Improving suburban roads in Montgomery County

The suburbs are full of roads. But, as many have noted, these roads are primarily built for the fastest automobile speeds between Points A and B. Montgomery County, Maryland has put together a plan to improve their roadways:

As a result, Montgomery has actually been in the business of “retrofitting” or “repairing” the suburbs (very gradually, to be sure) since before planners began to call it that. Now, it has undertaken a pilot study on two stretches of roadway in the county to evaluate the use of green infrastructure – strategically placed vegetation and other methods that reduce polluted runoff by using or mimicking natural hydrology – along with measures to better accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists. One is an arterial road that goes through residential areas, the other a wide commercial street. Both showed there was much potential, and Montgomery is now planning to integrate more environmental features into its streets…

Note that the changes are not extensive, for the most part, but incremental: subtle narrowing of traffic lanes to slow auto speed; plantings in medians, along sidewalks and in parking lots to capture and filter rainwater; bike lanes and wider sidewalks to accommodate non-motorized users; striping to mark a people-first pedestrian lane where a sidewalk may not be feasible…

There’s a lot to like about Montgomery’s initiative, including that it brings together three relatively new and successful – but often independently successful – lines of sustainability thinking and planning: redesigning suburbs; green infrastructure; and “complete streets” that accommodate all types of users. It reminds us that the greatest potential for sustainable communities lies with the integration of ideas and purposes. I hope this kind of initiative continues to catch on.

This seems to include a number of techniques New Urbanists have talked about for years.

What I like best about this is that it is hard to argue against these changes. Generally, busy roads are either nondescript or unattractive so these changes help improve the aesthetics. Runoff is a common suburban problem and no one likes having to drive through big puddles. Carving out space for other users of the roads would appeal to a lot of people (as long as the bikers and drivers can get along – not a guarantee in some places). And this should be safer as we know that narrower roads tend to slow drivers down.

The only problem that I could envision: how much do these subtle but helpful changes cost? It might be a good amount of money upfront but then reduced costs (and perhaps even savings?) down the road (fewer accidents, fewer cars on the road so less road maintenance, etc.). Are taxpayers willing to pay to improve already pretty good roads (generally defined as very drivable and fast)?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out and how much they expand the program.

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