Last week, I was invited to Boston by the Federal Highway Administration to talk about livability. Five years ago, would anyone have thought that would be possible?
Think about all the highways we have nationally, where the gas tax goes, and the fact that less than 1 percent of the $30 billion plus spent on highway funding is spent on pedestrians.
It seems like a huge ship we have to turn around.
However, the federal leadership through the EPA, HUD and the DOT, and their joint Sustainable Communities Initiative, has created an energy that will bring a new direction into federal highway spending.
Can we translate that into a shift in local thinking as well?
A 1940s video was forward-thinking about how rapid transit can replace the motor car as well as save taxpayer dollars
When I arrived in Montgomery County in 2008, the White Flint property owners and members of my staff tried to divert $50 million in funding for the Montrose Parkway underpass, the first phase to reconstruct Rockville Pike, to study a future transit line along that street. Our efforts were unsuccessful. While I am sure many love to drive through the underpass, think of the missed opportunity.
I have driven the underpass on several occasions, just to assess the connectivity. Frankly, it is not that great. Connectivity is expedited in one direction – east-west – but getting off the road to head north or south is a pain. A regular at-grade intersection with turn lanes, appropriate signaling, pedestrian infrastructure and plantings would have been wonderful and much more effective for the broader public.
You can forget the pedestrian environment on the overpass. I watched a bike commuter ride across and was struck by how brave he was. With new condos just south of Montrose and major mixed-use development plans on the way in White Flint, the whole Montrose project works against what the new master plan is trying to create. People do not walk over overpasses, they walk where there is something at the edge of the sidewalk that enlivens the space. Current and future residents will have to drive to the shopping north of Montrose if as White Flint develops, they go north of Montrose at all.
This graphic illustrates the point about the Montrose underpass. It sterilized huge tracts of land that could have been used to create a vibrant urban intersection with buildings framing the street, people on the sidewalks interacting along the street edge, traffic moving at effective speeds and with room for future surface public transportation.
Not do-able some say? I pass along the best example of a street designed effectively for high traffic high pedestrian activity: the Champs Elysées. Think about it. This street has some of the most expensive shopping in the world. Cars stop along the curb to drop or pick up Europe’s elite to patronize those shops. There is a sidewalk that can best be described as too big, tourist numbers beyond comprehension, views that astound, trees galore, yet the road itself carries more cars per hour than many interstate highways. You can cross the Champs on foot at numerous signalized intersections, yet the traffic still moves, except of course on the last day of the Tour de France.
I am not saying the Montrose underpass should have been the Champs Elysées, but it could have been an at-grade intersection that offered a terrific urban pedestrian experience. That would have also opened up land for development that has been consumed by roadways and created the urban experience White Flint needs while generating a heck of a lot more property tax for the county.
And with the hope of future bus transit in the roadway there will be an opportunity for shifting travel patterns.
A terrific video showing the impact of public transit on removing cars from the street. Consider that this was a 1940s video where the thinking was so relevant to today. Where did it all go wrong? While European and Canadian cities followed the pattern pattern of the video, many American cities went in the opposite direction.
In Montgomery County, we are fortunate that both County and the State leaders are looking in a different direction.
Consider all the initiatives underway.
§ The growth policy the planning department advocated and the council adopted that calls for a part of impact fees to be dedicated to transit
§ Zoning that assigns increased density for places close to basic services like groceries and dry cleaners
§ the state has their “ag print” and “green print” initiatives that are leading into the emerging Plan Maryland program which we hope will result in a rethink of the priority funding areas (areas of growth for each county)
§ the state MDOT leadership in funding infrastructure through smart growth is a national model
In participating at the FHWA session, it became obvious that here in Maryland we are leading the nation in not only thinking about change, but in preparing for the future as well. It is a great time to be planning here in MoCo. The Planning Department, the County Council and the state Departments of Planning and Transportation — are in sync at many levels. Together we can shift the thinking from one of “moving cars, to moving people”.
MoCo can turn things around with an efficient rapid transit system that is multi modal, multi dimensional, and reaches places in the county where transit currently does not exist. The work the Council, planning department and other county agencies is leading to alternatives such as the Purple Line and bus rapid transit as well as amending our traffic assessment methods which will lead to a better transportation system where people live closer to work and have more options for connecting to the places they need to be and the things they need to do.