Photo by katmere on Flickr.

Bustling downtown Silver Spring has a decidedly suburban-oriented feature that is strangely unique to denser urban areas: reversible lanes. This feature shows up in a few other places scattered throughout the region (most notably Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park), but Silver Spring’s are the most prominent because they appear on two major thoroughfares that intersect at the heart of downtown.

Georgia Avenue north of the downtown has reversible lanes starting around 16th Street, continuing northbound under the Beltway to Forest Glen Road. Colesville Road’s reversible lanes begin at the intersection with Georgia Avenue and continue northeast to Sligo Creek Parkway. The lanes are generally configured as follows:

X = Southbound, O = Northbound; signaled lanes are in black

X X X O O O Normal

X X X X O O Morning Rush

X X O O O O Evening Rush

Perhaps these reversible lanes help move a few more cars through the northern half of the downtown area during the rush hours. But how worthwhile are they? Here are some of the drawbacks:

Driving: I grew up in Silver Spring off Colesville Road. As a novice driver, I was mortified driving that stretch with the reversible lanes. Just north of the reversible lanes, Colesville Road transitions to Columbia Pike, a limited access freeway with a speed limit of 50 mph. This traffic, coming downhill, cuts to two lanes at the evening rush with no hard barrier separating the traffic, which is highly unnerving.

Reversible lanes don’t work well with left turn lanes, so traffic piles up quite a bit at major intersections, causing dangerous lane shifts in heavy traffic to pass left-turning cars, culminating at the wildly confusing intersection at Georgia Avenue.

This is also true on Georgia Avenue north of 16th Street. Drivers are further stymied by several major intersections with no hard barriers between traffic directions. I have witnessed first-hand many traffic accidents resulting from this configuration at Georgia and Seminary Road. The interchange at the Beltway is also a disaster, but for reasons that go far beyond just the reversible lanes.

Walking: Silver Spring’s walkability is one of its greatest assets. But crossing Colesville Road on the north side of Georgia, at Fenton, Spring, and Dale is a safety crapshoot. There is no median to create a pedestrian refuge in this wided street. And with visual cues of a large, wide swath of asphalt, drivers are tempted to speed up.

Furthermore, drivers mainly focus their attention on the unseparated oncoming traffic instead of walkers trekking across 75 feet of roadway. I’d say the same is true for Georgia, but this configuration has completely annihilated pedestrianism on the stretch with reversible lanes. Gas stations, auto shops, and strip malls dominate that stretch, even though it’s very close to two Red Line stations. The intersection at the Forest Glen Metro station, which ought to be very convenient to pedestrians, is among the most notorious in Montgomery County.

Biking: The trail along Sligo Creek Parkway crosses Colesville Road at the start of the reversible lanes begin, offering no refuge in the middle. Forest Glen Road crossing Georgia has the exact same problem, making it more dangerous to access Forest Glen Metro station. And of course, neither of these stretches of boulevard offer bike lanes.

Aesthetics: The dashed dual yellow lines that separate the reversible lanes are clear enough if you know what they mean, but they are very confusing to new drivers and out-of-towners. The overhead signs (red X’s marking oncoming lanes, green arrows marking accessible lanes) are clear enough, but they are hideous. These boxy lit signs hang from wires strung between telephone poles, placing an ugly web of wires above traffic. A median, on the other hand, would allow for trees and planters and minimize the unsightly wires.

Removing the reversible lanes might also create smarter traffic management in Silver Spring. Instead of treating the two main avenues through town as traffic sewers, Silver Spring could improve bus service on the roads and better connect the street grid.

Making these routes more walkable would help local businesses. More people walking there will attract more and better retail, and perhaps enable development of new mixed-use housing over retail. This would not change the sections that are currently single family houses, better walkability and traffic management would make living in a single family house on Colesville or Georgia slightly more palatable.

Adding a median on Georgia might not be that bad. We could widen the street, eating up the parking lots in front of the strip malls, and create a median. We could even add parking lanes to replace the parking lots fronting shops, replacing free parking with metered on-street parking. I dug up this 1988 plan to improve the strip, but nothing from this plan ever happened. An M-NCPPC memorandum in 2003 said that the study was moving forward, but I haven’t been able to find anything more recent.

On Colesville, there isn’t as much room to play around. But even a skinny median would be better than no median. Adding a median might require removing on-street parking south of Spring Street.

These reversible lanes are unsightly, confusing, and dysfunctional. They put the car first in what are otherwise highly walkable transit sheds. They have outlived their relevance, and they have no business in core downtown areas.

Dave Murphy is a Geographic Analyst for the Department of Defense and a US Army veteran. He is also a part time bouncer. He was born in Foggy Bottom and is a lifelong resident of the DC area. He currently resides in the Eckington neighborhood of Northeast.