At a public meeting held during business hours on a weekday, the Montgomery County Planning Board chose to restore Little Falls Parkway in Bethesda to it’s 4-travel-lane configuration at the intersection with the Capital Crescent Trail (CCT). Little Falls has been in a temporary road diet for a few years — down to two travel lanes, one in each direction. The County put in the interim measure after a motorist killed asenior citizen cyclist. The death results in part due to the dangerous crossing of one of the top-5 used trails in the Washington Region.
MoCo’s planning board, at about 4:25 on a Thursday, rejected their staff’s recommendation to make the safety changes permanent. At the behest of Bethesda neighbors, whom I know to be NIMBYs complaining about diverted traffic the County’s data refuted, the Planning Board endorsed a design least-supported by public comments. At best, this is a Solomon-esque gesture.
Instead of a permanent road diet and shorter, safer crossing at Little Falls Parkway — and instead of an order of magnitude more expensive new CCT bridge crossing the road — MoCo will divert the trail a few hundred feet North to the intersection at Arlington Rd. Little Falls Parkway, which widens to four lanes for only 1.1 miles, will carry motorists who use the extra width to speed up and jockey for position dangerously once the road narrows again at River to the South and Bradley to the North.
This is an unsafe feature of roads: to widen and narrow suddenly. I know because I live near a place in Edgewood, DC, which widens from two to three, wide lanes for five blocks. It induces drivers familiar with the road to drive aggressively and faster while visiting drivers are confused. Both are dangerous mental states for a road design to cause. My local government representative is doing something to calm traffic; he has near-unanimous consent from neighbors on it. It’s strange neighbors to Little Falls and the CCT want there to be more dangerous cars driving faster. It’s derelict — maybe negligent — for their local government to press the gas pedal on a dangerous design.
I understand neighbors thought cut-through traffic in their neighborhood increased during the temporary road reduction. But, MoCo’s data showed only a slight increase. I also understand those neighbors overestimate the danger of the CCT they live along, which surely raises their property values almost $10K, according to studies of similar rail-trails.
In this situation, and so many others — at a weekly cadence now — road designs are proven to be dangerous by data or tragedy. Staff experts prepare designs that provide trade-offs. Elected or appointed officials choose a design way over to the function side of a function vs. form continuum — where function is car throughput and minimum motorist delay. The form of roads matter more than anything, engineering is the omnipotent of the Es, and design determines safety.
But, there’s a clear set of normative preferences inculcated and perpetuated in Washington region transportation policies: do least harm to motorists and safety is not the most important priority among the trade-offs. Onto that stage, steps the perennially privileged — the homeowners, the well-off who can afford homes on the slowest, sleepiest roads, the demographics who can attend business hour and weekday evening meetings. Those privileged continue to prevail.
“Montgomery County was built for the car” and the heartless.