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 firstname.lastname@example.org