Downtown Silver Spring has been championed for its revitalization and become a hub of transportation, commerce, and residential development. With every new building that goes up, the town becomes a little more walkable. Some areas, however, have yet to catch up.
The Silver Spring Metro station is adjacent to two superblocks which break up the street grid and urban form. Superblocks are large tracts of development lacking interior transportation arteries, even for pedestrians.
This pattern of development is largely a product of car-oriented design. It often has the effect of creating fast-moving, unimpeded roadways between superblocks. This is inappropriate for an area adjacent to an urban rail station.
Compared to places like Columbia, these superblocks are certainly not the most car-oriented. The blocks on either side of East-West Highway between Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road host a mix of residential, office, and retail in close proximity. But because of the variety of walking destinations and adjacent transit center, the lack of transportation permeability inherent in a superblock is even more inappropriate here than in an office park in the exurbs.
East-West Highway has wide sidewalks along the north and most of the south side. There aren’t many crosswalks, but they are generally up to the high standards of other crosswalks in downtown Silver Spring, which are signalized and well-marked. But because they are so few and far between, they force pedestrians to take circuitous routes to destinations along East-West Highway.
On the south side of the street, a narrow sidewalks runs along a steep hill with no fence or guardrail between the pedestrian and a potentially nasty spill. On the north side of the street, several parking garage driveways act almost like street intersections, only without three-way crosswalks. Drivers pouring out of these garages at rush hour often do not yield pedestrians the right-of-way, as they should, which adds to the treacherousness of walking this stretch.
The roadway itself, however, is a long, wide, virtually unimpeded straightaway. The 30 mph speed limit hardly matches the road design, and there are no speed cameras to discourage unsafe speeds. This further endangers pedestrians, even at marked crosswalks.
To make matters worse, construction has inconveniently closed sidewalks on several occasions. On the corner of East-West Highway and Blair Mill Road, a notorious sidewalk closure has drawn a great deal of ire from residents.
In early March, a crane working on the Silver Spring Transit Center shut down the north sidewalk between the NOAA building and the Metro entrance. There is no crosswalk where the sidewalk was closed. When there are so few crosswalks, these closures are particularly disruptive for the hundreds of residents and workers walking to and from retail and Metro.
Pedestrians walking from their apartment buildings to the Metro had to double back to get to a crosswalk, or cross illegally where the sidewalk was shut down. The weekend of March 12-14, surface work at the NOAA garage entrance forced pedestrians to walk in the street for a short stretch. Montgomery County, of course, is no stranger to pedestrian safety problems at construction zones.
The south block, bounded by East-West Highway, Colesville Road, Eastern Avenue, and Blair Mill Road, contains a mix of high-density residential and commercial structures. It is somewhat disorienting to navigate, even for a resident. Ten apartment buildings rise up from the block, many of them surrounded by parking lots. In the center there is an interior-facing shopping center with an enormous surface parking lot. The few pedestrian connections that exist are circuitous, dumping the pedestrian off in the middle of the parking lot. This area was not designed with the pedestrian in mind.
The north block is between the railroad tracks and East-West Highway from Colesville Road to Georgia Avenue. The tracks form a bulwark between all of South Silver Spring and the main portions of the downtown area. Generally, pedestrians have to go an extra half mile around the tracks to get to Ellsworth Drive.
One of the key aspects of walkability is a permeable system. Silver Spring needs a safe, well-lit, well-constructed pedestrian tunnel to Ripley Street or Silver Spring Avenue that cuts through the north block. A tunnel would likely come with a very large price tag. The south block, however, could be broken up with better pedestrian and vehicular connections, much like the planned improvements coming with the redevelopment of Falkland North just across Colesville Road.
Silver Spring is an example of successful infill designed, for the most part, to be walkable. People love living there because of this. If the leftover pock marks could be addressed by the time the new transit center; opens, it would propel Silver Spring towards the top of the list of pedestrian friendly suburban communities.