Montgomery County planners use ‘heat map’ to determine demand for bike routes

September 14, 2011

Rockville Pike is hot.

So are Friendship Heights and Silver Spring — when it comes to areas that will need more bike routes in Montgomery County.

Planners are using a “heat map” to predict where the need is likely to be highest in the county for bicycling routes. The map uses a color-coded system, in which the “hottest” areas are highlighted in red and “coolest” in white. It is designed to help policymakers prioritize investment in bicycling routes and facilities.

“It’s meant to give you an idea where we think demand is, and that is mainly in Friendship Heights and in pockets on [Route 355],” said David Anspacher, a senior planner for the county’s Planning Department and co-creator of the heat map.

The number of bicyclists in Montgomery has risen during the past 10 years. During that time, Montgomery has seen a 62 percent increase in people biking to work each day along its nearly 400 miles of share-use paths and 150 miles of bike lanes, according to department figures. The map was created to track this growth in an effort to better guide construction of new bikeways, Anspacher said.

Bicyclists, however, represent only about 0.5 percent of the county’s 494,381 total daily commuters, according to census data from 2009, the most recent available.

The Bethesda and Rockville areas have been a focus for bicycling projects. State Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda will seek funding for county- or state-operated bike share programs — in which bikes can be rented from special racks, similar to the one used in the District — for downtown Bethesda this year. In June, Rockville announced plans to establish such a program with the approval of a $1.3 million grant from the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board. An initial program is slated to start in June of next year.

Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, a group that advocates for bicyclists in Montgomery County and around the District, said areas such as Bethesda or Silver Spring should see new bikeway connections — between each other and areas such as Wheaton, Rockville and White Flint — soon because of the demand for bicycling represented on the map and their stock of existing pathways, such as the Capital Crescent Trail.

“What you’ve got is a bunch of pockets of populations that need to be connected,” he said. “I think [this map] shows that.”

Farthing said he thinks the map will be beneficial in getting facilities to where they are most needed because it emphasizes need, as opposed to existing, stock. He said the map was a step in the right direction for Montgomery.

“It is better to look at it from a perspective of demand, not just where there are paths right now that can be extended,” he said. “I think that will put these facilities in the right places, not the easy places.”

The county’s Division of Commuter Services, the arm of the Department of Transportation that is given the task of promoting alternatives to driving, was given $2.7 million of the department’s $39.59 million total budget proposed for the next fiscal year, down from $3.09 million this year for the commuter division.

In Bethesda, upgrades to bike racks and crosswalks on Bethesda Avenue, 47th Street and Willow Lane are slated for 2013, according to county records. Near Wisconsin Avenue, an off-road bike path is slated to be finished this fall along Cedar Lane to connect Wisconsin Avenue and Beach Drive. The county has budgeted $550,000 each year for the next three years for its annual bikeways program, which works to create shared-use paths — delineated sections of roadway for bicycles and pedestrians — along existing roadways.

The map is based on a points system, in which population and employment density are given the most weight, followed by proximity to public transportation, recreation centers and schools, Anspacher said.

Of the 552 areas planners reviewed, 24 received more than 50 points, with Silver Spring and Friendship Heights totaling nearly 100 each. The northern portions of the county, in the Agricultural Reserve, received zero.

The map was created by Anspacher and a colleague in their spare time over the past year, he said.

Jack Cochrane, chair of MoBike, a bicycling advocacy group and a Bethesda resident, said that while he is in favor of the map and hopes it brings better routes to the area, the county’s system of bikeways is lacking in terms of connecting residents’ homes with destinations such as schools or workplaces and driver education. He said drivers need to be better informed about the rights of bicyclists.

“It’s not the complete picture,” he said. “You have to look at how connected that network [of bike routes] needs to be and how easy it is to bicycle between communities.”

Both the District and Arlington County have similar maps for tracking demand of their bike share programs.

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