Thursday, June 25, 2015

Scrutinizing our current infrastructure

Over the past several weeks, I have been to numerous public meetings relating to planned changes in or around Four Corners.  At all of these meetings and forums, there is a common theme: people demanding thorough study and analysis before any changes are even considered.

After attending one of these meetings, I thought to myself: "What if we applied the level of scrutiny that we do to new projects to the arterial roads we currently have?"

University Boulevard Easy in front of St. B's.  Photo by the author.

If you live in Four Corners, chances are you use Colesville Road or University Boulevard on a daily basis.  We use these roads everyday, and don't think much of them.  They're just there, and they've been around for a long time.

Here's an existential question:  Why are these roads the way they are?

Here are a few other questions to ponder:  Why are they 6 lanes wide?  Why are the sidewalks right next to the curb?  Why is the speed limit 40 MPH?  Why are the travel lanes 11' and 12' wide?  How much public involvement was there in the design process?  What year were these roads widened?  Was this even a good idea?

Because of today's standards of public involvement and thorough planning, it's easy to assume that our existing built environment (roads, land use patterns, etc.) was well thought-out and given careful consideration before it was constructed.  Here's an alarming fact: it wasn't.

The roads we use everyday were never studied when they were originally widened in the 1950's.  There were only rudimentary traffic projections carried out, but nothing backed up by hard data.  There were no Environmental Impact Statements performed to determine the impact of these widenings on nearby creeks and streams.

Perhaps most ridiculous of all: there was no community input whatsoever.

Four Corners shortly after University Boulevard and Colesville Road were widened.  1959 image from the Sunday Star via Ken Hawkins

Here is the key takeaway from this:  The design of our arterial roads is just one big experiment, and we are the test subjects. 

For decades, the SHA and its predecessors have foolishly thought that widening these roads would reduce congestion.  It can't and it hasn't, and our community has been negatively impacted by this failed experiment.

We need a more walkable and bikeable Four Corners that is served by rapid transit, and we've needed it for some time now.

No matter what qualms one may have with bus rapid transit plans, we can all agree that the situation we have now is unacceptable, and we need to think critically about correcting it.    

In what is to become a recurring theme on this blog, I will delve into the history of our arterial highways and how they affect Four Corners as a whole.  I'll explain in much more detail how our existing roads are a serious threat to the livability and economic vitality of our community, and what I think we should be doing to correct these past errors.  Through a firm understanding of the past, we can shape a better future.  

So next time you use University Boulevard or Colesville Road, whether by car, bike, or on foot; scrutinize it and ask "Why?"      


  1. Sean, there has been enormous (and in my opinion) excessive emphasis on efforts to forcibly increase transit patronage along U.S. 29, to the detriment of those who cannot or will not use the buses. What has been seemingly forgotten and ignored is the bridge that carries U.S. 29 over the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River at Burnt Mills. This bridge and its approaches have been repeatedly damaged by flooding since Hurricane Agnes in the early 1970's and maybe before, yet the county planners at M-NCP&PC and the Montgomery County Council obsess with transit (even though previous efforts dating back to 1981 have not worked out so well), and not with a reconstruction of this bridge to reduce or eliminate its vulnerability to flooding.

    Maybe all of the resources associated with coercive planning for transit should be put aside and spent to strengthen and possibly raise this bridge. First.

    1. "excessive emphasis on efforts to forcibly increase transit patronage along U.S. 29, to the detriment of those who cannot or will not use the buses."

      Unless there have been cases of drivers being forced out of their vehicles under threat of violence and loaded onto buses, I really don't see how you can say "forcibly increase" transit ridership.

      I know you're no fan of the affordable housing placed along Briggs Cheney Road post-1981 (due to TDR from the Ag Preserve, which is the real root of your dislike), but I don't see how the Z8, Z11, and Z13 are a detriment to those who drive in the corridor.

      To the contrary, the argument can be easily made that there has been excessive emphasis on motorists to the detriment to those who can't or won't use cars (read: Randolph Road and Briggs Cheney interchanges completed years ago for motorists, yet still no busway in that huge median north of MD 650 to Burtonsville (also note that a busway in that median would be less expensive than any new interchange, only major cost being a new Paint Branch bridge between existing spans)).

      Regarding the NW Branch bridge, here's a question: how many times a year does it flood, and how many times a year do pedestrians walk along dangerously narrow sidewalks on MD 193 and US 29?

      Whichever instance happens more often, that should be funded first for safety reasons (there are people walking along dangerous to-close-to-the-arterial-road sidewalks in Four Corners as I type this, but that bridge hasn't flooded for 13 months, and before that, several years).

      The NW Branch bridge should be addressed, definitely. But the infrequency of that safety issue does not warrant priority over much more pressing quality of life issues, such as the narrow sidewalks, high speed limits, unsafe crossings, and transit delays due to traffic congestion (which is a serious problem on the stretch of US 29 in the vicinity of the NW Branch bridge, since that is where the more serious congestion occurs at peak times).

      So in conclusion, no one is forcing anyone to use transit. If anything, the county and state governments are currently making driving more appealing than transit by providing a poor level-of-service for transit riders (I've been stuck in traffic on the Z11 or Z13 many times), and by pursuing expensive interchanges which only marginally improve travel times throughout the corridor and offer a poor return on investment (there are still many traffic signals south of MD 650 on US 29, and no amount of interchanges north of there will improve travel times through that key piece of road down to the Beltway. If anything, the interchanges have made the signalized stretch south of MD 650 more congested).

      So if you want to see some coercive planning, just compare capital expenditures along the US 29 corridor, interchange funding vs. transit funding. Drivers have clearly been the priority for the past several decades.

  2. I will be interested to see how the Millennial generation's "bike-centric" tastes change when they grow up and have kids. I will grant you that it's currently way too difficult to cross FC in any direction on foot or bike. But I'm sorry, no amount of bus lanes is going to get me to pile my family into the germ factory that is the Z8 in rush hour or to try to go shopping for groceries using public transit and all the attendant hassles involved with it. If I wanted to live in the city, I'd move there. I'm in the suburbs for a reason, and a big part of that is being able to use my car to go where I want, when I want, in comfort.

    In any event, the root cause here will not be solved anytime soon: too many people living in too small an area commuting too far to work. Welcome to a metropolitan area anywhere in the world.

  3. The overpasses and interchanges in Fairland and White Oak are about improving conditions for bike riders and pedestrians, and east-west motorized traffic - and about reducing crash rates (there were many horrific wrecks at 29 and 198; Briggs Chaney and East Randolph/Cherry Hill, mostly gone now). They are about spanning a busy expressway-class road, and about improving access to Md. 200 - not about fixing the Beltway and Four Corners. Four Corners residents have repeatedly said they want nothing beyond what was done in the 1990's.

    The flooding of the bridge that carries U.S. 29 over the Northwest Branch is (or should be) intolerable on such a busy and important highway, regardless of how often it happens (and it happens far too often). The nice people on the County Council have endorsed large and expensive bridge replacement projects on much lower-volume roads subject to flooding in the Ag Preserve, all the while pretending this bridge on U.S. 29 is not a problem. That is in and of itself intolerable and worse.

  4. Anonymous - as someone who *does* have a kid, and marginally fits into the Gen X/Y/Z millennial demographic, and moved to Four Corners from Northern Virginia specifically because it offers more transit and bike connectivity than where I came from, I am one of the folks on the "germ factory" that you refer to. While I don't advocate ripping up the Beltway in favor of a multi-use path, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that's not even being touched, whether it be because of reflexive actions of civic associations that disproportionately represent car-centric, change-adverse baby boomers, or simply because no one has asked "why."
    We agree that the root cause won't change, so what do you do to connect more people in a way that doesn't cause the vast majority of them to tear their hair out?

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