Monday, July 14, 2014

White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, Part 3: Traffic concerns

The biggest concern Four Corners residents have about the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan is traffic.  Local civic groups in Four Corners have more or less condemned the plan because they do not want any inconvenience to come to local residents who get around by car.  There are surely other reasons for their opposition to the plan, but traffic is clearly the biggest one.

Many people think that any additional development in White Oak will result in an exorbitant amount of traffic congestion.  No one likes traffic, and Route 29 is perceived to have terrible traffic, so when development is proposed anywhere near the road, some local residents immediately raise objections.  These concerns arise because there is a common belief that more development = more traffic. 

Route 29 during the morning rush hour.  The congested traffic farthest from the viewer is heading south towards the Beltway and Silver Spring, the empty lanes closest to the viewer are heading north towards White Oak.  This photo showcases the imbalance of traffic on Route 29 during rush hour due to a lack of private sector employers in eastern Montgomery County.  Photo by the author.

I began to wonder about this correlation between development and traffic after I heard "traffic concerns" being used to justify opposition to just about anything new in or around my neighborhood.  I also began to wonder about different kinds of development, since the types vary, yet I had never heard anyone distinguish between "good" and "bad" forms of development.  Is there a way that the county can accommodate new residents (and grow the tax base, which benefits those who already live here) without making traffic horrible?     

Since we have an example of large scale high density development just to our south in Silver Spring, I decided to look up data on traffic volumes to determine what effect this dense development has had on the roads in and around Silver Spring.  If the theory of "more development = more traffic" holds true, there should be a close correlation with the growth of residential units and traffic volumes.

I consulted the Maryland State Highway Administration's traffic volume maps, which are available online here (years 1980-2012) and here (2013).  I compared years 2003 and 2013, and I chose this time frame since most of the contemporary residential growth in Silver Spring has occurred during this decade (and it continues today).  Between 2003 and the present, thousands of new residential units have been constructed in downtown Silver Spring, so I expected traffic volumes to rise accordingly.  I was surprised to find they did not.  I fact; traffic in and around Silver Spring actually decreased on the whole during the last 10 years.

Annual Average Daily Traffic counts in downtown Silver Spring in 2003, when Silver Spring had far fewer housing units than it does today.  Image from SHA.

Annual Average Daily Traffic for downtown Silver Spring in 2013, after adding thousands of new housing units and jobs.  When compared to 2003, almost every traffic count is lower (even on the Beltway).   Image from SHA.

When I saw this, I became very confused.  How could a place add thousands of housing units and new jobs in a dense area, yet have traffic volumes decrease?  How are all these new people getting around?  

This is when I thought of the Metro; perhaps all the new growth had been absorbed through higher Metro ridership.  So I looked up the ridership numbers from the Silver Spring station's opening in 1978 to the most recent year available (2011).  In 2003, there were 12,374 average weekday boardings at the Silver Spring Metro Station.  In 2011, there were 13,471 average weekday boardings.  This small increase in ridership does not begin to explain the large drop in traffic volumes in the surrounding area, and it definitely does not explain how all the new residents are getting around (Silver Spring actually had more ridership back in the 1980's than it does now because it used to be the end of the line, and ridership has not returned to those 1980's numbers despite massive development in the past decade).      

So how can this be explained?  How has Silver Spring not seen a huge increase in traffic congestion with all the new housing, entertainment, and jobs it has created?  Doesn't dense residential development cause the worst traffic?  Why don't the numbers reflect that?  

These questions lead me to this conclusion:  Silver Spring has become a destination in and of itself.  People who move to downtown Silver Spring do so because they want to live at this destination, whether it be for proximity to work, or for proximity to entertainment, nightlife, and retail.  This pattern has created the following cycle:  
-Initial capital investment creates a vibrant urban environment full of shops, dining, and entertainment.
-People are drawn to this new vibrant environment because of its close proximity to employment, retail, and entertainment options, therefore driving demand for new housing. 
-Businesses and high paying employers are drawn to the area as they look to take advantage of the growing concentration of customers and potential employees who want to live close to work and retail.
-Even more residents are drawn to the area due its expanding employment, retail, and entertainment options, and the cycle continues to repeat itself.

Downtown Silver Spring is a major regional destination, and it has attracted new residents because of it.  Photo by Dan Reed.

This style of mixed use development is often coined "live, work, play" because you can do everything that your day requires you to do all within the urban node.  Residents don't need to leave the urban area to get daily essentials, since a variety of goods and services are within walking distance (live).  Residents don't need to leave the area for work, since they probably moved there so they could be close to the office (work).  And lastly, resident's don't need to leave the urban node for entertainment and nightlife, since there are bars and restaurants within walking distance as well (play).        

LifeSci Village is a proposed "live, work, play" style community adjacent to the FDA campus.   Kinda looks like Ellsworth Drive doesn't it?  Image from Percontee.

So what does all of this have to do with Four Corners and White Oak?

The White Oak Science Gateway plan envisions dense mixed use development in White Oak served by new road and transit connections.  The plan calls for 8,500 new homes and 40,000 new jobs, capitalizing on the presence of the Food and Drug Administration.  The idea of this development is to build a community that is largely self sufficient out of one that currently relies on other areas for daily necessities (such as jobs and entertainment).  While the number of government jobs in White Oak has grown because of the FDA, private sector jobs in the area have been continually declining (since well before the recession).  Private sector jobs in White Oak are important for a multitude of reasons, especially tax revenue, since the county can't tax the FDA.

The White Oak plan calls for a reopening of the Old Columbia Pike bridge over Paint Branch to improve local traffic flow.  This overgrown and graffiti covered bridge embodies the lack of investment that White Oak has suffered from over the years.  The White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan is an opportunity to correct that.  Photo by the author. 

If mixed use development can proceed in White Oak, the traffic impacts on Four Corners will not be severe; in fact, they may be minimal.  As stated, people moving into the new housing in White Oak will do so because White Oak is close to work, entertainment, and retail.  The majority of new White Oak residents will not have to commute south on Route 29 through Four Corners in the morning to go to work, because their work will be where they live... in White Oak.  Also, because new jobs are forecast to outnumber residences, people from Four Corners could commute north on Route 29 in the morning to work, opposite of the peak direction of travel.  More jobs in White Oak could alleviate the current imbalance of traffic on Route 29 at rush hour (see the first photo for a visual of this traffic pattern).

Because of the reasons stated above, I have found that traffic concerns surrounding the White Oak plan have been largely overstated.  The White Oak plan calls for "good development" which reduces auto dependency by creating mixed use communities.  This is not the same as the "bad development" of the 1980's in the Briggs Cheney area, which did dump more traffic on Route 29 because it was solely focused on housing, instead of a mix of uses.  The lack of adequate jobs and entertainment in that growing area meant that its residents had to drive south on Route 29 through Four Corners to get to work or just to enjoy a night out.

I strongly suspect that most people in my neighborhood oppose the White Oak plan is because they think it will be more of the same "bad development" which has burdened our community with traffic over the years.  This is probably the only reason local residents have for opposing development, since most of my neighbors are truly progressive and open minded people who want everyone to have the same chance to live and thrive in Montgomery County that they themselves had.

It is in Four Corners' best interests to support the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, since it is an alternative to the decades of bad development which have only caused more traffic in Four Corners (I say this as a lifelong Woodmoor resident).  If our community does not support this plan for good development in White Oak, we can expect more of the same bad development for decades to come.


  1. Long Comment 2 of 2
    Fortunately, the Council's professional staff, transportation planners and consultants who have worked on dozens of Master Plans for decades, spent time studying the transportation and alternatives. These studies included the assumptions of mixed use as well as BRT and Purple Lines. The results showed that even with the mixed use, 3 BRT routes, intersection improvements and 6 grade separated interchanges, the conditions on Stewart Lane, Lockwood Drive, Randolph Road, MD 198, Tech Road, Route 29, and New Hampshire Ave, will deteriorate to failing grade in BOTH peak and non-peak directions. Greencastle would fail in the peak direction. The traffic would not just be bad; it would be horrendous for people trying to traverse some of those routes. You could forget about being able to get out of your neighborhood in a reasonable period of time. For example, for those traveling on Route 29 from Stewart Lane to the Beltway, even with BRT, the analysis shows it would take an average of 79 minutes in the AM rush hours to go 2.7 miles and 73 minutes in the PM rush hour heading north. The average today in rush hour is 14 minutes. That type of choking off of those arteries will do nothing to enhance the economic development goals here. Those most impacted would be north of Four Corners. Four Corners and all the rest of the neighborhoods between White Oak and DTSS would still have significant problems however as the projected CLV would go from the current 1650 (standard is 1600) to 2435. And that's at the widest of the 10 signalized intersections south of New Hampshire Ave. That's well beyond what is acceptable in the urban areas with Metrorail stations, which is 1800.

    The master plan area is not comparable to downtown Silver Spring which is the subject of the current post. While downtown Silver Spring has a road network, a metro station, a MARC rail station, over 100 buses per hour including circulators and several future light rail stations, not to mention completely different geography, this Plan area has just 3 main roads which do not connect. The largest development area with 13 million sf of the total 25 million sf of new development would be locked in by the Federal Research Center with no way to access New Hampshire Avenue. It will take over 45 minutes to exit that area during rush hours if built as proposed. Also, DTSS has half the traffic of outside the Beltway areas because the population there is significantly less and much of the traffic here (over 2/3) is traveling to and from the Beltway.

    Those forecasted conditions are the reason the Staff recommended:
    reducing the density 25%, reducing the residential zoning component, placing emphasis on employment including employment zones instead of residential zones, and implementing a staging plan based on gradual increases in non-auto mode share (commuter trips other than single occupancy vehicle). Even though the entire Route 29 corridor already has a residential commuter mode share of 49% with buses traveling on shoulder for 6 miles, there are still major backups.

    So while it may be interesting to speculate that traffic will be reduced by adding 25 m sf to the area, the extensive multi-level analysis shows otherwise. The professional transportation staff/engineers have outlined what would need to happen to make the plan work. If those recommendations are not adopted, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past in how the area developed in the 1980-90s. It will be "Deja vu all over again".

  2. Apologies in advance for long comment 1 of 2

    Interesting but your conclusions don't hold up under the analysis done by the professional Council staff and transportation engineers who thoroughly analyzed the Master Plan transportation and land use. Unfortunately this post has false comparisons, misinformation and mischaracterizes the neighborhoods' positions not only on development in general but also this Plan in particular. Your critique might be different and more credible if you had attended any of the many community meetings on the subject or participated in any of the recent worksessions and presentations. Frankly, you haven't done your homework on this Plan.

    While traffic has decreased countywide since 2007 due to the prolonged recession as well as increased telework, it has actually increased on Route 29 between the ICC and the Beltway by over 6,000 vehicles per day in the last few years. This is due to the expansion at FDA as well as the opening of the ICC and people using 29 as alternate for 95 to the Beltway. The area north of the Beltway has twice the volume as south of the Beltway, including downtown.

    With regard to your characterization of the neighborhood as anti-everything, the most recent development in the area, the Burnt Mills Shopping Center with Trader Joe's as anchor was the direct result of the considerable efforts of Four Corners residents to bring it here and is one of the most successful recent projects in the East County. Without the efforts of the Four Corners residents, that very successful project would not be there. Most people are happy that those efforts resulted in what is one of the Company's highest grossing stores on the East Coast. No one has opposed bringing FDA, the new hospital, United Therapeutics or any other recent project proposal that involved bringing specific jobs to this part of the County.

    With regard to this Master Plan (which is much different than a specific project plan), there are 12 area associations in White Oak, Calverton, Four Corners, Silver Spring and Hillandale that support most of the goals of the Plan and based on facts, not speculation, have raised some significant concerns about size, transportation capacity and circulation, appropriate zoning and implementation. The devil is in the details and it's the responsibility of these neighborhoods to highlight issues for officials in order to come up with a better plan that will improve (not diminish) the quality of life for residents. This is the largest new master plan in the County and the current Planning Board draft would treat this area differently than the other Master Plan areas. By that I mean it would not apply the same standards they’ve applied consistently to all other Master Plan areas and would allow high density development to proceed without facilities to support it. This is what happened before and we are still recovering from it.

    While most people want to add jobs and restaurants to the largest jobs center on the eastern side of the County, (more jobs than downtown Silver Spring), no one who has looked at the details seriously believes that adding 25 million sf of new CR zone development, with 8,500 residential units and adding a new city twice the size of downtown Silver Spring 6 miles from the nearest metro station will reduce the traffic. If they do, I have a bridge to sell them. Furthermore, while on the one hand the goal of the plan is supposed to be to bring more jobs to this side of the County, the very high amount of residential proposed, would make the jobs/housing ratio in the Plan area, worse. It would go from 5.2 jobs per household under the current plan to 4.4 under the proposed plan. The high residential amount will also compound the congestion in peak direction problem, as well as increase school overcrowding. As the planners stated, the area already has an imbalance of residential vs. commercial and one of the County’s policy goals is to increase commercial in the east and residential in the west.

    1. Hi [insert name here],

      You make many points in your 1,200 word comment, so I’m going to address the biggest one here to clear some things up. I suspect I know who you are, so I am going to save the smaller points for a later, in person discussion where there is less room for misinterpretation, and we can get more detailed.
      If I hadn't done my homework on the Plan as you claim, I wouldn't know about the Sabra Wang study you refer to. But I do know about it. This analysis was presented to the county council last month (6/19 I believe), and it can be found online through their agenda page.

      Sabra Wang completed traffic analysis for 4 scenarios to present to the council last month, and they added two scenarios after that at the request of the council. These added scenarios used different controls in the analysis, which altered the planned road network resulting in some dramatic results (hence the 79 minutes number) In those additional two scenarios, Sabra Wang removed part of the Master Plan road connections, which altered the control factors and rendered a comparison between the initial scenarios and the later scenarios scientifically impossible (due to conflicting variable and control factors). Since you have done your homework and read the study in detail, I'm sure you know all about this inconsistency which resulted in the dramatic numbers.

      Interestingly, you don't mention scenario 3 of Sabra Wang's professional study, which says that travel times will actually improve for SOVs with the all the Master Plan development AND the implementation of Bus Rapid Transit. Also, you bring up CLV, a type of measurement which frequently over estimates traffic impacts and need for improvements, but you did not mention HCM which was used by Sabra Wang. I assume you omitted to mention HCM and scenario 3 (and all the other scenarios) because it was not convenient for your argument, which is perfectly understandable.

      So let me just say this again: Sabra Wang, a professional consulting firm with extensive experience and credibility in traffic analysis, has said that the addition of the Master Plan proposed development (all of it) and transit improvements (which include road improvements too!) will not have a significant negative impact on travel times along Route 29. They state this in scenario 3 of their traffic analysis as presented to the council (it's the scenario called "2040 Proposed Land Use & Master Plan”). And under their 4th scenario, they found that delays would be even less than scenario 3 (scenario 4 is called "2040 Proposed Land Use & Master Plan with Additional Improvements").

      Since I strongly suspect you are someone I have heard from before, I will contact you by email offering to discuss this further in person (if you are not said person, feel free to email me introducing yourself).

  3. Apologies in advance but, a complex subject requires longer answers and your posts on WOSG don’t provide accurate information. 1/2

    Quite familiar with the SW study that assumed adding 2 additional lanes on: Randolph Road to White Flint, New Hampshire Avenue all the way to DC line and Route 29 all the way to DC. They not only miscounted the number of lanes/capacity but they also assumed 4 additional interchanges on Route 29 that are not planned south of NH Ave. Since that wasn’t accurate, the County had to go back and do the remodeling. SW is also a contractor with the County on BRT studies.

    The results which are contained in the July 1 packets are significantly different and the remodeling assumptions include:
    3 BRT routes, NADMS assumptions including walk to work, 6 grade separated interchanges, reclassifying Route 29 north of NH as a freeway (Same as I-495 and I-270), opening Old Columbia Pike Bridge and making it 4 lanes instead of 2, creating a new policy area, increasing the congestion standard to 1600 in White Oak, and other intersection improvements and reclassification of roadways to a higher level. That is the corrected "revised network" used in the remodeling.

    Even with all those changes, among other things, the results show that the average travel time between Stewart Lane and MD 193 is 14.4 min and for the Planning Board Draft with the revised corrected network it would be 79.7 minutes. The Planning Board Draft is what is in front of the Council.

    In addition, the TPAR charts "revised network" which show the congested speed relative to free flow speed on various arterials in the area, indicate the declining arterial performance under the Planning Board Draft, unless the density is reduced AND the NADMS increased. The adequacy standard is 45%. Under the current 1997 plan (which is almost completely built out except for 4m sf of commercial) with the new network assumptions listed above, the policy area for the most part is at that standard and so is Route 29 -- see WOSG 1997 “Master Plan Test”.

    Under all the Planning Board Draft scenarios (all of which include 25m sf of additional development), the entire policy area falls below the standard. Some of the individual arterials I mentioned are significantly below the standard and in the case of Route 29, the Planning Board Draft Plan with Route 29 discount shows slightly above 24%. Without the discount, it's at 31%. In their memo Staff stated with regard to the WOSG MP development, “Under none of these ways of looking at balance do the network changes reach the standard [45%] but they do bring them closer to balance." When Council approves Master Plans, they are to be in “balance” for land use and transportation at build out. There is only one Master Plan that is not in balance –Potomac -- because the residents there don’t want anything wider than 2 lane roads. There is no development there though. It’s mostly built out.

  4. 2/2
    CLV is the congestion standard used by the County. HCM is also used for a subdivision application when nearby CLV is above 1600. HCM is also a tool used to model refined road improvements in addition to road widening, (signal timing etc.). SW studied specific intersections but did not produce results at any intersections on Route 29 except for US 29 at MD 193. That shows forecasted CLV 2435 (2229) F (F) V/C 1.52 (1.39) and HCM Delay 1.68.9 F (F). All of those values are well above the County and State acceptable standards of 1600, 1.0, D. See circle page 10 of the July 1 packet. That's the widest of all the signalized intersections south of NH. There are 13 other signalized intersections between Stewart Lane and DC line for which there are no results reported.

    The bottom line is all of this analysis shows that unless the Council Staff recommended changes to the Planning Board Draft are adopted, this Plan doesn't come close to working and even with those proposed changes (increasing transportation capacity, increase the congestion standards and decrease development) it’s still not in balance. Furthermore, although the Council Staff recommended changes with reduced density would make it somewhat better on Route 29 over the Planning Board Draft, the corridor will still be significantly affected unless there are additional reductions. Again, the new development alone is 7 m sf more than DTSS CBD which has more roads and transit. Combined with the existing development, it’s over twice the size of DTSS in an area far from a Metro Station.

    Your post says that the traffic concerns are overstated. The studies indicate otherwise and there is nothing in the studies to indicate as you propose that the traffic will decrease with the level of development in the Planning Board Draft. In fact, Staff states the following in their memo: "Under every future scenario, auto travel time will increase from existing conditions." The latest documents from professional staff (not your neighbors) outline the facts and recommendations and exclude the propaganda from some vested interests.