Montrose Parkway at Rockville Pike. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Last week, I was invited to Boston by the Federal Highway Administration to talk about livability.  Five years ago, would anyone have thought that would be possible?

Less than 1% of the $30 billion-plus spent on highway funding is currently spent on pedestrians. It seems like a huge ship we have to turn around. However, federal leadership through the EPA, HUD, DOT, and their joint Sustainable Commu­ni­ties Initiative, has created an energy that will bring a new direction to federal highway spending.

Can we translate that into a shift in local thinking as well?

When I arrived in Montgomery County in 2008, the White Flint property owners and members of my staff tried to divert $50 million in funding for the Montrose Parkway underpass, the first phase to reconstruct Rockville Pike, to study a future transit line along the Pike. Our efforts were unsuccessful. While I am sure many love to drive through the underpass, think of the missed opportunity.

I have driven the underpass on several occasions. Frankly, it is not that great.  Connectivity is expedited in one direction — east-west — but getting off the road to head north or south is a pain.  A regular at-grade intersection with turn lanes, appropriate signaling, pedestrian infrastructure and plantings would have been wonderful and much more effective for the broader public.

Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive map.

You can forget the pedestrian environment on the overpass.  I watched a bike commuter ride across and was struck by how brave he was. With new condos just south of Montrose and major mixed-use development plans on the way in White Flint, the whole Montrose project works against what the new master plan is trying to create.

People do not walk over overpasses, they walk where there is something at the edge of the sidewalk that enlivens the space.  Current and future residents will have to drive to the shopping north of Montrose if, as White Flint develops, they go north of Montrose at all.

Graphic from Montgomery County Planning Dept.

The graphic at right illustrates the point about the Montrose underpass. It shows the I-270/I-370 interchange overlaid on top of Bethesda’s Woodmont Triangle.

The Rockville Pike/Montrose Parkway interchange sterilized huge tracts of land that could have been used to create a vibrant urban intersection with buildings framing the street, people on the sidewalks interacting along the street edge, traffic moving at effective speeds and with room for future surface public transportation.

Not doable, some say?  I pass along the best example of a street designed effectively for both high motor vehicle traffic and high pedestrian activity: the Champs-Elysées. Think about it.  This street has some of the most expensive shopping in the world.  Cars stop along the curb to drop or pick up Europe’s elite to patronize those shops. 

There is a sidewalk that can best be described as too big, tourist numbers beyond comprehension, views that astound, trees galore, yet the road itself carries more cars per hour than many interstate highways.  You can cross the Champs on foot at numerous signalized intersections, yet the traffic still moves, except of course on the last day of the Tour de France.

Champs-Elysées. Photo by David Forster on Flickr.

I am not saying the Montrose underpass should have been the Champs-Elysées, but it could have been an at-grade intersection that offered a terrific urban pedestrian experience. That would have also opened up land for development that has been consumed by roadways and created the urban experience White Flint needs while generating a heck of a lot more property tax for the county.

In Montgomery County, we are fortunate that both County and the State leaders are looking in a different direction.

Consider all the initiatives underway:

  • The growth policy the Planning Department advocated and that the County Council adopted calls for a part of impact fees assessed on developers to be dedicated to transit.
  • Zoning that assigns increased density for places close to basic services like groceries and dry cleaners.
  • Master plans like White Flint, the Purple Line plans for Takoma Langley Crossroads, Long Branch and Chevy Chase Lake, and the soon-to-be-released Wheaton and Kensington Sector Plans.
  • The state has their “ag print” and “green print” initiatives that are leading into the emerging Plan Maryland program which we hope will result in a rethink of the priority funding areas (areas of growth for each county).
  • Maryland DOT’s leadership in funding infrastructure through smart growth is a national model.

In participating at the FHWA session, it became obvious that here in Maryland we are leading the nation in not only thinking about change, but in preparing for the future as well. It is a great time to be planning here in MoCo.

The Planning Department, the County Council and the state Departments of Planning and Transportation are in sync at many levels.  Together we can shift the thinking from one of moving cars, to moving people.

Crossposted at The Director’s Blog.