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Who Owns the Streets?

Who gets to decide the proper width of a road, or whether turns are blocked at certain hours, or whether traffic calming devices are installed? Is it the people who live along the roadway, the people who travel on it, or the people who paid for it?

The number of people involved gets larger as you go up that scale, but transportation planners and public officials don't necessarily decide the issues that way. Post reporter Ann E. Marrimow writes today about one such debate, in a Bethesda neighborhood considering whether to install speed humps to slow down drivers.

Cromwell Drive is a shortcut between River Road and Massachusetts Avenue, and too many drivers are going too fast through the residential neighborhood. Now, their are arguments among traffic engineers and travelers about whether speed humps are effective. Some drivers get used to them and wind up taking them at speed, some try to outwit them by driving at speed over by the edge of the hump, some get annoyed at having to slow down and speed up after crossing the hump.

But I think the larger question in road control is, Who gets first consideration in deciding a road's future? I go to many meetings about transportation projects. Most of the people who attend these sessions and submit comments are people who live along the route of the project and have specific objections to it.

Drivers write to me and insist that Interstate 66 inside the Beltway must be widened. Virginia comes up with an incremental plan on how to do that, on the westbound side, and holds hearings. Who goes to the hearings? The people who live along 66 inside the Beltway. Do they want the highway widened? No! So that's what dominates the citizen input on the project. In fact, they want the state to convert the existing roadway into a vegetable garden.

I've heard from scores of commuters who can't understand why there's not another Potomac River crossing west of the American Legion Bridge. What happened in 2001 when people discovered that the study requested by Rep. Frank Wolf might produce a bridge in their neighborhood? Headline: "Wolf Pulls Plug on Techway Over Potomac."

The Intercounty Connector isn't a county road. It's a state road, and it's designed to serve statewide interests in travel and economic development. Neighborhoods along the route have a strong interest in the outcome, but they're not the only legitimate parties to the debate over building the highway.

Every decision on limiting access to a street during rush hour or adding speed humps is a miniature version of this same tension between those who live along a roadway, those who use it and those who pay for it. (Often overlapping groups, and some people hit the Trifecta.)

In Montgomery County, residents along the street that would get the speed humps get to vote on it. The issue on Cromwell Drive, as Marrimow says, is whether residents on the side streets will get to vote. Outsiders get no vote at all.

But beyond the boundaries of Cromwell Drive, the County Council is considering a proposal by County Executive Isiah Leggett to ease conditions for installing speed humps. This has a long and tortured history in Montgomery County.

Once Montgomery started installing speed humps in 1995, they popped up like mushrooms over the next couple of years. That led to a counter-revolution. So the county tightened the rules for installing them. Now Leggett is proposing to lower the threshold again, and the council is going to hold a public hearing. (See the current rules for speed hump installation here.)

These local vs. regional interest debates aren't limited to road projects. We see them in Tysons over the Metrorail extension project, and in Maryland over the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway.

What's your take? How much sway should very local concerns have in deciding whether to move ahead with a transportation plan?

By Robert Thomson  |  June 16, 2009; 9:50 AM ET
Categories:  Driving , Transportation Politics  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Interstate 66, Montgomery County, neighborhood speed humps, traffic calming  
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I think you're missing a key part of the debate. It's not just about NIMBYism; it's about a growing consensus in the region and nation that larger roads don't reduce congestion in the long term. For example, many of the folks in Arlington aren't against the I-66 spot improvements because they live close to I-66, they're against the spot improvements because they don't want the state spending what little transportation money it has on projects that won't solve anything, and may actually make things worse.

To your larger question about who has control, the answer is that both sides should have control, but at different times in the process. Part of the problem is that there's no real plan for any of this. Somebody proposes a project and then people react. What ought to happen is that the government should solicit public opinion as part of a regional master planning process in which the locals have most of the control over what goes in the plan. Then once the plan has been adopted, the higher-up government should have the ability to enact it.

Posted by: Cirrus42 | June 16, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Spot on.

Locals have input, it is their street, but the characterization that Cromwell is a cut-through is wrong. It is a residential street that is carrying overflow vehicular traffic from an arterial which cannot handle its own excess volume, so drivers are using the residential street for capacity beyond its design. The calming devices are a response to that.

However, calming devices like speed humps are meant to deter speeding, not reduce flow. There are other devices within the FHWA toolkit which are meant to address volumes.

Posted by: LukasWP | June 16, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Cirrus42, I didn't use the term NIMBY in this because I think the neighborhoods are a legitimate part of the debate over any transportation plan, large or small. For example, DC struggled for years to assert its legitimate rights to protect communities in the debate over whether to build more highways through the capital. In Silver Spring right now, the people who live along Wayne Avenue have a legitimate stake in whether the Purple Line eats up the street.

I'm not making an argument for one side -- residents or travelers -- always having the righteous case. I'm interested in how the planning should play out in a rational way. And you're making a very good point about our lack of a strong regional planning process.

LukasWP, doesn't it seem like the most common way of reducing flow in Montgomery County is to post those signs that say No Thru Traffic during rush hours?

Posted by: Robert Thomson | June 16, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

My kids love speed humps.

When we drive, we always take the route with the most humps, and we go over them really fast, too. The kids think it's so much fun!

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | June 16, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

The County realizes there are strong feelings on this issue, and they will not bend the rules one millimeter when it comes to qualifying for traffic calming. And rightfully so, because you need to draw a line somewhere. Regardless, some residents are adamently opposed to speed humps, and others want them even if the requirements aren't met but are "close enough". It is a complicated issue.

Personally, I support the residents when it comes to neighborhood streets in most cases. Transportation planners deliberately have a heirarchy of roadways in an area, and local residential roads were not meant to handle arterial roadway traffic volumes. There needs to be some form of agreement within the neighborhood on what to do though, and the rules have to apply to everyone. For example...turn restrictions at rush hour make it more difficult for cut through traffic to get into a neighborhood, but it also makes it more difficult for residents to get into their own area because those restrictions apply to everyone. If they are willing to accept that, then fine. Sometimes they do, sometimes they balk and say no thanks when they find out that it will impact them.

On state roads and interstates, there should be more input from people who do not live in the neighborhood. But each group should have some say in the process. Each commuter spends only half an hour per day in Arlington, but they are more numerous than those who live near I-66. But, though fewer in number, those who live near I-66 live there 24-7. Each group has a big stake in it.

As far as NIMBY sentiment is concerned....I think many people pushing for I-66 to be widened in Arlington that don't live there would be equally up in arms if an interstate were widened in their neighborhood. That is why I do not support widening I-66 outside its right-of-way, but do support maximum utilization of the existing right-of-way, which means at least one more lane in each direction between 495 and Rosslyn.

Posted by: thetan | June 16, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

"LukasWP, doesn't it seem like the most common way of reducing flow in Montgomery County is to post those signs that say No Thru Traffic during rush hours? "

Montgomery County does not post those signs. They will only post turn restriction signs, which apply to everyone, including residents (who typically know the secret route into the neighborhood). Thru traffic signs would be discriminatory, because some people would be allowed to use the road and some would not, depending on their destination. Turn restrictions don't discriminate in that fashion.

If you have a north-south arterial, and the peak traffic direction is south to north, and there would be a lot of cut-through traffic entering a parallel neighborhood street at the south end and traveling north through the neighborhood, the solution is simple. Post turn restrictions at all but the northern-most entrance to the neighborhood. So by the time cut through traffic can turn in, they are already past the neighborhood. But the flip side is now residents have to stay on the main road, in heavy traffic, to the northernmost entrace to their community.

Anne Arundel County has discriminatory "No Thru Traffic" signs approaching the Bay Bridge. What they should really do is just shut the Sandy Point on-ramp to the bridge. If everyone else has to sit in traffic on Route 50, local residents should too. (I will still cut through Cape St. Clair, and if I was ever challenged by the authorities, I'd say I was heading to Sandy Point State Park).

Posted by: thetan | June 16, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

What a great post. You are so right - the real stakeholders rarely participate, either by design or by circumstance. You are also correct in that there is no perfect answer. All views and stakeholders must be taken into consideration. All too often a vocal minority usurp the process. This problem is exasperated in DC, where many people make a living by representing minority (not majority) interests and manipulating the process to their advantage. Hence, you have the ICC which took 50 years to get started, the Techway which never was built, I-66 too narrow, the metro silver line going through Tysons on a bridge instead of either underground or fully along the master planned median of 267, etc.

As far as speed bumps are concerned, paramedics HATE them as they risk injuring patients and paramedics themselves working on patients, besides the fact they slow down response times. Alexandria has built some bumps with a bypass in the center of the roadway for emergency vehicles, but that won't work on most residential streets as cars will just drive down the center of the street.

Posted by: ssolomo | June 16, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

"However, calming devices like speed humps are meant to deter speeding, not reduce flow. There are other devices within the FHWA toolkit which are meant to address volumes."

Unfortunately, oftentimes speed humps and other such devices are used to discourage non-residents from using the road. Drive through the Mantua neighborhood in Fairfax County. They had put in some very sharply-designed speed humps and a large number of stop signs, all in an effort to deter "cut-through traffic" (as their civic association calls it); at one point they even had signs posted saying "CUT-THRU TRAFFIC MEASURES IMPLEMENTED." I haven't driven through there in a couple of years, so I don't know whether they've eased any of the speed humps.

I don't like speed humps, but as an intellectual matter I have no principled objection to well-designed humps that make you drive at the speed limit. The ones on Commonwealth Avenue in Alexandria fit that description. They're gradual humps that allow you to maintain 25 mph. But I have serious objections to the ones (such as the ones in Mantua) that are more in the nature of speed BUMPS that are designed to make you slow almost to a stop or risk damaging your car's suspension. Speed HUMPS, properly designed, may serve the speed control purpose. Speed BUMPS come across as simply an "up-yours-get-offa-my-street" gesture.

I rather like chicanes as a way of trying to regulate traffic. I've seen them in Canada and in the UK (here is a link to a picture of one I took somewhere in Fife in 2006: In the picture, traffic approaching the chicane from the direction I was facing must stop and yield to any traffic coming from the other direction (such as the white car approaching) before proceeding around the chicane. Usually there's a chicane where the other side must yield not too far away. The speed limit was 20 mph there, incidentally. They worked pretty well, but I wonder if DC-area drivers would cause problems by (a) not yielding and (b) trying to go too fast around the chicanes (I can see some people thinking it's like a fun slalom course). As you can tell from my posts over the years, I like designs that don't force all of us to pander to the dumbest drivers on the road. I don't know whether the MUTCD allows chicanes, though, and if it does I'm sure the design would be quite different from the one shown in my picture above.

Posted by: 1995hoo | June 16, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

The closing punctuation screwed up the link in my prior comment. Here is the correct URL:

Posted by: 1995hoo | June 16, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

> "Transportation planners deliberately have a heirarchy of roadways in an area, and local residential roads were not meant to handle arterial roadway traffic volumes."

Unfortunately, this is one of the reasons that congestion is so bad. When you funnel all the traffic onto a small handful of arterials, those arterials will always be clogged. Meanwhile, that arterial-local system also encourages people to move at high speeds whenever possible (such as on low-volume local streets), because any respite from the congestion is a psychological invitation to speed.

As a transportation planner I can tell you that the arterial-collector-local system of road design is obsolete. It came into being back when we thought cars were the answer to everything. Now that we've been awakened to the unfortunate reality that the cars-for-everything system offers diminishing returns, it has become increasingly (and painfully) obvious that we were wrong to ever deviate from the old system of grids.

Posted by: Cirrus42 | June 16, 2009 2:08 PM | Report abuse

66 is one block from my front door. Washington Blvd is 2 blocks. If widening 66 outbound takes Fairfax County traffic off Washington Blvd, it's worth doing. Congestion through residential and commercial neighborhoods between Glebe Rd and Sycamore is a much bigger impact than traffic behind the wall on 66.

Posted by: cgray1 | June 16, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Cirrus42...I think I understand what you are saying. However there will always be a certain hierarchy. Arterials need some form of access control to keep them functioning. Neighborhood streets should have slower designs to allow use by bikes and pedestrians instead of just by cars. The hierarchy of 40 years ago is definitely out, but that doesn't mean there still shouldn't be some sort today.

Grids make sense in some places. I'm not sure if DC suburbs is one of them. The terrain is too varied. Out in Iowa where the land is flat and there are no trees, it is easy to lay roads out in straight lines. Here, roads more closely follow terrain and natural features of the land.

And then you have DC, which has a fact it is an "enhanced" grid because there are diagonal streets so you can take the straightest path to your destination....and we see how well that works.....(Old Town Alexandria's grid works reasonably well though)

Posted by: thetan | June 16, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Thetan: You're 100% right. There are really, really good reasons to have an "enhanced" grid. The important thing isn't so much that all your streets are an exact north-south/east-west gridiron; it's that they're fully interconnected and that people have options. In this image the "grid" in the top community functions very well, but isn't a "grid" in the Iowa sense.

And yes, there will always be some streets that are larger than others, but we have gone much too far with the separation.

Posted by: Cirrus42 | June 16, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Cirrus42 is exactly right. Because most of suburbia's residential streets are cul-de-sacs and winding roads, the only roads that go anywhere (arterials) are inevitably clogged.
In other words, if there were many roads that went from Massachusetts avenue to River road, Cromwell Drive would not need any traffic calming.

Posted by: tkelley55 | June 16, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

"In other words, if there were many roads that went from Massachusetts avenue to River road, Cromwell Drive would not need any traffic calming."

But would you want to live on one of those roads? See, that's the problem. We can spread a lot of traffic onto neighborhood streets, as long as it is someone else's street.

Also, playing devil's advocate here....a lot of people like cul-de-sacs, because they are more private and less likely to attract criminal types. Do a google search for "defensible space". The theory is that if only a small enough group of people is using a particular street, then everyone knows who belongs and who doesn't, whereas if there are a lot of vehicles and pedestrians , it is easier for the criminals to hide amongst them.

Just the other night, a friend of mine texted me telling me she was freaked out because a moving van was parked on her street, and she knew her neighbors on both sides were out of town. She called the police, and there was an arrest. If there was a moving van parked on my busy DC street, I wouldn't think twice, since it could be any one of the 200 people who live on the block.

Posted by: thetan | June 16, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

To Dr. Gridlock, sure a "no turn" or "no through street" sign would be ok but the issue there is that the streets are maintained by the county and are part of the public space. All of the taxpayers support them. As a result, the taxpayers have a right to use them.

Look at Chevy Chase MD between Bradley and Western. It is completely closed off to through traffic at all times, so Wisconsin and Connecticut are often bottlenecked because there is no relief valve. Same with the new "no turn" during rush hour signs on River Road inside the DC line. This has simply funneled more traffic onto Wisconsin from Mont. County and at River, thus insulating public roads from common usage during peak times.

In my opinion, your solution makes the problem worse. The roads are for all to use safely, which is why speed humps, as much as I detest them, are the best short term solution.

Posted by: LukasWP | June 16, 2009 11:12 PM | Report abuse

I live on one of the side streets off Cromwell Drive and have walked my kids to school for the past eight years. Isn't it easier, safer and less expensive to install stop signs every other block along Cromwell? That would eliminate the opportunity for drivers to speed and offer a safe route for emergency vehicles and pedestrians of all ages.

Posted by: kopmom | June 20, 2009 9:13 AM | Report abuse

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