Tag: Action Committee for Transit

Montgomery parking requirements looser, but not enough

Montgomery County’s new zoning code will allow less parking in new developments in order to use land more efficiently and encourage alternatives to driving. However, the regulations still require parking in ways that will hinder the walkable urban places the county wants to build.

Space for people, or space for cars? All photos by the author.For four years, the Planning Department has been revising its complicated, unwieldy zoning code. First written in 1928, the code hasn’t been updated since 1977, when the county was still mostly suburban. The new code will go before the County Council in a public hearing June 11.

Under the current code, buildings must have lots of parking, even near transit or in areas where most people don’t drive. The new parking regulations are simpler and allow developers to build fewer parking spaces, though they do require other amenities, like bike racks, changing facilities and spaces for car sharing or carpools.

New rules require less parking, more amenities

The new code reduces parking requirements throughout the county, especially in its parking benefit districts where public parking is available, like Silver Spring, Bethesda, Wheaton, Montgomery Hills and eventually White Flint.

Restaurants currently must have 25 parking spaces per 1000 square feet, a little smaller than a Chipotle. Under the new rules, a restaurant would only need between 4 and 10 spaces, depending on whether it was in a parking district. Meanwhile, office buildings outside a parking district will only need 2.25 spaces per 1000 square feet, compared to 3 today.

Some rules have been simplified. The current law requires different amounts of parking for different kinds of stores; for instance, a “country market” must provide 5 parking spaces for each 1000 square feet, while a furniture store needs only 2. Under the new code, all stores would be required to have 3.5 spaces per 1000 square feet in parking districts, and 5 spaces elsewhere.

New buildings would also have to accommodate alternate modes of transportation by providing bike parking. Larger buildings will have to include space for car sharing, while developers would be able to swap out car parking spaces for carpool spaces, bikeshare stations or changing facilities.

However, the parking requirements for housing won’t change much. Single-family homes and townhomes would still need 2 off-street parking spaces or 1 if they’re in a parking district, same as before, while new apartments would need at least 1 parking space, regardless of where they are. However, apartment developers could build less parking if they “unbundle” them, meaning that residents could buy or rent a space separately from their unit.

Do we still need parking requirements?

While the new requirements are an improvement, some local groups argue that there shouldn’t be parking requirements at all. The Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Montgomery County Sierra Club, and the Action Committee for Transit, where I sit on the board, have all come out against parking minimums.

Parking requirements don’t always make great places.Why? For starters, parking is expensive to build and rarely pays for itself. Construction costs for a space in a parking lot are about $3,500, compared to $30,000 for one in a garage and $100,000 for one underground, not counting the cost of land. Parking fees rarely cover these expenses alone, so the costs get passed on to the public in other ways, like higher prices at a restaurant that’s charged higher rents by its landlord.

Meanwhile, our communities pay for a glut of parking. Surface parking lots that are only full on Black Friday take up valuable space that could be used for buildings or parks instead. And even attractively designed parking garages like this one in Rockville still create a dead space, hurting street life. On top of that, parking lots produce a lot of stormwater runoff, polluting waterways.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have any parking, but the costs of excess parking outweigh the benefits. As Matt Yglesias writes in Slate, people will continue to want parking, and any developer who wants to stay in business will satisfy them without being told to:

Almost 100 percent of Washington-area residents like to sleep on a soft comforable surface at night. But there’s no regulatory requirement that residential buildings contain mattresses. The lack of mattress mandates doesn’t mean people are forced to sleep on the floor. It means that if people want to sleep on a mattressand they generally dothey need to go buy one.

Once you take away the Agricultural Reserve, residential neighborhoods, and other uses, you’re left with about 4% of Montgomery County that’s available for development. That land is valuable, and we need to use it well. Covering it with big parking lots isn’t the right solution, but that’s what our current zoning code requires. While the new law’s a step in the right direction, it may not go far enough to create the kind of places we want.

The County Council will hold a public hearing on the Zoning Rewrite on Tuesday, June 11 at 7:30pm. To sign up to testify or submit written comments, visit their website.

Photos courtesy of thecourtyard on Flickr.

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Activists say transit priority essential to traffic relief

As Montgomery County planners tweak wording in a draft transit master plan, some activists say prioritizing the 10 corridors and 79 miles of proposed future bus rapid transit is essential to easing traffic gridlock.

The county’s planning board on March 18 rejected the first draft of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, sending it back to the staff to soften language and explain why the plan recommends giving transit priority over cars and drivers.

The planning board is scheduled to discuss the updated draft at 9 a.m. April 4.

Action Committee for Transit President Tina Slater expressed disappointment that debate over transit priority has delayed the plan’s progress, even if only for a few weeks.

Unlike the county’s Ride On bus system, which is mired in the same traffic that gridlocks cars, BRT will give residents an option they never have had before by moving riders more rapidly in dedicated lanes, she said.

The population of Montgomery is expected to increase by 205,759 people by 2040, according to a Montgomery County Demographic and Travel Forecast, based on a 2012 Metropolitan Washington Council of Government report. Slater questioned how even more residents will get around if the county does not prioritize transit.

“We are going to have a major transportation problem on our hands if we don’t do something now,” she said.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, saw the planning board’s delay as doing its homework to ensure the right routes and dedicated service are recommended.

However, Schwartz said his organization feels there are more corridors poised for dedicated lane service than the staff recommended.

During the discussion on March 18, Planning Commission Chairwoman Francoise M. Carrier said she quarreled with the plan’s “categorical statements that transit gets priority all the time everywhere.”

Carrier argued that any priority should be expressed in more nuanced language.

Acting Planning Director Rose Krasnow said that under the existing procedure, roads get priority, all the time, everywhere, which has greatly harmed the quality of life.

Planning Board Commissioner Casey Anderson cautioned watering down the language.

If the board were discussing a rail line, it would not debate whether it was fair to give it priority over other traffic, he said.

But both the problem and advantage of BRT is that it can operate in a myriad of ways — dedicated lanes, dedicated right-of-way, mixed in traffic, etc. — depending on where it is built.

“And that’s great because it’s very flexible,” Anderson said. “The problem is, whatever is in this plan then gets negotiated down from there. And so this is the high-water mark. If you don’t put it in the plan now, it’s not going to get better for transit, it’s only going to degrade.”

Dedicated lanes, signal priority and queue jumping are proven approaches to bus transit and are being implemented in Montgomery by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority with its MetroExtra limited stop bus service, Schwartz said.

About 700 people ride MetroExtra every day on its route on New Hampshire Avenue, and more routes are planned.

“There’s no better option to manage growth in traffic while maintaining economic competitiveness than investing in dedicated lane transit and transit-oriented communities,” Schwartz said.

Historically, the county approach to traffic congestion was to widen roads.

Yet, many routes proposed in the draft transit master plan cannot be widened, Slater said.

“The only thing you are left to do if the road is as wide as it is today, and you are trying to stuff more people down it, is to put people on something that can move more people than a car,” she said.

But to give BRT dedicated lanes north of the Beltway only to let it snarl in the urban traffic for fear that taking a lane could worsen congestion for the cars would defeat BRT’s purpose, she said.

Once built as planned, BRT will be its own advertisement, Slater said.

Drivers sitting in traffic who see buses bypassing the gridlock will consider taking a bus to get to their destination more quickly, she said.

Reduced from the 160-mile network of 20 corridors recommended last May by the Transit Task Force, planning staff have proposed a 79-mile network of 10 corridors, including U.S. 355 north and south, Georgia Avenue north and south, U.S. 29, Veirs Mill Road, Randolph Road, New Hampshire Avenue, University Boulevard and the North Bethesda Transitway.

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