Rockville Pike. Photo by thisisbossi.

Fresh from yesterday’s interesting Montgomery County Council discussion of the failed car speed tests, I received a leaked copy of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation’s proposed replacement.

McDOT will announce the new policy this afternoon. The explanatory memo can be found here.

The new Transportation Policy Area Review will replace the existing Policy Area Mobility Review (PAMR) and Local Area Transportation Review (LATR) tests. These tests, which have been widely criticized, focus on how fast cars move through intersections, blocking development and imposing new infrastructure requirements whenever cars slow down.

These tests may have their places, but not in modern pedestrian-friendly plans. The reason is simple: you can’t have a pedestrian-friendly community if cars move fast.

The Council wrestled for months to reconcile a pedestrian-friendly White Flint with its existing car speed tests, a struggle which was resolved only when the Council realized that the answer to congestion was not to move cars faster but to get people out of cars. That works in Arlington County, and it should work even in Montgomery County. That, at least, is the premise of the White Flint Plan.

But there’s an aphorism that, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. That’s the problem with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, which is tasked with the huge job of handling the County’s traffic problems. MCDOT sees everything in automobile terms: Rockville Pike, for example, is a big pipe from NIH and Navy Med in Bethesda to Rockville (oh, by the way, White Flint in between isn’t anything at all to worry about, except if it slows cars).

That’s why, when faced with a nice opportunity for a park or community facility on the unused SHA land at the northern intersection of Montrose Parkway and Rockville Pike, McDoT gave us a ... surface parking lot. In White Flint. Where we’re trying to replace those. To protect the environment. And make a pedestrian-friendly community. I’m sure they had a good reason.

And just so with the new TPAR. The product of a high-powered consultant’s report, the proposal to be issued today is fascinating more for what it does NOT do than what it does. There are some good parts of the proposal, mostly dealing with the techniques for measuring and analyzing traffic.

But you hit the real problem on the very first page of the Introduction: transit and travel demand management (getting people out of their cars) are to be considered “separately” (emphasis in original) from arterial roadways and bicycle and pedestrian improvements. See page 3. Um… why?

Maybe that comes from treating roads out of context. That’s reinforced by the wide and differing areas which are treated as if they were the same. Downtown Bethesda, with its urban character, access to Metro, and full streets, is in the same transit access zone with Cabin John, with its more suburban or rural vocabulary and NO transit access. Really, only roads matter to McDoT, not transit access, and not transit-orientation. (And, a wiser analyst than I pointed out, the new TPAR means that McDoT can build what it wants, when it wants, without a lot of outside control, as long as a road is in a master plan.)

So, there’s a lot of good in the new proposal, but at bottom, this is a continuation of the “car is king” philosophy. Understandable in a department of Transportation, but not really where the County is going. This is more rearranging the deck chairs, rather than a holistic approach to solving a variety of mobility issues.

And it totally ignores the big gorilla coming down on us all: carbon limitation laws that will begin strangling road construction in just a few years. Sustainability (read demand management) will become the main driver in the future, not congestion. Soon what comes out of the tailpipe will become more important than how fast we can move that pipe.

Perhaps this is the wrong place to do that type of overall “quality of life” analysis, but if this TPAR is intended to replace PAMR and LATR, then TPAR will determine our government priorities and spending. Road construction is, and will be important, but the County shouldn’t lock into a system which expressly intends to separate transit and demand management from road needs.

This is, again, the same problem the County faced with the White Flint Plan: how do you use these car-oriented tools in a transit-oriented space? The answer is: not very easily.

Wouldn’t we be better served, as a County, if we did what the Planning Board tried to do in White Flint: measure a variety of elements which make up “quality of life,” rather than just how fast cars move through intersections? Spend as much time on getting drivers out of cars as on moving them through intersections as fast as possible.