Friday, December 27, 2013

Traffic in Four Corners: Franklin Avenue

Franklin Avenue and Flower Avenue aren't the first two roads that come to mind when people think about Four Corners.  While Colesville Road and University Blvd. are the biggest roads in Four Corners, smaller roads like Dennis, Franklin and Flower Avenues form important connections between our community and those surrounding us.  Because of heavy traffic on Colesville and University, Franklin and Flower are frequently used as back-ways to get to places like Downtown Silver Spring.

Flower Avenue parallels University Boulevard from New Hampshire Avenue to Franklin Avenue, passing through Takoma Park, Long Branch, and Indian Spring.  Along its route Flower Avenue intersects with heavily traveled roads such as Carroll Avenue, Piney Branch Road, and Wayne Avenue.  Because Flower Ave. does not intersect with University Blvd or Colesville Road directly, most of its traffic is dumped on to East Franklin Avenue.

Flower Avenue at East Franklin Avenue looking north.  Most people turn right here to get to University Blvd. because Flower Ave ends a few blocks away from this location at Indian Spring Terrace Park.  Image from Google Streetview
So much more after the jump...

When travelling northbound on Flower Avenue, most people turn right on to Franklin Ave to get to University Blvd, where they mostly turn left to reach the Beltway and other places along 193.  This behavior causes the .30 mile stretch of East Franklin Avenue between University and Flower to become a choke point, particularly during the afternoon rush hour.  This problem would not be as bad as it is, if only the intersection weren't so poorly designed to serve this traffic pattern.

Franklin Avenue approaching University Blvd.  Note the crappy sidewalks and unusually small traffic lights.  Image from Google Streetview

The intersection of East Franklin Avenue and University Boulevard sucks for everyone.  I always knew it was slow, but I didn't realize how bad it was until this past summer, when I was a regular rider of the 19 RideOn bus.  I did an internship in Downtown D.C. which I commuted to using the Red Line and RideOn from my home in Woodmoor.  I live on the side of the neighborhood closer to the Beltway, which means the Z buses to Silver Spring on Colesville Road are about a 15 minute walk away.  So I caught the RideOn 19 bus on University Blvd next to the fire station to get to the Silver Spring Metro.

The trip to the Metro in the morning only took 10-15 minutes.  The trip home in the afternoon took 20-25, the slowest part being the stretch of East Franklin Avenue between Flower and University.  It usually took 2 or 3 light cycles for the bus, and all the other cars, to make the left from East Franklin Ave to University Blvd westbound.  I say the intersection sucks for everyone because it is terrible for all road users.  Its obviously bad for people in cars and on buses, but it is also bad for pedestrians and cyclists.  I have walked and ridden a bike through the intersection numerous times, and it is always an unpleasant experience.

East Franklin Avenue "sidewalk" just west of the intersection with University Blvd.  The short concrete sidewalk that begins by the bus stop ends by the corner at Garwood Street.  Also note the "Bike Route" sign.  Photo by author.

The "sidewalks" along East Franklin Avenue are bumpy asphalt paths covered in gravel, leaves, and other road debris.  The bad sidewalks along East Franklin Avenue lead to less-than-ideal crosswalks at University Boulevard.  To cross University Blvd at the crosswalk on the northern side of the intersection (opposite of Eastern Middle School), pedestrians have to dodge all the cars turning left from Franklin Ave onto University Blvd westbound.  The crosswalk is also very long, with no island, meaning pedestrians feel exposed as they cross 90' of unobstructed pavement  The crosswalk closer to the school is not great either, because many people leaving the Franklin Knolls neighborhood and the school turn left at their light to travel eastbound on University Blvd.  Thankfully, crossing guards assist children trying to cross the road at this location at the beginning and end of the school day.
Crosswalks across University Blvd with area of pedestrian & heavy left turn conflict highlighted
While sitting through multiple light cycles on this road while riding the bus, I've thought about how this intersection could be improved to benefit all road users with little disruption to surrounding homes.  While I am normally against widening roads, in this situation, adding an additional turn lane on eastbound Franklin Avenue between Flower and University could help alleviate traffic backups substantially.  A project to add this lane could also include the addition of bike lanes and proper sidewalks along this .30 mile stretch.  A rough Google Earth measurement reveals that there is about 60' of right-of-way available, 24'-34' of which is occupied by the road today.

Adding another lane, proper sidewalks, and bike lanes (the road is already signed as a Bike Route) could make use of the extra right-of-way without dramatically affecting the neighboring homes.  All of the houses along the short stretch between University and Flower have some form of off-street parking that can accommodate at least two vehicles, meaning the road can be widened without seriously impacting resident parking.

Looking west from University Blvd towards Flower Ave, these are roughly the current conditions on East Franklin Avenue.  The pavement width varies from 24' to 34', but only 24' of it is dedicated to the two travel lanes (one 12' lane each way).  The rest of the space between the road and the adjacent private property is occupied by patchy grass and gravelly asphalt.  I used a website to create this mock up so the distance from the road to the houses is not entirely accurate.  

From the same vantage point as above, this is what I would like to see the stretch of Franklin Ave between Flower and University converted to.  Residents would still get to keep all of their private property, since the new turn lane, sidewalks, and bike lanes do not use up all 60' of available right-of-way.  

I would also like to see the traffic light at University blvd converted from a regular light to one that allows left turns and through traffic proceed unobstructed from oncoming vehicles.  Today, people turning left onto University from eastbound Franklin (the most common pattern) have to yield to traffic leaving Franklin Knolls from the opposite side of the intersection.  Changing the traffic light to one that gives left turns and through traffic on eastbound Franklin a normal green/green arrow together, combined with the additional lane for left turns only, could greatly increase capacity.

New traffic lights for Franklin Avenue could look like these.  The traffic lights for University Blvd could stay the same.  While these lights would slightly extend the light cycle length (only one side of Franklin Ave could have the green light at a time), it would greatly increase capacity on Franklin Avenue and prevent back-ups.  It would also reduce accidents by giving drivers a protected left turn, which they do not have today.  

I am not aware of any current plans by the county or the SHA to improve this intersection.  The state of the intersection suggests that they intend to improve it at some point, but it may not be for several years.  Any project to improve it would require a joint-effort on behalf of MCDOT and the MD SHA, since Franklin Avenue is (at least I'm pretty sure) a county maintained road, and University Boulevard is a state highway.  I hope that when the intersection is upgraded, it is done so with all road users in mind, and that it has as little negative effect on local residents as possible.  

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