Archive for February, 2012
Since moving to Silver Spring, my wife and I have almost always walked to the grocery store. Downtown Silver Spring has several groceries within a short walk of the condo we rented. Now that we live in a house just inside the Beltway, our local grocery store is Sniders. As I have learned, it’s an institution.
While we enjoy shopping there, the 300-yard walk is not pleasant. Unfortunately, that walk resembles pedestrian-challenged spaces so common in auto-oriented environments. Our challenge: we have to cross six-lane Georgia Avenue and several surfaced parking areas for gas stations, dry cleaners and walk in the roadway because there is no sidewalk, to get there.
Georgia Avenue is super busy, terrifying both to walk along or cross. Stand at the bus stop at Seminary Place and Georgia and try to feel safe. Motorists attempting to rapidly change lanes as they get closer to the Beltway on-ramps are traveling fast. Meanwhile it’s also a busy pedestrian space with many commuters waiting to catch the bus. Keep in mind that for a motorist to make eye contact with a pedestrian, they need to be driving less than 24 mph.
While we like our house and neighborhood, do we have to accept such a shoddy, unsafe pedestrian infrastructure? Can better pedestrian routes co-exist with high levels of car traffic?
This situation is not unique to Montgomery Hills. Exhibit A: Rockville Pike. Exhibit B: Route 198 in Burtonsville. Or even Georgia Avenue farther north in Wheaton. There are so many places where the pedestrian is at risk. Is this the best we can do?
The answer is, of course, no. But before we consider how to improve, it is important to consider a number of constraints.
- Anyone driving through Montgomery Hills or the other routes mentioned above, is in a hurry. They cannot get to where they are going fast enough (or drive close enough to the car in front to prevent someone from cutting in to get onto the I-495 on ramp).
- Georgia Avenue is not a special or favored route. Next time you are driving east on I-495 past Connecticut Avenue, read the exit sign prohibiting trucks from exiting to go south. Hmmm, why is that? Georgia Avenue which has a much higher amount of pedestrian traffic gets all the truck traffic.
- Georgia Avenue is a state road.
That part of Montgomery Hills is zoned commercial-only, perpetuating gas stations, curb cuts, and surface parking lots, all creating points for vehicle and pedestrian conflicts. Is it really necessary for the corner gas stations to have three points of vehicle access? And there are five gas stations within two blocks on a very busy road.
Not every intersection is the same. Different improvements should be considered to fit the needs of each situation.
Believe it or not, the Colesville Road-Fenton Street intersection in Silver Spring was a scramble intersection back in the early 1980s. We have investigated reversing back to that design. I wrote about this in a post last year. This is a place where such an investment could really make a difference to the pedestrian and bring motorists back to reality about driving through more urban places. This design also could work where Colesville crosses Georgia Avenue.
The big reaction against this type of design or many traffic calming measures comes from those who are sure it will slow them down behind the wheel.
The intersection I use at Seminary Place to cross Georgia Avenue does not warrant a scramble intersection because there are too few pedestrians. But the intersection could benefit from some simple fixes.
- Striping. Enhance the pedestrian crossings with highly visible crosswalk markings, possibly even texture changes. I realize the snow plows have a small issue, but how often do they plow Georgia Avenue? Where I come from, the City of Toronto uses texture changes for crosswalks and it snows a whole lot more. And striping is just a few thousand dollars.
- Look at zoning changes that might result in new uses like small buildings with residential uses on top bringing more people to the street frontages. More people on the sidewalk can really help change things by making drivers more aware.
Slow the cars down. People move through this area at well over 40 mph. We’ve got speed cameras a quarter-mile south, and people slow their cars. We should do the same in Montgomery Hills.
- Reduce the number of curb cuts and establish right-of-way requirements so that as properties redevelop, wider sidewalks can result.
- Emphasize at the County level that pedestrians matter. I agree that we need to move cars, but if it takes 15 seconds longer to move though three blocks of Georgia Avenue, is this a big impact on motorists?
The State Highway Administration is starting to look at this stretch of Georgia Avenue and maybe some of these suggestions should be considered. Let’s hope that by working with SHA we can find ways to improve this busy stretch of road that could serve as a model in other parts of the County. This is especially important as we advance the idea of bus rapid transit, which will bring more folks onto the sidewalks to await their buses. Many of those stops may be in a center median, requiring pedestrians to cross, then stand with cars passing on both sides.
Let’s use the Georgia Avenue-Montgomery Hills intersection rethink as a precedent for how to create safe and functional pedestrian infrastructure in harmony with motor vehicle traffic. I welcome hearing from residents where they think we can do better in their neighborhoods.
On January 31, we provided the Council with the “opening act” of an innovative discussion suggested by Council President Roger Berliner on the impact of our changing demographics on service delivery. We were asked to frame the discussion through a presentation highlighting the changing County demographics. I used an approach I have talked about before, which I call the Elements of Sustainability, nine elements which bring together a holistic view of the human ecosystem.
The discussion is not about land use. Rather, this is a way of thinking about the interrelationships of how we move about our environment each day and how one action must be considered across a broad range of impacts that define how, when, where and why we do what we do.
My intent in the Council presentation was to initiate a discussion about rethinking relationships in County actions, stepping out of agency silos to consider how our actions, when considered across service boundaries, can be the most effective form of community building.
The Elements of Sustainability are based on nine factors:
The Council presentation provided examples about how to consider county services within this way of thinking. In a video clip at the end of the presentation, we highlighted the Long Branch Sewing Club, a terrific example of a grass roots initiative that conveys the Nine Elements.
With the rapid growth in the minority population, there are more and more residents with untapped potential for creative activities. The sewing club started as a way for Hispanic women in Long Branch to gather, with sewing as a unifying force. The club has emerged as not just an economic enterprise, but a place to share ideas, experiences and build on each other’s strengths to improve their lives and those of their families. In effect, a grassroots chamber of commerce.
While it is a small enterprise, it has a very large impact on the lives of people in this community.
The group is selling their products at local markets, providing income for the group’s members, many of them stay-at-home moms. Selling their wares at local markets helps circulate dollars in the local economy.
This is an excellent opportunity for the members to share experiences and challenges and help each become more integrated into the community.
Members bring their children, providing a safe environment in which they can play. The members enjoy stress-reducing social interaction and become aware of opportunities in the network of health services.
The group has emerged as a local economic generator, adding to the economic infrastructure and helping to provide demand for services in this neighborhood. They create a mulitplier effect.
The group has found it has greater strength in numbers. Their presence at the market is an example of how, together, they present an organized business group that is becoming known around the area, increasing their market. And the group members are learning a new enterprise that benefits themselves, their families and the community.
The potential for social and economic growth in MoCo is staggering. The rapid shift in population dynamics is like the great European migration in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Coupled with significant change in the U.S.-born population — the aging population, lower birth rates, youth unemployment – we are seeing a whole new America.
Encouragingly, Montgomery County has seen a recent swing to a positive domestic in-migration for the first time in 10 years. Regardless of where our residents come from, everyone wants to succeed and see their children prosper. The bigger impacts occur as families move into the second and third generations, as new businesses become established, English skills improve and social networks expand. The average age of our foreign born residents is lower than U.S.-born residents. Average salary generally increases as we age, so there is considerable growth potential in household income as our new residents get older.
The growth in minority-owned businesses and the resulting employment is considerable. We can assume, also, that the small businesses that have closed during this recession have a high number of minority-owned businesses. Of the 414 business lost from 2005-2009, 93 percent had fewer than 20 employees. Looking at a map of the distribution of businesses by size around the County, it becomes evident the big ones, with 50+ employees, are centered on the I-270 Corridor. We need to think about the potential of the small businesses serving so much of the county and how we can help them succeed and foster more employment opportunities.
In my presentation, I highlighted some economic facts about McDonalds. Turns out a councilmember and several others in the room had worked at McDonalds. Councilmember Craig Rice pointed out that the kids who start at McDonalds are now in competition with older adults and senior citizens. The scarcity of service sector jobs, usually the source of employment for the under-18 group, shows up in the high unemployment rate that shadows all the other age groups.
Both Mr. Rice and Councilmember Hans Reimer pointed out that our policies have limited the opportunity for employment, especially in this age group, and that we need to think about our commercial policies to ensure that the growing number of young people have entry points for employment.
I also discussed the increasing poverty rate and attempted to put a face on the trend. Many people in poverty are working, many of them part time, but others full time. Many have higher levels of education than one might expect. Considering the cost of living here and the economic crisis, we have seen a huge increase in adult children living at home.
Our shifting demographics underscore the need for policies creating balanced service delivery linking housing, health, transit, jobs, training and education, to ensure all residents have equal access to opportunity. As we map out our services against the changing needs of the population, patterns begin to emerge. Young adults want reasonably priced housing near services and jobs. So does our growing senior population. New residents of the community need access to good transit. Yet, so do our young adults.
MoCo is at an important point in its evolution. Decisions today will set the course for a vibrant community that enhances the important factors in our quality of life like education and stable neighborhoods. Yet it also means accommodating change in a holistic approach where each action builds on the investment in our residents.