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Guest Post by Alex Hutchinson

Whether it’s the Boundary Bridge that straddles Rock Creek right outside Silver Spring or the Cabin John Bridge nestled into Glen Echo, I love the bridges our region boasts.  I’m no gephyrophobiac, bridges don’t scare me one bit. But there is one bridge that makes me uneasy–and no, it’s not the Tacoma Narrows— it’s the Downtown Silver Spring Library bridge. Despite the fact the Planning Board voted 8-1 against the bridge, it has once again become part of our local discourse. Here’s why I hope this bridge wobbles into oblivion.

It’s been argued that the proposed bridge is the best and most economic way of achieving accessibility for all. Silver Spring already has a skywalk: the bridge that connects the Ellsworth Drive parking garage to City Place Mall. This post isn’t about the untapped potential of City Place, but it’s worth remembering that the skywalk never transformed City Place into the attraction of Silver Spring it was intended to be.

Skywalks, the ill-conceived circulators dreamed in an era of automobile-centric planning, aren’t necessary in the paradigm of today. In the Board’s discussion, planners made the case that the structure would divert traffic from the active sidewalks and street level retail that have come to define Downtown Silver Spring.

The bridge also would encourage library users to drive, avoiding the highlights of Silver Spring altogether. Skywalks mainly serve drivers who, at some point, leave their cars to become pedestrians. A problem associated with skywalks is the reluctance of pedestrians to use their circuitous routes and instead brave a busy road, in turn running the risk of being struck by a vehicle. Less able pedestrians— people in wheelchairs, mothers with strollers, the elderly –similarly might opt to cross the road instead of taking the elevator up to the third floor of the parking garage. While the library intersection isn’t a tranquil, one-lane country road, removing pedestrians from the equation altogether is heading in the wrong direction.

Paul Holland, of the Washington Area Wheelchair Society, is glad accessibility is being emphasized. In a recent conversation, he thought the bridge wasn’t the only option to improve accessibility for those with limited mobility. In fact, pedestrian bridges can be difficult to climb depending on the grade of the incline. He pointed  out that the steep angle of Montgomery College’s pedestrian bridge can be strenuous for non-motorized wheelchair users.

According to Holland, the most important corrections for safe intersections are sight lines, gradients, smooth surface transitions from curb to street, light-timing, and driver behavior. The $750,000 estimated cost of the bridge could be more resourcefully spent in some of these problem areas. With just $120,000, affordable alternatives could turn the intersection into something that would be accessible for everyone.

A pedestrian bridge might look good on paper, but one alternative solution might be a Barnes Dance. This year, 7th & H streets in D.C.’s Chinatown became the proud owner of a Barnes Dance Intersection. These intersections use three traffic signal phases. In one, pedestrians cross in all directions, including diagonally. The other two let traffic go in one of the two directions, but prohibit pedestrians from crossing parallel to the traffic. However, not all intersections are created equal, and with the future Purple Line running through this area, the intersection might be too complex for this solution. In addition, teaching drivers to behave in these unaccustomed settings is easier said than done. Pedestrians and traffic officials in the district are already reporting difficulty in enforcing drivers to obey no turn on red signs.

One only has to walk around the relocated Fenton Street Market at Veterans Plaza to see the effect of a pedestrian-friendly environment: streets and sidewalks are brimming with artists, merchants, retail, and as a result everyone is more connected to the growing exceptional architecture Silver Spring has to offer. Let’s improve on the Civic Center’s success and learn from the mistakes of City Place.

Alex Hutchinson, a Takoma Park native, is a Planning Department intern. When he’s not applying to graduate schools in Urban Planning you can find him teaching English as a second language, riding his bike on the Capital Crescent Trail, experimenting  and failing with the Ride On bus system, or making loud music. Alex became interested in the field of planning after learning about Curitiba Brazil’s Bus Rapid Transit System. If you have any questions or bones to pick please contact him at

4 Responses to “Let’s Not Cross That Bridge When We Get To It”

  1. Bob

    Here we go again…. more uninformed arguments against the library bridge. The bridge from the parking garage across the street to the library isn’t a skywalk in the traditional sense. It is designed simply to get people from the parking area to the library and isn’t part of a system connecting buildings for blocks. It would bypass no storefronts and would actually make it easier for people to get to Fenton Village streets.

    The bridge will encourage people to drive TO THE SILVER SPRING LIBRARY rather than driving to other libraries. Most people live to far from the library to conveniently walk, especially with heavy book bags, small children in tow, or when they have other errands to do. The will drive; the question is whether we’d rather have them in downtown Silver Spring instead of driving to the Wheaton, White Oak, Long Branch, Chevy Chase, or Bethesda, etc. libraries. The bridge will bring more people to downtown Silver Spring, who will be pedestrians for other errands besides the library.

    The bridge will be flat; the article’s wheelchair grade discussion is irrelevant, and as the author later noted, because of the Purple Line, the intersection is very complex. Making wheelchair users go half a block to a complex intersection to cross the street and then half a block back to enter the library makes for less than adequate handicapped parking.

    Then there was the argument about the vitality of the new Veterans Plaza. It’s great, but surely nobody is proposing that somehow in the absence of the bridge the intersection of Fenton and Wayne with multiple lanes of traffic and the Purple Line will somehow become a haven for people and events like Veterans Plaza. We’re talking about an intersection full of traffic, not a plaza with no vehicles designed for events.

    The bridge is the best and least expensive way to meet the parking needs of the users of the Silver Spring library. The new library will be one of the largest and best in Montgomery County. It will bring lots of people downtown — unless we make access inconvenient for most users and virtually impossible for some by not building the bridge.

  2. Stuart

    I’ll point out a very functional and perhaps necessary bridge in downtown Silver Spring: The bridge between the Wayne Avenue parking garage and the Marriott Courtyard hotel.

    Patrons of the hotel with cars can use the Wayne Avenue garage stairs and/or elevators and walk around to the Fenton Street pedestrian entrance of the hotel and then take the elevator up to the hotel lobby (like the library, the hotel lobby is not on the ground floor). But the bridge provides a far more convenient approach.

    My out-of-town inlaws use the hotel. When they drive, they use the parking garage and bridge. When we pick them up or drop them off, we use the street-level Fenton Street pedestrian entrance. And when they walk from the hotel to downtown Silver Spring, they use the street-level Fenton Street pedestrian entrance.

    Stuart Moore

  3. Eric

    Not only is Alex correct in his assessment of the absolutely unneeded library bridge, he fails to mention that pedestrian bridges and skywalks greatly pollute our visual sightlines, degrade the pedestrian experience, and teach others by implication that our streets are inherently unsafe. The issue here, “Bob”, isn’t the definition of the bridge, the issue is that we are trying to live by example, plan by example, and build by example. This bridge is unnecessary and will degrade our quality of life by taking potential and valuable pedestrians off the streets. You fail to realize that more pedestrians and handicapped persons at intersections psychologically force drivers to slow down. Less means higher speeds, resulting in an unsafe environment. More pedestrians means slower speeds, resulting in a much safer, more alert and engaged environment. Not only that, but your argument of this bridge taking no pedestrians away from storefronts is faulty. First, by assuming that there are no storefronts in this area (false; see every single storefront along Wayne between Fenton and Georgia, the Sprint store at the corner, and all of the Fenton Village stores and restaurants), second, by assuming there will never be more storefronts in the area (false; see the First Baptist Church plans), and third, by assuming that people will for some reason decide to leave the false comfort of the bridge to actually go visit Fenton Village. This last point is the most nuanced. You assume this bridge provides greater accessibility to Fenton Village when it really does the opposite. Why would people cross the covered bridge, enter the library, suddenly have an epiphany that an outside world exists, and then leave the enclosed bubble you have created to wander into Fenton Village? For the population at large, that epiphany just won’t happen. Take your pedestrian bridges to Minneapolis.

    I’ve been disgusted by the look of the City Place bridge, the Wheaton Metro bridge, and others my entire life (born and raised Silver Springer here), and I want no more than to tear them both down and invest in creating better streets instead. We’ve evolved, and know how to create slower, safer, and more complete streets for all involved.

  4. Kat

    I’m not sure which is scarier — the idea of crossing the intersection or the idea that putting more pedestrians and handicapped people in the way is the best way to slow traffic!

    What I don’t understand is why this has to be an either/or proposition. Yes, the intersection needs to be improved (and hopefully not simply by the way Eric suggests). And, yes, there will be many library users — and not just the disabled — for whom the bridge will make the difference in whether they use the library or go elsewhere …Like it or not.

    The county is investing a huge amount of money in this library, including investing in one of the county’s two disabilities resource centers. It only makes sense to make it as accessible as possible to patrons. The other center, in Rockville, has been criticized for not being accessible enough for disabled patrons — and that one actually has a few adjacent handicapped spaces and a quiet street to cross, unlike the new Silver Spring Library.

    On the issue of storefronts, I think what Bob was saying is that there is, and won’t, be any businesses along the route between the parking garage and the library — the route that people who use the garage would walk to reach the library.