July-August 2009

Best Place to Live

Is the Bethesda area the best place in the country to live?

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“One of the reasons it’s become such a popular destination is because in such a densely packed urban to suburban area, you have really easy access to what amounts to an open-air park,” says Jennifer Kaleba, vice president of communications for the Railsto-Trails Conservancy, a Washington-based nonprofit working to preserve unused rail corridors by transforming them into trails. “There’s just so many ways to access this park to make it a backyard playground.” The trail is most heavily used in Bethesda, where hundreds bike, run and walk on it daily, according to a 2006 survey by the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail. The trail is one of the most heavily used rails-to-trails in the country, according to the coalition.

And then there are the stream valley Parks with both paved and natural surface trails that are a magnet for cyclists and runners. The popular 18.6-mile paved Rock Creek Trail, which runs from the county’s Rock Creek Regional Park in Rockville into Washington, And the 10.2-mile paved Sligo Creek Trail, which runs from Wheaton to Takoma Park, are the only two county trails designated as national recreation trails by the U.S. Department of the Interior. A bonus: Parts of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Regional Park and sections of Sligo Creek Parkway in Silver Spring are closed to vehicle traffic on weekends.

“What’s great about living here is that we have so many well-maintained bike paths permitting runners to train without having to deal with car traffic much,” says Dave Haaga of Rockville. “The Rock Creek Trail is beautiful and shady. The Millennium Trail circumnavigates Rockville. The Bethesda Trolley Trail enables a running commuter to get to the Capital Crescent Trail and then into D.C., thanks to its pedestrian bridges over [Interstates] 270 and 495.”

The management of the park system by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission makes the county one of the standouts in the nation when it comes to recreation areas, according to Geoffrey Godbey, a nationally known speaker, author and professor emeritus of recreation, park and tourism management at Penn State University.

The ability of the commission, which serves Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, to marshal its political clout and effectively plan for the long term sets the area apart from other jurisdictions, he says.

“You can take that for granted, but my experience will tell you it’s the exception rather than the rule,” Godbey says. “It is a politically powerful organization, and actually uses information more than any other organization of its type to benefit citizens.”

In the safety zone

The Bethesda area is one of the safest places in the country, according to a 2008 ranking of large metropolitan areas by the Farmers Insurance Group of Companies. The area encompassing Bethesda, Gaithersburg and Frederick earned eighth place on the Farmers’ Most Secure U.S. Places to Live list, which considered crime statistics, extreme weather, risk of natural disasters, housing depreciation, foreclosures, air quality, life expectancy and job loss numbers for areas with populations of 500,000 or more.

County police statistics show that residents need not worry much about becoming the victim of a violent crime.

Montgomery County Police Department statistics show that total crime reported in the Bethesda district increased by just 0.2 percent from 2007 to 2008, compared with 0.7 percent in Rockville and 1.4 percent in Silver Spring. Total crime for the county increased by 1.4 percent from 2007 to 2008, the statistics show.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Bethesda-area residents say they feel generally safe in their communities, despite the occasional car theft or break-in. Close connections among neighbors can make a big difference, they say.

Tara Gorman, who lives with her five children in Bethesda’s Glen Cove neighborhood, says she’s comfortable allowing her 6-year-old son, Jon David, to walk three blocks to play at Westbrook Elementary School.

“Everybody knows everybody in this neighborhood,” she says. “You feel extra safe because everybody is looking out for everybody’s kids.”

Jessica Lefkow says the Bethesda area has provided a safe environment for her three sons—ages 15, 16 and 22—to learn how to navigate a community. They often meet friends and hang out on their own. “They have a life in downtown Bethesda,” she says.

You can get there from here

With 12 Metro stops on the Red Line in Montgomery County (including eight between Friendship Height s and Gaithersburg) and plenty of bus service available, the Bethesda area is commuter friendly. A trip from the Bethesda Metro to Washington’s Metro Center can take less than 20 minutes outside of rush hour if there are no delays, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

“You can’t over-emphasize the importance of Metro,” says Slavin, the Somerset mayor.

Although it is difficult to gauge how efficient Bethesda-area transit is versus similar areas around the country, one thing is true: The community has benefited from the research and planning of other regions that grew more quickly than Montgomery County, says Doug Hecox of the Federal Highway Administration’s National Transportation Operations Coalition.

“The Bethesda area is planned more wisely than others,” Hecox says. “Pound for pound, Bethesda may have more buses, more shuttles and more means than any other area of getting around.”

Residents can avoid adding to traffic congestion by taking the county’s Ride On bus service, which offers dozens of routes that include all of the county’s Metro stops. For short trips around downtown Bethesda, the Bethesda Circulator offers free trolley trips. The service, operated by the Bethesda Urban Partnership, stops at 20 locations. In Silver Spring, the free VanGo shuttle operates Monday through Friday and stops at 22 downtown locations. Also in Bethesda, cyclists will find more than 60 bike racks provided by Bethesda Transportation Solutions, a division of BUP.

Access and convenience aren’t the only pluses. Rockville’s Candice Haaga says her family’s close proximity to a Metro station means that her husband, Dave, a college professor, can take the subway to his job at American University. “Being near the Red Line is just wonderful,” she says. “It allows us to have one car.”

The bottom line

The bottom line in explaining how the Bethesda area has become such an extraordinary place to live is, well, the bottom line. The affluence of residents is a major contributor to the quality of life. Wealthy people can afford to go out to eat and to shop for quality merchandise, creating demand for restaurants and stores. Wealthy people also can afford to pay the taxes needed for first-rate schools and county services. And they can afford quality health care.

On top of that, highly educated people typically demand that schools and services be first rate, and that government provide support for the arts and recreation. “There’s a synergy about good public schools. Good public schools raise property values, so taxpayers without kids in public schools tend to support them,” says Dionne, the Post columnist. “There’s pride in government here, there’s pride in public facilities, not just what we happen to own ourselves.”

Julie Rasicot of Silver Spring is a regular contributor to Bethesda Magazine.