If you read this blog with any frequency, you’re familiar with the term Complete Streets. This is the planning and design model focused on moving people, not just cars. Complete streets are those that consider all users, regardless of their mode of transportation, age or ability. In other words, it’s the opposite of Rockville Pike.
Our posts have shared the benefits, for physical and public health as well as public policy, of adopting these practices. And, as White Flint is on the cusp of becoming a more walkable area, we need these planning strategies in play. Highways cutting through our downtown areas act as barriers separating east and west and prevent us from having a cohesive district. If we want people to feel safe and comfortable leaving their cars behind, then we have to help them feel safe and comfortable as pedestrians along our streets. Help may be on its way at the county level!
County Bill 33-13: Streets and Roads – Urban Road Code Standards and Pedestrian Safety Improvements
Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-1, which includes White Flint) has introduced legislation to update the urban road code standards and integrate better pedestrian safety improvements. It does things like reduce the width of travel lanes, which naturally controls driving speed, and limits turning radii, which creates a more compact intersection for pedestrians to cross. The bill also proposes 6-foot pedestrian refuges to ease road crossings and sets target speeds for urban roads. Councilmember Hans Riemer has joined as a co-sponsor of the bill. These amendments to the current code would force our transportation engineers to consider all of a road’s users during the design process, rather than just focus on how to move as many cars as fast as possible.
These proposals would have exciting impacts on the roads in the White Flint area. At the moment, you can drive nearly twice as fast along Rockville Pike in White Flint as you can through downtown Bethesda. Attempts to cross our local roads are often met with more pavement to walk than time to walk it in. “The overarching goal of this bill is to expand and enhance the county’s complete street policy and to facilitate the implementation of pedestrian friendly, bike friendly, walkable, livable urban areas as envisioned in several of the county’s approved master plans,” wrote Councilmember Berliner in a memo to his colleagues introducing the legislation. It’s exactly what we need!
Concerns Raised by the Legislation
Not everyone is as excited about the proposed legislation and there have been some specific concerns raised about the Bill. Some are concerned that the legislation is a blanket requirement for all “urban areas” in the county. A “one-size fits all” solution is not appealing to folks who want control over the details of every plan that comes their way. Also, the recommended travel lane widths are, on average, a narrow ten feet, which will cause drivers to naturally slow so they stay within the lines. But, there are some buses and other large vehicles that are wider, side window to side window, than that.
Finally, the turning radii would be shortened which could lead to a few difficulties. First, when a fire truck responding to an emergency wants to take a corner at a high rate of speed, they won’t be able to when that corner is a tight one. Second, a long truck (like a tractor trailer) might have trouble negotiating these turns, resulting in them popping up on the curb and sidewalk and posing a risk to the very pedestrians the legislation is trying to protect.
It’s also worth noting that this legislation would apply only to county roads, while roads like Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road are controlled by the state. It’s everyone’s hope that the State will follow suit when designing roads within these areas so that they remain true to the vision of the surrounds.
Can These Concerns Be Mitigated?
Jurisdictions all over the country and all over the world have implemented planning principles like the ones proposed by Councilmembers Berliner and Riemer, so there must be creative solutions to the concerns that have been raised. For instance, couldn’t the legislation integrate a method for awarding exceptions to the standards under certain circumstances? This would alleviate the concerns about a “blanket approach.” Also, White Flint will be getting its own fire station near Rockville Pike and Randolph Road. Perhaps that equipment can be designed to navigate our urban roads more efficiently.
Transforming roads from places that prioritize moving cars into places that prioritize moving people (see the difference?) is the crux of this legislation, and at the heart of what we’re creating here in White Flint. But, as I mentioned, we’re not the only jurisdiction making these changes. Is it possible that these barriers being thrown up are really just opportunities for us to flex our creative muscles? If we’re designing an area for the future, we need to be bold and brave and willing to tackle these challenges without throwing our hands up at the first wrinkle.
New York City has been undergoing a similar transition. In case you missed it, check out this Ted Talk presented by New York City’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Bold moves can have great rewards:
Want to be Heard?
There are a couple of ways you can be part of the process with this legislation. Start by reading the proposal here and the accompanying memo here. The Council is holding a public hearing on the evening of Thursday, January 23rd. Sign up to testify yourself by calling 240-777-7803. Or, if you prefer, contribute toward Friends of White Flint’s testimony. Either post here or email us with your thoughts on this exciting bit of local legislation!