Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Traffic in Four Corners: The Current Situation

The ongoing debate surrounding BRT is one of the reasons I created this blog.  I noticed that there was a lot of misinformation surrounding the proposals, and that I myself didn't really understand what BRT meant for Four Corners.  Before delving into that controversial topic, I figured it was necessary to establish what the current traffic situation in Four Corners is and what options are available to alleviate it.  Everyone knows that the traffic is bad, but it is important to understand why the traffic is bad if we are to find the best possible solution for our community.  

Our community has always been a crossroads, it's the reason the name "Four Corners" exists.  Route 29 has long been a major route between the D.C. area and the Columbia/Baltimore area.  University Boulevard is one of the few east-west roads in eastern Montgomery County/northern Prince George's County.  Then of course there is the Capital Beltway, with its 8 lanes of rush hour joy.  Because these 3 congested roads intersect in our community, it means we have a ridiculous amount of traffic.

Until the early 1960s, Four Corners was a simple intersection.  Both Colesville Road and University Boulevard (Bladensburg Road back then) were two lane roads.  Now both of those roads are 6 lane highways, and they amount to 20 total lanes of auto traffic at the intersection itself when turn lanes are included.  There have been various projects over the years to alleviate congestion, but they have only served as attempts to satisfy current demand, and they have not provided long term relief to our community's traffic situation.  The most recent upgrade to the intersection was in the late 90's.  This upgrade expanded the size of the jughandles on University Blvd and added new turn lanes to both roads.  The upgrade also included wider sidewalks on Colesville and University in the immediate vicinity of the intersection in anticipation of the new Blair High School.  The 1996 Four Corners Master Plan goes into great detail on past intersection improvements as well as the most recent (late 90's) improvements which were implemented as result of the plan.

2010 aerial image of Four Corners from Google Earth


Anyone who has been through Four Corners lately can see that these improvements have done little to improve, or even keep up with, the current traffic levels.  Part of the reason for the ever increasing amount of car traffic in Four Corners is the lack of other viable transportation options.  For many people travelling through Four Corners, using a car is the only feasible option they have.  Buses get bogged down in the same traffic that cars do, providing a disincentive for potential riders and frustrating current transit users.  Bicycle facilities are virtually non-existent.  If a Four Corners resident wants to bike to nearby Downtown Silver Spring, a reasonable distance of 2 miles, they cannot do so without riding on a hazardous 6 lane highway with no bicycle infrastructure whatsoever.   Cyclists must ride in congested high speed car traffic, or ride on narrow sidewalks with little margin for error.

The pedestrian experience is hostile and downright dangerous.  The sidewalks, aside from the newer brick lined ones immediately adjacent to the intersection, are only 4 feet wide with no buffer between the sidewalk and the adjacent travel lanes.  This means that someone walking along these sidewalks is less than 3-4 feet from cars, trucks, and buses travelling up to 50 MPH.  This kind of situation actively discourages walking, even in cases where walking would be more efficient than driving, such as short trips to local businesses by residents who live within half a mile of said businesses.

The result is the current situation, where the majority of people travelling through and around Four Corners do so by car.

So how can Four Corners reduce the current unsustainable levels of car traffic?  How can we do so without damaging our community?  How can we prevent cut-through traffic on our residential streets?  Will BRT solve any of these issues, or just make traffic and the pedestrian experience even worse?

Over the next few posts in this series, I will look at the pros and cons of different traffic scenarios and attempt to identify what solutions would work best for residents of Four Corners, as well as those who have to travel through our community on a daily basis.  

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