Car Speed Amendment Back Yet Again, But Maybe Not

Car Speed Amendment Back Yet Again, But Maybe Not

As discussed in several prior posts, the staff of the Montgomery County Council has been trying frantically to block development in White Flint if intersections outside White Flint are slowed. These “car-speed-through-intersections” tests have plagued the White Flint Sector Plan throughout its four-year development.

The basic conflict is that White Flint is a pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented area, yet its growth would be blocked if cars cannot go fast enough through area intersections. The problem is simple: faster cars = less pedestrian-friendly. Here’s a simple table showing that, from a British study reported in the February 2007 issue of WashCycle,

Pedestrian Fatality Rate by Vehicle Speed

Having failed to convince the Council that White Flint should be blocked because cars can’t go through its intersections fast enough, now opponents, supported by Council staff, are arguing that a walkable White Flint should be blocked because OTHER, non-transit-oriented areas have slow cars.

An earlier version of this “block White Flint because cars can’t go fast enough in other areas” amendment was removed from the Council agenda on April 5. Councilmembers noted “legal problems” with the proposed amendment.

Now staff is trying again; you can find the latest version, which has a few words changed, here:

The biggest change for one of the car speed tests (Policy Area Mobility Review or PAMR) seems to be the deletion of the word “elsewhere” from the requirement to use the car speed tests. See, p. 3 of the memo. But this deletion seems to render the amendment meaningless, or at least confusing. The relevant sentence now says that the “traffic impact” of any White Flint development must be considered in any PAMR (car speed test) review of any development anywhere. The removal of the word “elsewhere” doesn’t seem to mean anything, since it was redundant anyway. Does this mean that projects in Clarksburg must test to see if any of their traffic comes from White Flint? Or even was “affected by” White Flint, somehow, some way? Since an amendment must mean something (a basic canon of statutory interpretation), this amendment will likely spawn at least controversy, if not litigation, while people try to figure out what it does and why it was adopted.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the second amendment, to block White Flint if other areas fail the “local” car speed test (Local Area Transportation Review or LATR), has similar language, but, as FoWF member Action Committee on Transit pointed out weeks ago, that amendment would violate the law itself, by using distant data in a “local” test. LATR, in legal terms, requires each development to be tested for its impact on slowing cars through its closest intersections; isn’t that a reasonable definition of “local?” This amendment would look at intersections and developments OTHER than the proposed one. Can’t be done, legally. In other words, this proposed revision would not only muddy the water further, but would also spawn litigation.

Do they PAY people to write this stuff?

I have to say I have some sympathy with the poor staff having to draft this stuff. They are trying to fit square pegs into round holes. You really can’t judge a transit-oriented area like White Flint with car speed tests; that kind of misses the point. And that’s why the Council reasonably decided to simply forego the exercise in White Flint entirely, by getting people OUT of their cars rather than trying to speed up the cars. That’s what you should do in an area where you want people to bike, walk and use transit: give them an incentive NOT to drive.

So now staff is trying to figure out what to do at the interface between a transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly community and an older area where everything is governed by how fast cars move. One idea might be to put up big signs which say: “Pedestrians BEWARE. Cars matter. You don’t.” After all, if pedestrians are warned, they’ll probably be better prepared to jump out of the way.

Who wins on Rockville Pike?

Another might be for the County to continue its movement away from the automobile as King, and to be sure that the adequacy of public facilities is governed by all aspects of quality of life, rather than just by car speed. As ACT’s Miriam Schoenbaum put it, how about making sure that transit, pedestrians and bicyclists (and I would add people with mobility issues) are all considered equally with cars in public facilities planning? Friends of White Flint asked for just that in its testimony on the Growth Policy last year, and it seems like a better idea every time we hear about another traffic fatality in Montgomery County.

But this idea that we’re going to continue to use the car speed tests to block White Flint is just ignoring the fundamental differences between 1950’s planning and today’s. As the memo shows, Council staff is really straining here to accomodate a few groups, such as the Montgomery Civic Federation, who just don’t like the White Flint Plan. The Civic Federation, which, with the departure of most members below the age of 45, seems to be shrinking faster than February’s snows (disclosure: a number of younger activists are building a new community participation vehicle, which I’m happily supporting), says that the County is legally required to use the car speed tests. See, p. 3 of the memo. But wouldn’t the proposed solution be just what the White Flint Plan envisions with the new incentive- based zoning: extensive Planning Board review of all aspects of the proposed development, not just car speed? That would seem more modern and more holistic than simply measuring the adequacy of public facilities by car speed.

Fortunately, late word is that the car speed amendment has again been pulled from the Council agenda by Council President Nancy Floreen. No idea when, if ever, it will be scheduled again.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall


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