PHED Committee gets it right.

PHED Committee gets it right.

OK, so it wasn’t as dramatic as slicing the Gordian Knot.

It was more like one of those old-time logging rivers, clogged up with timber. Lumberjacks caper over the floating trees, picking and hauling at the downed trees, until one floating behemoth finally moves and releases the whole riverful of timber in a shuddering crash. In other words, the logjam breaks. That was today in the PHED Committee.

For months, the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council had tried to reconcile the older, car-oriented “quality of life” standards used to evaluate when development would be allowed to move forward against the newer, transit-oriented White Flint Sector Plan. Cars vs pedestrians. Suburban vs. urban. It all came down to a difference of a few seconds in travel through White Flint.

At today’s hearing, Committee staff recited a litany of attempts to break the logjam. They tried this and that and the other. Still couldn’t get the cars sped up enough. ¬†Those darn cars just sat there on the Pike, not moving fast enough through the new White Flint of 2030.

Finally, the Committee and Planning staffs¬†tried something entirely different: If you can’t get the cars moving fast enough through intersections, try getting the people out of cars in the first place.

So that was the resolution. They finally calculated if you could get enough people out of their cars on Rockville Pike, then the remaining cars could move fast enough.

At first glance, that seems obvious enough, but the problem is that if you don’t get them out of their cars the right way it wouldn’t work. It’s what happens on roads all the time: build new lanes to ease congestion, and they just fill right up again. Same thing if you just take some cars off the road.

So this only works if you entice people out of their cars; don’t just ban cars or build roads, but give people a reason not to drive. The technical name is “traffic demand management” and that’s what the solution was to the White Flint problem.

The beauty of that approach is that it is consistent with the new White Flint design. One of the major selling points about a compact, dense, walkable, transit-oriented New Urban community like the White Flint design is that there’s really no reason to drive for most of your needs. At the White Flint Plan public hearings before the County Council last year, prominent local realtor Jane Fairweather explained how that worked for her in renovated Bethesda: “if I didn’t have to use one for work, I wouldn’t even have a car.” And that’s what the White Flint planners were gunning for in their overall design.

Plus, there’s already good evidence that those increased “mode share” goals would be achievable in White Flint. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, White Flint’s biggest employer, has already achieved a 50% mode share split (meaning more than 50 percent of its employees use something other than a car to get to work). And the new North Bethesda Center, the massive development rising at the Metro Station, has already committed to a 50% mode share split.

Hearing all that, the PHED Committee quickly put the issue to rest. Councilmember Marc Elrich, one of those most insistent on detailed transportation reviews, told the Commitee: “I’m comfortable with this. Let’s call it a day.”

It’s a good call.

Rather than fighting over a few seconds driving time in a new urban area, let’s look to something new. Let’s give people not only a reason to get out of their cars, but a way to do it in their everyday lives. Let’s build a New Urban center in White Flint, where we won’t add a lot of new cars because people, like Jane Fairweather said, won’t need them.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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