Fourth in a series of posts discussing what I expect to see in the upcoming final Draft White Flint Sector Plan, scheduled to be delivered to the Montgomery County Planning Board on June 18. These are not official Friends of White Flint positions, just my musings. This post deals with transportation issues, and in particular, what to do about Rockville Pike.
Originally, I was going to write about transportation generally first, but Jen Beasley’s Gazette article on the debate over the Pike is so good in explaining the controversy that I’ll use that as a springboard first.
If, as many urban and transportation designers contend, an area’s transportation network of roads and streets is the skeleton on which the area is built, Rockville Pike is White Flint’s spine. It is one of its greatest challenges, but if you look beyond the shouts over the redesign, also presents an opportunity to bring together the Pike in a way that no other feature of the Sector Plan can offer.
There are only two major north-south roadways in White Flint: Old Georgetown Rd. on the western edge, and Rockville Pike running diagonally down the center. The Pike is congested seven days a week, but in the White Flint area, the road has not actually “failed” according to most transportation models. No White Flint intersection appears on the recent list of “worst” intersections in the county, released earlier this week.
Nevertheless, almost everyone you talk to about fixing White Flint fixates on the Pike first. “Traffic!” they interrupt. “You have to do something about it!” I was that way too: I described it, in an early video presentation to the White Flint Advisory Group as “the Beast That Ate White Flint.” A big, blue-green monster that dripped cars and ate pedestrians.
So the White Flint Plan, and the White Flint planners, rightfully focus on fixing the Pike. There is a general consensus on how to improve the Pike — basically by making it into a “boulevard.” Other cities have done it, by lining major streets with trees, making them pedestrian- and bike-friendly, and giving people a reason to go there, even if they’re not in cars.
But there are two competing visions of how to do that: one by the County planners, and one by Glatting Jackson, an internationally-reknowned transportation design firm hired by the White Flint Partnership, a group of major property owners in the White Flint area.
(Note: Friends of White Flint, which includes residents, businesses and property owners, is not the same as the White Flint Partnership, although we work closely with the Partnership on issues of common interest.)
The Glatting Jackson proposal is wider, more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly than the planning staff proposal, and contains rapid transit lanes in the middle or median of the Pike, rather than on the curb lanes, where they would be shared by bicycles, busses, and right-turning cars. The Planning Board originally rejected the Glatting Jackson approach, then reconsidered, and now seems likely to adopt the best of both, pending studies of how transit in White Flint would integrate with transit outside the Sector.
There have been a series of posts in the FLOG over recent weeks on this battle. But Yesterday’s article by Jen Beasley in the Gazette nicely sums up the debate and the options.
This debate, though spirited and important, is only part of the answer to improving the Pike. Improving the Pike actually includes four options:
- Create a robust new street network throughout White Flint to take the load off the Pike;
- Add new medians and transit options, including Vehicular Rapid Transit capability, while keeping the same number of lanes for through traffic;
- Make the Pike pedestrian- and bike-friendly; and
- Add stores, restaurants and parking for a lively Pike.
The debate over the Pike is mostly about the middle two points: how do we put transit, pedestrians, and bikes back into the design for the Pike? We expect the new Plan to include a robust new street network, and elements designed for a lively new Pike.
A final point, to bring the Pike debate back to White Flint as a whole. The Pike is not just a problem to be resolved. The Pike also offers a tremendous opportunity for urban design in White Flint, turning an obstacle into an asset.
Though not often remarked upon, one of the elements in the new White Flint Plan, which we expect to see in the final draft is “The Promenade.” The Promenade runs east-west along the new Market Street, at the Metro Station, and north-south along Rockville Pike.
The Promenade is rarely described as a combined north-south and east-west unit, but it should function as both the “spine” and “shoulders” of a new White Flint. The Pike (north-south) holds up the east-west component of the Promenade.
The Promenade forms a diagonal “T” with the base along the Pike and the cross-bar leading from Wall Park and the Civic Green (the two major parks in the new White Flint) over the Metro Station and into the public space area of the North Bethesda Center. It connects and draws together the Sector in a walkable, bikeable corridor which gives people both a reason and a means to wander through the Sector.
Thus, the Pike offers both the biggest obstacle to the new White Flint, and also the biggest opportunity. Even if the new draft Plan doesn’t focus on this aspect, we expect to see this skeleton form the basis for the new Sector.