Friday, November 5, 2010

guest blog: let's not cross that bridge when we get to it

The following comes to us from Takoma Park native Alex Hutchinson, an intern at the Planning Department who won their Pecha Kucha contest last month. When he's not applying to graduate schools in Urban Planning you can find him teaching English as a second language, riding his bike on the Capital Crescent Trail, experimenting and failing with the Ride-On bus system or making loud music. Alex became interested in the field of planning after learning about the Curitiba Brazil’s Bus Rapid Transit System. If you have any questions or bones to pick please contact him at alexanderehutchinson at gmail dot com.

Whether it’s the Boundary Bridge that straddles Rock Creek right outside of Silver Spring, or the Cabin John Bridge, nestled into Glen Echo, I love the bridges our region boasts. I’m no gephyrophobiac, bridges don’t scare me one bit. But, there is one bridge that makes me uneasy - and no, it’s not the Tacoma Narrows - it's the proposed downtown Silver Spring Library bridge. Despite the fact the Planning Board voted 8-1 against the bridge, it has once again become part of our local discourse. Here’s why I hope this bridge wobbles into oblivion.

Silver Spring Library - Proposed Pedestrian Bridge
The proposed library bridge at Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street.

It’s been argued that the proposed bridge is the best and most economic way of achieving accessibility for all. Silver Spring already has a skywalk: the bridge which connects the Ellsworth Drive parking garage to City Place Mall. This post isn’t about the untapped potential of City Place, but it’s worth remembering that the skywalk never transformed City Place into the attraction of Silver Spring it was intended to be.

Skywalks, the ill-conceived circulators dreamed in an era of automobile-centric planning aren't necessary in the paradigm of today. In the Board’s discussion, planners made the case that the structure would divert traffic from the active sidewalks and, street level retail that have come to define Downtown Silver Spring.

The bridge would also encourage library users to drive, avoiding the highlights of Silver Spring altogether. Skywalks mainly serve drivers who, at some point, leave their cars to become pedestrians. A problem associated with skywalks is the reluctance of pedestrians to use their circuitous routes and instead brave a busy road in turn running the risk of being struck by a vehicle. Less able pedestrians—wheelchairs, mothers with strollers, the elderly –similarly might opt to cross the road instead of taking the elevator up to the third floor of the parking garage. While the library intersection isn’t a tranquil one-lane country road removing pedestrians from the equation altogether is heading in the wrong direction.

Paul Holland, of the Washington Area Wheelchair Society, is glad accessibility is being emphasized. In a recent conversation, he thought the bridge wasn’t the only option to improve accessibility for those with limited mobility. In fact, pedestrian bridges can be difficult to climb depending on the grade of the incline. He pointed out that the steep angle of Montgomery College’s pedestrian bridge can be strenuous for non-motorized wheelchair users.

According to Holland, the most important corrections for safe intersections are sight lines, gradients, smooth surface transitions from curb to street, light-timing, and driver behavior. The $750,000 estimated cost of the bridge could be more resourcefully spent in some of these problem areas. With just $120,000, affordable alternatives could turn the intersection into something that would be accessible for everyone.

The Barnes Dance at 7th & H in Chinatown. Video courtesy of the District Department of Transportation.

A pedestrian bridge might look good on paper, but one alternative solution might be a Barnes Dance intersection, like the one that opened at 7th and H streets NW in D.C.'s Chinatown earlier this year. These intersections use three traffic signal phases. In one, pedestrians cross in all directions, including diagonally. The other two let traffic go in one of the two directions, but prohibit pedestrians from crossing parallel to the traffic. However not all intersections are created equal, and with the future Purple Line running through this area, the intersection might be too complex for this alternative solution. In addition, teaching drivers to behave in these unaccustomed settings is easier said than done. Pedestrians and traffic officials in the district are already reporting difficulty in enforcing drivers to obey no turn on red signs.

One only has to walk around the relocated Fenton Street Market at Veterans Plaza to see the effect of a pedestrian friendly environment: streets and sidewalks are brimming with artists, merchants, retail, and as a result everyone is more connected to the growing exceptional architecture Silver Spring has to offer. Let’s improve on the Civic Building’s success and learn from the mistakes of City Place.

As always: If you've got something to say about East County, say it here! Leave a comment or send your thoughts to justupthepike at gmail dot com.

11 comments:

Robert said...

Here we go again.... more uninformed arguments against the library bridge. The bridge from the parking garage across the street to the library isn't a skywalk in the traditional sense. It is designed simply to get people from the parking area to the library and isn't part of a system connecting buildings for blocks. It would bypass no storefronts and would actually make it easier for people to get to Fenton Village streets.

The bridge will encourage people to drive TO THE SILVER SPRING LIBRARY rather than driving to other libraries. Most people live to far from the library to conveniently walk, especially with heavy book bags, small children in tow, or when they have other errands to do. The will drive; the question is whether we'd rather have them in downtown Silver Spring instead of driving to the Wheaton, White Oak, Long Branch, Chevy Chase, or Bethesda, etc. libraries. The bridge will bring more people to downtown Silver Spring, who will be pedestrians for other errands besides the library.

The bridge will be flat; the article's wheelchair grade discussion is irrelevant, and as the author later noted, because of the Purple Line, the intersection is very complex. Making wheelchair users go half a block to a complex intersection to cross the street and then half a block back to enter the library makes for less than adequate handicapped parking.

Then there was the argument about the vitality of the new Veterans Plaza. It's great, but surely nobody is proposing that somehow in the absence of the bridge the intersection of Fenton and Wayne with multiple lanes of traffic and the Purple Line will somehow become a haven for people and events like Veterans Plaza. We're talking about an intersection full of traffic, not a plaza with no vehicles designed for events.

The bridge is the best and least expensive way to meet the parking needs of the users of the Silver Spring library. The new library will be one of the largest and best in Montgomery County. It will bring lots of people downtown -- unless we make access inconvenient for most users and virtually impossible for some by not building the bridge.

kate said...

How on earth is the bridge the 'best and least expensive' solution? I read your arguments, but I do not see how a skybridge, accessible from only one floor of the parking garage to access a multi-floor library is any better than traveling down to cross at street level. And if it is cheaper to improve the intersection (add a pedestrian crosswalk halfway down the block, or something) then how is what you say true?

My comment was actually a correction for the blog post-the 7th and h barnes dance does not prohibit walking parallel to traffic on the non diagonal cycles-it actually bans turns at that intersection all the time. It is great for pedestrians.

kate said...

"The bridge will encourage people to drive TO THE SILVER SPRING LIBRARY rather than driving to other libraries. Most people live to far from the library to conveniently walk, especially with heavy book bags, small children in tow, or when they have other errands to do. The will drive; the question is whether we'd rather have them in downtown Silver Spring instead of driving to the Wheaton, White Oak, Long Branch, Chevy Chase, or Bethesda, etc. libraries"

Also... won't a better way to make that happen would be to increase the quality of the library? I tend to doubt that the pedestrian bridge alone would do what you promise.

jag2923 said...

You made quite a few points, Robert. Sadly, we've heard them all and there's a reason everyone rejects them all. Can we please just stop talking about the bridge? The minority, no matter how vocal, were crushed. It's not happening in 100 years.

Brosnan said...

Woody Brosnan,

The bridge is not dead. In fact, Councilmember Valerie Ervin recently changed her position to support the bridge. This is simply about making it easier for everyone to safely access the new Silver Spring library and thus justifying the decision on the location and the expense.

A few more rebuttal points:

Allowing all-stop, diagonal walks is only a short-term solution. It would not be feasible when the Purple Line is built using Wayne.

Mothers with kids, seniors, and disabled folks making short drives to their neighborhood libraries are not the cause of our traffic woes or a major contributor to global climate change. We need to focus on transit alternatives for people making long commutes to work during rush hour.

Finally, the storefront argument. I don't know many folks who go window shopping while toting books to and from the library but a skywalk is not going to prevent people from combining a shopping trip with a visit to the library if that is their desire.

Patrick said...

Robert,

Maybe if more kids walked to the library, less of them would be fat.

It's not a good life lesson to teach your kids that walking is a sin. Also, try public transportation. Silver Spring has some of the best public transportation in the world.

There really is no excuse for not walking or driving to the library. The residents of the DTSS area don't need more car traffic foisted onto them by lazy suburbanites that refuse to walk anywhere. This library is mainly to serve the immediate residents of the area. We don't want this bridge, and we don't want to cater to the greed of people from outside the area.

What really gets me going is that people like you try to hide behind handicapped people, when really you just want this bridge because of your own laziness. The library will be ADA compliant, and is served by copious amounts of public transportation (which is typically more handicap accessible than cars).

Also, how in the world you think that building an apparatus that only serves people who refuse to step foot on the streets in DTSS will actually cause those people to shop in DTSS is beyond me. People walking on ground level, on streets is what stimulates people to shop in cities.

It's illogical and disingenuous. Frankly, I'd respect you more if you were just honest. Please don't hide behind handicapped people (the library will be ADA compliant with or without this silly bridge) or children. Just admit that you don't like to walk, abhor public transportation and have no respect for DTSS.

People like you are doing your best to throw Silver Spring back to the 1950s. Our future isn't with cars. It's with dense, walkable communities (these happen to the best for handicapped people, by the way). Skybridges ruined plenty of cities decades ago. Let's please not ruin DTSS with an idea that all sensible people have dropped.

~Patrick Thornton

Patrick said...

Brosan,

If you want to make it easier and safer for people to cross the street, do just that. Fix the intersection, slow the cars down and put in some traffic calming devices. Don't propose taking people off the street. This bridge -- and all skybridges like it -- expressly make the street less safe for pedestrians.

This will impoverish the people who actually live, work and shop in the area. And frankly those people's needs and desires are more important than a vocal minority of people who insist on driving to the library or who refuse to go to ground level in DTSS. There are countless safe intersections in the world for seniors and children to cross. It's not rocket science, and we could easily -- and cheaply -- make the Fenton and Wayne intersection safer.

If this is really about people and not about cars, we would build a mid-block cross. But of course that would slow down car traffic. What proponents of the bridge really want is to be able to quickly and easily drive into the garage, walk across the bridge and never step foot on the ground or give a care about the needs and desires of people who actually live and work in the area.

For shame. How incredibly selfish.

I for one want a Silver Spring that takes the needs of all of its citizens into account. This bridge only serves the desires of a small minority of people who largely aren't even from the immediate area.

~Patrick Thornton

Hutch in Brazil said...

Thanks for weighing in on the subject everyone. I'll be writing another post about complete streets that should be up in the next few days. To respond to a couple of comments.

"The will drive; the question is whether we'd rather have them in downtown Silver Spring instead of driving to the Wheaton, White Oak, Long Branch, Chevy Chase, or Bethesda, etc. libraries."

According to this rationale people go to Montgomery Mall over City Place because of the plentiful parking. This isn't really the case. People go to Montgomery Mall because it's a significantly better locale. It doesn't have anything to do with the parking, because the City Place lot has always had a sufficient amount. If the Silver Spring Library is everything they say it will be then people will be attracted to that.

"It's great, but surely nobody is proposing that somehow in the absence of the bridge the intersection of Fenton and Wayne with multiple lanes of traffic and the Purple Line will somehow become a haven for people and events like Veterans Plaza."

Veterans plaza is an example of the benefits of having a pedestrian friendly area in the vicinity of a major downtown location. On weekends when the market is open, Ellsworth is closed for nearly 2 city blocks and it becomes a haven for pedestrians. By focusing back on street level many more possibilities are available. What if in the future we prohibited more cars on weekends from driving in the central district of DTSS? Wouldn't most people be using the library on weekends anyways?

If we focus on slowing down traffic in this area instead of creating incentives for people to drive wouldn't this be better for everyone especially the mobile inpaired? What about wheelchair users, the elderly and mothers with kids in tow who don't drive? I wouldn't imagine they would want to go all the way to the pedestrian bridge. Do wheelchair users on the street go all the way up into the City Place bridge instead of crossing Fenton?

"The new library will be one of the largest and best in Montgomery County. It will bring lots of people downtown -- unless we make access inconvenient for most users and virtually impossible for some by not building the bridge."

If the library is really one of the largest and best in Montgomery County then the merits of this great addition to our city will speak for itself. In terms of convenient transportation options the library will be surrounded by Metro, RideOn, The VanGo, the future purple line and walking/biking options. In addition since when did parking lots become safe havens for children, and the handicapped?

"There are countless safe intersections in the world for seniors and children to cross. It's not rocket science, and we could easily -- and cheaply -- make the Fenton and Wayne intersection safer."

Yes there are countless safe intersections in the world, but far too many unsafe intersections in DTSS. I agree we can make these intersections better by using a portion of the $750,000 to improve intersections, slow down traffic and to stop rewarding people for driving. Anyone who has walked along Colesville road by the current library knows how it feels to be a pedestrian in that area. The traffic moves at far too great speeds to feel comfortable or want to walk. Do we want to encourage that type of growth at Fenton and Wayne? Why don't we focus on slowing down traffic instead of throwing in the towel.

jag2923 said...

I agree with everything said about slowing Wayne traffic. I'm fine with throwing away some space to have parking garages for suburbanites, but walkability has to be the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd priorities for any 21st century urban environment, with public mass transit being the 4th, 5th, and 6th priorities.

If someone wants to live 20+ minutes away from density for the sake of a half-acre+ yard that's fine. But we can't sustainably continue to widen streets and throw up skyways so these people can live the 20th century american dream.

Patrick said...

Always remember: No one ever visited some place because it had ample parking. The most popular places in the world are the hardest to drive in.

Try driving in Paris, London or Manhattan. It's pretty easy to drive around my native Cleveland. They made it so easy for cars to drive around that no one wanted to live there. DC is undergoing a rival, and much of it is due to its great urbanism and walkability. Silver Spring has gotten on that bandwagon, but much work remains, and skybrides are exactly the kind of 1950s idea that could ruin Silver Spring.

Put another way, I would spend more money in Silver Spring if the car traffic wasn't so unruly. Walking along parts of Georgia is terrible. Colsville is like a freeway. If these roads went on diets, had bigger sidewalks and added bike lanes, more people would come to Silver Spring, not less. And guess what? Most of them would do so via public transportation.

People don't go to Georgetown, Dupont, Old Town Alexandria, etc because of the ample parking and skybridges. They go to those places precisely because those places aren't subservient to cars -- they serve people and are pleasurable environments to be in.

The people supporting this bridge are clearly not looking at demographic trends or what people actually want. I guarantee you that if this bridge gets built, it will be tore down within a few decades.

The trend is towards denser, more walkable communities. Several studies have shown that Millennials don't want cars: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39970363/ns/business-autos

Baby Boomers are looking to move towards more urban, walkable places as they retire: http://www.ecohomemagazine.com/news/2010/10/baby-boomers-gen-y-and-the-recession-shift-long-held-housing-tastes-and-trends.aspx

Why Silver Spring would possibly consider building something for $1 million that actively goes against demographic trends and the wishes of residents is beyond me. The future is towards more sustainable, denser, more walkable communities, not towards driving to parking garages to avoid walking on the ground level of a town or city.

~Patrick Thornton

Patrick said...

I urge all of you to call, e-mail and write to Valerie Ervin and other council members about how we want a pleasant, walkable community that attracts residents and businesses.