Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Ben Ross

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is now available in paperback. 

Pedestrians


To make streets walkable, empower pedestrians to cross anywhere

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the fourth and final post in a multi-part opinion series.

To make streets truly walkable, we need to totally rethink how we run them. Crossing on foot should be legal anywhere and anyplace. Traffic lights should be red-yellow-green, with no walk signals.


Photo by Ian Sane on Flickr.

As the previous posts in this series have shown, these simpler streets would be far safer. They could operate with only limited changes in the rules of the road. Drivers would follow traffic signals as they do today—pedestrians would have the right of way when they cross on green, but yield to drivers when the light is against them.

The rule for crosswalks with no signal would not change at all; those on foot would still have the right of way at all times. Elsewhere, foot crossings would be allowed at any location, but pedestrians would have to yield. (This is the current rule in Maryland and DC on blocks that don't have traffic lights at both ends.)

How the rules went wrong

The evolution of roadways over the last century has progressively restricted movement on foot. Traffic engineers have had two goals: to speed automobile travel by getting pedestrians out of the way, and to prevent crashes by separating vehicles from pedestrians.

This approach has long since become obsolete. It's not just that roads designed for fast driving aren't good for city living. Even on its own terms, traditional traffic engineering fails. It doesn't make streets safe. And it's too complex and expensive to be fully implemented.

The poor suffer most from this failure. Declining suburbs, designed for travel by automobile alone, now house many who cannot afford a car. With sidewalks scarce and crosswalks rarely marked, travel on foot in full compliance with the law is a practical impossibility. This opens the way to police harassment of minority pedestrians—a practice whose most famous victim was Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri.

Pedestrians need clear guidance, not complex commands

Effective management of the roadway requires a different philosophy. Users of all types should be empowered to cooperate in sharing scarce street space. Rules must be simplified and decision-making decentralized.

Pedestrians, empowered to cross whenever no cars are in the way, get to share the road more fairly. Walking is no longer delayed by rules set up to move cars. And legalizing mid-block foot crossings, which are unavoidable in many low-income suburbs, eliminates a pretext for police misconduct.

Simpler signals—no walk signs, so that the same traffic lights guide drivers and pedestrians alike—make roads safer. Drivers see what pedestrians see, so everyone knows who goes first. Simplicity also reduces distraction and provides redundant information to those who, inevitably, take their eyes off the signals. When movement begins, on wheel or on foot, anyone not paying attention gets a cue that the light has changed.

With this approach, rules of the road must still govern movement on the streets. Pedestrians have the right of way when crossing with a green light, or at a crosswalk with no signal. Everywhere else, vehicles have the right of way, with pedestrians allowed to cross if no traffic is in the way.

These right-of-way rules are only slightly altered from those in effect now, but they have a different spirit. Rather than telling people what to do, the rules create a framework where individual decisions add up to a collective gain. It's like economics, where markets usually work better than central command. Yet the system can exist only because laws set out basic rules and prevent harmful behavior like monopoly and fraud.

There are, to be sure, traffic problems that pedestrian empowerment cannot remedy. Where heavy foot and vehicle traffic meet, for example—situations like South Capitol Street after a Nationals game, or Times Square and the World Trade Center in New York—full separation of road users is the only way to keep traffic moving. Humans would have to direct traffic, as indeed they often do now in such places.

But a new approach to governing our streets cannot be judged against perfection; it must be compared to today's hazardous mess. The benefits of flexibility and simplicity will far outweigh the dangers created by loss of control.

This non-traffic engineer can only sketch out the needed changes. Details need to be added. Crossing freeways on foot, for example, surely must remain illegal.

New rules by themselves will hardly create safe walking streets. Roadways must be redesigned, and public attitudes must change. But without fundamentally rethinking how we control movement, the streets will never be safe and easy to walk on.

Pedestrians


Timing signals to work for pedestrians is impossible

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the third post in a multi-part opinion series.


At Arlington's "intersection of doom," the traffic signals are so complicated they're nearly impossible to follow. Photo by author.

Walk signals are not only unsafe and inconvenient, they're also incapable of making pedestrian travel efficient. Engineers simply don't have the time or resources to correctly configure every traffic light for pedestrians.

Traffic lights and signs are not police officers standing in the intersection. When engineers use them to direct traffic as if they were, they impose on themselves a task they cannot carry out. In real-world practice, it is simply not possible to program the lights and place the signs in a way that moves people efficiently. The engineers are short of information, time, and money.

Highway departments don't even have the resources to fully optimize traffic controls for drivers. They traditionally simplify their work by planning for the busiest time of day. But traffic, especially foot traffic, flows all day. Outside rush hour, both drivers and pedestrians find themselves standing and watching empty streets, waiting for slow lights timed to minimize rush-hour backups.

It is possible, as New York and a few other cities have shown, for complex signals to make walking easier. Pedestrians get a few seconds to enter a crosswalk before cars can turn. Or turns are banned while people are crossing.

But if you try to orchestrate movement on foot in this way at every streetcorner, the traffic engineers' job becomes entirely unmanageable. They cannot possibly find the time to adjust every walk signal for the proper balance between walking and driving.

And even when walk signals are properly adjusted, the engineer still knows less than the person walking on the street. Anyone standing on the corner can see whether cars are coming. The pedestrian knows best when it will be safer to cross immediately than to wait for the green light and dodge turning vehicles.

In any case, highway agencies rarely give foot travel much attention outside big-city downtowns. At best, they make a half-hearted effort to meet federal minimums. By-the-book engineering creates hazards in the form of disappearing sidewalks, badly timed lights, and inscrutable signage.

Walk signals are expensive

Not only are walk signals costly in staff time and information, they are a financial burden. Highway agencies say that the cost of installing a full-featured traffic signal is a quarter to half a million dollars, and sometimes more.

There are thought to be more than 300,000 signalized intersections in the United States. (No one really knows the exact number.) Retrofitting all of them with walk signals to current standards would run up a bill in the ballpark of $100 billion.

Incremental fixes just create new problems

The rules for crossing streets grow ever more complex, and they have come to resemble the Gordian knot that the ancient Greeks were unable to untie. Straightening one piece out only creates new tangles.

Rosslyn's "Intersection of Doom," where drivers turn right across a bike path, shows this dynamic at work. After much public agitation, the walk signal on the bike path was set to begin before the green light. But drivers still came through the busy crosswalk when turning right on red. So a flashing don't walk signal went in. Now drivers need eyes on three sides of their heads to comply with the signals.

Signals for the blind have undergone a similar evolution. When walking is controlled by a traffic light, those who can't see use traffic noise to tell whether it's green. But if there's a walk signal, they don't know whether it's lit. So crosswalks with walk signals need pushbutton-operated beepers for handicapped access. More expense, more confusion, and more obstruction of the sidewalk.

The complexity has gotten so bad that FHWA can't even keep its rulebook straight. It required beepers for the blind in 2009, but did not authorize a sign that says what the button is for. Rule-bound engineers are now blanketing streets with signs that comply with the rulebook but misinform their readers.

These miscues are not happenstance. According to the branch of mathematics known as control theory, they are the inevitable consequence of too much complexity. Beyond a certain point, increasing the number of signals sent by an automatic controller creates more error than it prevents.

Alexander the Great is said to have cut through the Gordian knot with his sword. We need similar boldness to make our streets walkable. My next post suggests how that might be possible.

Pedestrians


Walk signals are bad for walking

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the third post second in a multi-part opinion series.

Conventional wisdom says that walk signals make crossing the street safer for people. But they actually make walking slower and more dangerous.


Photo by Adrian Black on Flickr.

Many pedestrians think the walk-don't walk light helps by letting them know when it's safe to cross the street. But its actual effect is to curtail the right to make that crossing.

When there's no walk signal, a green-yellow-red traffic signal sends drivers and pedestrians traveling in the same direction into an intersection during the same green light interval. What the walk signal does is to give traffic engineers the means to send them ahead at different times. In practice, those on foot invariably get less time than drivers—often only the recommended minimum of seven seconds.

Walk signals push pedestrians off the street in more subtle ways, too. Federal Highway Administration rules require new walk signals (except on very narrow streets) to have timers that show how many seconds are left before you must be off the roadway.

But the timer is useless for deciding when to cross. Under the rules, the countdown doesn't begin until the don't-walk sign begins to flash—at which point it is illegal to enter the roadway, even if there is enough time to get to the other side. What the timer does is to chase slow walkers back to where they started, supplanting long-established laws that let pedestrians keep going if they're part way across when the light changes.

One thing pedestrians do like about walk signals is their visibility. But they aren't needed for this purpose. Red-green lights on streetcorners would be just as visible.

Walk signals are a safety hazard

Not only do the signals make walking slower and less convenient, they make it less safe.

Since—as discussed in the first post of this seriespedestrians are the best judges of their own safety, restricting the right to cross the street is intrinsically dangerous. On top of that, restricting people's ability to enter the roadway on foot trains drivers not to look out for people walking.

A particular peril is the 7-second crossing interval, which comes just when the drivers' light turns red. The only time pedestrians are allowed to step into the street is when the cars that waited at the red light (to travel in the direction perpendicular to where the pedestrian wants to walk) begin to turn across their path.

Timers, too, create hazards. They change the behavior of drivers as well as those on foot. Whether the drivers speed up to beat the light or simply get distracted is not clear, but the effect is real. A recent study in Toronto found that countdown timers cause more collisions than they prevent.

Top-down control is the wrong approach

Dutch traffic engineers have found in some villages that removing all traffic signs and markings actually brings accident rates down. It is rarely feasible to go that far on busy American streets, but the underlying principle—that negotiating the use of shared space makes roads safer—still applies.

The philosophy of the walk signal is just the opposite. A central controller sends instructions separately to drivers and pedestrians. One road user doesn't know what the other is supposed to do—drivers, in particular, are not responsible for looking at walk signals and often can't see them—so everyone must rely on the controller.

Without shared information, the crosswalk becomes a legal no-man's-land. Motorists preparing to make turns don't know whether a person they see on the sidewalk will have the right of way to cross in front of them. When crashes occur, it's hard to prove the driver is at fault.

If drivers and pedestrians are unable to coordinate, the system operates properly only if each gets correct instructions and follows them reliably. But the reality of the highway is far different. Signals are mistimed, beg buttons (the buttons you sometimes have to push to get a walk signal) don't work, snow blocks sidewalks, and of course both motorists and pedestrians regularly ignore the law.

The basic flaw of the walk signal is its underlying concept of protecting pedestrians by separating them from vehicles. This leads inevitably to ever-greater restrictions on movement by foot. And it fails to make walking safe.

Pedestrians


Careful jaywalking saves lives

To make streets walkable, we need to re-think the basic principles of how people on foot and people in cars share the roadway. This is the first of a multi-part opinion series.

Pedestrians put themselves in danger if they wait for a walk signal instead of crossing the street whenever and wherever it looks safest. There are no definitive studies, but that is what available evidence strongly suggests.


Photo by nydiscovery7 on Flickr.

Most research on traffic safety focuses on narrow questions posed by the highway agencies that fund it. Basic premises, like the idea that "jaywalking" is intrinsically unsafe, are rarely investigated.

In the absence of systematic studies, one must turn to indirect statistical evidence.

One useful data set was collected for New York's Vision Zero program. That city, where residents routinely ignore signals when they cross streets, can be thought of as a natural experiment. The majority of pedestrian deaths, and a far larger majority of non-fatal crashes, occur while crossing the street legally in a crosswalk.

Why might that be? Drivers hit pedestrians when turning more often than when they are driving straight ahead. At a red light, drivers who are about to turn wait alongside pedestrians. The changing signal sends both into the intersection at the same time—maximizing the opportunities for collisions.

Other researchers, working in places with less foot traffic and fewer striped crosswalks than New York, got results that point in a similar direction. They found that pedestrians crossing big highways are more likely to be struck at marked crosswalks than at unmarked ones. On smaller roads, they found little advantage either way.

The Federal Highway Administration took these findings to mean that putting stripes on highway pavement makes it more dangerous to cross there. It used them to justify a ban on new crosswalk markings, except at traffic lights, on wide high-speed roads. A far more likely explanation is that pedestrians are better judges of their own safety than are traffic engineers, whose first concern is usually to move cars fast.

The concept of jaywalking was invented in the 1920s by motoring lobbies to empty streets of other users. Drivers wanted to go faster and automakers sought to sell more cars. Safety, as Peter Norton has shown in his book Fighting Traffic, was no more than an afterthought.

Almost a century has now passed, and our traffic laws are still not geared to safety.

Pedestrians


You don't have to push this button to cross the street

If you walk to a corner and see a button to activate the walk signal, you might need to push it. Or you might not. It might only be there to activate a chirping noise for people with vision impairments. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell.


Connecticut Avenue and N Street in DC. Photo by David Alpert.

Some intersections keep "don't walk" signals lit during both red and green phases of a traffic light unless someone pushes a "beg button"—technically an "actuated pedestrian push button"—before the light turns green.

The sign on the picture above clearly implies that that's what will happen when people wanting to cross the street push the button.

But the button actually has nothing to do with the walk signal. The walk signal comes on whether you press the button or not.

What the button does is turn on a loud chirping noise that speeds up when the walk signal begins. The misleading signs have appeared in large numbers in DC, Montgomery County, and elsewhere over the past year, on local roads and state highways.


Unless you can't see the sign, pushing this button won't help you cross Bethesda Avenue. Photo by the author.

Why is this?

Federal guidelines, known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), authorize only certain standard signs for pedestrians. Among them are several variants for buttons that control the walk signal, but no sign for buttons that merely activate the audible signal for people with visual impairments.


Image from the Federal Highway Administration.

In downtown Bethesda, chirper buttons have appeared in large numbers over the last half year, all accompanied by the standard sign. Frequent passers-by soon recognized that the sign conveyed a falsehood, and now, few people push the button.

From my observation, it has become more common for people to simply cross streets wherever and whenever they feel safe. The streets seem no less safe.

Highway agencies take great care to ensure that signs meant for drivers are accurate and unambiguous—and doing so helps keep all who use the roads safe. Pedestrians, as these pushbutton signs illustrate, get very different treatment.

By taking such a nonchalant attitude toward those on foot, traffic engineers implicitly recognize something their profession refuses to officially admit: Drivers in the wrong place endanger others, but pedestrians do not.

Development


There's a new group opposing a more urban Bethesda

Montgomery County is working on a new master plan for downtown Bethesda that would promote continued development and might allow the population to increase from 7,210 today to over 18,000. But a group of people who oppose urbanization are gearing up to fight it.


Downtown Bethesda today. Image from Google Earth.

In an email to Bethesda civic leaders on Saturday, former Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Pat Burda revealed plans to form the Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents. Organizers say that they are "angry" at plans for increased density, with special ire toward the quantity of new housing.

While CBAR hopes to draw support from single-family neighborhoods on all sides of downtown Bethesda, the initiative comes from the Town of Chevy Chase, a 1,200-home enclave located southeast of the downtown commercial area. (The town is just one of the many neighborhoods that make up what is generally considered Chevy Chase.)

A report submitted to the town council earlier this month presents what CBAR is trying to accomplish. The central premise of the 13-page document, which is framed as a history of downtown Bethesda development, is the primacy of the single-family house and its owner. Apartments, stores, and offices are welcome only to the extent they serve the residents of nearby homes.

The document is clear in its opposition to development, skipping the usual pieties about planning and community participation. Land use decision-making, it explains, is an "inherently political process." If one county council can upzone, the winners of the next election can equally well downzone.

The document's author is Scott Fosler, who was among the early architects of the anti-development movement that has flourished in the Chevy Chase area since the 1970s. This movement, acting under a variety of organizational umbrellas, has had a strong influence on land use policy throughout Montgomery County. It was most recently in the news in 2012, when it tangled with county planning director Rollin Stanley after he referred to some of its leaders as "rich white women."

Fosler himself served two terms on the Montgomery County Council in the 1980s. He earlier chaired the town's zoning committee and then served on the town council.

While Fosler insists that homeowners have every right to change the zoning of adjoining properties, there is no reciprocity. He would find it unthinkable to rezone the Town of Chevy Chase to better serve the remainder of the county.

Fosler sees Bethesda's urban center, even when properly subservient, as an alien intrusion that is best kept at a distance. He outlines the strategy by which the Town of Chevy Chase and its allies have obtained the separation they desire. The downtown is encircled with a "comprehensive cordon" of land occupied by parking lots, parks, and house-sized structures. The function of this territory is simply to be as empty and little-used as possible. Property on Elm Street that was made a park would serve the purpose just as well if it were a parking lot.

In the past, the anti-development movement had great influence over land use in Bethesda and Chevy Chase. The 1976 Bethesda master plan imposed a five-fold reduction in the allowable square footage of the downtown. The 1998 plan for Friendship Heights limits buildings on some stretches of Wisconsin Avenue to three stories.

But public opinion is shifting as the demand for urban living grows. Divisions have emerged even within the Town of Chevy Chase. Whether CBAR can achieve the same political power as its predecessors remains to be seen.

Development


In some places, living near Metro has become more affordable

Washington-area neighborhoods in walking distance of Metro are wealthier and whiter than their surroundings, according to a new Census Bureau study. But for many places outside the District, living near Metro has become more affordable.


How earnings of workers who live near Metro and elsewhere have shifted. Click the image for definitions. Tables from the Census Bureau.

Working at the Census Bureau, Brian McKenzie can see data that privacy rules keep from other researchers. His new research paper is chock-full of interesting data.

McKenzie was able to compare surveys taken in 2006-08 and 2011-13, and compare DC residents to those who live in the five-county area of Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's. Using the individual addresses of people who have jobs and answered Census surveys, he separated those who live on street blocks within a half-mile of Metro stations from those who live elsewhere.

This isn't a perfect way of identifying who can walk to the train, but it's far superior to what other researchers have been able to do.

Among McKenzie's key findings is that more people are living near Metro, and more of them are riding the transit system. In five years the number of workers in walking distance of a station rose 23%. The working population living farther from Metro increased just 5% region-wide, and dropped slightly in the District. Over 15% of the region's 1.8 million workers, including a majority of the 321,000 who live in DC, now have a short walk from home to Metro.

The data also show the increasing use of non-auto transportation, cycling even more than transit. This trend is strongest among DC residents who live near Metro. Although this population is growing rapidly, the number of drivers among them hardly changed, so that the percentage who drive to work alone plummeted from 30% to 25%.

Transit use in this group increased from 57,000 to 72,000, and the number of bicycle commuters soared from 3300 to 7900. Trends among other demographics are similar in direction, but slower.


Trends in travel mode to work.

The most widely noted finding of this study is the increasing affluence and whiteness near Metro. This, however, is essentially a DC phenomenon. In the surrounding counties, the income spread between walk-to-Metro housing and elsewhere is, if anything, shrinking.

All ethnic groups grew in absolute numbers near non-DC Metro stations; the share of both whites and blacks declined as Asians and Hispanics moved in faster. And where the percentage of these counties' residents with income over $100,000 was 2.1% higher near Metro than elsewhere in 2006-08, the difference fell to 1.7% five years later. Most other income groups show a consistent pattern of shifts.

Because these changes fall within the margin of error, it's not clear whether the difference between incomes near Metro and farther from it is really closing, but the gap is not growing wider as it is in the District.

New apartments and inclusionary zoning have helped with affordability

Why hasn't Metro-accessible housing in the outer counties become less affordable? Most of the credit undoubtedly goes to the smart growth zoning that has opened up stations in Montgomery and Arlington Counties to new apartment construction. Builders there are required to include a percentage of more affordable units in new construction. And while newly built market-rate apartments in Bethesda or Clarendon aren't cheap, they are (with the occasional exception) less expensive than the single-family houses nearby.

The District, meanwhile, lagged behind in enacting inclusionary zoning and then stalled on implementing it. And it has allowed little new construction near Metro in the upscale neighborhoods west of Rock Creek.

Demographic and cultural change may be the motive force behind shifting living patterns, but public policy makes a big difference in how things play out.

Budget


Congress gives Metro riders an early Christmas present

If you're a federal government worker, you'll soon get up to $255 a month to pay for transit under a tax bill Congress agreed on last night. Or, if your employer allows setting aside pre-tax earnings for transit, you will also be able to reserve more. This will translate into badly needed fare revenue for Metro—perhaps as much as $15 million a year.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The federal transit benefit lets employees at many organizations put pre-tax earnings aside to cover transit or parking (and sometimes also bicycling). In addition, some employers, in our region most notably the federal government, pays for employee transit up to the allowed transit benefit amount.

For the last two years, the transit benefit has been capped at $130, but $250 for parking The new law—which is expected to pass both houses and be signed within the week—will set both limits at $255, with increases to match future inflation.

Under an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton, the benefit to federal employees automatically increases to match the tax-free maximum. So federal employees whose commutes cost more than $130 a month (the benefit cannot exceed your actual fare) will soon see more money on their Metro farecards.

Lowering the cost of transit for long-distance commuters will attract more riders and bring in more fare revenue. A study by Metro estimated that the system lost 6,000 daily round trips as a result of the January 2014 cut in the transit benefit from $230 to $130. If these riders return at an average fare of $5 each way (only high-fare commuters are affected), the agency would gain $15 million a year in revenues.

MARC and VRE commuter trains can also expect more riders, as can express buses from outer suburbs.

Congress made the new limit retroactive, but few riders will benefit from this provision. Employers will not be able to make payments for past months (although it is still possible to make a payment for December). However, anyone who has been getting a transit benefit of over $130 a month and paying taxes on it will be able to deduct the entire amount (up to $255 a month) for the whole year.

Details of how the new limit will be implemented vary among federal agencies. It's probably best, however, to apply quickly for the full amount of your commute expenses so that the added benefit will start as soon as possible.

Roads


Montgomery's most walkable streets are also its safest

Downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Rockville are where it's easiest to walk around in Montgomery County. They are also where drivers are least likely to kill someone on foot.


A decade of traffic fatalities in the Wheaton-Glenmont area. A red person represents a crash where the driver died. Orange is passenger, yellow is pedestrian, and purple means multiple people died. Image by Max Galka.

An extraordinary new interactive map by Metrocosm shows the location of all traffic fatalities in the United States between 2004 and 2013.

Zeroing in on Montgomery County, the map shows that pedestrian death comes in clusters that center on high-speed suburban arteries. Drivers killed eight people on foot in Aspen Hill, for example, four in downtown Kensington, and five on a 3500-foot stretch of Route 118 in Germantown Town Center.

The places where people walk the most are far safer. One pedestrian died in Bethesda's downtown, one in Rockville's, and three in Silver Spring's—and all five of these killings occurred on the fringes of the urbanized centers.


Drivers killed 4 people walking in downtown Kensington (top) and one on downtown Bethesda's more urban streets (bottom), even though Bethesda's downtown is bigger, has more people on foot, and is hardly as easy to walk in as it might be. Photos by the author.

These downtowns are hardly walking paradises—they contain many of the county's identified hotspots for frequent pedestrian crashes—but they share some characteristics that seem to prevent fatalities. Streetcorners are close together, stores front directly on the sidewalk, and speed limits are reduced.

Trends elsewhere in the region are similar. In the District, roads engineered for incoming commuters, New York Avenue in particular, are deadlier than downtown streets where far more people are on foot. Old Town Alexandria and, to a lesser degree, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor stand out as islands of safety in the Virginia suburbs.

Indeed, researchers who looked at data from the entire country found that there are fewer traffic deaths of all kinds, and especially fewer killings of pedestrians, in counties with denser population and smaller blocks.

Unfortunately, Montgomery County continues to build the kind of roads where drivers kill. County and state transportation officials have made concessions in the long-running battle over street widths and speed limits in the rebuilt White Flint, but elsewhere they continue to resist life-saving urban street designs.

The highway engineers have been especially obstinate in insisting on dangerously large street blocks. At Glenmont Metro, for example, the State Highway Administration rejected a street connection for being too close to another corner. With evidence accumulating that smaller blocks are safer, the agency will be on very shaky legal ground if it tries to issue such vetoes in the future. Under Maryland law it may only deny a builder access to a state highway "to promote safety."

The new data show a way forward to make pedestrian killings the rare events they should be. The urban places that the market now demands are not only more pleasant, but safer too. Rebuilding suburban highways as city streets saves lives.

Other


Suburban-style streets don't fit a busy Bethesda corner

Cyclists leaving the Capital Crescent Trail and entering Bethesda at the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda Avenues are in serious danger. Pedestrians and drivers, too, suffer unneeded delay at this busy crossroads. There's a common cause for these problems: planners using suburban highway engineering practices that are unsuited to an odd-shaped urban street crossing.


There's a curb where the Capital Crescent Trail meets Bethesda Avenue. Cyclists must dismount or ride on the sidewalk. Photos by the author.

Newly built stores and apartments and a big underground garage have replaced a pair of parking lots on the south side of Bethesda Avenue. Responding to long-standing public complaints about safety, the designers of the new buildings moved Woodmont Avenue slightly and removed a high-speed turn lane. But county transportation officials vetoed suggestions from bike and pedestrian advocates for more drastic changes in the layout of the streets.

The pavement here, at the point where the trail comes into downtown Bethesda, carries a continual flow of bicycles. Theaters, restaurants, and shops draw heavy foot traffic. Plenty of cars come through too, although removal of the surface parking lot, a magnet for drivers, has made traffic on Woodmont Avenue lighter.


Image from Google Maps.

Immediate danger to cyclists

As construction now winds down, county traffic engineers are restriping traffic lanes and moving crosswalks. Their new layout compounds a glaring weakness of earlier designs: lack of attention to cyclists' turns between roadways and the trail.

The county has built a curb at the intersection of the trail and Bethesda Avenue, removing a ramp put there soon after the trail opened. Northbound cyclists arriving on the trail now must either dismount, walk into the street, and climb back onto their bikes while standing in a traffic lane, or ride on the sidewalk.

From this sidewalk, cyclists continue north across Bethesda Avenue at a crosswalk. Maryland law requires cyclists to wait at the curb ramp for the walk signal.


View from the Barnes and Noble at the northwest corner of where the streets cross. Conflicting movements of cars (blue) and bicycles (green) when Woodmont Avenue has green light. Official bike path alignment shown in orange.

The walk signal to cross Bethesda coincides, however, with a green light on Woodmont Avenue. The signal sends law-abiding, on-road cyclists diagonally across four lanes of moving automobile traffic to reach the northbound Woodmont Avenue bike lane or the Georgetown Branch Trail. Drivers in these lanes have the green light and do not expect cyclists to be crossing in front of them. (Few adept cyclists follow the bike trail mapped by the county, which directs them to dodge pedestrians and street furniture on three crowded sidewalks, make repeated 90-degree turns, and, if headed for the bike lane, wait at slow traffic lights three times.)

The county could eliminate this obvious danger by giving cyclists and pedestrians their own green signal, with cars stopped in all directions. Or the trail could get a curb cut, with or without its own traffic light. But such fixes would do little for those on foot and make things worse for drivers.

The walk signals at the corner are too short

As things stand, pedestrians crossing Woodmont Avenue get a seven-second walk signal (the shortest allowed under federal guidelines). A 113-second interval follows when it is illegal to start walking.

The seven seconds when pedestrians may enter the crosswalk is just the time that cars are most likely to be in their way. The walk signal begins at the moment the light changes. That's when drivers stopped by a red light on Bethesda Avenue make their turns. During the long don't-walk interval, on the other hand, few cars come by.

People who walk in this area have reacted as one would expect to its nonsensical signal sequences: they now pay little heed to signs or signals of any kind.

As with the bike safety problem, it's easy to suggest a modest improvement in the Woodmont walk signal: It could be lengthened without changing the timing of the traffic light. But this would leave a crossroads still unfriendly to people on bikes, people on foot, and drivers alike.

The real problem is the traffic engineering doctrine

One fix after another has failed here because Montgomery County remains wedded to old-style traffic engineering. Two of the profession's basic tenets are to blame. First, engineers design streets for cars and see other users as obstacles. Second, they design the roads to minimize rush-hour delays rather than to work best at all hours. When you measure success by counting cars in rush hour, wide streets and slow lights are solutions rather than problems.

At this corner, with its oblique angle and many diverse travelers passing through, the weaknesses of this doctrine are manifest. The more different groups that must wait in turn for others, and the more time each group needs to get across the wide-angled pavement, the longer all are delayed. The long waits make pedestrians and cyclists feel unwelcome, and drivers suffer too. A redesign based on fundamental rethinking would be better for everyone.

A single-lane roundabout could easily handle all the cars that pass through this intersection. Traffic might back up at the busiest hour on Friday and Saturday evenings, but the time lost in those delays would be much less than the time drivers would save the rest of the week—and pedestrians and cyclists would benefit at all hours.


Concept for intersection redesign. Blue: curb extensions. Orange: crosswalks. Dark green: cycletracks. Light green: bike lanes. Red: angle parking. Pink: possible traffic lights. Base from Google Earth.

If all cars feed into a single roundabout lane, turn lanes serve no purpose and the streets can be narrowed. Narrow streets make drivers slow down—a needed remedy for Woodmont Avenue's late-night speeding problem. There would be room for angle parking and protected cycle tracks, and pedestrians would need less time to cross the street.

The two main bicycle and pedestrian crossings could be moved away from the roundabout. Traffic lights might be needed at these crossings, but if so the narrow roadway would allow them to have short cycles and impose little delay.

My sketch surely needs refinement, and some entirely different concept may turn out to be better. But whatever the ultimate solution is, it will require new thinking. This corner has vexed Montgomery County officials, and it has vexed them for a reason. Car-centered engineering practices don't make good places for people.

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