The future of White Flint as a new downtown for Rockville Pike depends on whether people can get around safely and easily, no matter what mode of transportation they use. One way to make that happen is with “complete streets,” which are often described as streets designed for people of all ages and abilities traveling on foot, bike, by car or transit.
Complete streets show that different kinds of transportation can share the street. They often include features like level, wide sidewalks, bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, frequent and safe crosswalks, medians where people can wait while crossing a busy street, and narrower travel lanes that slow cars down. They work best around buildings that are close to the street, creating “eyes on the street” that keep everyone safe and attentive.
There’s no such thing as the “perfect” complete street, as different situations often call for different design solutions. But let’s look at some good examples from around the country. We’ll focus on commercial streets, because they most resemble the streets that will be built (or rebuilt) in White Flint, and they often carry a lot of car traffic.
Here’s a street in the Mosaic District, a new mixed-use development in Merrifield, an area of Fairfax County that, like White Flint, is making the transition from suburban to urban. There are wide, tree-lined sidewalks with benches for sitting. Each block has one or more large crosswalks in a different material than the street so drivers will notice them, and the sidewalks bump out so people don’t have as far to cross.
There aren’t any curbs anywhere in the Mosaic District. This makes it easier for people in wheelchairs or with strollers to move around and makes the street feel like one unified “space” as opposed to separate spaces for walkers and drivers. There are raised bumps at the sidewalk’s edge so blind people don’t unwittingly walk into the street.
One alternative is to place the bike lane between the parked cars and the sidewalk, like on this busy commercial street in Stockholm. This reduces the chance of passengers “dooring” a cyclist; since the bike lane is closer to the sidewalk, people who might otherwise be intimidated by cycling might take it up.
This street in Brooklyn used to be a dangerous, high-speed road before the New York City Department of Transportation turned it into a complete street. Now, there’s a landscaped median where people can wait while crossing the street. In the future, Rockville Pike will have medians like this as well.
And here’s the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which I wrote about last week. Unlike traditional bike lanes, which are street level, the Cultural Trail gives bicyclists and pedestrians separate paths at the curb level. This helps people who may be afraid to bike feel more comfortable because they’re not mixing with car traffic.
What we have today
Unfortunately, Montgomery County is home to a lot of “incomplete” streets that are designed only for cars and drivers, like Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road, shown here. While cars get 6 or more lanes, pedestrians get that skinny little sidewalk at the top right where they can walk inches away from rush hour traffic. The “slip lanes” at each corner, while great for drivers making right turns, make it harder for people to cross the street, especially those with limited mobility.
This is a place where walking is considered unusual, or even a last resort, as resident Mary Ward told us last month. I remember being in high school and hearing a rumor that one of my classmates had been seen walking in front of White Flint Mall. What was wrong with him? Everyone asked. That certainly wouldn’t have been the case if he’d been walking on a more pedestrian-friendly street like Woodmont Avenue in downtown Bethesda.
Building complete streets isn’t just about sidewalks for the sake of sidewalks. It’s about creating the kind of communities that we want to live in. A recent article from Good Magazine says it much better than I can:
Design can make it more delightful to walk than drive, so people don’t want to jump in their cars for errands. Design can make it safer to bike so everyone feels comfortable on the street, not just hardcore cyclists. Design can make public transit fast, reliable, dignified, and sociable. And design can make neighborhoods beautiful, so people are inspired to protect and maintain them.
A walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible White Flint is a stronger, more tight-knit White Flint. And that’s a good thing for everybody, no matter how you get around.