCDOT officials seem unwilling to entertain that possibility.

Mary Ward, a White Flint resident and regular cyclist, was disappointed by the new street designs. "This kind of needs to be rethought," she said. "The Complete Streets vision is that it's all levels of cycling, not just experienced cyclists."

Better street network means baby steps

Thankfully, MCDOT's street designs are only 35% complete, meaning there's still room for improvement. Evan Goldman, vice president of development at Federal Realty, which is building Pike + Rose, says the plans are flawed, but are better than what MCDOT has presented before. For instance, lanes on many streets including Old Georgetown would be 10 or 11 feet wide, compared to 11 or 12 feet today. That means slower traffic speeds and extra space for sidewalks.

"There are a lot of good things happening here," Goldman said, though he admitted that he will go to the governor to ask for "appropriate" street designs on Old Georgetown Road.

This short stretch of Woodglen Drive will get a bike lane. Photo by the author.

Until then, the only bike lane White Flint's getting anytime soon will be on Woodglen Drive between Executive Boulevard and the Bethesda Trolley Trail, a distance of less than 1/3 mile. MCDOT will remove 6 parking spaces in front of Whole Foods to make room for a northbound bike lane. They'll also paint sharrows, or lane markings that tell drivers to watch out for bikes, in the southbound traffic lane, which will become 5 feet wider.

"There's a lot of competing uses among our roadways," said Pat Shepherd, MCDOT bikeways coordinator. "We need to reallocate this space."

Shepherd has it exactly right. The White Flint Sector Plan calls for the creation of a new downtown where people have real alternatives to driving. To make that happen, we need streets that prioritize and celebrate pedestrians and bicyclists, rather than treating them as an afterthought. And we need transportation planners, both at the state and county level, who are willing to fight for them. We shouldn't have to go to the governor to ask for bike lanes because MCDOT won't stand up for us.

Crossposted on the Friends of White Flint.


The right answer to Montgomery BRT is yes

There are many questions surrounding Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit proposal, but there's just one the Planning Board will consider next Thursday: whether we should set aside room on our main streets for public transit. The answer is decidedly yes.

Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

It's been 5 years since Councilmember Marc Elrich first proposed a countywide network of rapid bus routes. His idea has been reviewed, vetted and refined by transportation engineers, a task force of community and business leaders, the world's leading experts on BRT, and now county planners.

Today, the Planning Board is reviewing a draft of what's called the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, which envisions a 79-mile network containing 10 BRT routes across the county. While it's much smaller than what previous studies have proposed, it offers a realistic answer for our county's current and future traffic congestion.

I worked with Kelly Blynn of the Coalition for Smarter Growth to create a video about why we need BRT in Montgomery County:

In some parts of the county, especially in the congested Downcounty, we don't have the room to move everyone in cars now, let alone in the future. Keep things the way they are and they'll get worse. Provide a dedicated lane for transit, as this plan proposes in many areas, and people will gain a fast, reliable alternative to sitting in traffic.

Don't get me wrong: I love driving, and I love my car. But I'd rather spend my time in the car having fun, not sitting in traffic because there's no better way to get around. Some will insist that transit doesn't work for them, and that's okay. However, there are places and times when transit is the best tool we have to get people moving, and we have to take advantage of it.

Expanding our transit network is really the only way that Montgomery County can continue to grow, and the county will grow, whether people want it to or not. This plan will provide improved transit service in areas where people already use it, like along Route 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville, where thousands of apartments were built in the 1970's and 1980's in anticipation of light-rail line that never materialized. And it will support future development in places like White Flint, where BRT along Rockville Pike will form the spine of a new urban center.

Of course, many questions remain about this proposal. Elected officials have asked how we'll pay for it. Residents are worried about impacts to their individual neighborhoods. And there's a larger, philosophical debate about Montgomery County's transition from being the "perfect suburbia" of 50 years ago to a slightly more urban place.

We're not going to answer these questions today, not do we have to. There are still a lot of details to consider, and there are smaller, incremental improvements we can make to our transit network sooner rather than later. What this plan can do, however, is begin a conversation about getting transit on equal footing with cars.

Growing up in Montgomery County, I was taught to value diversity. We may have different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different lifestyles, but we still come together to form one community. Building a transportation network that acknowledges that not everyone drives is a statement that we value all residents of Montgomery County, not just those who drive.

The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan this Thursday at 6pm at the Montgomery County Planning Department, 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. To sign up to testify or send written comments, visit their website.

If you're interested in learning more about Montgomery County's BRT plan, the Action Committee for Transit is hosting a talk with Larry Cole, the county's head planner for BRT, at their monthly meeting this Tuesday at 7:30pm at the Silver Spring Civic Center, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street.


Montrose Parkway undermines White Flint's urban future

After 40 years of planning, an extension of Montrose Parkway through White Flint could soon become a reality. County and state transportation officials say the highway is needed to move cars, but residents and county planners say it contradicts their goal of making White Flint an urban center.

The existing part of Montrose Parkway. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Yesterday, the Montgomery County Planning Board recommended that the State Highway Administration and Montgomery County Department of Transportation change their plan to build a $119 million, 1.62-mile extension of Montrose Parkway from Rockville Pike to Veirs Mill Road. They questioned how it fits into the White Flint Sector Plan, which calls for the creation of a place "where people walk to work, shops and transit."

"It's hard to see this as consistent with a pedestrian-friendly environment," said Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier, who lives near White Flint. "It detracts from our efforts to create a grid of streets ... it makes our transportation goals harder."

Work on Montrose Parkway began in the 1970's, when it was planned as part of the Outer Beltway, which was eventually built as the Intercounty Connector. Later, a portion of the highway's route between Veirs Mill Road and New Hampshire Avenue was turned into Matthew Henson State Park.

Planning for the current version of Montrose Parkway began in 1998 and resulted in the construction of the segment west of Rockville Pike, which opened in 2010. The Planning Board's recommendations, which aren't binding, will next go to the County Council for a vote. SHA officials say that construction won't begin for at least 5 years.

The proposed four-lane highway would have a stoplight at Chapman Avenue and overpasses at Nebel Street and the CSX railroad tracks. At Parklawn Drive, there would be a single-point urban interchange or SPUI (pronounced "spooey"), where drivers on Parklawn would stop at a light before turning onto the highway. A SPUI already exists at the junction of Falls Road and I-270.

SHA and MCDOT representatives insist that Montrose Parkway is needed to handle anticipated traffic from the redevelopment of White Flint. "If you build more density, you're going to have more traffic congestion," said Edgar Gonzalez, MCDOT's deputy director for transportation policy.

However, recent studies and local examples suggest that compact, mixed-use development like what's proposed here will actually reduce traffic, raising the question where MCDOT and SHA's concerns are actually valid.

Parkway would reduce east-west connections

Plan showing Montrose Parkway at Parklawn Drive if Randolph Road is closed.

Plan showing Montrose Parkway at Parklawn Drive if Randolph Road is open.

Since the latest plans for Montrose Parkway were first presented two weeks ago, residents have expressed concerns about the state's plans to close Randolph Road, a major east-west thoroughfare running parallel to the parkway, where it crosses the railroad tracks.

"One of the biggest problems in White Flint planning is the lack of east-west crossings," wrote Barnaby Zall last week. "We've been trying for years to figure out a way to bridge that gap."

SHA officials say it'll improve safety. The Federal Railroad Administration calls it the 4th most dangerous crossing in Maryland: there have been 21 collisions there in the past 35 years, including one death. Since 2007, there has been just one collision. Separating the road from the railroad tracks also means trains won't have to blow their horns when they pass through, something many neighbors have complained about.

Randolph Road would end in a cul-de-sac just east of the tracks, and anyone who wanted to go further west would have to get on Montrose Parkway. Chair Carrier worried that this would hurt access to shops along Randolph Road. "It would be hard to imagine that the businesses there would remain viable," she said.

Gonzalez said it could be a safety hazard. "You have to weigh the benefits [of access to Randolph Road] with the possibility of a future event occurring," he said. "Nobody wants to be in a train collision."

Nonetheless, board members voted to keep Randolph Road open at the railroad crossing, which planning department staff recommended because it gives travelers more options, reducing the traffic burden on any one road.

Debate over whether interchanges are "barriers"

Plan of the entire eastern segment of Montrose Parkway.

Much of the debate about Montrose Parkway revolved around the proposed interchange with Parklawn Drive. Board members worried it would become a barrier between White Flint and Twinbrook, making it difficult for people to walk or bike from one side to the other.

"We should rethink what we're doing in the context of the future land use of White Flint," said Planning Board member Casey Anderson. "We're not trying to build these huge slabs of asphalt that divide communities into pieces."

In the past, county planners have recommended putting a stoplight there instead. Former planning director Rollin Stanley argued that interchanges in White Flint "[reinforce] the view that Rockville Pike is a runway to get through White Flint versus moving through the area as a destination itself." Last fall, acting planning director Rose Krasnow wrote a letter asking MCDOT and SHA to consider it, but was rebuffed by MCDOT director Arthur Holmes, who said the interchange would "improve safety and reduce barriers by separating conflicting flows" of cars, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Likewise, Gonzalez said that an at-grade intersection, which would require that Montrose Parkway be 9 or 10 lanes wide to handle projected traffic, which would be just as bad for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Planner Larry Cole argued that it's because the county and state's plans are "overdesigned" and overestimate the amount of future car traffic in White Flint. "The reason [Montrose Parkway] is this big is that the space is available," he said.

Nonetheless, the board eventually voted in favor of keeping the interchange after officials from MCDOT and SHA promised to look at ways to make crossing the interchange safer and more pleasant for pedestrians, such as restricting right turns on red. The parkway will already have a 10-foot path for bicyclists and pedestrians on the north side and a 5-foot sidewalk on the south side.

Over time, the vision for White Flint has changed a lot. Forty years ago, the Outer Beltway was supposed to pass through it. Twenty years ago, the Planning Board sought to build multiple interchanges along Rockville Pike. Even the White Flint and Twinbrook sector plans, which are less than 5 years old, included the Montrose Parkway.

However, these neighborhoods are envisioned as urban places where people will be able to drive less, and to succeed it needs a street network where people feel comfortable and safe not driving, and Montrose Parkway as proposed could undermine that. The Montgomery County Department of Transportation and State Highway Administration work for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users, not just drivers, and their plans for places like White Flint must reflect that.

Crossposted on the Friends of White Flint blog.

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