Montgomery County Plan Maps Out Safer Streets, But Raises New Issues For Development

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) recently issued draft design guidelines entitled “Complete Streets,” intended to be used in the design of the County’s roadways.

Because the Complete Streets design guidelines include recommendations outside the existing or planned right-of-way, they will have a potential impact on many development projects. M-NCPPC’s public hearing on the Complete Streets draft is scheduled for July 23, with worksessions scheduled in September and October and transmission to the County Council late this year. The Council’s final approval is anticipated in Spring of 2021.

The concept behind Complete Streets is that roadways should be designed to “provide safe, accessible and healthy travel for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and motorists.” Tellingly, pedestrians and bicyclists are listed ahead of motorists and this prioritization of users is apparent throughout the document. The Complete Streets concept appears to have evolved from the County’s Vision Zero goal to eliminate severe and fatal traffic collisions by 2030.

On the one hand, Complete Streets appears to be an amalgamation of several other existing County planning documents including the Bicycle Master Plan, the Master Plan of Highways and Transitway, individual Master Plans and area-specific Streetscape Design Standards. On the other hand however, and perhaps most alarming, is that the guidelines could potentially require projects to either dedicate or devote additional right-of-way or street frontage beyond that recommended in the applicable Master Plan in order to comply with the Complete Street concepts.

Currently, property owners know up front based on the Master Plan of Highways and Transitway and the governing Master Plan how much street dedication will be required and plan their development based on this criteria. In contrast, Complete Streets notes that the Master Planned rights-of-way are the minimum widths required. Complete Streets sets forth a series of design parameters (e.g. lane width, median width, bikeways, etc.) and prioritizes the importance of these parameters in order to guide decision-making where right-of-way or frontage is not unlimited (which it rarely is).

The concerning result is that not until a project has worked its way through design review and approval will there be clarity as to the required right-of-way or frontage required to further the Complete Street design recommendations. This is a major flaw in the document that ideally will be addressed through the review process.

The Complete Streets framework delineates each type of street into a “sidewalk zone” (with further sub-delineations of frontage zone, pedestrian clear zone and street buffer zone) and a “street zone” (with further sub-delineations of curbside zone, travelway zone and median zone). The document identifies the various street types (downtown boulevards, downtown streets, boulevards, town center boulevards, town center streets, neighborhood connectors, neighborhood streets, neighborhood yield streets, industrial streets, country connectors, country roads and major highways) and recommends specific design criteria for the zones and sub-zones of each type of street.

Other notable aspects of Complete Streets include the following:

  • There will be little leeway to reduce recommended bike lane widths located within a Bicycle and Pedestrian Priority Area or within ½ mile of a BRT or rail transit station.
  • Frontage zones may be located partially or entirely on private property
  • Café areas may be acceptable within curb extensions
  • The number of driveways should be minimized on downtown and town center streets and boulevards
  • “Parklets” within the curbside zone should be encouraged in certain areas to activate urban streets
  • Shared on-street commercial loading is encouraged
  • In the Central Business Districts ride hailing zones every one or two blocks should be provided
  • In Downtown and Town Center areas, dry utilities may be installed within the right-of-way
  • Intersections should be designed to reduce pedestrian crossing distances

A draft of Complete Streets may be found at

Pat Harris is a land use attorney who works with developers and property owners to secure zoning approvals. For more information, contact her at [email protected] or 301-841-3832.