Many cities in the United States and around the world are realizing that buses are the most cost-efficient form of mass transit. One of the popular bus strategies is Bus Rapid Transit, which has about the same capacity as light rail yet at a fraction of the cost. Also, more and more cities are using local circulator buses to boost pedestrian traffic and reduce automobile usage. Local examples include Baltimore, Washington D.C., Bethesda, and Silver Spring.
by Frederick Gottemoeller - August 4, 2014
"Runcorn, England, is a city much like Columbia. It is a “new town” of about the same size
and age as Columbia. Like Columbia, when it was built in the 1960’s, Runcorn set aside
rights-of-way for bus-only roadways connecting the neighborhood centers to the town
center and other institutions. The difference is that Runcorn actually built their bus
White Flint’s grassroots success story
By Peter Tocco
August 4, 2011
Divided by a highway
While Columbia and White Flint (a North Bethesda community) are different in many ways, both are divided down the middle by a major highway with very few crossing points. In White Flint, it’s MD 355 (Rockville Pike): in Columbia it’s Route 29. And in each community, better connectivity is key to sustainable growth.
Both communities have been searching for a plan that would move them toward sustainable growth. Columbia's downtown development plans are still ongoing, though some progress has been made toward bringing the town center closer to an urban reality. White Flint has been looking for ways to mitigate the six lanes of heavy traffic that divide it down the middle, without the benefit of Columbia’s natural forested buffers.
White Flint as a Model for Success
After five years of intensive work bringing local businesses and citizens together the Friends of White Flint, a grassroots-based organization, finally achieved success in creating a visionary plan to improve connectivity and sustainability in their community. White Flint's plan is now approved and underway. In March of 2010, the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed the White Flint Sector Plan, which will transform White Flint into a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) over the next 20 to 30 years.
The inspiring story of how this group of residents identified the problems and the solutions and made it happen could inspire Howard County and many other Maryland communities who are looking to bring their development into the 21st century, where the automobile no longer rules.
The need for solutions
Rockville Pike had been developing into a continuous series of strip malls and shopping centers over the years as suburban expansion pushed northward into Montgomery County. But in recent years many residents have become concerned about the lack of walkable streets and other amenities.
Bike advocates and others started to come together to see if they could do something about it. In 2006 Dan Hoffman and Barnaby Zall met at one such meeting. Together with several others, they founded Friends of White Flint. Zall and Hoffman knew they first had to establish a need for change by clearly defining the problem.
Friends of White Flint gather support
Their next job was to identify key leaders and supporters, with bicycle advocates among their strongest allies. They next brought developers together as a separate group. Next they identified the key areas of agreement between citizens and developers. They emphasized that it would be a 20 to 30 year process and that it would bring tremendous economic benefits to the region, to the tune of $7 billion in additional property taxes over the next 30 years. In fact, tax revenue happened to be Zall's specialty since he is a tax lawyer by trade.
Friends of White Flint became a nonprofit corporation, with developers paying a $2500 membership fee, while small businesses and individuals joined for free. Zall and Hoffman estimate the organizations promoting the White Flint Plan held 200 meetings leading up to the successful County Council vote.
They organized hands-on workshops and hired consultants to speak and advise them on how to create a plan that the county would take seriously. Zall and Hoffman attended numerous Council meetings, which often occurred during working hours when few of their members could attend, and reported on critical events, They knew that a window of opportunity could be brief and that the message had to go out quickly. Their blog and website were critical in spreading the word. County
Initially, the County Council resisted the notion of a White Flint TOD. Council members questioned the need to pour money into an area that seemed to be doing fine. (As recently as 1992, White Flint was seen as Maryland's greatest concentration of retail wealth.) Some council members feared the plan would only worsen the traffic (sound familiar, Columbia?).
In favor of the transit-oriented plan, White Flint already had a Metro stop and a small MARC stop 300 yards to the southeast. The Friends of White Flint eventually managed to get the county and state to move the MARC stop near the southeastern edge of White Flint. With two rail stops, White Flint would be poised to become one of Maryland's most promising TODs.
The plan incorporates many of their objectives, such as:
Mixed-use development with highest intensity closest to the Rockville Pike Metro stop.
Conversion of the pike into a boulevard with street trees, improved crosswalks, and eventually a dedicated bus lane down the center.
More parks, open spaces, and back streets for local travel, and
Overall, a much better environment for bikes and pedestrians.
In 2010 the plan won the "Neighborhood/Small Area Plan award" from the American Planning Association. It could become a model for TOD communities in Maryland. But it will not happen quickly. The plan will span 20-30 years, generating $7 billion of additional property tax revenue, which some consider the most compelling feature of the plan. Construction has already begun, with the new Whole Foods Market and other anchors already open for business and proving to be successful.
The Benefits of Sustainable Environments
Zall and Hoffman promote the concept of “New Urbanism,” which suggests that many of the ideas used in communities throughout the United States in the past can help guide the development of future cities. For example, New Urbanism development puts a resident’s requirements in close proximity to a transit stop, so that people won’t need a car.
“You don’t need to force people out of their cars,” Zall said, “you just need to show them they don’t need one.” He notes that making people drive 15 minutes to get from one side of Columbia to the other “pretty much guarantees that most people will take a car,” whereas a Route 29 bridge would entice people to walk downtown. The Congress for New Urbanism, www.cnu.org, is a good source of information on New Urbanism.
Zall and Hoffman also cite a recent book, The Triumph of the City, by Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser, as supporting the sustainability of their vision for White Flint. Glaeser outlines a wide range of benefits from urban environments. City dwellers:
consume on average 40% less energy than suburbanites,
have fewer diseases,
have better jobs,
create a lighter carbon footprint, and
enjoy far more cultural amenities than their rural and suburban counterparts.
Cities got a bad rap starting in the 1950s as city dwellers flocked to suburbia, but urban revivals are happening all over, particularly in satellite cities such as Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Rockville. Columbia, too, seems slowly moving in this direction.
A grassroots inspiration
White Flint is an inspiring story that shows how grassroots organizations can make a difference, reminding us that change often comes from the bottom up, not top down. But although the White Flint Sector plan is approved, there is much work to be done, and one could argue that it cannot fully succeed unless other communities adopt similar plans. Cars and highways will no doubt be with us for a long time to come, but everyone seems to agree that better use of bus and rail are necessary to unclog our highways and make our communities more livable. It will no doubt take a lot of White Flints to achieve a truly regional mass transit system, but faced with ever-increasing gridlock and gas prices, there seems to be little alternative.
Congratulations to White Flint for a job well done!