Editor’s Note: Today we introduce a column by Amanda Farber, a Bethesda resident who has developed a social media following for her insights on development in and around Bethesda. Farber was profiled in a July, 2018, Bethesda Magazine story, “The Accidental Activist.” Her column will appear occasionally in Bethesda Beat.
People cheer for them when they have a package tracking on the way. Drivers curse them when they are parked in the middle of the road. Cyclists call them out on social media when they block bike lanes. Pedestrians cut around them. And businesses are completely dependent on them.
Delivery cars and trucks can cause both delight and disdain. And they are creating a dilemma for growing urban areas – including downtown Bethesda – where there has been a rise in the vehicles.
But it is not just the increase in delivery traffic volume that has brought this issue into focus. Sometimes the sins of past planning and previous policies are to blame for current conflicts. Many older commercial buildings, in Woodmont Triangle for example, were built before there were new zoning code requirements for designated loading areas.
Older residential buildings such as The Chase and Triangle Towers used to include designated pull-off areas and lay-by lanes, but these features went out of style with many urban planners, developers and transportation officials in recent years.
Meanwhile, newer buildings such as the Flats at Bethesda Row, Element 28 and 7770 Norfolk, often use their already tight loading areas for other storage, parking and trash, meaning large delivery trucks simply can’t fit. Sometimes difficult maneuvering areas exacerbate conflicts, such as by Flats 8300 and the Harris Teeter grocery, where tractor-trailer trucks must block four lanes of traffic to enter and exit the loading bay.
The word “constrained” is used time and again to describe almost every property up for redevelopment in downtown Bethesda. Most properties and streets must be retrofit rather than having the luxury of being designed from scratch, as officials note was possible with North Bethesda Market and Pike and Rose.
Bethesda’s Central Business District also has a unique set of delivery considerations due to very few alleyways, limited street parking and a dense restaurant district that requires frequent deliveries of fresh food and trash removal.
Planners will tell you that loading bays are often considered “block killers” and don’t generate revenue the way retail space does, so certain new buildings in downtown Bethesda have been allowed to reduce the number of loading bays from what the zoning code requires.
Of course those trucks still have to go somewhere — but that somewhere isn’t always the best where. Many cyclists, for example, have noted that the bike lanes on Woodmont Avenue near Bethesda Row have essentially become default delivery lanes.
As for managing deliveries today, the county police Second District Commander Paul J. Liquorie indicated that enforcement is mostly done on a discretionary basis, when notably dangerous circumstances arise and is most often related to construction site traffic.
All of this is why officials from Bethesda Urban Partnership, the Regional Services Center, Department of Transportation and the county police are surveying businesses and buildings in Bethesda to learn more about their delivery needs and schedules and to work towards solutions.
Bethesda is far from alone in wanting and needing to tackle this issue. And there is not one answer.
Other urban jurisdictions have implemented various approaches, such as time restrictions, distinct delivery zones, incentives for off-peak deliveries, delivery consolidation and lockers, and more enforcement. In the District of Columbia, for example, the city has published established truck through routes and delivery zones. In Alexandria, Virginia, delivery management requirements are often part of site plan approval.
However, a recent recommendation by planners and the community to require off-peak deliveries for 8280 Wisconsin, a proposed new commercial development in a challenging delivery location, was met with resistance by the developer and ultimately denied by the Planning Board. But these local examples have helped spur the discussion about what else can and should be done.
Officials have stressed that solutions must strike a balance between the needs of the business community as well as safety and traffic considerations and the limitations of enforcement. They have also indicated the willingness to be creative in how they approach the issue.
Delivery companies themselves are introducing technology – including notifications, locker locations, and most recently smart access pilot programs – intended to make the “last mile” challenge of delivery logistics more efficient, cut down on truck congestion, and reduce idling time, particularly in urban areas.
In the foreground of all discussions should be the reality that the new Bethesda Downtown Plan means thousands more people living and working in the area, more vehicles, more bikers, more pedestrians and more deliveries. The burden of space for deliveries should not fall on pedestrians or bikers; different sites require different approaches; and any solutions – including better design and policies – must be geared toward addressing the problems happening today and those coming down the road. Literally.
Amanda Farber has written about the impact of planning, zoning and development issues on the quality of life in Bethesda, where she has lived for almost 20 years with her husband, two sons and several four-legged family members. She serves on the East Bethesda Citizens Association, Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents Board, Conservation Montgomery Board and the Bethesda Implementation Advisory Committee.
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