Tuesday, April 28, 2015

to make people-friendly streets, think beyond just cars

To make streets that are safe and comfortable for everyone rather than just speeding drivers, we need to measure them differently. In Montgomery County, one councilmember has a few suggestions on how to do that.

Two Bicyclists on Woodglen Cycletrack
The way we measure traffic makes it hard to create bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets like Woodglen Drive in White Flint. All photos by the author.

Like many places around the country, Montgomery County uses two tests of congestion: Level of Service (LOS), which measures how many cars can go through an intersection, and Critical Lane Volume (CLV), which measures how many cars travel through a single lane of road. But both tests assume that cars are the only way to move people, which results in wider and faster roads and undermines attempts to create safe, pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly streets.

Councilmember Roger Berliner, who represents both urban communities like Bethesda and urbanizing areas like White Flint, wants to change that. Last week he released a letter with some examples of alternative ways to measure congestion.

While the county's policy is to encourage compact development in places like White Flint, where people can get around by foot, bike, or transit, the traffic tests it uses assume that everyone's still going to drive a lot. Not only is that counter to actual driving trends in the county, but it also results in fast, dangerous streets that conflict with the county's own goals.

Berliner says he first started thinking about ways to measure congestion at an "Infrastructure Forum" he organized last month to discuss area traffic and school issues.

"One of the 'ah-ha' moments for me during our Infrastructure Forum was the notion that what you 'test' leads inexorably to the solutions that you focus on," he writes in the letter, addressed to county Planning Board chair Casey Anderson.

Thinking differently about transportation metrics is nothing new

In the letter, Councilmember Berliner outlines some alternatives to LOS and CLV for measuring how effective our transportation network is. California stopped using LOS in favor of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), which instead measures how much a project will cause people to drive. This allows planners to see whether a transportation project will support efforts to encourage walking, bicycling, transit use, or infill development.

Another measure Berliner suggests is Person Hours of Travel (PHT), which measures how long it takes travelers to get somewhere regardless of what mode they're using. This is especially useful for urban areas where there may not be ways to cut delays for drivers, but there are opportunities to shorten travel time for transit riders, such as providing bus lanes.

"Reducing commute time is vital for the quality of life of all of our residents, but is particularly crucial for opening up access to opportunity for our low-income residents," Berliner writes.

Looking East Down Old Georgetown Road
Streets designed for moving lots of cars undermine attempts to create pedestrian- and bike-focused development in places like White Flint.

A third tool is "Accessibility," which considers how many jobs or homes are within a certain travel time of a new development. This measure rewards development in existing communities that are already close to homes, jobs, and other things, making it easier for potential residents or workers to get there without a car or by driving a shorter distance.

Berliner hopes that these alternative tests will focus development around transit hubs and existing activity centers. Doing so has been the county's policy for over 50 years. He argues that these tests will promote economic development in the county, help the environment, and ultimately reduce traffic by giving people alternatives to driving long distances.

"The bottom line," writes Berliner, "appears to be that if we measure the right things we will move towards true multimodal solutions that give residents and businesses the traffic relief they need and a quality of life that we aspire to."

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