Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Rising costs may force parts of the Capital Crescent Trail onto local streets, but it could actually give pedestrians and bicyclists a better experience.

Ever since the Purple Line was first envisioned as a trolley between Bethesda and Silver Spring in 1986, plans have included a bike and pedestrian trail next to the tracks, giving people an alternative to busy streets. Today, the Capital Crescent Trail is a popular amenity. A survey done in 2006 counted 23,000 people using the trail at one point in downtown Bethesda.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Transit Administration says rebuilding the Capital Crescent Trail next to the Purple Line could cost as much as $103 million, $40 million of which would go to building a raised platform for the trail in a tunnel beneath Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. That’s why Montgomery County planners are looking at placing the trail above ground, as Matt Johnson wrote about yesterday. Not only is this option cheaper, but it’ll actually be better for users and for neighborhoods.

Capital Crescent Trail Alternatives in downtown Bethesda

Alternatives for an on-street route through downtown Bethesda. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department

Supporters of separated tunnels and bridges over busy streets say it makes pedestrians (and occasionally bicyclists) safer by keeping them away from heavy car traffic. But they can also isolate users from their surroundings, encouraging criminal activity. Both the Forest Glen pedestrian bridge and the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which sit above the street level, have had problems with attacks and muggings.

At the same time, taking pedestrians and bicyclists from the street only reinforces the thinking that they don’t belong there. “I think [Montgomery] County doesn’t seriously take biking as a form of transportation,” said Peter Wolf of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail when I interviewed himin 2007. “For me to be seen biking to work or biking in my neighborhood, it’s seen as a little… odd.”

Putting more pedestrians and bicyclists on the street in Bethesda shows that they have a right to use that space and makes those activities seem “normal.” Building wider sidewalks or a parallel path like the Silver Spring Green Trail provides ample room for pedestrians walking for transportation or recreation.

The 15th Street cycle track. Photo by the author.

Cycle tracks, like the one that currently exists along 15th Street in the District, give bicyclists a protected route away from car traffic similar to what they’d have on the Capital Crescent Trail. This would give users the protection the Capital Crescent Trail currently provides while allowing them to see their surroundings and be seen, making them feel safer.

Not only that, but an on-street trail would provide direct access to homes, shops, and places of work in downtown Bethesda. The existing tunnel only has entrances at Woodmont Avenue and Elm Street, meaning that anyone going to places in between already has to use surface streets.

These changes may require taking out car lanes or removing on-street parking, as county planners recommend, which might increase congestion. But it will also help to slow car traffic in Bethesda, an area where drivers shouldn’t be allowed to speed through anyway, while providing safe, attractive alternatives to driving for short-distance trips. That could help reduce car traffic, in turn making it even safer for people to walk and bike around downtown Bethesda.

Bethesda Avenue Bike Lane

What a trail network might look like at the intersection of Bethesda and Woodmont avenues. Image by the author.

Wisconsin Avenue Bike Lane

What a trail network might look like on Wisconsin Avenue. Image by the author.

Placing the Capital Crescent Trail on local streets in downtown Bethesda to accommodate the Purple Line doesn’t have to be an inconvenience for trail users. In fact, it could make Bethesda a better and safer place to live and visit. It also helps conserve money for other portions of the trail, which currently dead-ends 1.5 miles short of its intended terminus in downtown Silver Spring. As trail advocate and contributor Wayne Phyillaier points out, eliminating the Bethesda tunnel may be the only way to finish the trail.

Developing a network of off-street trails is a great way to tie our region together, and finishing the Capital Crescent Trail is an important part of it. But it’s also important to provide links to neighborhood and activity centers, and the best way to do that is on surface streets. Running the trail through downtown Bethesda instead of under it lets us build that regional network while also giving local communities the option to bike or walk.