The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council continues its worksessions on the White Flint Sector Plan tomorrow, beginning at 9:30AM and continuing all day. The schedule remains fluid, with planned discussions of financing mechanisms apparently being delayed so that County Executive Ike Leggett can issue a report and recommendations on financing, perhaps in January.
Leggett has already made clear that he disagrees with the Plan’s recommendation for a comprehensive financing mechanism, since he believes that it will limit his flexibility to use money generated in White Flint for other parts of the County. At Monday’s PHED Committee meeting, Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson described the financing mechanism as the connection holding together many of the complex parts of the White Flint Plan. Leggett has said he recognizes the need for innovative financing mechanisms and has engaged a financial consultant to help prepare his report to the Council.
One of the other major sticking points with the Plan is the continuing disconnect between the Council’s traffic speed measurements and the new traffic grid in White Flint. The White Flint Plan proposes a new way to deal with congestion: rather than build more lanes on a few major roads to speed traffic through a few intersections, the Plan provides many more smaller roads, effectively doubling the number of north-south lanes through White Flint, while converting Rockville Pike to a lively boulevard.
The idea, used in a variety of cities across the world, is that traffic is like flowing water; drivers will find a way through slow areas by using new roads. So to speed traffic, don’t widen existing roads; provide new ones. This is the same concept which spawned the Internet: to avoid problems, provide a variety of ways to reach a destination. And it also gives the opportunity to make all the roads more pedestrian-friendly and -safe.
The problem is that the current County traffic measurements essentially time how fast cars move along various roads, such as Rockville Pike. The faster cars move, the more development can be put in an area. Seeing how fast cars move simply pushes development into less developed areas, promoting sprawl and removing any incentive to redevelop older, less sustainable areas, like White Flint. And it is possibly the worst thing you can do to pedestrians, who generally don’t want to be near speeding cars.
In fact, most drivers cautiously provide themselves more space from other cars at higher speeds, which is why faster roads carry less traffic overall. The greatest traffic “throughput” is generally at 25-30 mph, not the faster 40 mph currently in effect on Rockville Pike. Ironically, faster traffic does not mean less congestion, it just pushes the overall impact further outward (meaning sprawl). But Montgomery County primarily measures “Level of Service” as speed through intersections and along major roads.
And oddly, despite its many faults, Rockville Pike is not considered a failure under these current measurements; the current level is an acceptable ”Level of Service -D” (LOS-D), one step above the planned level. So Rockville Pike, the main thoroughfare in White Flint, fails pedestrians, the environment, bicyclists, and everyone else, but it satisfies the current traffic tests.
The Plan’s reliance on more lanes outside of Rockville Pike mean that those measurements of how fast cars move fail to capture the proposed traffic patterns in White Flint, since the Plan doesn’t add new lanes to Rockville Pike. So the old tests could fail on Rockville Pike, even though the actual number of cars moving through White Flint, using the new non-Pike lanes, may increase. This failure is called in shorthand “Level of Service E” or LOS-E.
The Council recognizes that, as in Arlington County to the south, transit-oriented development can increase density while reducing traffic. Arlington quadrupled density in areas served by Metro stations, but traffic congestion went down, because all the new people were using Metro. But the Council hasn’t dropped the old traffic measurements; instead, in the Annual Growth Policy discussions last month, the Council simply put off any specific changes for White Flint until next year.
This presents Committee staff with a problem. They are legally bound to obey the Council’s old, failed traffic tests. Yet the White Flint Plan is designed in a totally-different way — relying on transit instead of cars — that isn’t reflected in the old tests.
So the PHED Committee staff is scrambling for ways to reconcile the two controlling schemes. This, in a microcosm, is the overall County dilemma with future growth: do you continue with automobile-oriented controls for development, or do you embrace the new New Urbanism thinking which promotes walkability, sustainability, and other factors, but doesn’t permit cars to speed through intersections as fast as they would like? The Committee has asked to have its cake and eat it too, and the staff is furiously trying to come up with ways to roll that rock back uphill.
The latest version of this Sisyphusian task is Glenn Orlin’s most recent staff memo on White Flint transportation issues, available here:
Orlin begins the memo by saying: “Planning staff and Council staff will be developing and analyzing options that would reduce the proposed land use density from the Final Draft Plan in order to bring the build-out Relative Arterial Mobility no lower than 40% (i.e., staying out of Level of Service ‘E’). We will report the results at a worksession after the winter recess.” This means he will be trying to meet the old “cars-through-intersections” tests, while trying to keep the innovations of the White Flint Sector Plan within reach.
The real tragedy here is that most observers, both those supporting and opposing the Plan’s transportation proposals, agree that the current traffic tests are useless and counterproductive. Everyone wants to change them. But in the meantime, committee staff, and the Council, are tying themselves into knots trying to comply with obsolete tests without losing all the benefits of the Plan.