Existing pedestrian, bike, and car conditions in the Wheaton business district. Image by Daniel Marcin used with permission.

I’ve lived in Montgomery County for more than five years, and almost every day I get frustrated by its huge roads. They’re a major obstacle to walkability and safety, and I often dream of removing a lane. However, a recent incident in Wheaton made me reconsider whether replacing a lane with parking is really a step in the right direction.

All over our region, six-lane (or more) arterial highways cut through our communities. There’s often no shoulder or other buffer between the road and bus stops or homes or business. Sidewalks are narrow, poorly maintained, and sit right up against vehicle traffic. Cars pass mere inches from people walking. It comes as no surprise that most crashes with pedestrians in the county occur on these large roads.

This summer, the speed limit along Georgia Avenue was lowered to 25 mph and, more strikingly, parking meters were installed by the county on the right most lane as it passes near the Wheaton Metrorail Station in the Wheaton business district. This change removes a lane of vehicle traffic outside of peak hours Monday through Friday, and during the day on Saturday.

Image by Daniel Marcin used with permission.

I learned about these new meters from - where else? - my local NextDoor board. Some residents were shocked that a driving lane was removed on one of the busiest thoroughfares in the Silver Spring area, and feared for driver (and vehicle) safety.

One resident, who lives to the south and west of the business district, opened the thread with: “gosh that is not going to work it will slow down the traffic people will get mad having to stop to let the cars in and out that will cause accidents for sure imagine someone speeding and the parked car door opens and the speeding person slams into the opened door causing an accident.”

New meters on Georgia Avenue near the Wheaton Metro station. Image by Daniel Marcin used with permission.

In response, a resident of Wheaton Hills, the neighborhood to the north of the Wheaton business district, wrote, “I think slowing down traffic is kind of the whole point. They don’t really care about people getting mad, they care about pedestrians not getting killed, which unfortunately has been happening quite a bit lately.” Another resident pointed out that the 25 mph limit was not being observed by most drivers, and parked cars might slow down traffic enough to “be legal”.

One resident referred to DC Department of Transportation’s website, which cites, “On-street parking provides increased safety by placing a physical barrier between moving vehicles and pedestrians and reduces the speed of traffic traveling adjacent to the parked vehicles.”

Parked cars at metered parking on Grandview Avenue in Wheaton. Image by Daniel Marcin used with permission.

Some nearby residents questioned the logic of placing meters on that particular stretch of road. One said, “I don’t necessarily think parking meters are bad but what’s the purpose. The only business they are in front of is Safeway and it has parking. If it’s meant to be parking for the strip mall across the street, it’s only encouraging pedestrian crossing mid block and we know how that works…. I can’t believe the purpose is to slow traffic, there are other solutions for that.”

Another resident wrote, “It will cause more traffic congestion. It is likely to lead to more pedestrians being hit as they jaywalk to places across the street from where they parked.”

Other residents were more sanguine and suggested that commuters would get used to the new situation. A resident from Wheaton Forest, the neighborhood immediately east of the Metro station, wrote, “I think having parking there is generally a good thing. It will allow easier access to the plaza once that is built across from parks and planning and will hopefully be beneficial to businesses and residents. “

Another resident concurred: “I’m glad they’re taking measures to make the sidewalk safer and slow the speed of traffic. I realize folks think of Wheaton Plaza as a suburban mall, but The Triangle is an urban area with a ton of foot traffic. City streets move more slowly and that’s just the way it is. Especially with the massive increase in residential population around the triangle over the last few years with the new apartment buildings opening up, traffic calming measures are necessary to get people to mentally adjust to the fact that they’re driving past people’s homes.”

Screenshot of NextDoor in the Wheaton area in Montgomery County.

In contrast to NextDoor, some Montgomery County urbanists on Twitter were bemused that the solution to congestion and increasing traffic fatalities was to make it even easier to drive places.

The Action Committee for Transit, a local transit advocacy group, tweeted about the situation: “Concerned that people will complain about loss of parking if the travel lanes converted to metered parking are then converted to bike lanes.”

This is a valid point. As DC urbanists can attest, once residents are used to street parking, it can be very contentious to remove them. Parking lanes may be intended as a step toward traffic calming, but might prove to be more difficult to replace at a later date with bus lanes, bike lanes, or a widened multi-use path.

My initial reaction was positive; I’d much rather be walking next to a parked car than one going at 40+ mph. Because the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), which has jurisdiction over the major arterials like Georgia Avenue, is loathe to make changes that would inconvenience drivers, driving lanes or parking are often the only options on the table.

What do readers think? Is replacing a driving lane with metered parking an improvement, or should we advocate for bicycle and bus lanes or bust?

A protected, marked bike lane on Cedar Street in downtown Silver Spring, with metered parking lanes on the outside, providing a buffer between cyclists and moving automobiles. This is what I’d like to see everywhere! Image by the author.

Sanjida Rangwala grew up in Canada and lived in multiple places in the US before landing in Silver Spring with her husband and two cats. She thinks way too much about infrastructure, inclusivity, and why we live the way we do. In her entirely unrelated day job, Sanjida figures out where the genes go in the genomes.