Rockville Embraces Vision Zero

I’m delighted that the Mayor and Council last night adopted my suggestion that we include “Vision Zero” principles in the Rockville Pike Plan.  Vision Zero is a policy that countries, states, and local governments can establish that sets a goal of zero fatalities and injuries on their roadways.  Over time, this will save the lives of Rockville’s pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers.

At its heart, Vision Zero shifts the responsibility for road incidents from drivers to the road system itself:

Vision Zero requires a paradigm shift in addressing the issue of road safety… It requires abandoning the traditional economic model where road safety is provided at reasonable cost and the traditional transport model in which safety must be balanced against mobility. At the core of the Vision Zero is the biomechanical tolerance of human beings. Vision Zero promotes a road system where crash energy cannot exceed human tolerance. While it is accepted that crashes in the transport system occur due to human error, Vision Zero requires no crash should be more severe than the tolerance of humans. The blame for fatalities in the road system is assigned to the failure of the road system rather than the road user. 

 

The concept first originated in Sweden in 1997.  Its results have been good:

Fatalities involving unprotected pedestrians in Sweden have fallen by almost 50% in the last five years. The number of children killed in traffic accidents has also been cut. In 2008 the first traffic death involving a child did not occur until 22 October that year.

 

Results in the U.S. have been very good as well:

The plan cites successes from several U.S. states that have implemented similar approaches with dramatic results, including a 43% reduction in traffic fatalities in Minnesota, a 48% reduction in Utah, and a 40% decrease in Washington State.

This report from the Swedish Road Administration (on the United Nations website) has some great visualizations of the problems that Vision Zero intends to address.

New York City has embraced Vision Zero wholeheartedly (here’s a New Republic article about it); Mayor Bowser has also announced plans to commit the District of Columbia to Vision Zero.   Each jurisdiction implements the vision in its own way; NYC has a focus on bus drivers and improvement of some archaic city and state laws that would be inappropriate for Rockville; the idea is to chart our own course in a way that will best get us to our goal.

The vision of keeping every adult and child safe on Rockville’s roadways is not controversial, nor will setting this goal ever obligate the City to spend money a future Mayor and Council doesn’t want to.  What it does do is take Rockville’s already-impressive efforts in making our streets as safe as possible and focus it on the goal of reducing fatalities and injuries on our roadways to zero.  We, and future mayors and councils, can do what we want, but our actions — appropriately — will be viewed through the prism of whether a proposed action helps reduce roadway fatalities and injuries.

On supporting the Pike’s local lanes.

After a lot of thought about the local lanes that the Planning Commission has proposed for the Rockville Pike master plan, I have decided to support including the lanes in the plan.  Here’s my thinking.

In a nutshell, the Pike cross-section proposed by the Planning Commission would keep vehicle capacity where it is, which I think is appropriate. Over time, we’re going to use our cars less, but there are going to be more of us living here, so it balances out.  The proposed plan makes room for bus rapid transit, which I think is great. It creates a pleasant space for bicyclists and pedestrians to actually use the Pike, and not just hop from place to place in their cars. And the local lanes make the driving, the biking, and the walking safer, which is absolutely key for me.

The proposed 252-foot cross-section is a reduction from the current 1989 plan’s 270 feet. Between the BRT, the bike lanes, the green spaces, and the wide sidewalks, it provides about as much space for cars as we do now.  But many other uses are provided for as well.

The Planning Commission has worked on this for five years. They have no financial stake in where this goes; they’re just trying to do what’s best for the City.  The City’s planning staff has also been working on this for five years.  (Click here for the staff’s summary of the options before the Mayor and Council).  They also have no financial stake in where this goes.  Neither does your Mayor and Council.  Our only goal is a safe and prosperous Rockville in the future.

Those who do have a financial stake in the success of the parcels they own would like to see the local lanes removed so they have more room to build their projects and can make more money.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’d argue that these developers also have a pretty good interest in seeing Rockville be safe and prosperous over the long haul.  But they have not launched this battle over the future of the City.  If the local lanes didn’t hurt the developers’ bottom line, I sincerely doubt they would have spent as much time and money as they have done to try to get them stripped out.

I kept an open mind on this for a long time.  I’ve talked to everyone who wanted to talk to me, I’ve weighed all the information, I’ve used my judgment, and I have decided that the local lanes should be included in the Rockville Pike Master Plan as the Planning Commission has recommended.  No one would ever accuse me of blindly accepting whatever our Planning Commission says, but on this issue I think they have gotten it right.

City staff on the options for the width of the Pike

In response to a citizen’s inquiry, Rockville’s Chief of Long Range Planning, David Levy, explained in great detail what’s going on with the proposed width of Rockville Pike.  It’s a good summary of the choices before us:

Thank you for your email and request, which was forwarded to me by the City’s Clerk’s office.  I am one of the City staffers working on the Rockville Pike Plan.

We appreciate that there is a great deal of confusion in the community regarding this topic. I will do my best to explain here. If you have the appetite for a much more detailed discussion of the topic, or of more comparison documents (there are many!!!), I can point you to places on the City’s Web site where you can find information or I can send them to you directly.

In short, there are three distinct “cross-sections” (which are plans for the road area) that are important to understand.

 

1) Current (1989) Plan:  There is an existing plan for the Rockville Plan corridor, which was adopted in 1989 and still stands. It establishes a “cross-section” distance of  270 feet  between the buildings on opposite sides of the Pike. It includes the road, sidewalks, service drives, buffer areas, and other components.

2) Planning Commission June 2014 Draft:  Rockville’s Planning Commission, through many work sessions, developed a proposed revised cross-section, which is the version that the Mayor and Council are considering now. It has a proposed cross-section distance of  252 feet , which includes the road, sidewalks, service drives, buffer areas, dedicated bike lanes and dedicated lanes for bus transit.

3) Narrower Cross-Section:  Some public testimony has proposed narrowing the Pike even further than the current Planning Commission draft. Two particular notions have been presented – a) removing dedicated lanes for bus transit, or b) removing the “service drives” (or access roads).  A proposal from B.F. Saul, for example, has proposed adopting one of the two cross-sections from Montgomery County’s White Flint Sector Plan, which has approved a cross-section distance of 182 feet , without service drives.


I will do my best to explain clearly some key differences among the three of them.

Current (1989) Rockville Pike Plan

The current (1989) plan width along the Rockville Pike corridor is 270 feet, from building face to building face.  What that means is that new buildings are required to have a large portion of the building front at 135 feet from the center of the road. The new buildings that are under construction right now are meeting that requirement.

Within those 135 feet are the main travel lanes of the Pike, a service road, landscaping, and parking.

As you may have heard, the service roads are a big part of the discussion with the Mayor and Council, and community. The current (1989) plan re-affirmed the City policy, dating from the 1960s, that service roads be a part of the cross-section. Just to be clear, the service roads are the drive aisles and informal roads that run parallel to much of the Pike now and that allow for movement between sites without having to return to the main roadway. They are in front of Best Buy, Jos Banks, and many other places.

The service roads are not completed and are not quite “real” roads. Plus, there are gaps; they are not designed as consistently as would be preferred; and they do not all line up in the same location. Furthermore, in their current design, they do not make walking or biking on the Pike comfortable. However, these service roads do serve a function now by allowing local, inter-site movement and they do reduce the number of curb cuts that would otherwise be required if every property needed its own access point from the Pike. As a result, they help keep the right lane of the Pike flowing a bit better than if they were not there.

In their current (1989) form, their primary purpose is to separate traffic that is passing through from local traffic, to make the system function better for automobile travel. The new draft plan attempts to make them good for pedestrians and cyclists, as well.

Planning Commission June 2014 Draft Plan 

The Planning Commission June 2014 draft plan proposes that the overall width be  narrowed  from the existing policy of 270 feet to 252 feet.    Please understand, because there is much misunderstanding out there on this point – the Planning Commission draft is proposing to  narrow  the entire cross-section, not widen it, compared to the current (1989) plan and where buildings are currently being built.

The narrowing is permitted mostly by changing the approach to parking, with greater emphasis on reducing (but not eliminating) the amount of parking that would be in the front of buildings.

The other main changes that the Planning Commission draft proposes as compared to the 1989 plan are 1) to include two new lanes for bus rapid transit in the center of the Pike, and 2) to make design adjustments to the service lanes. The Mayor and Council has heard testimony in favor of and opposed to both of these.

The proposed new bus transit lanes widen the overall cross-section by approximately 35 feet, compared to not having them; though they are accommodated in the 252 feet.

The main proposed design changes to the service roads are 1) to make them one-way, in the same direction as the traffic to which it is adjacent; 2) add two-directional bike lanes (on both sides of the Pike); and 3) require 20-foot-wide sidewalks at the front of buildings, which would include the walking area and the area for trees, signs, outdoor seating, etc. Below is a diagram of the service road portion of the cross-section, as shown in the Planning Commission’s current draft. The main portion of the proposed new cross-section for the Pike is on the left of the picture.

37194080Narrower Cross-Sections

As mentioned above, there are two lines of testimony indicating how the cross-section could be narrowed. One of them proposes to eliminate the dedicated transit lanes. To date, the Mayor and Council have indicated their desire to retain that feature and preserve lanes for transit.

The other line, which is the active community discussion to which you referred in your email, proposes a cross-section of 182 feet, from building face to building face.  This proposal has been actively promoted by the B. F. Saul Company, in the context of their current concept for a development project near the Twinbrook Metro Station; and quite a few community members have testified to the Mayor and Council in favor of this approach, while others have testified in opposition.

The concept proposes that the City adopt one of the two cross-sections presented in Montgomery County’s White Flint Sector Plan. That proposal includes sidewalks and bike lanes, and on-street parking on the main portion of the Pike, as illustrated below. It also includes dedicated transit lanes in the middle of the Pike. As such, the center portion of this cross-section, which includes three travel lanes on both sides and dedicated transit lanes, is the same as the Planning Commission’s draft.

The main difference from the Planning Commission draft, and the existing (1989) plan, is that this approach would eliminate the local service roads. By eliminating the service roads, the need for the buffer between main lanes and service roads (shown above in the prior section) is also eliminated.

The Mayor and Council have not yet made a decision as a body regarding whether to retain the service roads, though they did indicate their preference that there not be parallel parking on the main roadway.


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This is fairly complex stuff and difficult to synthesize briefly in writing.  I would be more than happy to meet with you or discuss by phone, if that would help. 

Sincerely,

David Levy

David B. Levy
Chief of Long Range Planning and Redevelopment
Dept. of Community Planning and Development Services
City of Rockville
111 Maryland Avenue
Rockville, Maryland 20850-2364
Desk: 240-314-8272
Main: 240-314-8200
dlevy@rockvillemd.gov