Construction-related street closings in downtown Bethesda have put pedestrians and cyclists at risk, while needlessly jamming up car traffic. The Montgomery County DOT, by treating a busy urban crossroads like a suburban highway, has made the streets less friendly to all.

Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues last Saturday. Photo by the author.

The intersection of Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues is the best-known place in downtown Bethesda. Located a few blocks from the Metro, it is surrounded by shops, offices, movie theaters and apartments. A complex mix of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians traverse it every day.

Faced with the problem of managing traffic while a large mixed-use development goes up, the county took a standard traffic engineering approach.  It treated the crossroads as an intersection consisting of 3 roads that carry cars and sought to eliminate “conflicts” by removing obstacles to automobile movement.

But Bethesda & Woodmont is also a major travel node for bicycles — vehicles too — which arrive on two other routes, the Capital Crescent and Georgetown Branch Trails.  Suburban traffic engineering concepts, applied in this highly urban setting, have made a mess for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike.

A 20-month road closure began 3 weeks ago. Woodmont Avenue, which crosses the construction site, had one block shut completely.  On Bethesda Avenue, MCDOT removed turn lanes and eliminated a section of sidewalk.  It moved back stop lines for the traffic light, sending bicycles exiting the Capital Crescent Trail directly into the intersection.

Aerial view of Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues before construction.  Photo from Google Earth.

Problems quickly emerged.  Because motorists can no longer use Woodmont Avenue to reach Bethesda Row from the south, Bethesda Avenue carries more traffic than before.  Traffic on that newly narrowed road regularly backs up.

Closing a section of Woodmont shut down an important pedestrian corridor, which connects a densely populated apartment district with downtown Bethesda and the Metro station.  Pedestrians now detour through a drive-through bank.

In addition, Bethesda Avenue has foot traffic of its own. A 190-unit apartment building (where I live), stores, and restaurants adjacent to the closed sidewalk generate significant pedestrian activity. Yet the traffic plan did not replace the crosswalk lost to construction.  Pedestrians now dodge cars as they cross the street.

One cause of these difficulties is that the county did not retime traffic lights.  A longer green light could move through traffic faster on Bethesda Ave.  But with this fix alone, turning cars would still back up at crosswalks.  And faster-moving traffic would endanger pedestrians crossing Bethesda Avenue and bicyclists leaving the trails.

The traffic engineers, focused as usual on cars, made another, more fundamental mistake.  They ignored the movement of bicycles between the trail and the roadways.  The great majority of weekday cyclists go from the trail into the traffic lanes.  The new traffic pattern endangers these cyclists with a signal that sends them into moving auto traffic.

On-street cyclists moving to and from bike trail during morning rush hour.  Photo by the author.

Also, the construction traffic pattern continues the county’s ongoing disregard for the safety and convenience of pedestrians.  There may not be room for a temporary walkway next to the construction, but a crosswalk could have been marked where the sidewalk ends on Bethesda Avenue.  Instead, the county erected a “Sidewalk Closed” sign a block away, needlessly driving away walk-in customers that the street’s businesses depend on.

This construction project cries out for innovative traffic management.  A two-phase traffic signal could fix many of the problems pedestrians and cyclists face during the construction.  One phase would be green for all pedestrian crossings and for bicycles entering from the trails, making the intersection much safer and more convenient.

The other phase would be a flashing yellow that allows cars to move slowly through the intersection in all directions. The significant reduction of traffic on Woodmont Avenue since the closure of the block south of the intersection could make this feasible.  Pedestrians and cyclists would be much better off, and auto traffic would back up less.

That might or might not be the best solution.  What is certain is the need for more multimodal thinking.  In this sort of urban setting, traditional traffic engineering fails pedestrians and cyclists, and hurts motorists too.