Archive for the ‘Safety’ Category

Learning to like the Bethesda surface route

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

The Montgomery County Planning Board is considering whether to recommend to the County Council that we go forward with keeping the CCT in the Bethesda Tunnel, now that the cost estimate has risen to approx. $40M, or to recommend using an alternative route along Bethesda streets instead. On November 3 the Board and staff took a tour of the tunnel to look at the options. On November 17 the Planning Board will have a worksession on this and other issues including lighting, landscaping, and connecting to the Rock Creek Trail. The Planning Board will hear staff recommendations and take public input. Information on how to give testimony is on the M-NCPPC website agenda page. Also now available on the website is the M-NCCPC staff report with the recommendations that will be presented to the Planning Board on November 17.

The staff recommendations come with a very good analysis of the cost and benefits of the tunnel route, and also a thorough analysis of the alternative surface routes. Regarding the tunnel route, the staff recommends:

It appears that more design work is needed before a recommendation can be made with confidence on whether to construct the Capital Crescent Trail in the tunnel.
a. Should further engineering investigation reveal a much lower cost or risk differential or should a mechanism present itself to provide the funds to reduce the public outlay and/or risk to the Apex Building, constructing the trail may yet be found to be feasible.
b. We recommend that MTA brief the County Council in six months time with updated cost estimates and risk comparisons so that this decision can be made with greater assurance.
c. If the cost differential remains, the County Council should determine the tunnel route to be financially infeasible and concentrate more effort on building the planned surface trail to accommodate the volume and variety of user groups.

There may be something uncovered in the tunnel structures during a six-month engineering investigation that will overturn the huge cost differential we are looking at now. But I doubt it. The CCCT is suggesting a short single-track Purple Line section could be used at the tunnel, to make it easy to keep the trail in the tunnel. But if that single-track concept is found to be not practical, then we are likely looking at a decision to reroute the CCT on Bethesda streets.

The M-NCPPC staff report gives a good description of three alternative routes, and recommends the route along Bethesda Avenue (the dashed yellow route below).

Alternate CCT surface routes in Bethesda
Source: M-NCCPC staff report

The Bethesda Avenue Route has long been proposed as an alternative route to be built in addition to the trail in the tunnel, for local trail access. The M-NCCPC staff recommend that, in the event this becomes THE route of the CCT, this route be developed much more extensively than has been planned. Their report lists specific recommendations for shared use off-road trail sections down Bethesda Avenue, Willow Street and 47th Street and to realign the Wisconsin Avenue crosswalk. But most impressive are the recommendations to change the traffic lights:

Intersection of Wisconsin Ave and Bethesda Ave: Crossing Wisconsin Ave is the greatest impediment to creating a viable surface alignment. Therefore, it is critical to prioritize pedestrians crossing Wisconsin Ave. We recommend eliminating the conflicts for pedestrians crossing Wisconsin Ave by either:
  • Prohibiting left turns from Bethesda Ave to northbound Wisconsin Ave and prohibiting right turns on red in the southbound direction to eliminate all conflicts between trail users and motor vehicles
  • Providing a pedestrian only phase.

Both of these modifications would likely require signal retiming along Wisconsin Ave.

If all of these changes were in place, then I would find this route to be almost as good as the route through the tunnel. This surface route is about 400′ longer than the tunnel route and has a wait for a signal at Wisconsin Avenue. But it would be in the open and partially in a local park rather than being in a long tunnel. IF the signals at Wisconsin Avenue can be changed to eliminate the interferences with motor vehicle turning traffic, then crossing Wisconsin Avenue would be safer than is crossing Bethesda Avenue and Woodmont Avenue at the CCT Bethesda Trailhead today.

The tunnel route remains the most direct and safest CCT route. We may find a way to save it if the cost differential changes on further study, or if we find that single-track can work at the Bethesda Purple Line station. But losing the tunnel route is not an existential threat to the future CCT. I can learn to like the alternative Bethesda Avenue route if it is done right.

Planning Board tours tunnel

Friday, November 4th, 2011

The Montgomery County Planning Board toured the Bethesda Tunnel and the Interim CCT connection to the Rock Creek Trail yesterday to examine CCT cost issues. MTA and Montgomery County DOT and M-NCPPC staff briefed them on costs of rebuilding the CCT with the Purple Line.

Route of the Nov. 3 Planning Board tour at Bethesda
Source: Tour agenda and MTA CCT cost report (a pdf file)

Several dozen neighborhood residents also turned out for the tour, many carrying “Save the Trail” placards. Katherine Shaver was there to report for the Washington Post. Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier reminded those present that the purpose of the tour was for the Planning Board to ask questions of the Purple Line planners. She invited the public to present comments at the Nov. 17 Planning Board work session.

Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier addresses the public.

I’ve already posted that is important we not get tunnel vision and put too much focus on the Bethesda Tunnel while losing sight of the bigger picture for the whole trail. But I was on the Bethesda part of the tour, and would like to offer comments on several issues at the Bethesda Tunnel of interest to trail users. I’m not advocating hard for any one idea yet – I’m still trying to get a clearer picture on what the realistic choices are to make both the Purple Line and the CCT work well here:

1) Cost to put CCT over the Purple Line through the tunnel.

MTA Purple Line project manager Mike Madden stated that much of the cost and risk to dig to lower the Purple Line below the current grade, necessary to fit a trail overhead, is associated with stabilizing 35 beams that support the Apex Building. He also said that even if the Purple Line is built at the current grade without the CCT, there still will be some beams near the west end of the tunnel that will require stabilizing. MTA does not know yet how many beams would still require stabilizing even if they do not dig.

The cost of building the trail over the Purple Line in the tunnel is estimated to be 43% of the total estimated $103M trail cost. (Source: Tour agenda and MTA CCT cost report.) But that cost includes the cost of stabilizing all of the 35 beams. We need to subtract the cost of stabilizing the beams that must be done even if we do not dig, from the cost of stabilizing all 35 beams if we do dig, to know the stabilization cost that is due to the CCT.

Adjusting the cost to reflect the cost difference for stabilizing the beams will bring the CCT cost estimate down a little. And the fact that MTA does not yet know how many beams must be stabilized if we do not dig suggests they have not done enough exploration yet to have a firm cost estimate. We should have better information before we make decisions based on cost.

2) Fitting a pedestrain trail alongside the Purple Line.

WashCycle raised the question in recent blog post comments whether it might be possible to have a narrow trail alongside the Purple Line in the tunnel, without digging. The tunnel under the Apex building west of Wisconsin Ave. is wide enough to permit this – plans already call for pedestrian access from the west tunnel portal to the Purple Line platform and Metro elevators near the middle of the tunnel. But the tunnel under the Air Rights building at the east end is narrower, only 32′ wide from wall to wall. Recent Purple Line profile drawings show two light-rail tracks have a typical 29′ wide profile. But these profiles are for unconstrained spaces where the Purple Line runs at speed. It may be acceptible to reduce the separation distances between tracks and between the tracks and the side structures (i.e. poles to support the catenary wires) in the tunnel where vehicle speeds will be very low – perhaps to achieve a profile as little as 24′ wide which would leave room for an 8′ wide path in a 32′ wide total space. But you would need to be able to use all of the tunnel width from wall to wall, with no setbacks from below-grade foundation structures.

I raised this issue with MTA engineers at the Nov. 2 Open House at the National 4-H Education Center in Chevy Chase. They had not considered this yet, but agreed it should be looked at seriously. They had two concerns that might wreck the idea: 1) The tunnel width under the Wisconsin Avenue bridge might be less than it is under the Air Rights Building, and 2) The tunnel has a curve, which will require a wider spacing between tracks to allow for the transit vehicle “overhang” on the curve.

During the Nov. 3 tour we saw the tunnel under the Wisconsin Avenue bridge. Slopes down from the bridge abutment structures on both sides of the tunnel do indeed pinch the tunnel to be narrower than under the Air Rights Building. But Mike Madden explained that these were only dirt slopes, covered with concrete for erosion control. The abutment structures that support the bridge are set well back. The slopes can be cut back, and retaining walls can be used for the erosion control without disturbing any bridge structures. This could make the tunnel wider under the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge than under the Air Rights Building.

It was apparent during the walk through that the curvature of the tunnel under the Air Rights Building was only at the west side of the building and very slight. It appears likely that any allowance required for vehicle “overhang” at the curve would be slight. Mike Madden also stated that the walls of the Air Rights Building tunnel were structurally stable and extended deep enough so that they would not need to be modified, even if digging was needed.

Profile of Purple Line with CCT under the Air Rights Building
Source: Tour agenda and MTA CCT cost report (a pdf file)

It therefore appears to be very feasible to have a 6-8′ wide walking trail east through the tunnel from the Purple Line platform and Metro elevators to the east end tunnel portal, if the decision is made to not carry the CCT through the tunnel over the top of the Purple Line. The profile above shows the Purple Line with the CCT overhead. But if the CCT supporting structures are absent, the light-rail tracks can be shifted to be closer together and close to the south wall. A 6-8′ wide walking path could be on the north side. The walking path would only need to be several feet higher and separated from transit by a low fence in order to feel safe near transit, given the low speeds of the transit vehicles approaching the station platform.

Purple Line supporters should join trail users to advocate for this path, in the event the CCT is removed from the tunnel. This passageway would provide important pedestrian access between the Purple Line platform and the neighborhoods, businesses and schools east of Wisconsin Avenue. The Purple Line should carry the cost of building it since the Purple Line needs this access path.

3) Single-track Purple Line in the tunnel.

CCCT Chair Ron Tripp put the idea before the CCCT Board at the October board meeting that we should propose that the Purple Line be single-track in the Bethesda Tunnel. This would allow a full width CCT to share the tunnel with the Purple Line without any digging. I’m not a fan of this idea, but it does have enough merit to be taken seriously. The CCCT has not settled on its recommedations to address the Bethesda Tunnel cost issues yet, but single-track may be on the list.

Councilmember Berliner proposed a much longer single-track section for the Purple Line several years ago. His proposal was to single-track a 3500′ long section from the Bethesda Tunnel to the west side of the Columbia Country Club. The principal goal was to minimize the impacts on the trees and adjacent homeowners where the r.o.w. is only 66′ wide and where room to buffer the neighborhood is more limited than elsewhere on the r.o.w.

MTA studied Berliner’s single-track proposal and issued a MTA single track study (a pdf) with strong recommendations against the idea. MTA found that being able to operate only one vehicle between the Country Club and the Bethesda Station at a time would unacceptibly constrain the headway, to be at least 7 minutes. The minimum necessary headway needed to carry the heavy use in this section is believed to be 6 minutes or less. MTA was also concerned that since transit vehicles would have to leave the Bethesda station immediately, schedule problems that develop could not be corrected and would ripple through the whole system. MTA was also concerned that having only one track at Bethesda would prevent them from holding a back-up vehicle there to fill gaps in service. And finally MTA found that few trees would actually be saved during construction. Based on these findings, the County Council reluctantly dropped the idea.

The proposal to go to single-track only in the Bethesda Tunnel would result in an approx. 1500′ length of single-track, vs. the 3500′ length of Councilmember Berliner’s earlier proposal. I roughly guess that this shorter distance would take at least 1 minute off the time it would take a train to traverse the single-track section in each direction. That would mean a headway of less than 5 minutes might be possible – meeting the requirement for a 6 minute headway or shorter. That’s good. But I suspect the same issues about trains being required to leave the Bethesda Station immediately and not being able to store a back-up vehicle there would remain.

Single-track at a station, especially an end-of-line station, is a departure from what we usually see where single-track has been attempted. The parent of the Purple Line concept, the single-track Georgetown Branch Trolley, was actually planned to be double-track at all five stations along the line between Silver Spring and Bethesda, including at the Bethesda Station in the tunnel. The plan was to have trains pass at the station platforms. The stations were planned to be roughly equally spaced, at distances that would enable trains to pass at the stations and still maintain 6 minute headways. A key to making it all work was that the Georgetown Branch Trolley was to be a “closed” system that would never run on-street, so it would be possible to keep trains precisely spaced at about equal intervals. Keeping to carefully spaced intervals at all times is not considered to be feasible for the Purple Line because the Purple Line is an open system, that will run in streets and have traffic lights in parts of its route east of Silver Spring. These potential traffic interferences can introduce too much variation in train intervals for them to pass only at the stations without forcing trains to wait. Variation in train intervals is best corrected at the end-of-line stations, but the needed corrections may not be possible at a single-track end-of-line station.

Single tracking only at the Bethesda Station may be judged to create unacceptible problems for efficient transit operations. But this proposal to single-track a very short section has enough difference from Councilmember Berliner’s earlier proposal for a much longer section to merit a serious look from people who understand transit operations much better than I.

4) Safety of the Trail.

This is not a design idea, but an observation about irrational, and potentially damaging, assertions being made by some about safety of the trail in the tunnel.

Comments were heard during the Planning Board tour from the “Save the Trail” people that if the trail is elevated and placed in a confined space over the Purple Line, with no way to get off except at the ends, and without being able to see to the other end of the tunnel before entering, then the trail would be too dangerous and no one would want to use it. Ajay Bhatt, President of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, is quoted by Katherine Shaver in the Washington Post as saying:

“I can’t imagine people would enjoy that trail experience,” Bhatt said of an enclosed trail above trains, and “it seems like it will be a safety hazard” by attracting crime.

The problem with taking this position is that the existing trail looks like this now:

The trail we have in the tunnel now.

The existing trail is in a confined space, with no way to get off except at the ends, and without being able to see to the end of the tunnel before entering. So exactly how does Ajay Bhatt think that just elevating the trail by about 10′ will suddenly transform a trail he claims to badly want to save into a trail that is such a safety hazard that he cannot imagine anyone wanting to use it?

The danger in this “Save the Trail” position is that we are asking the Planning Board and County Council to spend many millions of dollars to keep the trail in the tunnel. If we raise groundless fears that a trail in the tunnel cannot be made safe and attractive, in a misplaced effort to make the Purple Line look bad, we seriously undercut our request to public officials to spend scarce money to keep the trail in the tunnel.

The second half of the Planning Board tour at Bethesda was along the proposed alternate street route for the CCT. Several ideas came up for discussion about how to put this route on steroids if the CCT is removed from the tunnel. But I’ve already written too much for one post, the alternate route will be the subject of a future post.

Will the CCT bring crime?

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Opponents to extending the Capital Crescent Trail along the border of Woodside are asserting that the trail will bring crime to the neighborhood. That was one of the issues a few residents raised at the Dec. 16th MTA Woodside meeting. The issue was raised again when Woodside residents expressed their objections to the trail in the Gazette article Residents fear extending Capital Crescent Trail would derail Silver Spring neighborhood.

The Woodside Civic Association (WCA) took up the CCT crime issue at its Feb. 13, 2011 winter meeting. Darien Manley, Chief, Montgomery County Park Police was the invited speaker. Chief Manley has had a decades long career with the Park Police, and has been Chief for the last 3 years. The Park Police patrol 100 miles of paved trails and 200 miles of unpaved trails within Montgomery County.

Chief Manley delivered a clear message to the WCA that trails do not bring crime to neighborhoods and crime is not a serious problem on trails. Some crime does occur everywhere and there will be some crime on trails, but typically there is less crime on a trail than in the neighborhood that the trail passes through. Manley stated that studies by the National Park Service and others show that the nationwide experience is similar to that he has experienced in Montgomery County – i.e. crime is generally low on trails.

Chief Manley asserted that criminals like secluded areas where they can have less concern about having witnesses to their crime. Trails, especially busy trails like the CCT, bring people who are using the area lawfully, and these lawful users put eyes on the trail that drives crime away.

A skeptical Woodside resident and CCT opponent challenged Chief Manley, asserting that the CCT in Silver Spring would be different than the CCT in Chevy Chase and different than the other county trails. The CCT will be extended into an area that has a higher crime rate and that has more low income residents than seen in Chevy Chase. The extended CCT will be close to homes, whereas the CCT in Chevy Chase is well separated from the homes and yards [she asserted]. Officer Manley disagreed that the CCT is not near homes in Chevy Chase. He then recounted his years of experience when he was a younger officer patrolling the Sligo Creek Trail and noted that in some sections that trail passes near to homes, and in the lower sections it passes through low income areas with high rise apartments nearby much like we see close in to Silver Spring. Yet the Sligo Creek Trail has not had a serious crime problem and is not bringing crime into the neighborhoods.

Chief Manley spoke about the crime that was predicted but did not come with the new Matthew Henson Trail. That new trail was built through public land that had secluded areas that were crime hot spots – with chronic problems from homeless encampments and some hidden plots for marijuana growing. The Matthew Henson Trail passes close by high density, low income housing in the Hewitt Avenue area, and also close behind the yards of private homes. Local residents gravely predicted the trail would bring crime into their neighborhoods from Hewitt Avenue. But since the trail has been built it has been well received by most area residents as a great new amenity, and the Park Police have found that crime in the area of the trail has gone down. The presence of the trail appears to have driven much of the criminal activity out of the formerly secluded areas.

The few opponents of the CCT extension along the border of Woodside appeared to still be opposed after Chief Manley spoke. But their number remains small, and later in the WCA meeting the large majority of Woodside residents present voted, by 50-4, to approve a working list of design issues and suggestions to be sent to MTA in preparation for upcoming meetings. MTA Purple Line designers will be leading a walk of the future trail alignment on the border of Woodside for area residents on February 26, and MTA Purple Line designers and representatives from several county agencies will be meeting with area residents again on March 8 to discuss the CCT preliminary design.

21 California trails-with-rails

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Rose Canyon trail
Rose Canyon Bike Path – San Diego
Photo by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
“California Rails-with-Trails”

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has announced in their RTC TrailBlog that they have completed a new report “California Rails-with-Trails”, now available as a resource for trail designers. The study examines the safety of 21 trails that share corridors with active rail lines. This study is the most recent of several studies of trails with rails, and adds yet more evidence trails that share a corridor with trains can have better safety than trails along or crossing roadways.

From the RTC study:

“The good news is that rails-with-trails have been shown to be just as safe as other trails. Every day, thousands of people across the United States safely use existing rails-with-trails. Fears that more trail users would be severely injured due to the proximity of moving trains have never been realized.”


“Rails-with-trails can be safer than trails next to roads. “In the last 15 years, more than 76,000 Americans have been killed while crossing or walking along a street in their community,” according to the 2009 Dangerous by Design report by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. Trails separated from roads can provide a safer option. Even with an active rail line near the trail, the exposure from a track carrying ten to twenty trains per day is much less than a road carrying thousands of vehicles per day.”

Among the 21 trails surveyed in this most recent report:

  1. One third had separation distance (distance from center of track to edge of trail) of 20 feet or less.
  2. Over one half had train speeds of 40 mph or greater.
  3. Over one half had train frequencies greater than 20 per day, and some had frequencies greater than 40 per day.
  4. Four trails had no barrier between trail and rail.

The typical design section MTA presents for the Purple Line in the Georgetown Branch Corridor has an approx. 20 foot separation distance and has both a fence and/or retaining wall and a planted buffer as a barrier.

There are now over 200 trails alongside active railroads in the U.S. RTC has links to two earlier studies (one by RTC of 61 rails with trails, and another study by the U.S. Department of Transportation of over 20 rails with trails) at their Plan, Design, Build: rail-with-trail webpage. These earlier studies show very similar results as this new RTC study.

None of this and other overwhelming safety data is likely to stop “Save the Trail” advocates from continuing to assert that building the Purple Line alongside a trail is a dangerous, novel, untried idea. Indeed, much of the testimony presented to the Planning Board by Purple Line opponents at the Dec. 10 Purple Line Master Plan public hearing would have made you think that rail transit systems are only built in unpopulated areas because they are too dangerous to be in urban and suburban communities. It was especially ironic that several residents of the Town of Chevy Chase testified that children using the Lynn Drive path to school would be put at severe risk by the Purple Line, yet not one showed any awareness or concern about the existing risk children take on that same route when crossing East-West Highway, see Keeping the Children Safe.

People near trams

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

My last post had several photos of Trees and Grass with trams. This post shows several photos of people with trams that Harry Sanders took during his recent trip.

A bike path at a tram station near Montpellier
courtesy Harry Sanders

A cyclist and pedestrians with a stroller cross
tram tracks in Nice – Courtesy Harry Sanders

A tram station adjacent to a cafe in Montpellier
Courtesy Harry Sanders

Cafe patrons appear unbothered by the tram only
a few feet away. Courtesy Harry Sanders

As the photos illustrate, it is very common for rail transit to operate safely in pedestrian environments with little separation from pedestrians and cyclists. Compare these examples of transit separation with that proposed by MTA for the Purple Line design along the Trail:

Keeping the children safe

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

The “think of the children” chorus is off key.

Opponents of the Purple Line are speaking out about an extreme hazard (they say) that the light rail will pose to their children. Save the Trail has the dangers of all forms of rail to pedestrians as a strong thread on the website. The safety issue was raised by Purple Line opponents at the October 21 B-CC MTA Focus Group Meeting. They argued that children would be forced to cross the Purple Line tracks on one of the most popular routes to school from the Town of Chevy Chase, and that this could never be acceptable.

The neighborhood route to B-CC High School from
the Town of Chevy Chase.
See Gmaps Pedometer for a larger interactive view.

The neighborhood route at issue is from Lynn Drive in the Town of Chevy Chase to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. A local pathway crosses the Interim CCT on that route now, and the MTA Purple Line conceptual design keeps that pathway but with an at-grade crossing of the light rail tracks. It is the only at-grade pedestrian crossing proposed on the Purple Line between Bethesda and Lyttonsville that is not at a light rail station.

Safety at light rail crossings deserves to be taken seriously. But we need to look this crossing in the context of what is there now to understand how safety will be changed overall.

View Larger Map

Two of the three crosswalks on this neighborhood route to B-CC.

Children using the neighborhood route from Lynn Drive to B-CC High School must cross the (future) light rail tracks. But they also must then cross six lanes of motor vehicle traffic on East-West Highway using a series of three crosswalks. The first crosswalk, shown in front of the Riviera House above, has no pedestrian crossing light and crosses the two lanes of heavy traffic that is going around the curve.

Children do not have to leave the trail to be put at risk by busy highways. Children using the Interim CCT/Georgetown Branch Trail to go east from Chevy Chase toward Rock Creek Park must cross another busy state highway at grade.

View Larger Map

The Interim CCT at-grade crossing of Connecticut Avenue.

The crossing of Connecticut Avenue shown above is only one of the six-lane state highways the Georgetown Branch Trail crosses at-grade between Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring. Purple Line NOW! shows another at-grade trail highway crossing at The Purple Line will make the CCT safer. And these are not the only trail crossings of busy roads. The on-road section of the Georgetown Branch Trail in Silver Spring crosses another four major streets at lights, and crosses numerous smaller neighborhood streets at stop signs.

Compare what is there now with what is proposed with the Purple Line.

A typical profile for the Trail alongside the Purple Line.
Source: Purple Line AA/DEIS at

The Trail will be rebuilt alongside light rail between Bethesda and Silver Spring as a full width paved shared use trail with grade separated crossings of all of the major roadways. The dangerous on-road section of the Georgetown Branch Trail in Silver Spring will be replaced with a much safer off-road trail. The trail will be separated from the transit tracks by a combination of vertical and horizontal separation, plantings, fences and/or retaining walls. Fences and and/or retaining walls will discourage children from attempting to cross the tracks between the formal crossing points.

MTA engineers at the B-CC focus group meeting stated that they will work closely with the neighborhoods to design safe crossings. For this crossing at the Town of Chevy Chase they suggested a combination of a physical barrier to prevent pedestrians from entering the crossing without slowing and turning, and pedestrian signal lights and signs that warn of approaching transit vehicles. The neighborhoods will be consulted as the crossing design is improved during preliminary design.

Rails-to-Trails has studied trail at-grade rail crossings and has found these crossings have an excellent safety record. Their 2005 study is available online, A Preliminary Assessment of Safety and Grade Crossings (pdf). They point out that pedestrians and cyclists on trails are much safer at rail crossings than other modes.

Source: Rails-to-Trails “A Preliminary Assessment of Safety
and Grade Crossings”

The Rails-to-Trails report examines the many tools available to designers to make these crossings safe, including warning systems with either automatic or manually operated gates.

Manually operated gates in Beaverton, Oregon
Source: “Rails-to-Trails “A Preliminary Assessment of Safety
and Grade Crossings”

Design for safety must be taken seriously. But as Purple Line NOW! notes at their webpage:

“Every year nearly 700 cyclists and 5,000 pedestrians are struck and killed by motor vehicles. Contrast those numbers with the approximately 20 pedestrians or passengers fatalities caused by light-rail each year.”

The “think of the children” chorus is far off key. The CCT will be safer overall when rebuilt alongside the Purple Line than it is today. Children walking to school will continue to face more danger crossing the busy streets in Bethesda than they will face crossing the Purple Line tracks. Child safety advocates looking for a safe route to school should pay more attention to how their children cross East-West Highway now.

Chevy Chase cares too much.

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

The Bethesda edition of the Gazette reports that the Town of Chevy Chase is opposing a proposed trail, at Chevy Chase says new bike path may be dangerous. The proposed new bike path is part of an alternative CCT trail route through Bethesda, between the east end of the Bethesda Tunnel and Woodmont Avenue. The trail would be an alternative, in addition to and NOT instead of the CCT through the Bethesda Tunnel. The alternative route would be mainly a sidepath trail along Willow Street and Bethesda Avenue, and would have a counterflow bike lane down 47th Street on the west side of the Elm Street Park.

The Town is refusing to allow the counterflow bike lane down 47th Street, the one section of the alternative trail route that the Town controls.

Looking south on 47th Street in Chevy Chase.

47th Street is one-way northbound, and a counterflow bike lane is needed to give cyclists a direct on-road route from the east end of the Bethesda Tunnel to Willow Street and Bethesda Avenue. No parking is permitted on this street, and the street is already wide enough to accommodate a 6 foot wide counter flow bike lane without the issues that trouble the proposed Cedar Street bike lane in Silver Spring. As the Gazette reports, the Town does not assert that this bike lane would be unsafe but rather the Town asserts the alternative trail route will be unsafe elsewhere, at the Wisconsin Avenue crosswalk. The Town cares too much for our safety to permit the trail to be built if it believes any part of it is unsafe. The Town is therefore obstructing the bike route where they have control – at 47th Street.

The Town claims that the Wisconsin Avenue crosswalk is unacceptably dangerous. The Town’s solution – don’t build the alternative trail. That will discourage people from using this crossing, and thereby keep people safe.

I’m having trouble buying it that the Wisconsin Avenue crosswalk is unacceptably dangerous. Whenever I’ve crossed there the traffic appeared to be relatively calm. It is a direct, well marked crosswalk with a generous median. There is turning traffic from vehicles turning north onto Wisconsin Avenue from Bethesda Avenue, but that is a sharp turn that slows the turning traffic, and the pedestrian activity in this area is heavy enough to draw the attention of motorists. As crosswalks go, I would rate each of the CCT crosswalks nearby at Little Falls Parkway, at Woodmont Avenue, and at Connecticut Avenue as much more dangerous.

If we accept the Town’s approach to keeping trail users safe by blocking the trail if it leads to a crosswalk that has any risk, then some interesting questions arise about how we solve safety problems on trails elsewhere. When you follow the Interim CCT through the Bethesda Tunnel you emerge at the west end of the tunnel at the Woodmont Avenue crosswalk, shown at right. This crosswalk is much more dangerous than the Wisconsin Avenue crosswalk. The intersection is not squared, and this creates an awkward and dangerous crosswalk pattern. In particular, vehicles turning north from westbound Bethesda Avenue have an easy turn that encourages speed. I have seen many near misses at this crossing.

If the Town of Chevy Chase is sincere in its belief that obstructing trails is the best way to keep us safe from risk at crosswalks, then why does the Town not urge us to close the Bethesda Tunnel? Closing the tunnel would keep thousands of would be trail users from using the risky Woodmont crosswalk every week. If the Town cares so much for our safety that they will block one trail, why do they not try to block both trails?

We need this proposed alternative trail route. The Bethesda Tunnel is closed at night. It must be closed from time to time for repairs or construction. The Town gave us an example of the need and acceptability of closing the tunnel for construction in 2007 when The Town acted (in partnership with the CCCT) to close the tunnel for several days for construction of a fence to block graffiti, see CCCT April 2007 news.

In addition to needing an alternative route for periods when the tunnel is closed, trail users need access to the streets of downtown Bethesda to go to destinations on or near near Wisconsin Avenue like the Women’s Farm Market, Starbucks, Papa Johns Pizza, etc. Trail users do not want to be blocked from using the local street network in and around Chevy Chase.

The Town position of obstructing the alternative trail does not appear to be consistent or logical – until you consider it as a piece of their campaign against the Purple Line. This is not about trail safety. This is about the Town creating ways to make the conflict between the CCT and the Purple Line as intense as possible, to generate opposition to the Purple Line. The blog Greater Greater Washington sized up the Town position moments after the Gazette article appeared, with the comment “Bike paths only good if they block trains?”.

Georgetown Branch Trail upgrades

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

The State of Maryland has recently installed new crosswalk markings and made a slight increase in the walk time for the Georgetown Branch Trail crossing of 16th Street.

Now do you feel safe crossing here?

Safe only in Chevy Chase

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

A theme often expressed in webpages and letters from the “Save the Trail” folks is the Purple Line will cause the CCT to be unsafe. For example, RethinkingthePurpleLine asserts “If the proposed Purple Line is built, this section of the Trail will be reduced to a width of only 8 usable
 feet—dramatically increasing the likelihood of accidents between hikers and
 bikers.” Purple Line opponents also assert the CCT will be detoured around the Bethesda Tunnel onto a short detour on a sidepath trail through Bethesda, for an unsafe crossing of Bethesda Avenue. MTA disputes these claims, recently showing in a July 8 briefing that they will build a full width trail alongside the Purple Line throughout this area and that they will keep the trail in the tunnel.

One can question Purple Line opponents about their perspective when they raise trail safety as an issue:

1) Why do they remain silent about an 8′ effective width at the Country Club?

If you go east on the CCT from the Town of Chevy Chase, you immediately encounter the Country Club encroachment, with the fences and weeds cutting the effective width of the trail down to 8′. See the earlier post here on this issue. Yet the Purple Line opponents remain silent about this issue. Is effective width only important at the Town of Chevy Chase?

2) Why do they remain silent about the at grade crossing of Connecticut Avenue, and other at grade crossings east and west from Bethesda?

If you go east on the Trail past the Club, you immediately encounter the at grade crossing of busy Connecticut Avenue at a light. The photo at right, from silverspringtrails, shows this existing at grade crossing. Are grade separated trail crossings of busy roadways only important at Bethesda Avenue?

3) Why do they remain silent about the 1.6 mile CCT detour on streets in Silver Spring?

If you go beyond Rock Creek to downtown Silver Spring, you will be diverted onto a 1.6 mile long on road trail detour of the unfinished section of the CCT. You will encounter 6 more crossings of roadways at traffic lights (including two State highways), 10 roadway crossings at stop signs. This detour route map is shown in more detail at silverspringtrails. Are trail detours along local streets only unacceptible in Bethesda?

If the trail is rebuilt alongside the Purple Line as proposed by MTA, then the Trail will be off road all the way into downtown Silver Spring. Trail bridges or underpasses will provide grade separated crossings of all major roadways. The CCT will be an effective 10′ width from the Bethesda Tunnel continuous to Colesville Road. The rebuilt CCT will be far safer than is the existing Interim CCT.

This is a small picture vs. big picture issue.
The small picture shows the trail is safe now – at the Town of Chevy Chase.
The big picture shows trail safety will be greatly improved for all of us from Bethesda to Silver Spring if rebuilt alongside the Purple Line.

The Girl Scout Test

Friday, March 28th, 2008

A bike trail should be designed to be safe. But it must also be perceived as safe if it is to be widely accepted.

One way to check a trail’s perceived safety is to apply the “Girl Scout Test”. I first heard of this test from M-NCPPC planners years ago when we were looking for the best future CCT alignment for the North and West Silver Spring Master Plan. The Girl Scout Test works like this: You are planning to take Girl Scouts on a bike ride. They have bike skills typical of pre-teens. They can ride in a straight line, keep right, and stop at stop signs without being told. But they are inexperienced and unpredictible around motor vehicle traffic. If you feel comfortable that a trail is safe for your Girl Scouts to bike on, then that trail passes the Girl Scout Test.

The Girl Scout Test helps to explain why the Georgetown Branch Trail is so little used in Silver Spring. Would you take your Girl Scouts on a trail that crosses a major highway like this?

Looking north along the Georgetown Branch Trail
at Second Avenue and 16th Street.

Finding a safe trail crossing of 16th Street is one of the major challenges for the future CCT. Crossing 16th shows how this will be done with the Purple Line transit/trail. Purple Line opponents need to explain how they would have their trail cross 16th Street if the Purple Line is not built. The existing at-grade Georgetown Branch Trail crossing at Second Avenue is unsafe.

Some Purple Line opponents appear to be applying a double standard regarding CCT highway crossings. Take Back Bethesda was recently posting in outrage when a developer proposed closing the Bethesda Tunnel during Woodmont East II project construction. The major objection was that the trail detour across Wisconsin Avenue would be far to dangerous for Bethesda’s children. The website makes full use of the Girl Scout Test, using pictures of children to drive home the idea that the trail must be safe for users of all ages.

The at-grade crossing of Wisconsin Avenue
on the alternate CCT route in Bethesda.

But some Purple Line opponents who protest that any at-grade trail crossing of Wisconsin Avenue is unacceptible also call for building the CCT on the Interim CCT alignment, which would have at-grade crossings of two state highways (16th Street and Colesville Road) and several other streets.

Now maybe it’s just me, but I can’t figure out how an at-grade trail crossing of Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda is NOT OK, but at-grade trail crossings of 16th Street and Colesville Road in Silver Spring are OK. Maybe the Girl Scouts can explain it to me.