Montgomery County is expected to gain 232,000 new residents over the next 30 years. Currently, Montgomery’s traffic tests measures whether development leads to people driving faster rather than whether development leads to more people driving. Reforming this practice could help discourage sprawl.
Under the current system, development like this one in Silver Spring, where it’s easy to walk around, doesn’t get credit for reducing how often and how far people drive. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.
Montgomery County is currently updating its four year “growth plan”, known formally as the Subdivision Staging Policy (SSP). The SSP governs everything from school infrastructure needs to the amount of taxes developers pay for new projects.
While any number of those issues have a huge impact on guiding growth, it’s hard to say any are more important than revising how Montgomery tests the way new developments impact traffic.
Here’s how Montgomery currently tests traffic
The test Montgomery County uses measures just car speed at intersections. Incoming development, whether located in dense areas or not, is projected to generate X amount of car trips, and therefore create Y amount of car delay at intersections.
The test does not take into account the number of people walking, biking or busing—it assumes that a project a block from a Metro station will produce the same amount of car traffic as a project in Clarksburg. If a project is found to create an “unreasonable” amount of traffic, developers have to pay to mitigate the impact——even in an area where many folks may not drive.
Currently, a single occupant car is valued the same as a bus carrying 80 passengers. Even though a dedicated bus lane could carry vastly more people than a lane of single occupant vehicles, that bus lane would fail current traffic tests because it hurts the speed at which single occupant vehicles can drive.
In real terms, this often means a developer paying to widen a road in order to pass a traffic test—an outcome that’s inherently contradictory to Montgomery’s transit and environmental goals. We’re rewarding sprawl and making infill development more difficult.
Evaluating car delay ensures we aren’t looking at all the possibilities for moving the most people—we’re just looking at how to move single-occupancy vehicles the fastest. These tests prize car speed over increased mobility options, rewarding development that is far from urban centers. Why build a new grocery store in Downtown Silver Spring, which would require a traffic mitigation payment for a failing intersection, when you can build one five miles away near the highway and pass your traffic test with flying colors?
In fact, the type of traffic tests Montgomery uses has been called the “Transportation Planning Rule Every City Should Reform”. Focusing solely on automobile congestion has the strange effect of making transit improvements like bike and bus lanes look bad but road widening look good.
The county is considering another way of doing things
The good news is that the Montgomery County Planning Department is
VMT takes the total amount of vehicles being driven on a daily or annual basis and divides it by the total number of miles being driven. For example, 10,000 vehicles each travelling an average of 15 miles per day, would result in 150,000 vehicle miles travelled per day.
By attacking traffic tests from this angle, we can set goals to decrease the amount of car trips residents take. Montgomery could set a goal of reducing VMT by 10% over ten years, and evaluate how future development fits in with that vision.
Building near transit and retail can mean people won’t need cars at all, but that doesn’t show up with Montgomery’s current testing system. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.
To appreciate the difference, imagine CVS plans to build two new pharmacies in the county, one in Downtown Silver Spring and the other in Germantown. Under the current system, both projects would be projected to generate the same amount of new trips using a standard formula.
Because Silver Spring is already more densely developed, those new trips would be added to roads that are likely already failing from a car delay perspective, forcing the developer to fund costly “mitigation” efforts. In less developed Germantown, those same trips are unlikely to cause any intersections to “fail” the car delay test, so no mitigation is required.
VMT ends the incentive to build in less dense areas, many of which are far from transit. It provides a holistic look at mobility options in an area.
This is about equity for residents, too
The current test is inherently unequal, giving priority to single occupancy vehicles and completely overlooking those who are transit reliant (by choice or by necessity). This is especially important, as study after study shows transit access is a huge indicator of someone’s odds of being socially mobile.
This issue is even more important when we consider that Montgomery saw the most significant increase in poverty of any jurisdiction in the DC region. Inequality of mobility leads to inequality of opportunity.
If we want an equal county, measuring traffic in a way that encourages inclusive growth, not just destinations that can be reached exclusively by car, is certainly an important step.
Can you get involved? Yes!
You can help be a part of the change. The Montgomery County Planning department is currently producing their staff draft of the growth policy. Send the planning board emails, write them letters, make your voice heard.
Tell them: “I am a transit reliant Montgomery County resident. Every day, I am confronted with both the positives and negatives of our transit infrastructure. Far too often in planning meetings, or County Council hearings, the voices of people who actually need transit are not in the room. We need better approaches to how we grow.”
If we want a county that is more walkable, and inclusive we need to make our voices are heard. The fight to change our traffic tests should be a rallying cry for environmentalists, progressives and transit advocates. This is a critical opportunity for Montgomery to fufill its reputation as a bastion of progressivism.