Archives March 2013

How Many Cars Need to Leave the Road before We Feel Relief?

We are all tired of sitting in our region’s notorious traffic. We know there must be a solution and, for that, we agree with the White Flint Sector Plan.  Transit is key!

With the option of reliable transit, more of us will choose to get out of our cars for a variety of our trips. We aren’t anti-car — we are pro-options!  Have you noticed that driving during summertime in our region is luxurious?  When schools are out and more of us are vacationing, our travel times are reduced by nearly 18%!   Now, would you believe that this substantial reduction in travel time is caused by a .6% reduction in total driving ? By getting only a small percentage of drivers to choose other modes of transportation — bus rapid transit, walking, Metro — we will feel a big difference on the roads.

Thank you for being part of FoWF’s Transit Week!  We hope you’ve followed the blog all this week to learn more about why transit options are so important. This includes Rapid Transit, which is planned to run up Rockville Pike with the reliability of rail. That reliability, though, is only guaranteed when the vehicles have dedicated lanes and frequent stations along their route.

Would you like to offer your input on these issues?  Become part of the constructive conversation by joining Friends of White Flint!  Membership is free to residents and community organizations and offered on a sliding scale for businesses and landowners.  We would love to have your engagement as the implementation of White Flint moves forward!

Transit keeps our neighbors moving

Earlier this week, we said we need to start prioritizing transit more, or continue to be stuck in traffic. We wrote that people across the country are driving less, and that study after study reveals building more roads isn’t the answer to congestion. And now, we have data that shows our neighbors in Arlington are getting the big picture about transit, and reaping the benefits.

According to Arlington’s Mobility Lab, despite a growing population and number of jobs in the area, Arlington County Commuter Services shifted 45,000 car trips each work day from a single occupancy vehicle to some other form of transportation (mostly transit). WAMU reports that three initiatives have encouraged this shift: “[1] offering multiple alternatives to the automobile in the form of rail, bus, bicycling, and walking; [2] following smart land-use policies that encourage densely built, mixed-use development; and [3] relentlessly marketing the transportation alternatives through programs that include five ‘commuter stores’ throughout the county where transit tickets, bus maps, and other information are available.” We need to make sure we have a comprehensive transit system, that people know about, to complement the mixed-use development in our community.

“Reducing traffic on key routes does make it easier for those who really need to drive. Not everybody can take an alternative,” explains Howard Jennings, Mobility Lab’s director of research and development. Everyone, including those in cars, benefits when transit use increases.

Things to consider when you’re stuck in your car

We’ve posted before about how per capita vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in the United States has been decreasing (here is another article that also explains this trend with some excellent visuals, one of which is posted below).


US VMT projections


Nevertheless, despite these trends that say people are driving less, we’re still fighting for quality transit in White Flint (and the rest of the county). The concern about increased traffic, especially in a place with anticipated development like White Flint is valid. However, as it has been illustrated over (and over) again, adding capacity for cars doesn’t relieve congestion, it actually makes it worse.


cycle of automobile dependency

(c) Todd Litman, 2013. “Smart Congestion Relief – Comprehensive Analysis of Traffic Congestion Costs and Congestion Reduction Benefits”. Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

Building miles and miles of road for cars hasn’t worked before. Why would it work in White Flint now? Simply put, if we want less traffic, we shouldn’t invite more cars on the road.

Give transit priority, or everyone sits in traffic

What BRT could look like with dedicated lanes on Rockville Pike. Image from the White Flint Partnership.

Bus Rapid Transit systems use a variety of features to provide a faster ride, the most important of which is dedicated lanes. But as Montgomery County plans its own BRT network, they could be the first thing to go.

Last week, the Montgomery County Planning Board began discussing the Planning Department’s draft proposal for a 10-line, 79-mile countywide BRT network. This isn’t the first scheme for BRT, which has been studied for 5 years. However, if approved, it would be incorporated into the county’s Master Plan of Highways and Transitways, a long-term guide to how our streets and highways are designed.

Like existing Bus Rapid Transit lines in Los Angeles and Cleveland, Montgomery’s BRT network would employ several features to give buses the speed and reliability of a train, like from widely-spaced stations to ticket machines that allow riders to pay before boarding and sensors that turn stoplights green as buses approach.

In many parts of the county, buses would also run in their own dedicated lanes. This is arguably the most important feature of BRT; like rail, it gives riders confidence in where the bus is going and that it’ll continue to be there tomorrow. Dedicated lanes for transit are often the only way that anyone, including drivers, can get through a congested corridor.

Route 355 South BRT

Map of proposed BRT along Route 355. Red and blue areas would have dedicated lanes, yellow areas would not. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Of course, some streets have enough room that bus lanes can be added through widening, but in many areas, such as Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda, giving lanes to buses means taking them away from cars. And that has some county officials nervous. At a recent Planning Board worksession on BRT, Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier said the BRT plan “screams that we don’t care what happens to drivers.” She’s not alone: last year, County Councilmember Nancy Floreen insisted that people “will drive no matter what.”

As a result, much of the Planning Department’s draft does not give buses their own lanes in much of the county, including on Route 355. They’ve broken the BRT plan into two phases, only the first of which would become part of the county’s master plan and eligible for funding. The BRT corridor along Route 355 between Twinbrook and Germantown is included in Phase 2, meaning it may not even get dedicated lanes, while political opposition might kill the proposed dedicated lanes along Route 355 between Friendship Heights and Twinbrook, which would require taking lanes from cars.

Everyone knows that traffic is bad in Montgomery County, but it’s only going to get worse as the county continues to grow. It’s geometrically impossible to move all of the cars through certain streets at rush hour now, let alone in the future. While some might argue that the county’s too spread out for effective transit, there are many places, particularly around interchanges or in areas with poor street connections, where all of the traffic demand gets forced onto one street, forming a chokepoint. That’s where transit shines.

For instance, take the intersection of Rockville Pike and Cedar Lane in Bethesda, which is one of the county’s most congested. It’s adjacent to the Beltway and thousands of jobs at NIH and the newly relocated Walter Reed Medical Center, meaning that during morning rush hour, lots of drivers will be pouring onto either the Beltway on-ramps or the handful of entrances to NIH or Walter Reed.

Dedicated lanes help the Orange Line BRT in Los Angeles avoid traffic.

Those cars will back up onto Rockville Pike, effectively closing off one or more lanes to anyone who’s simply passing through, who in turn back up the remaining open lanes. Transit planner Jarrett Walker says that chokepoints like this situation are actually where transit has a huge advantage by giving people a way out of congestion:

“Why do you . . . effectively shut down the street, just for the purpose of storing waiting cars? Why don’t you set aside a through lane for transit (and perhaps also for taxis, HOVs, and certainly for emergency vehicles) so that efficient use of the street can continue even as the cars pile up? What would be the effect on traffic? Simple: the pile of stored cars would be narrower and longer. But meanwhile, people could get where they were going, and emergency vehicles could get through to save lives and property.”

Note that Walker refers to moving people, not cars. While some drivers may feel that transit doesn’t benefit them, it can help other people, who in turn choose not to drive, reducing congestion. There are already several neighborhoods along Route 355 and throughout the county where a majority of residents walk, bike or take transit to work.

The choice is simple: force everyone to sit in traffic, or give transit priority along congested corridors and chokepoints and offer people a fast, reliable way to their destination. It’s not a solution for every trip or every street in Montgomery County, but in the right places, the benefits are huge for everyone.

Imagine your commute…better.

The Washington area has (repeatedly) been ranked number one in traffic congestion. A report from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute shares some pretty depressing numbers to illustrate just how bad our traffic is. According to the study, those of us in the DC region waste 67 hours a year in traffic delays. We also waste 32 gallons of gas per car (that is, gas we use sitting in traffic not actually going anywhere). And it’s only going to get worse, unless we make some major changes to our current transportation network.

However, I’m guessing that most of us don’t need to be told how bad traffic is around here. We live it every day. And we all know that it only takes one accident to make a bad situation even worse (were any of you on the road, any road nearby, last Tuesday when part of the outer loop of the Beltway closed?).

These are just some of the reasons why we need more options to get around in our daily lives. Yes, I said options. Think about it – did people on the Metro experience the same frustration those of us in our cars did last Tuesday? Would you have considered taking transit like BRT on Tuesday if you had the choice (even if you normally drive your car)? It’s no secret that we like transit here at Friends of White Flint, but that’s in part because cars have taken priority for decades. What we lack is a well-connected, multi-modal transportation network in this area.

Last Monday, the Planning Board rejected the Staff Draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, taking particular issue with the language that prioritizes transit over cars. However, the White Flint Sector Plan was built, so to speak, on the idea that people will be driving less and using transit (as well as other modes of transportation, like biking and walking) more. In order to increase transit use in an area where so many already drive, there needs to be a solid transit system that gives people a good reason to leave their car at home. That system may be at risk for us, which is why we’re going to be writing about a variety of transit-related topics this week. Enjoy!

Planning Board votes for alterations to Montrose Parkway

The existing part of Montrose Parkway. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

After 40 years of planning, an extension of Montrose Parkway through White Flint could soon become a reality. County and state transportation officials say the highway is needed to move cars, but residents and county planners say it contradicts their goal of making White Flint an urban center.

Yesterday, the Montgomery County Planning Board recommended that the State Highway Administration and Montgomery County Department of Transportation change their plan to build a $119 million, 1.62-mile extension of Montrose Parkway from Rockville Pike to Veirs Mill Road. They questioned how it fits into the White Flint Sector Plan, which calls for the creation of a place “where people walk to work, shops and transit.”

“It’s hard to see this as consistent with a pedestrian-friendly environment,” said Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier, who lives near White Flint. “It detracts from our efforts to create a grid of streets . . . it makes our transportation goals harder.”

Work on Montrose Parkway began in the 1970’s, when it was planned as part of the Outer Beltway, which was eventually built as the Intercounty Connector. Later, a portion of the highway’s route between Veirs Mill Road and New Hampshire Avenue was turned into Matthew Henson State Park.

Planning for the current version of Montrose Parkway began in 1998 and resulted in the construction of the segment west of Rockville Pike, which opened in 2010. The Planning Board’s recommendations, which aren’t binding, will next go to the County Council for a vote. SHA officials say that construction won’t begin for at least 5 years.

The proposed four-lane highway would have a stoplight at Chapman Avenue and overpasses at Nebel Street and the CSX railroad tracks. At Parklawn Drive, there would be a single-point urban interchange or SPUI (pronounced “spooey”), where drivers on Parklawn would stop at a light before turning onto the highway. A SPUI already exists at the junction of Falls Road and I-270.

SHA and MCDOT representatives insist that Montrose Parkway is needed to handle anticipated traffic from the redevelopment of White Flint. “If you build more density, you’re going to have more traffic congestion,” said Edgar Gonzalez, MCDOT’s deputy director for transportation policy.

However, recent studies and local examples suggest that compact, mixed-use development like what’s proposed here will actually reduce traffic, raising the question where MCDOT and SHA’s concerns are actually valid.

Parkway would reduce east-west connections

Montrose Parkway With Randolph Road Open

Plan showing Montrose Parkway at Parklawn Drive if Randolph Road is open.

Montrose Parkway With Randolph Road Closed

Plan showing Montrose Parkway at Parklawn Drive if Randolph Road is closed.

Since the latest plans for Montrose Parkway were first presented two weeks ago, residents have expressed concerns about the state’s plans to close Randolph Road, a major east-west thoroughfare running parallel to the parkway, where it crosses the railroad tracks.

“One of the biggest problems in White Flint planning is the lack of east-west crossings,” wrote Barnaby Zall last week. “We’ve been trying for years to figure out a way to bridge that gap.”

SHA officials say it’ll improve safety. The Federal Railroad Administration calls it the 4th most dangerous crossing in Maryland: there have been 21 collisions there in the past 35 years, including one death. Since 2007, there has been just one collision. Separating the road from the railroad tracks also means trains won’t have to blow their horns when they pass through, something many neighbors have complained about.

Randolph Road would end in a cul-de-sac just east of the tracks, and anyone who wanted to go further west would have to get on Montrose Parkway. Chair Carrier worried that this would hurt access to shops along Randolph Road. “It would be hard to imagine that the businesses there would remain viable,” she said.

Gonzalez said it could be a safety hazard. “You have to weigh the benefits [of access to Randolph Road] with the possibility of a future event occurring,” he said. “Nobody wants to be in a train collision.”

Nonetheless, board members voted to keep Randolph Road open at the railroad crossing, which planning department staff recommended because it gives travelers more options, reducing the traffic burden on any one road.

Debate over whether interchanges are “barriers”

Montrose Parkway East

Plan of the entire eastern portion of Montrose Parkway.

Much of the debate about Montrose Parkway revolved around the proposed interchange with Parklawn Drive. Board members worried it would become a barrier between White Flint and Twinbrook, making it difficult for people to walk or bike from one side to the other.

“We should rethink what we’re doing in the context of the future land use of White Flint,” said Planning Board member Casey Anderson. “We’re not trying to build these huge slabs of asphalt that divide communities into pieces.”

In the past, county planners have recommended putting a stoplight there instead. Former planning director Rollin Stanley argued that interchanges in White Flint “[reinforce] the view that Rockville Pike is a runway to get through White Flint versus moving through the area as a destination itself.” Last fall, acting planning director Rose Krasnow wrote a letter asking MCDOT and SHA to consider it, but was rebuffed by MCDOT director Arthur Holmes, who said the interchange would “improve safety and reduce barriers by separating conflicting flows” of cars, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Likewise, Gonzalez said that an at-grade intersection, which would require that Montrose Parkway be 9 or 10 lanes wide to handle projected traffic, which would be just as bad for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Planner Larry Cole argued that it’s because the county and state’s plans are “overdesigned” and overestimate the amount of future car traffic in White Flint. “The reason [Montrose Parkway] is this big is that the space is available,” he said.

Nonetheless, the board eventually voted in favor of keeping the interchange after officials from MCDOT and SHA promised to look at ways to make crossing the interchange safer and more pleasant for pedestrians, such as restricting right turns on red. The parkway will already have a 10-foot path for bicyclists and pedestrians on the north side and a 5-foot sidewalk on the south side.

Over time, the vision for White Flint has changed a lot. Forty years ago, the Outer Beltway was supposed to pass through it. Twenty years ago, the Planning Board sought to build multiple interchanges along Rockville Pike. Even the White Flint and Twinbrook sector plans, which are less than 5 years old, included the Montrose Parkway.

However, these neighborhoods are envisioned as urban places where people will be able to drive less, and to succeed it needs a street network where people feel comfortable and safe not driving, and Montrose Parkway as proposed could undermine that. The Montgomery County Department of Transportation and State Highway Administration work for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users, not just drivers, and their plans for places like White Flint must reflect that.

Crossposted on Greater Greater Washington.

The Problem with STROADs

In a recent post from Better! Cities & Towns, Charles Marohn explains the many problems with STROADS, or street-road hybrids. Streets and roads have different purposes: streets have a smaller scale, feature many uses and should accommodate multiple modes of transportation (particularly walking), while roads are primarily meant to move vehicles quickly from one place to another. Therefore, combining the two can have some serious consequences, including:

  • Slow traffic. Speed limits are kept low, and there is a lot of turning traffic, merging traffic and many traffic signals. STROADS fail as a road.
  • Low financial productivity, meaning they fail as a street. Everything has a large scale for automobiles. Therefore, not only will businesses attract less foot/bicycle traffic (for reasons also described below), but they also have to provide parking lots, which do not yield many jobs or taxes.
  • Poor safety. Even if they have sidewalks and crosswalks, STROADS can be difficult to cross because they have many wide driving lanes. Furthermore, there are many gaps in the streetscape. They are extremely difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to use.
  • Finally, STROADS are incredibly expensive to build.

Sound familiar?

Marohn claims that eliminating STROADS is the next “great task” of the local engineer. He points out that “we don’t even have to talk about money to make this change. STROADs are incredibly dangerous. We can justify a lot of STROAD repair using a health, safety and welfare rationale.” Essentially, we get our return on investment through increased productivity, value and safety – which is what the new street network in White Flint aims to accomplish.

Read Marohn’s full blog post here, and be sure to check out the (short) accompanying video for more information.

Walkable, Mixed-Use Neighborhoods are Safer Neighborhoods

Some of our previous posts have mentioned how mixed-use neighborhoods support healthy bodies, a healthy economy and a healthy environment (particularly through transit). Now, a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania Law Review suggests that areas with a mix of residential and commercial uses are safer than areas with only commercial uses.

This isn’t totally a novel idea. In her (very) influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, author and activist Jane Jacobs suggested that city streets are safer when more people use them.  Her “eyes on the street” theory states that, the more active the neighborhood with both residents and retail visitors, the less likely a criminal will find an opportunity to strike.

While Jane Jacobs’ book is still widely read today, some criticize her methodology, which focuses mainly on observation. However, this study uses empirical evidence to study Jacobs’ theory. The researchers find that “areas with mixed-use zoning have lower reported crime rates than areas zoned for commercial uses only. [They] also found that exclusively residential blocks exhibit lower reported crime than blocks zoned for commercial or mixed-use, even in relatively high crime neighborhoods.”(Interestingly, the point that exclusively residential blocks have lower reported crime is the opposite of what Jacobs’ claimed, as she believed commercial uses reduced crime and shop keepers acted as guardians of the street).

While the study only looks at neighborhoods in Los Angeles and the authors explain that more research should be done, these findings are good news for White Flint, where residential uses are being introduced into what is currently a highly commercial area.

Check out the full study to learn more, or read some other articles on this study here and here (and here).

CONTEST WINNER: What’s Your Most Memorable MoCo Transit Experience?

A couple of weeks ago, we offered a $52 gift card to Seasons 52 for the most memorable transit story.  We received some fascinating entries that range from the icky to the bizarre to the frustrating to the inspiring.  And, that sounds about right for the standard transit experience in these parts.  Here are some of the entries:

My most memorable Moco transit experience was the 7 hour bus ride home in the snow, when I was 8 yo & we got home at midnight!  — Sara

My 70 Express Bus to Germantown broke down on I-270. Twice. On the same trip. — John

I had a doctors appointment in The Rock Springs office park in North Bethesda at 10:30 one morning. I live in downtown Silver Spring and said easy, I’ll take the J2. The route planner said it will take 52 minutes, I gave myself 90 minutes and left at 9am. I guess there was too much rush-hour left because it took 40 minutes for the bus to travel the 3 1/2 miles on east-west highway to Bethesda. I would have saved 10 minutes driving as I’d not have to stop at every stop along the route. After leaving Bethesda and then Medical Ctr metro, the bus before 10 apparently is supposed to turn south, and take Battery Ln to Old Georgetown, this driver went north to Cedar Ln per the non-rush hour route, to find you can’t turn left before 10am. We sat for 15 minutes waiting to turn before the bus decided to just run the red light, of course upsetting a few people on the bus expecting to get off near Old Georgetown and Battery Ln. I ended up being 10 minutes late, so a total of 100 minutes, to travel from Silver Spring to North Bethesda. Safe to say I drive now when I need to get over there!   — B. Gull

I believe that my most memorable Montgomery County transit experience involved being offloaded from the Red Line twice in quick succession back in March 2011.  — Ben S.

I boarded the Rideon Bus 30 toward Medical Center at Bethesda station. The temperature outside was at least 100 degrees and there was no air conditioning on the bus. After the other riders got off at their stops, I was the only rider remaining. The bus broke down and would not re-start. I did not know where I was. It was too hot to sit on the bus and wait a half hour for the next one to arrive. I was not carrying a cell phone. I got off the bus and flagged down a passing car. The driver was kind enough to go out of her way and take me all of the way home. I offered her a reward and she kindly refused it.  — Gail S.

Since moving up to the White Flint area, my worst commute–by far–has to be the blisteringly hot day last summer when there was calamity on the red line during the morning rush. I arrived at the station at approximately 8:30 AM to find it packed with people–never a good sign at a station whose platform is rarely crowded. After waiting only a couple of minutes, a train arrived, and I ran to the end of the train to be able to board it, because the center cars were jammed with people. I squeezed ontot he end car, thinking that I had made it, only to find that the train was sitting…and sitting…and sitting. The car filled with people, and even with the open doors it was suffocating on the train. It was only after sitting at the station for 15 minutes that I learned there had been not one, but two incidents on the line that morning necessitating single-tracking up and down the line. Eventually, the train lurched forward, but had to stop for extended periods at every station, all the while with more and more people attempting to crowd in. By the time we reached Woodley park–one station before my typical exit at Dupont, the train was beyond capacity. And so, of course, we learn that the train must sit at the Station for an undetermined amount of time before proceeding. I’d had it by that point, so I exited the station and began the walk down Connecticut, across the Taft Bridge, and on into Dupont Circle, finally arriving at my office at 10:35 AM, hot, sweaty, tired and grumpy, and a full 2 hours after I had descended onto the White Flint platform.  All I can say is…ugh.  — Ben

Our Honorable Mention goes to Terry who writesI boarded a Red Line train at Silver Spring, heading into DC. Also on the train was an older couple dressed for a formal event. At the Takoma Station, a man got on the train who looked homeless and was agitated. He was talking to himself and got louder and louder as he walked around the train. The older man in the tuxedo got up and went to him, introduced himself and started to talk to him in a calm voice and respectful way. The older man got the homeless man to sit with him on the sideways facing seat and chat. You could feel the energy in the homeless man melting away. By the time we reached the next stop, they were happily and calmly talking like old friends. The homeless man got up, said his goodbyes, and exited the train in a much better state than he’d boarded it in. I know this was a comparatively small event, but I really admire what the man in the tuxedo did. Most of us would hunch down and avoid eye contact. He didn’t. He treated the homeless man with dignity, cut off an escalating scene in the train, and helped the homeless man to feel better.


And our WINNER of a $52 Gift Card to Seasons 52 is Cara who writes: My most memorable transit experience in Montgomery County was taking the bus to the hospital the day my son was born. My husband and I live near the Whole Foods Rockville, and had planned to take the 5 bus to Holy Cross Hospital. But the J5 came first and we were afraid we might have missed the 5, so we took that instead of waiting. It was snowing that day and, as usual, any driving on the Beltway during snow felt like a life-threatening experience, but we arrived in Silver Spring safely. About a mile of walking later we arrived at the hospital and later that day welcomed an 8 lb, 10oz baby boy.


Trusting transit, in the snow, to get you to the hospital in time?  Now, that’s memorable!  Thanks for playing everyone — keep an eye out for another opportunity to win something fun from our White Flint partners!


Why Bicycling is Good for Business

Bicycling provides positive health and economic impacts beyond just the cyclist, a recent post from Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog Capitol Hill reports. How so?

When bike lanes were installed in both New York and San Francisco streets, business owners said that they saw an increase in business. When you are on your bike, traveling at a reduced speed, you are more likely to notice what’s in the shop. Business owners with bike share stations in front of their building said that bike share users were more likely to patronize their store.

Bike infrastructure is also more cost-effective than providing car parking. Here are some numbers:

  • 12 bikes fit in one car parking space
  • One parking space in a garage costs at least $15,000 to build and hundreds of dollars per year to maintain;  building a rack for two bikes costs $150 to $300
  • The city of Tulsa is currently paying $30 million to widen one mile of Yale Avenue. Darren Flusche of the League of American Bicyclists explains that $30 million could have been used for “six hundred miles of bike lane, 100 miles of sidewalk, 300 miles of buffered bike lanes, 120 miles of bicycle boulevards, 30 miles of first-rate bike trails, 20 miles of really elite physically separated cycle tracks, or 2,000 rapid flashing beacons for pedestrian safety.”

Nearby property owners also see the value of their property rise as a result of new bike facilities. Snyder notes that “each WalkScore point is worth $700 to $3,000 in the price of a house.”

Finally, when people chose to use transportation options other than driving, they save a ton of money in terms of car costs. According to Snyder, “The IRS estimates the cost of driving to be 56.5 cents per mile. AAA estimates the average annual cost of car ownership to be near $9,000. Energy regulation expert Ken Colburn — also a cycling instructor with the Bike-Walk Allinace of New Hampshire — said the top reason for mortgage disapproval is that people’s car payments are too high, making them a bad credit risk. ‘The probability of foreclosure increases with car ownership,’ he said.”

Read Snyder’s full article to learn more about how bicycling makes bottom-line sense.