Montgomery County is finding creative ways for people to reclaim streets during the pandemic

Written by Alison Gillespie and Jane Lyons

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread this spring, demand for parks and trails spiked in neighborhoods across the country. Many cities responded by opening streets to pedestrians and cyclists and closing streets, entirely or partially, to vehicles.

The “open” or “shared streets” concept has proven more difficult in places without street-grids, where suburban sprawl and 1960s-style planning decisions have created large multi-lane arterials built to move cars quickly with little room for transit, pedestrians, or bikes.

This is the case in Montgomery County, Maryland, where the novel coronavirus has revealed weak points in the transportation system, as well as a community desire to reduce heavy traffic. But over the past weeks, government agencies, advocates, and residents have found creative ways to reclaim unused space for recreational use, dining, and more.

Opening streets in Montgomery County begins with re-examining county-owned parkways

Early in the process of “locking down” Montgomery County to reduce the impact of COVID-19, it became apparent that the trails along Sligo Creek, Rock Creek, and Little Falls parkways were not big enough to handle the thousands of people needing exercise and reprieve from staying inside their homes. The Capital Crescent Trail and the Sligo Trail looked more like streets in Manhattan at Christmas than suburban park paths.

While some county council members and planning department officials begged people via social media to find alternative places to walk or ride bikes, many residents who were out in the parks looked longingly at the empty parkways built for car traffic. Why not reclaim that space? If people had more room to walk and ride, they could realistically keep six feet apart from one another during peak hours.

Sligo Creek Parkway, which has long been closed to traffic on Sunday afternoons in warmer months, was the first to get the open street treatment. In March, closures extended through most of its eight miles on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The popularity of the closures prompted Montgomery Parks to close sections of Little Falls Parkway, which runs roughly parallel to the Capital Crescent Trail, and a long section of Beach Drive in the county-owned part of Rock Creek Park on weekends, too.

The closures have proven incredibly popular with the public, according to counting devices. As of June 26, Montgomery Parks recorded an estimated 175,000 visits to Sligo Creek Parkway, Beach Drive, and Little Falls Parkway during their “Open Parkways” hours. This was in addition to an estimated 140,000 visits to the Sligo Creek Trail, the Rock Creek Hiker-Biker Trail, and the Capital Crescent Trail on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays since the Open Parkways began.

“What I have seen on our three open parkways is nothing short of magical,” says Mike Riley, the director of Montgomery County Parks. “While jogging and biking the parkways, I’ve seen incredible diversity of use and users from young to old, experienced cyclists to kids learning to ride with training wheels, skateboarders to joggers to parents pushing strollers and much more. I’ve observed a lot of families together having animated conversations while supporting their physical fitness and mental health. This is a great use of our parkways.”

The process wasn’t without challenges, however. The gates used to close off the parkways were built to keep all traffic off the parkways during floods or other emergencies. They proved to be genuine obstacles to making the parkways open to pedestrians and bikes during the COVID open-street weekends. In many places, the heavy, metal closures that were designed to entirely block a lane had to be taken down and transported to the parks’ repair shop, cut down to a shorter length, and then rewelded. The goal was to make them smooth and safe while allowing enough room for a bike, stroller or wheelchair to comfortably enter without cars passing by.

The changes are part of a long-term investment in park infrastructure. In the coming weeks Montgomery Parks will do public outreach in consideration of making the weekend closures permanent, even after the pandemic passes.

Restaurants offer eats in the street

As restrictions have slowly lifted over the last three weeks, restaurants have been anxious to welcome back diners. To accommodate the demand, Montgomery County has worked with business districts in the more densely populated downcounty areas to allow dining on some sidewalks and closed streets.

The initiative, led by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT), includes the Downtown Bethesda and Wheaton “Streeteries” and Silver Spring “Streetdine.” The City of Takoma Park has popped up its own streetery on Laurel Avenue, and the City of Rockville now offers “in-the-street” dining on Gibbs Street and allows restaurants to apply for temporary outdoor dining permits.

In addition to giving people the ability to socialize, eat outside, and safely support local businesses, the street eateries have the potential to turn closed parkways into actual transportation corridors as well as recreational spaces. This has already proven true in Bethesda, where the closed parkways literally line up with the streeteries.

“It was fantastic to see people biking right up to their tables,” Hannah Henn, a senior engineer for strategic innovation at MCDOT, told members of the county council during a special online hearing about open streets on June 24, while showing pictures of diners attending the first open street weekend in Bethesda.

Henn is MCDOT’s lead on “shared streets.” Surveys done by her department showed that there was strong community support for creating connections to places via open streets, and lots of interest in having streets turned into outdoor dining and recreation spaces for socializing safely.

In Silver Spring, the “Streetdine” takes place on a state highway (Georgia Ave, MD-97) and required an unprecedented partnership between MCDOT, Council Vice President Tom Hucker, the Maryland State Highway Administration, the Silver Spring Regional Services Office, and the Silver Spring Urban District.

Residents get temporary greenways and block permits

In addition to the outdoor seating and curbside retail program, the new “shared streets” program from MCDOT includes temporary neighborhood greenways and shared streets block permits.

“Greenways” are streets where the safe movement of bicycles and pedestrians is prioritized and the fast movement of vehicles is discouraged. The greenways pilot projects include 1.2 miles on Holdridge Road from Olympic Street to Urban Drive in Aspen Hill and 0.5 miles from Bonifant Street to Sligo Avenue on Grove Streets in Silver Spring.

“The temporary road closure to through vehicles has opened up a space that kids/families now use regularly to practice biking and scooting and running while maintaining social distancing,” Kelly Doordan wrote in a post to the Facebook group called Open Streets Montgomery. Doordan also posted pictures of a socially distant ice cream party that the neighborhood had hosted, near Grove Street, where she lives. Chalk was used to show people where to safely stand while they waited to get their free scoops. “I think other community uses are easier to envision when vehicles don’t dominate the space,” she wrote.

While MCDOT hopes to implement the lessons learned from the pilots, make them permanent, and then expand to other locations, neighbors don’t have to wait for them to bring a greenway — anyone can apply for a shared streets block permit. The only requirement is that the applicant must live on the block requested for permit.

If approved, MCDOT will bring the required traffic cones and other materials to you — for a limited period of time, a span of either Monday through Thursday or Friday through Sunday.

Note: this post also appeared on the Greater Greater Washington website.

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