Rockville Pike. Photo by Dan Reed.

Montgomery County residents have a love-hate relationship with Rockville Pike. It’s the place everybody goes, but nobody likes. How did it get this way, and can it get better?

Simply mentioning “Rockville Pike” triggers a mental image of honking horns, last-minute weaves, ribbons of heat lofting across large parking lots, and seemingly endless shopping centers with hundreds of businesses. Most people’s opinion of the corridor is two-fold: they hate it, but it’s a necessary part of life in Montgomery County.

Like a lot of other places in America that came into their own in the 1950s and ‘60s, Montgomery County planned its new suburbia to be comfortable and convenient for the automobile. Roads would be built wide to accommodate the newest land boats, whose unimpeded movement would take precedence above all else.

After all, what could be better than making everything automobile-accessible, with business strips easy to get in and out of, loads of free parking out front, and convenient drive-through windows aplenty?

That vision might have worked in 1950, but times changed. Population increased. Families bought two, three, or even four cars for multiple drivers. Business success attracted more businesses, as well as office development. “The Pike” changed from a sleepy local shopping street to the most important commercial center for a huge community numbering nearly a million people.

Something else happened too. Roads in general, and the Pike in particular, began to clog like a hardened artery. As more and more people spread out across Montgomery County to live, they all converged on Rockville Pike to shop or work, and almost all of them did so using individual cars.

How has it all turned out? You can get anything you want on the Pike, but the gettin’ is slowwww. No matter how exquisitely timed the signals are and no matter how many extra turn lanes and interchanges planners provide, Rockville Pike cannot move the thousands upon thousands of cars that use it every day. Even on the weekends congestion rules.

Bypassing the congestion is nearly impossible. The few brave pedestrians find narrow sidewalks, long street crossings, and short signals. They’re often stranded on wind-swept, skinny medians, and then face broad expanses of parking between themselves and every destination. The Metro helps, but stops are too few and too far apart to access the entire corridor. Bus service exists, but is woefully insufficient. 

Did we really invent this mess? Can we escape it?

I believe we can attain a different future, and I think Montgomery County officials agree. We can tame the traffic beast and knit the Pike’s disparate, spread-out shopping areas into a series of urban neighborhoods, with increased housing opportunities complementing existing and future employment centers.

If we improve transit access to and along the Pike, traffic would become more tolerable, walking and biking more comfortable, and unrelated land uses would come together as functioning neighborhoods.

A high quality Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system along the Pike could whisk residents to many more stops than the Metro system currently allows, and make a visit to the Pike without a car efficient and enjoyable. Such a system could not only improve movement along the Pike, it could also bring people to and from surrounding areas.

At the same time, the Pike could be physically redesigned and made into more of a tree-lined urban boulevard, with benches and attractive streetside landscaping that provide environmental benefits as well, like managing polluted rainwater runoff. This reconfiguration, including the BRT system, would serve new, more urban land uses.

This sort of transformation will be necessary if Montgomery County is to continue to grow and prosper. Without such transformation, the county and the Pike specifically risk stagnation.

Simply put, Montgomery County must accommodate more people, and the best way to do that is to enhance and re-energize its already developed places, rather than bringing development to its precious few open ones.

A few projects are already under construction or in planning that will begin to bring about this change. The Metro station areas are redeveloping, BRT is being seriously considered, and corridor plans are under study.

Change is hard, but in this case not changing would be harder.  This important part of Montgomery County must necessarily become more urban, more livable, and economically and more ecologically sustainable.

This post is part of an occasional series on local transportation solutions that will make our region greater.

Lee Epstein is an urban planner and environmental lawyer who has been involved in land use and water quality issues for thirty years, in both state and local government and in the private sector.  He currently directs the Lands Program at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.