Pedestrian safety activists, transit boosters and White Flint developers joined Thursday to testify in support of a County Council bill that would change Montgomery’s road standards to limit the width of streets and set lower speed limits in urban areas.
Most who spoke at the public hearing in front of the Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee were fans of the legislation, proposed by Councilmembers Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Chevy Chase) and Hans Riemer (D-At large).
Montgomery County Department of Transportation Director Art Holmes, speaking on behalf of County Executive Isiah Leggett, said the executive branch “endorses the goals” of the bill but does hope for some flexibility that would allow room for bigger transit, emergency and service vehicles.
MCDOT has been the target of recent criticism from supporters of redevelopment in White Flint, which includes a new street grid around Old Georgetown Road and Executive Boulevard.
Evan Goldman, development vice president for Federal Realty, said his company has seen the pedestrian-unfriendly impacts of the area’s six-lane roads. Federal Realty is building Pike & Rose at the old Mid-Pike Plaza, bordered by Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike.
“Little things like curb radii and street lane widths are huge. It really makes a difference for a street that can have retail and is pleasant to be on and a street that doesn’t,” Goldman said. “If you think about your trips, whenever you visit a city or go to a cool town, you’re not going to Tysons for a vacation. You don’t go to Irvine, California for a vacation. You go to Chicago and Boston and San Francisco, Miami, London, Annapolis and Frederick, these great places that are walkable and it’s fun because you can walk anywhere. These cities somehow figure out how to thrive with lane widths that are smaller and curb radii that are smaller.”
Francine Waters, managing director of Lerner Enterprises, also testified that the new White Flint depends on roads that don’t scare away pedestrians. Lerner is planning to tear down its White Flint Mall and build a mixed-use, town square-centered development, one of many projects envisioned in the 2010 White Flint Sector Plan.
“These amendments to the road code are one step closer to facilitating the realization of that vision,” Waters said.
Not all were in favor of making the proposed changes standard. The bill would limit the width of travel lanes and many turning lanes to 10 feet in urban areas. Each parking lane on an urban road would be limited to eight feet. Target speeds, which are typically the same as the posted speed limit, would be reduced to 25 miles per hour.
Ron Welke, a retired veteran transportation planner with MCDOT and M-NCPPC, said intersections and roads should be planned by the professionals — with any specific issues in mind.
“It is not appropriate to legislate traffic engineering design elements such as maximum target speeds, maximum curb radii and maximum lane widths in urban areas. Specific conditions relating to each situation must be taken into account before a decision is made and that is the job of professionals,” Welke told the Committee. “A balance must be reached between the competing and often conflicting roles of safety and mobility of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit vehicles in an urban environment.”
Ronit Dancis, a Bethesda resident and member of the Action Committee for Transit, said that balance has not been reached in an already urban downtown Bethesda.
“I live and I work in downtown Bethesda and by my count of the number of times I’ve had a car come just this close to me is now up to five. Last winter, I bought this very bright white coat so I could be seen better by drivers. I have now twice nearly been hit while wearing this white coat while walking in the middle of the crosswalk,” Dancis said. “I invite any of you to take a tour of downtown Bethesda with me to see how it is that our current road code does not allow humans in cars and humans on foot to interact safely.”
Ben Ross, another Bethesda resident and ACT member who has been a frequent critic of MCDOT policies, said MCDOT hasn’t applied the same flexibility toward pedestrians that Holmes asked for in the proposed bill.
“I’m a little surprised, because when people ask for pedestrian improvements and traffic calming they are constantly told that the Department has no flexibility and it has to follow guidelines,” Ross said.
The Transportation Committee is set to take up the bill in a worksession on Feb. 6 at 9:30 a.m. in Rockville.