Thursday, June 23, 2016

Route 29 bike path idea

The Montgomery County Planning Department is working on a new countywide bike plan.  It's an ambitious plan that seeks to make biking in the county safer, and more importantly, comfortable.  It's great for things to be statistically safe, but if a bike facility isn't comfortable, only the most confident cyclists will use it.  Currently, Route 29 is the farthest thing from a comfortable bike facility.  I've cycled in the right lane of Colesville Road before on the segment pictured below, and it was a near-death experience.

Route 29 is labelled as a "high stress" biking environment on the Montgomery County Planning Department's Bicycle Stress Map, while local streets are labelled blue for "low stress".

Route 29 is one of the few paved crossing of Northwest Branch in eastern Montgomery County for vehicles and pedestrians, as the next nearest crossings are miles away.  This makes Route 29 and important bike connection between Silver Spring and points north, since there are few other ways to cross the creek if you're trying to keep your shoes dry.    

What if there were a safer path paralleling Route 29 (while not being right next to it) which cyclists, joggers, and pedestrians could use to traverse this part of the corridor in comfort?  I have an idea for such a path across land that is already publicly owned, which I have drawn on the map below.  This post will be a description of the proposed route and my reasoning for choosing it.  

Proceeding from north to south, the route would begin at the former WSSC buildings near Northwest Branch, on the northbound side of Route 29.  The trail would be a 10 foot wide asphalt path, and ideally it would cross Northwest Branch on its own wood and steel bridge like the one used by the Sligo Creek trail adjacent to New Hampshire Avenue in Takoma Park, shown below.

Upon crossing the creek, the path would follow the route of a current dirt trail which runs along the ridge above Route 29 between the creek and Crestmoor Drive.  This dirt trail was formerly the way to walk along Route 29 before the sidewalk opened in 2008.  The grade leading up from the creek towards Crestmoor on this trail is fairly gradual, and conducive to the construction of a paved trail.

Area where the paved path would ascend the hill at left to continue towards Crestmoor.  Photo by the autthor.

The existing dirt trail along the ridgeline above and parallel to Route 29.  The fence is the edge of the property line for the homes on Whittmoor Terrace.  Photo by the author. 

The paved path would travel along the ridge trail behind Whitmoor Terrace paralleling Route 29.  The current dirt trail peters out behind the two newer homes at the base of Crestmoor Drive.  This spot presents a challenge due to the short but steep hill down to Crestmoor from the ridge trail, and the proximity of the two homes.  However, it appears that there is enough space next to the home adjacent to Route 29 for a paved trail to descend the hill and travel along or next to the existing sidewalk for a short distance.  

This is where the current dirt trail ends, on the hill behind the two newer homes at the base of Crestmoor Drive.  Photo by the author.  

This is the hill behind the homes as seen from the sidewalk.  There seems to be enough space for a paved path to descend the hill and run with or next to the current sidewalk until reaching Crestmoor.  Photo by the author.

After reaching Crestmoor, the path would use the abandoned portion of Route 29 south of Crestmoor Drive.  Prior to its widening in 1958, Route 29 was a much windier two lane road between Four Corners and Burnt Mills.  When the road was widened, it was also straightened out significantly, leaving an abandoned portion just south of Crestmoor to the driveway of 10401 Colesville Road.  

Leftover pavement from the old Colesville Road south of Crestmoor Drive.  Photo by the author.

Because this portion of the potential route used to be a road, it is ideal for a trail conversion, since it is already graded and still mostly paved.  This are some fallen trees and lots of shrubs/bushes, but there are no large trees blocking the path because the old road surface has prevented the growth of trees.  I recently walked through this area to see its condition, and I shot a short video of the area which can be seen below.  

After exiting the old right of way, there is a grassy area next to a creek which the trail could use to reach the area of Southwood Avenue and Colesville Road.  It is unclear how much of this grassy area is state owned and how much is privately owned (it is the "front yard" of 10401 Colesville Road, but the house is set very far off the road).  Given the existence of a creek adjacent to Colesville Road, I suspect the state owned portion entails that creek and the land next it, where the trail could run (the trail would be over 100 feet from the house).  

Grassy area just north of the Southwood intersection where the trail could run.  There is a small creek hidden behind some trees at left.  Photo by the author.
The trail would run with or adjacent to the existing sidewalk past the Southwood Avenue intersection.  This would provide access to the trail from those on the North Four Corners side of Colesville Road, and to the existing signed bike route that travels along Southwood Avenue.  After passing Southwood, the trail would cut over to Eastmoor Drive, which dead ends very close to Colesville Road but does not connect.  There is an existing dirt trail between Eastmoor and Colesville which residents use to get to the bus stop.

The trail would run with or next to this sidewalk past the intersection with Southwood Avenue, seen at right.  Photo by the author.  
Rough trail between the Southwood intersection and Eastmoor Drive.  Photo by the author.

Once at Eastmoor the trail would use a somewhat abandoned alleyway behind Pierce Drive.  This alley runs from the end of Eastmoor near Colesville towards Lorain Avenue, emptying out onto Pierce just before Lorain.  Part of it is still in active use, and part of it is overgrown with shrubs and vines.  Since it is an alley, it is probably county-owned, as it appears to be outside of the property lines of all the adjacent homes.  Access to the three driveways on the alley could retained if the area were used as a trail, since it's a very low speed environment.

The alley behind Pierce Drive looking towards Lorain.  Photo by the author.
The overgrown portion of the alley looking towards Eastmoor.  Photo by the author.

The trail would leave the alley near the intersection of Pierce Drive and Lorain Avenue.  It would then run on-street along Pierce Drive towards the Woodmoor Shopping Center and Blair High School.  Sharrows and signage could be installed on Pierce to let cyclists know the correct route to follow to reach the off-street part of the trail.

The end of the alley near Pierce Drive and Lorain Avenue.  Photo by the author.

Pierce Drive looking towards the front of the neighborhood.  Pierce gets a decent amount of traffic due to its location near the shopping center and neighborhood exits, but it's much more comfortable to bike and walk along than Colesville Road.  Photo by the author.

So that's my idea for a Route 29 bike path.  You might be asking "what about the sidewalks, why not just use those?"  The problem with the sidewalks along Route 29 is their design.  They're directly adjacent to the road, and most parts have a large wall on the other side.  This leaves zero margin for error for both cyclists and pedestrians.  A small error or minor fall is fatal on sidewalks like these.  

A cyclist in Gaithersburg was killed a few weeks ago on a sidewalk identical to the one on Colesville Road (5 feet wide, no gap between the sidewalk and the travel lanes of the road).  That cyclist hit a sign and fell into the road, where he was immediately run over by a passing car.  He died at the scene.  Since the sidewalks along Route 29 have retaining walls on one side, there is no opportunity to move them back from the curb to a safer position, meaning the same circumstances that killed that cyclist in Gaithersburg are present here in Four Corners.  A tragic collision such as that one could easily occur on Colesville Road.      

With 50 MPH traffic on one side and a  retaining wall on another, a fall off a bike on a sidewalk like this can easily result in death.  We need a safer alternative in the form of a separated path.  Photo by the author.   

In conclusion, the role of comfort for both cyclists and pedestrians is an important one.  The current sidewalks are not only dangerous, they're uncomfortable.  Walking or biking right next to a highway like Colesville Road is loud, windy, and often smelly.  A separated path through the wooded areas parallel to the road would provide a much more comfortable connection for people who want to walk down to Trader Joe's without feeling like they're in a wind tunnel, or for those who would bike to the Woodmoor bakery from Burnt Mills if it were only safer to do so.

The short video below is a good sampling of what it's like to walk or bike along Colesville Road.  We can do better.      


  1. Just discovered your blog. This is a great idea. Have you proposed it to WABA or the county?

    1. Thanks. I've spoken with members of the Silver Spring Citizen's Advisory Board about it. We're trying to get the county/state interested but it will be a long process. I'm going to reach out to WABA soon as well. They had some more pressing projects on their plate when I wrote this last month. Feel free to bring up the idea to them if you have a contact there.

  2. Just discovered your blog. This is a great idea. Have you proposed it to WABA or the county?