Tuesday, November 20, 2012

White Flint is "walkable"--but by how much?

A story in the Washington Post over the weekend highlighted the fact that the so-called "walkability" of a community is increasingly becoming a prized asset in the real estate world. The ability to walk to one's place of employment, to the grocery store, to restaurants, coffee shops and bars, and so forth is a highly desirable asset. From the Post's article:

“Walkable” is a feature sparking sales and energizing future development and redevelopment, according to a recent report by a George Washington University professor that calls the Washington area a national model for compact urban areas where residents can live and work without cars.
“The strongest housing market is in walkable urban areas,” says Christopher B. Leinberger, author of the report, “DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call.” “That’s where the demand is.” 
...Regionally significant walkable urban areas — referred to in the report as “WalkUPs” — have cultural amenities such as museums and libraries, offices, shopping, restaurants and different types of housing. There are 43 such neighborhoods in the Washington area, spanning seven counties. 
One of those 43 neighborhoods is the North Bethesda/White Flint area. The neighborhood rates pretty highly on the walkability index, scoring an 89 out of a possible 100 points. (The index rates the portion of day-to-day activities that can be accomplished within a ten minute walk--approximately 1/2 a mile--of one's home.) It's hard not to argue that, as far as suburban neighborhoods go, the White Flint area is indeed more walkable than many.

The sheer number of commercial centers lining Rockville Pike, coupled with the presence of the White Flint Metro station (and, a bit further north, of Twinbrook) coupled with access to numerous bus routes and sidewalk-accessible streets make it quite convenient to live one's life without the absolute need for a car. In fact, one might plausibly argue that we actually live within closer walking distance to a number of services and retailers than we did when we lived in Logan Circle in DC.

And yet, by and large, we both find ourselves driving more here than we did in DC. Why is that?

Part of the answer is sheer convenience. Parking is plentiful and free around nearly all of the commercial strip malls dotting the Pike, taking away a significant negative factor in trying to drive to destinations in dense urban environments. But part of it lies in how desirable it actually is is to walk around the North Bethesda area.

The picture above is the eastern side of Rockville Pike facing south, in front of the Mid-Pike Plaza, which is currently being redeveloped into a massive mixed-use development. Pedestrians walking along this part of the PIke find themselves encountering obstacles both physical (narrow sidewalks, horribly designed intersections and crosswalks, physical barriers, etc.) and mental (aesthetically unpleasing, and the unease that comes with walking immediately adjacent to an urban highway with cars flying past you at upwards of 50 mph). It all contributes to a feeling on the part of the pedestrian that maybe I'm not really supposed to be here.

Thus, the truly important question is not "can you walk somewhere?" Rather, it is "do you want to walk somewhere?" The Post article touches on this a bit towards the end:

But it’s not just about distance. Success depends on how appealing a walking environment is — whether there are trees and short blocks, for example — Goldman and other experts agree. If traffic is whipping past, if the sidewalks are adjacent to empty parking lots (or nonexistent), people won’t walk, they say.
Take Dan Hoffman, a government project manager, who could walk from his Randolph Hills neighborhood to the White Flint Metro station in 20 minutes but doesn’t because of physical obstacles (a fence) and traffic.
When the projects are complete, says Hoffman, chairman of the White Flint Implementation Advisory Committee, “Our neighborhood will be able to walk to dining, shopping, offices.”
And the walk to the Metro will become much safer and more appealing, Hoffman says.
I completely sympathize with Dan Hoffman, and I don't even have a fence blocking my efforts to walk. Most mornings and evenings, I walk to and from my home to the White Flint Metro station, and it is a trip wrought with obstacles. First, there is no simple way to access Rockville Pike from our home just off of Montrose Rd.--the most convenient way to do it involves cutting through the ill-planned commuter lot at Montrose and Hoya, then walking across an unpaved, muddy "desire path" to reach the sidewalk on the Pike (see below).

Once I've reached the Pike, I walk parallel to a street that basically acts as an urban highway, with cars, trucks, buses and utility vehicles flying by within feet of me at speeds regularly in excess of 50 mph. When I reach the intersection of Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road, I feel at times as if I am taking my life into my hands attempting to cross that intersection, as cars turning right onto Old Georgetown from the Pike are given a softly arcing turn that can easily be made at 30 mph--and that cuts directly through a crosswalk. More times than I can count, I have either had to dart quickly across the road, or relied upon the braking system of the car driven by the distracted driver who did not see the pedestrian crossing until it was almost too late.

Upon reaching Marinelli (where the Metro station is located), I must wait upwards of two minutes to cross the six-lane thoroughfare, whereupon I have to be particularly vigilant for left-turning vehicles who don't see or ignore pedestrians in the crosswalk. All the while, I can't shake the nagging feeling that I'm an outlier here, that I really shouldn't be out here walking around, even though the sidewalks and crosswalks say otherwise. I don't feel welcome. And all of that is to accomplish a walk that, by distance, is barely 1/2 a mile. Is it any wonder more people don't walk around here?

This is one of the greatest problems that the ongoing redevelopment of North Bethesda is attempting to solve. It's not simply the physical barriers and engineering, some of which is being addressed as new projects come online and changes or made to street grids and functionality in anticipation of an influx of new residents. Rather, it's also creating an environment where walking isn't simply legally permissible, but actually welcomed and encouraged.

This means building wider sidewalks, designing intersections that are friendly to both pedestrians and vehicles, creating a greater barrier between pedestrians and cars along the Pike and--yes--lowering the speed limit along the Pike.

Montgomery County is trumpeting the onslaught of new development surrounding the White Flint Metro as the beginning of the transformation of White Flint into a dense, walkable truly urban environment. And they're banking on a lot of people taking the Metro once they're here. I hope that they are successful in this endeavor, because it's going to take more than simply tall buildings and ground level retail to make White Flint a neighborhood that one wants to traverse using something other than an automobile.


  1. Excellent article - I live on Marinelli and often wonder about the walk-ability of the area. That said - I usually end up driving everywhere.

    Metro has provided the underpass under 355 that solves the issue of people trying to cross 355 to get to the metro station. My question is this - why are more people not using it? As someone who has been rear ended at the intersection due to stopping for pedestrians who were legally crossing across my path making a right turn - my thought is - why is there even a crosswalk there? The tunnel does the same path and adds ~50 feet of walking distance.

    1. The crosswalk is there for people with a stroller, wheelchair or suitcase -- or people just hurrying to catch a bus!

  2. This is a great post! We brave few pedestrians need to support each other. There is definitely a lot of room for improvement in access, aesthetics and safety. For the majority of people to leave their cars it's going to have to get a lot better (for walking) or a lot worse (for driving). Walkability has definitely improved since we moved to Randolph Hills in 2008, notably Citadel giving access from Nicholson to the Metro and the crossing underneath Rockville Pike at Montrose Pkwy/Randolph Rd. Even the drivers seem to be paying more attention to the road than to their cell phones. It's still very dangerous for biking and blocking pedestrian access during construction is a problem, but when the dust settles I bet it's going to be great. Stay vigilant!


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