Maryland county draws a “car-free blueprint for growth”

Montgomery County redefined the way it will grow in the next two decades when lawmakers endorsed a plan Tuesday that encourages development where residents can easily live a car-free lifestyle.

The County Council, after weeks of intense debate over the county’s growth policy, unanimously agreed to give developers discounts to build dense developments near transit stations as long as they also construct bike paths and walkways, put shops and other amenities nearby, and use environmentally friendly construction methods.

I don’t do a lot of local area reporting, but this front page (!) Washington Post story, “Montgomery draws a car-free blueprint for growth,” seemed newsworthy.  The picture above is of the Rockville Pike corridor, and anyone who has driven around Rockville knows it is as car-centric as anywhere in America.

The county is working to change that:

Most suburban growth plans — including Montgomery’s, until Tuesday — discourage development in congested areas, including those near public transit, and encourage construction in more sparsely populated communities, on the theory that new developments should arise where traffic is still tolerable.

But Montgomery’s new plan takes a different tack, one that smart-growth advocates say is long overdue. With the population nearing 1 million, the Washington suburb is substantially larger than the big city to its south but is still managing growth as if everyone can hop in a car and quickly get where they want to go.

The county’s growth policy is revisited every two years. The new plan could boost efforts to redevelop the jumbled White Flint area along Rockville Pike and provide new impetus to build a “science city” spearheaded by Johns Hopkins University west of Interstate 270 near Gaithersburg….

The council also endorsed a plan from County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), whose district is likely to be the epicenter of much of the urban-style growth, to use development fees to improve a transit system that commuters say is increasingly inadequate….

Planners predict that 200,000 people are likely to move to the county in the next 20 years, bumping the population to more than 1 million. To find a way to house the expected newcomers and get them to and from work, the Planning Board had recommended that developers get discounts and rewards if they are willing to idle their properties for a few years and to build denser development and taller buildings, up to 300 feet in some areas, near the county’s Metro stations.

The Planning Board has also tried to make improving transit an ironclad condition of much new development.

When the board approved the proposed science city in July, members were adamant that it could not be built unless the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway bus or rail system is funded and built. Funding transit, however, is up to federal, state and local lawmakers, all of whom are struggling with massive budget shortfalls, so the Planning Board can advocate for but not create it.

As the price of oil returns to and then exceeds its previous records, funding for bus or rail systems will become a bigger and bigger priority state and federal level, so it is important for local planners to start designing for that.

And while I’m not certain the phrase “car-free” is a fully accurate description of what Montgomery County is pursuing, they deserve kudos for this smart growth plan.

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8 Responses to Maryland county draws a “car-free blueprint for growth”

  1. Dennis says:

    Oddly missing from the article is any mention of the proposed “Purple Line,” the first leg of which is planned to be a light rail between Bethesda and Silver Spring, running along an abandoned rail right-of-way. (Please don’t call the existing ROW a trail. There’s no official trail along the ROW. The land has always been up for grabs, and the decision was made to proceed with the light rail.)

  2. Good story, thanks sharing the connection. And I have a comment on it, too.

    Smart growth and mixed use areas near transit that provide density with quality are a very worthwhile piece of the solution to continuing development in the US that leads to reducing community carbon footprints.

    However, too much of the “smart growth establishment” is still overlooking the deeper reality that the “smart growth effect” of reducing the need for car trips, in the US these days, seems to measure out to less than half of the more fundamental effect due to the “geography of VMT”.

    Simply put, people who live in a greater metropolitan area, farther out from the urban core, tend to drive much farther per person per day, overall. This strong effect is largely due to simple geometry. The frequent turnover in US employment helps keep the effect strong, as only a small percentage of smart growth residents will actually work within their walkable radius.

    Much as architects are learning that the greenest green building, put in a sprawl location, will drive a larger overall carbon footprint than a basic current-code building in an urban core location…

    Planners and elected officials need to learn – and the clock is ticking – that smart growth has to be built in geographically low-VMT locations, to be part of the solution, and not just a more enlightened style of greenwashing.

    This failure to grasp and respond effectively to the geography of VMT may well be the single largest flaw in current US research and planning around reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the positive interaction of land use and transportation.

    By focusing smart growth, and its concomitant increases in residential density, aggressively into close-in, geographically low VMT areas (usually best achieved by redevelopment of tired. low density commercial areas) while ending further subdivisions at the urban fringe, we really can reduce average per-capita VMT across a metropolitan area, even as its population increases.

    Studies like “Moving Cooler”, which analyzes an entire arsenal of vehicle GHG emissions reductions strategies and still projects falling short of meeting long term reductions targets even all the tools being aggressively employed, serve to indirectly highlight the necessity of adding the ‘geography of VMT effect’ to the rest of the generally-positive smart growth establishment planning palette.

  3. ZS says:

    Kevin, I’m not sure I understand your point about the “geography of VMT effect”.

    Your explanation: “Simply put, people who live in a greater metropolitan area, farther out from the urban core, tend to drive much farther per person per day, overall. This strong effect is largely due to simple geometry. The frequent turnover in US employment helps keep the effect strong, as only a small percentage of smart growth residents will actually work within their walkable radius.”

    One of the main goals of Smart Growth planning to move people closer to public transit so that they need to drive, correct? “only a small percentage of smart growth residents will actually work within their walkable radius.” – Yes…and many other residents will then take public transit. This is my current situation (I live in Montgomery County, actually). I work in downtown DC, so I use WMATA to get downtown.

    True, some of the people who live in Smart Growth communities may still choose to drive (is this the “less than half of the more fundamental effect” you mention?), but there’s no doubt that transportation-related GHG emissions in Montgomery County would be greatly reduced with a robust public transportation system, right? I may just be misunderstanding you, but it seems like you’re attacking a strawman.

  4. Frances Stewart says:

    Dennis, I’m not sure what constitutes an “official trail” but what you refer to as the “ROW” has signs that say “Georgetown Branch Trail” and that look very similar to the signs on other trails in the area. If you visit it on a day like last Sunday, you’ll find large numbers of people walking, running, biking and pushing strollers on it.

  5. Matt Dernoga says:

    Montgomery County is as much talk as it is action. The Montgomery County Council spent half this decade advocating for, and finally getting the Intercounty Connector road. It’s a mega-highway largely based in Montgomery County, pushed by a Republican Governor in 2005, and fast-tracked by the Bush Admin. Below are some resources on the climate and environmental destruction of the road.

    “a new highway that will trigger 750 million additional driving miles annually and generate 5,000 acres of sprawl development according to official sources. several times that according to experts.
    And the same politicians who are taking us down this wrong path are posing as our climate champions!”

    The Washington Post might be drinking their Kool-Aide, but you shouldn’t offer readers a sip.

  6. Dennis says:


    “what you refer to as the “ROW” has signs that say ‘Georgetown Branch Trail’”

    I live two blocks from the ROW, and the signs say “Future Capital Crescent Trail.” Maybe there are some east of Bethesda that are as you describe, but I can’t recall one.

    Yes, it is a wonderful “trail” which is heavily used (I ride my bike frequently), but its status has remained in doubt pending numerous approvals. That’s why it has never been paved (unlike West of Bethesda). The plan is to include both light rail (purple line) and a hiker/biker trail (continuation of Capital Crescent Trail). That means cutting down many wonderful trees and forcing many homeowners to recognize that their backyards spill into the the 60 ft. ROW.

    I’d like to have both the wilderness style trail with the beautiful trees and a light rail system within walking distance of my home, but I can’t have both. I’ve made the personal decision to support light rail with a trail alongside. Trees can be replanted and will grow back. Homeowners will complain about the trains, but those were freight tracks that ran until 1985, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

  7. GFW says:

    Yeesh, I had to use Google to figure out that VMT was vehicle miles traveled.

    Virginia Museum of Transportation didn’t quite fit :-)

  8. Shannon says:

    I think that is a great idea. In my town you spend more time at stoplights and moving down the road. In the south we like our cars and don’t do mass transportation. I think we need to do that more.