Archives November 2013

County Council Approves Bus Rapid Transit Routes

Yesterday, the Montgomery County Council unanimously approved the 10-route, 81-mile Bus Rapid Transit system we have been working toward.  Now that the routes are set, the more detailed work begins on the treatments for them.  Public engagement is going to be necessary moving forward, with advisory groups for each route.  We’ll keep you posted as things develop but, in the meantime, find more details on Greater Greater Washington!  And, do take the time to thank our Councilmembers for their boldness in moving Montgomery County forward!

Happy Thanksgiving, Friends!

Boston gets bike helmet vending machines

Boston's bikeshare program, Hubway. Photo by the author.

Boston’s bikeshare program, Hubway. Photo by the author.

 

We’re really excited that Montgomery County now has Capital Bikeshare, and have written (a lot) about the many benefits of bicycle-friendly communities. However, as our community shifts from being auto-dominant to having more complete streets, there is a learning curve. Safety has been a concern throughout the process. Bike lanes play a critical role in helping everyone feel safer and are a critical piece of infrastructure. But what about helmets?

Boston is leading the way on this initiative, with Mayor Thomas Menino unveiling a machine that dispenses bicycle helmets for the city’s bike share system, Hubway. The “HelmetHub” machine is the first of its kind in the country. There is only one machine now, which will be used to gather data about use before more machines are introduced in 2014.

The rental fee is $2, with the stipulation that they must be returned in 24 hours. Otherwise, they can be purchased for $20. Helmets returned to the machine will be inspected and sanitized.

Mayor Menino said in a statement “Our goal is to make Hubway a great and safe way to get around town.” You can read more about this initiative here, and be sure to check out HelmetHub’s website as well!

Thoughts on Bus Rapid Transit

Last week BethesdaNow.com, a newsblog featuring local and breaking news, ran an opinion piece questioning aspects of Bus Rapid Transit, particularly along the southern stretch of MD355.  I had the opportunity to submit a counterpoint:

 

Bring On Bus Rapid Transit

After reading Mr. Hawkins’ opinion on Bus Rapid Transit through Bethesda, I felt compelled to share a different perspective on the proposed system: mine. My work on the redevelopment of White Flint has not informed my opinion of transit as much as my daily life around this county, as well as more than 10 years commuting downtown.

While I’d dispute the Red Line being called “reliable,” I believe that point is a distraction from the heart of what Bus Rapid Transit could mean to our area.

When Metro came to Montgomery County, its primary focus was to move suburban commuters quickly to their downtown workplaces. It was not designed to move people around Montgomery County for work, errands or dates. That’s what the Bus Rapid Transit network would do. It would offer county residents a reliable option for getting around without a car. Metro functions like this downtown where there are shorter distances between stops — measured in blocks instead of miles, as they are here. This type of modality will be replicated by BRT and, as a network, each corridor’s connections add to the value of the full system.

I do believe that Mr. Hawkins is right in thinking that reliability is key in any transit network. For residents to be willing to leave their cars behind, they need to know that they will reach their destination when they need to be there. A bus that sits in the same traffic as everyone else will not achieve this goal. For this reliability, Bus Rapid Transit requires dedicated lanes. In constricted areas, like Bethesda, this might mean repurposing a lane from traffic to transit.

This is usually where our first reaction is to panic at the idea of taking away a car lane: Won’t that just make traffic worse?

In looking at the impacts in other jurisdictions, not only does it not make traffic worse but repurposing a car lane for reliable transit alleviates the strain on our roads so that everyone moves faster. Montgomery County’s BRT plan proposes repurposing a lane where forecast bus ridership exceeds how many cars that lane could move. In short, this is about moving more people with our existing infrastructure, which makes sense to me.

Have you ever felt like traffic is so much better when school is out of session? Two years ago, a regional studylooked at why our traffic seems so much looser during the summertime. Researchers wanted to know exactly how many cars needed to leave the roads in order for us to feel such luxurious drive times. What they foundwas stunning:  “[a]t the same time that delays dropped by 18% between June 2011 and July 2011, total driving — measured in vehicle-miles traveled, or VMT — decreased only 0.6%.”

So, when fewer than 1% of drivers make other choices on how to get around, we see an 18% improvement in traffic.  This image from The Atlantic offers some visual insight into why this is.

Bus Rapid Transit is also a fiscally responsible solution to our traffic problems, which are only projected to worsen exponentially.

For perspective, it costs about $250 million per mile to construct Metro and light rail costs about $75 to 125 million per mile. New roads are expensive, too. A single roadway interchange will set us back up to $100 million. Bus Rapid Transit, by contrast, is estimated to run about $17 million per mile. Mr. Hawkins points out that BRT is subsidized by taxpayers, but forgets that roads are much more heavily subsidized than transit.

I understand loving our cars. I’m the girl who drove all over New York City when I lived there because transit was such a foreign concept to me.

But as I run around our county for my work and my kids, I would love to have a reliable option beyond driving everywhere. Evidence from other regions that have invested in providing a range of reliable transit, walking, and bicycling options see significant shifts away from driving — if you build it, they will come. I believe Bus Rapid Transit is the right call and leaving an important downtown center like Bethesda out of the plan will put it behind the curve.

Where will the elementary school be located? It may be too soon to tell.

Sketch plan of White Flint Mall property.

Sketch plan of White Flint Mall property. Retrieved from MontgomeryPlanningBoard.org.

A letter from the Board of Education that was sent to the Planning Board at the request of Montgomery County Public Schools was the highlight of a Garrett Park Estates/White Flint Park Citizen’s Association meeting on Wednesday. Accordingly, Bruce Crispell, director of long range planning for MCPS, as well as Nkosi Yearwood and Brooke Farquhar from the Planning and Parks departments were there to explain the history of the school site and answer questions.

A few things became clear during the course of the meeting. First, both the Department of Planning and Department of Parks staff are still supporting the sector plan recommendation to locate the school south of the White Flint Mall site (currently a parking lot). However, they are meeting with Lerner Enterprises, the owners of the mall, to see how to find a way to increase the acreage for the elementary school. The site identified in the master plan for the school has been constrained by a revised road alignment to accommodate a “specific tenant” that will generate a lot of truck traffic, according to Yearwood. At this time, Lerner has only submitted a sketch plan, which is largely conceptual, for their site. Yearwood explained that the next step in the planning review process, a more detailed preliminary plan, is likely coming next year.

On MCPS’s side, all of the proposed sites are challenges. Crispell explained that MCPS likes to have 12 acres for an elementary school,  and that their typical requirements for an elementary school include 3 playgrounds and 3 paved areas for activities such as recess and physical education. This program of requirements is one of the reasons why MCPS is now looking at another site behind White Flint Mall, adjacent to White Flint Neighborhood Park – MCPS has many schools that co-locate outdoor activities with parks. Additionally, MCPS is looking to have land dedicated for the school so that acquisition won’t be an added expense.  During the course of the meeting it became clear that all of the potential sites likely have some dollar amount attached to them, but that MCPS will continue to favor those that come at the lowest cost. This reality is why some other sites suggested are considered unfeasible.  When asked about the current properties MCPS owns, Crispell explained that all of those properties currently have another use, and that MCPS prefers to have new land for a growing population, within the sector plan, to serve that community specifically. When one resident called for a more urban design for a school, such as a play area on a roof, Crispell replied “I don’t think we’re there yet,” though because of its smaller site Somerset Elementary in Chevy Chase has been thought of as a model for the new White Flint Elementary School.

The community’s concerns included traffic and the future of their park. Some were frustrated that White Flint Neighborhood Park would not be open for public use during the school day, particularly because the sector plan calls for the current park to be expanded. In terms of traffic, many community members were opposed to school busses and other additional traffic cutting through their neighborhood to reach the new elementary school. (While the plan is supposed to be walkable, it is likely that some busses will be needed, and school staff will be driving). Ken Hartman from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center explained that it may not be necessary to have access to the school from the neighborhood, as is the case with Bethesda Elementary, where traffic can only enter from Arlington Road.

Ultimately this school is ten to 20 years (or perhaps more) away from being constructed.  The challenge lies in planning for these long range projects when nobody knows what the reality on the ground will be so far into the future. The Garrett Park Estates/White Flint Park Citizen’s Association voted against the recommendation that the site north of the mall be designated for the school and suggested that other sites continue to be investigated. Some members urged the county representatives to think more creatively about possible solutions. We will keep you updated as we hear more.

Bellevue shows way for White Flint

One of the challenges in transforming White Flint into an urban place is that it largely developed after World War II, when car culture really took hold. Not only are there lots of big, fast roads and strip malls that are hard to navigate without a car, but there are fewer examples of how to redesign it. This was less of an issue in the revitalization of places like Bethesda or Silver Spring, which were originally built around walking and transit.

Bellevue’s Downtown Park and skyline. Photo by mariusstrom on Flickr.

But last month, I got to visit one place that’s dealing with many of the same problems we are: Bellevue, a community just east of Seattle, where I went for the annual Rail~Volution conference. While Bellevue still struggles to make room for people in a place built for cars, it holds a lot of interesting lessons for White Flint as it matures.

Like White Flint, Bellevue was a rural area until after World War II, when the growing demand for housing and a new bridge connecting it to Seattle made it a fast-growing suburb. During the 1970’s, it also became a magnet for commercial development, sprouting a commanding skyline as companies moved to the city.

By 2000, Bellevue had more jobs than residents, making it the downtown for Seattle’s Eastside region. And its perception has changed as well. At the conference, I spoke to an official from the Seattle Department of Transportation who has observed Bellevue from across Lake Washington for years. “Bellevue used to be a suburb,” he said. “But in recent years it’s grown a lot, and now it’s a city in its own right.”

Bellevue gets taller, younger, and more educated

Bellevue has been trying to remake its downtown since the 1970’s. In recent years, downtown Bellevue has exploded with high-end shopping centers, luxury apartments, and 400-foot-tall skyscrapers housing major tech companies like Microsoft, the city’s largest employer. There are also a number of impressive public buildings, including a library, a convention center, Bellevue’s city hall, and a gorgeous downtown park.

Plaza at the Bravern, a new mixed-use complex in Bellevue. All photos by the author unless noted.

Today, there are over 43,000 workers and 10,000 residents in downtown Bellevue, with forecasts predicting 70,000 workers and 19,000 residents by 2030. By comparison, White Flint had about 22,800 workers and about 5,000 residents in 2010, which could grow to about 48,000 workers and 30,000 residents in a few decades under the Sector Plan.

As downtown grew, the city’s mix of urban and suburban amenities drew young, educated professionals from around the world who came to work at nearby tech firms. The median age of downtown residents fell from 57 in 2000 to 34 in 2010, while the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree increased from 45% to 63%. Both downtown and the city as a whole were at least 80% white in 2000, but are on target to become majority-minority within a few years.

New focus on little details, not just big buildings

Walking around downtown Bellevue, it’s clear that it’s still in transition. Past planning efforts, most recently a 2003 update of the city’s Downtown Plan talked about pedestrian and transit improvements, but were hesitant to recommend anything that would impede car traffic.

There are a lot of wide roads and big intersections that make walking hard, or at least unpleasant.

The skyscrapers look cool, but they don’t really address the street, creating big blank walls. The streets are massive and spaced far apart, creating large “superblocks” that encourage speeding. They also make it hard, or at least unpleasant, to walk, meaning the sidewalks tend to be empty. And every building still seems to have its own parking lot garage, creating even more incentives to drive.

But the pieces of an urban place are coming together. Turn off of the main streets and you’re on quieter, more intimate streets with small shops and apartment buildings with “real doors.” In the Bravern, a new complex with shops, offices and apartments, there’s a series of nice plazas where people congregate even in the typical overcast Seattle weather.

A quiet side street with “real doors” makes downtown Bellevue feel a little more human-scaled.

With that in mind, city and regional leaders are planning for a future built around people, not cars. Bellevue already has good local bus service and one of six Seattle-area “bus rapid transit-lite” corridors. In 10 years, it’ll have light rail as well.

But there’s also a renewed focus on the smaller details that make an urban place interesting and enjoyable. The city’s ongoing Downtown Livability Initiative will look at how to create a sense of place, ranging from promoting better urban design to encouraging food trucks. And a Downtown Transportation Plan in progress will look at ways to break up the superblocks to improve pedestrian and cyclist connections.

Bellevue shows the power of creating suburban downtowns

Walking around Bellevue today, you can see what happens when you try to plan for an urban place while assuming that everyone’s going to drive. You get the worst of both urban and suburban places: lots of traffic and none of the vitality.

Commuters board a bus at the Bellevue Transit Center.

People already drive to White Flint today, and will continue to do so in the future. But as White Flint grows and matures, we’ll have to shift our focus from moving lots of cars really quickly to moving people in lots of different ways, and creating places worth lingering in.

The success of Bellevue so far shows the power of creating a downtown in a suburban community that previously lacked one. Downtown Bellevue has not only been an economic boon, but a tool for attracting new residents and creating a more diverse, inclusive community. It may not be finished yet, but Bellevue is a promising sign of where White Flint could go.

County Hosts Open Data Town Hall

From Montgomery County’s Innovation Program:

November 21st, 2013 will mark Montgomery County’s first Open Data Town Hall at the Bethesda/Chevy Chase Regional Services Center (located at 4805 Edgemoor Lane, Bethesda) from 7 to 9 p.m. The Innovation Program is excited to host this event. All Montgomery County residents are welcome.

The goal of the Open Data Town Hall is to gather information from residents about the types of data they would like to have available on our open data platform, dataMontgomery. Chief Innovation Officer Dan Hoffman and Chief Information Officer Sonny Segal will be present at the meeting to give background on Montgomery County’s open data policy and progress.

The open data sharing platform, dataMontgomery, is the County’s official portal for open data. We offer datasets such as employee salaries, public school information, public parking, and food inspection readily available at the click of a button. The datasets can be sorted and filtered to the viewer’s liking. They can also be rated on a five-star scale and shared among social media platforms. Also, MoCo uses a scorecard to prioritize which datasets should be released. We continue to implement these aspects of open data that make us a leader in the field.

The format of the event will include a presentation by Dan and Sonny Segal to introduce open data and familiarize the audience withdataMontgomery. Then, participants will move around the room to stations holding discussions on different topics of open data, hosted by Innovation Fellows and facilitators. Lastly, facilitators will report out their opinions and findings from the Town Hall.

Check out the Innovation Program website for a follow-up after the event. We will discuss the findings and data priorities as stated by residents. To RSVP on Facebook, please click here. We hope to see you at the event!

Updates from the November Downtown Advisory Committee meeting

The White Flint Downtown Advisory Committee met again on November 12th to continue discussing how to make the area a great downtown destination. In fact, Jeff Burton, deputy executive director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership (BUP) came to the meeting to discuss just that with members of the committee. The discussion started with the Bethesda Streetscape Plan, created in the early 90s to give Bethesda a specific feel. Jeff explained that the plan was developed to create uniformity and consistency in the area, and was formed with the idea that there would be a group like BUP to maintain.

Like the streetscape plan, the conversation got very specific as to what makes a great downtown feel, from what materials are best for sidewalks to how many different types of trees should be planted and where. Some of the main themes included:

**Brick sidewalks – this is what is in Bethesda. Jeff explained that brick sidewalks are relatively easy to maintain, though it may take a few years for the material to settle. A big focus of this discussion was making sure the sidewalks are easy for everyone to use, particularly people with disabilities. What materials should be used for other amenities, such as benches, was also discussed. Aesthetic qualities as well as ease of maintenance should be considered.

**Trees and other plans are critical in creating a sense of place.  Planters offer a relatively inexpensive to make a big impact in the look and feel of an area.

**Maintaining a clean, pleasant environment is crucial. Having a downtown management team for maintenance is extremely important. One thing that we will have to be aware of in White Flint is the space between the various developments, and making sure these areas don’t get forgotten about.

Ultimately it’s going to take a lot of coordination between the many different developers and property owners as well as the State Highway Administration to create a great looking streetscape with a unified theme that is also interesting and easy for everyone to enjoy. These finer details, from sidewalks to trash cans are critical in creating a true sense of place – a wonderfully unique White Flint.

The Downtown Advisory Committee usually meets on the second Tuesday of every month at 8am at the Conference Center. However, the group will not have their normal meeting in December, as they will be on a half day retreat. In the meantime, we understand that those who represent the county (Dee Metz and Ken Hartman) have been hard at work with the Capital Improvements Program (CIP) budget, which includes White Flint projects in various stages. Additionally, the Department of Transportation is looking at Marinelli and Nebel street areas for more comprehensive safety features. Finally, some members of the committee are working to get a zip code for the White Flint area, including writing to/meeting with Representative Chris Van Hollen’s office.

County Council resists some calls to water down BRT plan

It’s been 5 years since Montgomery County first started talking about a countywide Bus Rapid Transit network, but the County Council could vote on the proposed 81-mile system in two weeks. While the latest round of revisions are good, will councilmembers resist calls from a few residents to cut BRT routes in their neighborhoods?

BRT in Los Angeles. Photo by the author.

The draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan designates future transit corridors and recommends how to allocate space on our major roads for them. While business, civic, activist, and environmental groups say planning for transit will reduce traffic and support future growth, some residents are fighting to block the plan.

Councilmember Roger Berliner, who sits on the council’s Transportation and Energy committee, emphasized that it’s only the beginning of a longer conversation. “This is a predicate for future action,” he said. “Just like when we put the Purple Line in our master plan, we said, ‘Hey, this might be a good idea.'”

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Meeting Next Week on White Flint School Site

The issue of a site for a future elementary school in the White Flint Sector is back at the forefront and County Planners will be at a meeting next week to discuss it.

From Park & Planning:

White Flint Elementary School
7:00 p.m., Wednesday, November 20
Garrett Park Elementary School
4810 Oxford Street
Kensington, MD 20895
 
Planners will participate in a general meeting of the Garrett Park Estates/White Flint Park Citizen’s Association at the Garrett Park Elementary School on Wednesday, November 20 at 7:00 p.m. Up for discussion is the  proposed White Flint elementary school on the White Flint Mall site. The meeting is open to the public.

Businesses want bike lanes

What do tech companies say is crucial to attracting and retaining employees? According to Tami Door, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, it’s bike lanes. She explains:

Ten years ago we never would have thought that walkability or bike lanes would be economic development tools…We’re working on the creation of a comprehensive protected bike lane plan for downtown…We would like to make bikes an integrated part of downtown. We want more people biking in the normal course of the day, not just because it’s a novelty, but that’s how they commute.

Door also mentioned that Denver is a huge magnet for Millenials, one group Montgomery County is trying to attract to the area. Interestingly, the county is also working to attract more cybersecurity companies.

Check out more about this topic on the Streetsblog website.