Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Ben Ross

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 


Montgomery's proposed budget takes transit funding and gives it to wealthy homeowners

Yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett unveiled his proposed budget, and it has no good news for transit riders. Ride On will get more state aid and hike fares, but it will not run any more buses. Instead, transit revenue will be used to cut real estate taxes.

Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

The cost of running Ride On, as shown in the budget will go up $3.5 million, from $98 million to $101.6 million. Meanwhile, the county will receive $7 million in new revenues, double the cost increase. $5 million in new state aid will come from the gas tax increase passed last year. And fares will rise $2 million, likely a result of matching Metro's fare increase.

Where will this money go? The county's "mass transit tax," a component of the real estate tax, will drop by $5 million. Bus riders, many of whom have low incomes or are renters, will pay more while a tax cut disproportionately benefits the county's wealthiest homeowners.

When Maryland discussed a gas tax increase last year, many groups complained about "raids" on the state's transportation trust fund, including county governments, legislators, conservatives, and the highway lobby. It will be interesting to see how these groups react to this diversion of trust fund money to non-transportation purposes.

Ride On could put the new money it is getting from the state and its riders to good use. The system lacks relief buses, or vehicles on standby, stationed around the county to fill in when other buses break down.

The county counts all late buses equally when it tracks Ride On's performance, but for a rider, there's a vast difference between a replacement bus that comes late and a bus that doesn't come at all. If there's no replacement, the next bus half an hour later might be so full that you can't get on.

Other needed upgrades include restoring the connection to Frederick County buses in Urbana, straightening out the tangle of bus routes around downtown Bethesda, and better weekend service. Funding is also needed for Metrobus's Priority Corridor Initiative, which would improve service on several of the county's highest-ridership routes.

The budget now goes to the County Council for approval. Hopefully, bus riders will find friends there.


In Montgomery's transportation budget, wider streets are "pedestrian improvements"

As Montgomery County asks the state to spend more on transit within the county, its proposed budget pours money into sprawl-inducing highways instead, while calling road widenings near schools and Metro stations "pedestrian improvements."

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Last week, County Executive Ike Leggett sent his proposed $1 billion transportation budget for 2015-2020 to the County Council. It adds new money to build two $100 million highway segments, Goshen Road in Gaithersburg and the 8000-foot-long Montrose Parkway East near White Flint, and lets environmental studies for the even more expensive extension of Midcounty Highway continue.

But many transit, bike, and pedestrian projects have been delayed. The proposed BRT system will get a $10 million state planning grant, but no county funds. The $80 milllion south entrance to the Bethesda Metro station, which the County Council previously funded over objections from the Department of Transportation (MCDOT), was left alone.

Bicyclists get a speedup in construction for a bike path on Needwood Road, required under the terms of a state grant. But the money comes from slowing down work to complete the far more important Metropolitan Branch Trail. Bike projects on Bethesda Avenue, Frederick Road, and Seven Locks Road are delayed too.

MCDOT learned long ago that cars-first policies had to be disguised with lip service to transit and pedestrians, and this budget continues that tradition. While new roads are the first category in the current six-year budget, the new budget lists them after transit.

At first glance, the proposed transit and pedestrian budgets seem large, but this is a mirage. The numbers are inflated with items that belong elsewhere. The county calls a $70 million dollar garage for school buses and park maintenance vehicles a mass transit facility. Road widenings around new schools, previously classified as road projects, are listed as pedestrian improvements this year. Buried in the budget for a new Metro entrance at Medical Center is the cost of a turn lane a block away at Jones Bridge Road.

Montgomery County's ped/bike budget will pay for a turn lane onto Rockville Pike at NIH. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

A telling example of MCDOT's attitude is how it justifies spending money on bike lanes in downtown Bethesda. The county planning board made us do it, agency officials say. The bike lanes must be built before development can proceed beyond a certain point. There's no thought that they might serve a transportation purpose.

In recent years the County Council has shown increasing willingness to challenge MCDOT's priorities. The council funded the $80 million south Bethesda Metro entrance in 2008 and repeatedly fended off requests to reverse that decision. Two years ago, it put off construction of Goshen Road and Montrose Parkway East and budgeted for the Capital Crescent Trail instead.

But MCDOT still clings to the traffic engineering doctrines of the 1950s. The one completely new big project in the budget is yet another upcounty highway, a segment of Observation Drive whose price tag is likely to wind up north of $50 million a mile. The Bethesda Metro entrance stands as the only major county-funded transit construction project.

The time has come to reject once and for all the discredited idea that wide highways are a cure for traffic congestion. The council should zero out all spending on upcounty highways and end the pernicious practice of forcing developers to widen roads. All of the county's scarce transportation dollars are needed to correct the expensive mistakes of the past with better transit and a street network that works well for pedestrians and cyclists, not just for drivers.


As the region's core grows, Metro is forced to plan for the edges

Why isn't Metro planning more rail lines inside the Beltway? One big reason is that political pressure and federal regulations require it and other transit agencies to look only at current zoning and master plans. These predict lots of growth on the suburban fringe, not inside the core where it's actually happening.

Map of Metro expansion from WMATA.

WMATA's new plan for "core capacity" shows this dynamic at work. A new loop through downtown would connect Rosslyn and the Yellow Line bridge, and express tracks would parallel the Orange Line in Arlington.

Critics object that this only solves the problems of suburbanites who travel into the District, like the current bottleneck in the Rosslyn tunnel and the future need to get more train commuters in and out of Union Station. It does little for the District's growing population and nothing at all to support the ongoing urbanization of the inner suburbs.

As the plan's authors point out, they are required to base their plans on an official forecast of future land use prepared by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. This forecast, in practice, is prepared by cobbling together the master plans adopted by local governments, which are not anyone's best guess of the future, but mostly reflect the desires of locally dominant political forces. COG staff makes some adjustments, but they can't eliminate the biases inherent in this process.

The official forecast expects lots of growth in outer suburbs, where plans make room for decades of growth. Closer in, it predicts little change. In built-up areas, land doesn't get rezoned until its owners are thinking about building, because politicians see no advantage in angering anti-growth neighbors without pleasing a developer.

Thus COG foresees that Stafford County's population will grow 95% by 2040, and the District only 28%. In reality, the District is growing faster than Stafford.

COG recognizes this problem, and a few years ago they tried to correct it with an "aspirations" scenario that was supposed to describe a "smart growth" future. That's what WMATA planners are using in their work. But the study did not fix the underlying problem. Fearing that the mere suggestion of massive rezonings would disturb local politics, COG retained the fundamental defect of its other forecaststhe supposed smart growth scenario "maintains the existing or planned neighborhood character."

Portland offers a way to link transit and land use

Are there ways out of this dilemma? Portland, Oregon, found one 20 years ago. The state's environmental laws told regional planners to curb sprawl and reduce auto use. This, the planners knew, couldn't be done without changing the zoning to allow much more building near transit stations.

For local government, this scenario was too hot to handle. Instead, the advocacy group 1000 Friends of Oregon obtained a federal grant and used the money to hire the same consulting firm that was working for the planning agency. In effect, another scenario was added to the study, but government officials couldn't be accused of plotting zoning changes.

The 1000 Friends report, known as LUTRAQ (for Land Use, Transportation, and Air Quality), won public acclaim and was a key to setting Portland on its current urban course. Perhaps a similar approach could give Metro a vision for the future to match the boldness of the system's first planners.


Do bright clothes stop car crashes? Not at Dunkin' Donuts

Highway officials tell pedestrians to wear bright colors so motorists will see you and won't hit you. So why do drivers still crash into brightly-colored Dunkin' Donuts stores?

A driver crashed into a Dunkin' Donuts in Golden's Bridge, New York in 2010. Photo by Golden's Bridge Fire Department.

An internet search found eight cases just this year of drivers smashing into pink and orange doughnut shops. One store in Brooklyn was hit twice, in June of last year and again in January.

One incident involved a motorist who took ill while driving and died in the collision. Otherwise, only a few people were hurt. But the outcome could easily have been worse if someone had been standing in the wrong place.

The excuses drivers make when they strike pedestrians aren't available when they hit Dunkin' Donuts. "I didn't see it" would lack credibility. "It jumped out in front of me" even more so. It should be easy to assign fault when car and store collide.

Yet police chose not to cite the drivers who caused four of these crashes. (One driver died, the driver of a stolen truck is still being sought, and two police departments did not return my calls.) Law enforcement officers seem to think that motorists are under no legal obligation to control their cars. As a Dover, New Hampshire, police lieutenant explained, a woman who hit the gas pedal instead of the brake and smashed into a doughnut store committed no violation because she was sober and not texting.

Motorists have nothing special against Dunkin'. A consultant on retail store safety estimates that Starbucks might get hit as much as once a week. His advice to merchants is to put bollards out front.

Cars colliding with buildings should not be a normal part of life. They are a signal that our highway system is seriously out of whack.

Roads will never be safe unless drivers are held accountable for their ton of deadly steel. One way to start is with fewer lectures about how pedestrians should dress. If bright colors don't protect Dunkin' Donuts, they won't save those on foot.


Maryland will pay for underused I-95 toll lanes

Maryland highway planners predicted that if the state didn't build 7 miles of toll lanes on I-95 north of Baltimore, the road would back up for hours every day. But when the $1.1 billion expansion opens in 2014, it won't even collect $10 million a year in tolls.

Rendering of future I-95/I-695 interchange with toll lanes from MdTA.

When former Governor Robert Ehrlich's administration decided in 2003 to add toll lanes to I-95 north of Baltimore, the traffic forecast for 2020 was 238,000 vehicles per day. Now the state predicts 186,000 daily drivers in 2020. Even that assumes growth of 1% per year, although traffic has been flat since at least 2006.

The toll lanes, their promoters said, would benefit even those who can't afford to pay by taking traffic off the free lanes. Tolls would be set to attract as many cars to the pay lanes as they could carry without backing up. But that policy, it turns out, would only yield $2 or $3 million a year in revenue, barely more than the cost of collecting tolls, so Maryland boosted the rates to match the per-mile charge on the Intercounty Connector.

With a rush-hour toll of $1.75, the 4 toll lanes will carry less than 7% of the total traffic on the 12-lane highway. Truck drivers will avoid them, the Maryland Transportation Authority's consultants say, "due to the minimal benefit for trucks in saving small amounts of time." Except during exceptional traffic jams, nearly the only users will be drivers affluent enough not to care much about the toll, leading some to call them "Lexus lanes."

But folks who can't afford to use the Lexus lanes will pay a hefty price for them. When construction began, the Ehrlich administration estimated the cost at $830 million. The price tag has now grown by a third, even though transportation officials eliminated some expensive flyover access ramps as a cost-saving measure after Governor Martin O'Malley took office in 2007.

The net toll revenue of around $5 million a year (after subtracting toll collection expenses) won't begin to pay off the hundreds of millions of dollars in construction debt the state has taken on. The bill will go to drivers on the Bay Bridge, Harbor Tunnel, and other roadways the transportation authority operates, unless it raids the tax-supported Transportation Trust Fund as it did to pay for the Intercounty Connector.

Even toll road enthusiasts admit that the I-95 toll lanes are a "disappointment," built to meet forecasts that are "now seen as an absurd basis for planning." This debacle was in fact quite foreseeable. It's a lesson highway planners should take to heart.


What do private firms really want from the Purple Line?

Maryland officials say that letting a private company build and run the Purple Line will avoid many of the inefficiencies of government. But the private sector has inefficiencies of its own.

Rendering from MTA.

By using a public-private partnership, or P3, to operate the light rail line, officials at the Maryland Department of Transportation hope for better service at lower cost. The private sector is better able to manage risk, they argue, and it saves money through greater flexibility and tighter oversight. Motivated by incentives, not a rulebook, a private operator or "concessionaire" would use its creativity to run the railroad better.

How well this will work depends on what the incentives are. The ideal concessionaire would be a 30-year-old railroad engineer who invests her life savings of $180 million. She runs the light rail line herself and keeps it impeccably maintained. She thinks about the steady income she will need when medical school tuition bills come due for her 1-year-old son.

Unfortunately, such bidders will be rare. In all likelihood, two groups of intermediaries, railroad managers and money managers, will stand between the source of money and the trains. They will face incentives of their own, which are not necessarily the same as those of riders and investors.

Money managers, in particular, tend to concern themselves with the next quarterly bonus. They earn large fees when the deal first goes through, whether or not it is a good one. During the housing bubble, Wall Street bankers issued bad loans with abandon and joked about the "toxic waste" they were passing on to clients.

What will happen if the cost of running the light rail line exceeds the budget? Managers, worrying about salary reviews and bonuses, will be tempted to maintain profitability by skimping on maintenance.

In the P3 structure, it is the job of investors and lenders to look out for the long term. But they may not do this well. We learned in the crash of 2008 that large financial institutions can do a poor job of oversight. And the Purple Line's equity investors, who expect a return of 11% per year, may not care that much about the long term. If the business pays dividends for 15 or 20 years and then goes bust, they will have already pocketed a substantial profit.

Under the contract, the state will cut the concessionaire's "availability payments" if the performance of the Purple Line does not meet targets. But these targets will be hard to set. How do you write specs in 2013 for running a state-of-the-art railroad in 2048?

The penalties for bad work, moreover, are unlikely to be all that severe. MDOT cannot replace the concessionaire until 2050. And the concessionaire's investors will put up only 7% of the construction cost. The availability payments will go mostly to repay lenders, whose main goal is to keep their money safe. They will hesitate to make loans unless the penalties are kept small and their bonds are not at risk.

In an ideal world, a privatized transit line would be run by a deep-pocketed young version of Jackson Graham, the engineer who built Metro. He might well outperform a government agency led by Pericles and George Washington.

But that is not the choice we face. Large organizations, both public and private, are made up of human beings. They are inevitably imperfect. Decisions about how to run public services must be based on things as they are, or as they realistically might be made to be.


How would Maryland pay for a privatized Purple Line?

To pay for the Purple Line, Maryland wants to use a form of "public-private partnership," or P3. Accomplishing this will require some complex accounting.

Rendering from MTA.

This form of financing is more expensive than bonds issued by the state, but it may allow the state to borrow money that doesn't count against its debt limit and free up funds for other transportation projects. Under a P3, a private operator would get those funds from equity investors and lenders.

Maryland has committed $900 million towards the $2.2 billion Purple Line, including $680 million from this year's gas tax increase. The federal government may contribute an estimated $900 million, and Montgomery and Prince George's counties will contribute as well. This leaves the state somewhere between $200 and $400 million short.

The state's debt limit applies to all debt that will be repaid from tax revenue. But the Purple Line will run at a loss, and thus tax funds must ultimately pay for construction. So the Maryland Department of Transportation devised a complex financing structure to get out from under the limit.

Flow of money during operation of Purple Line.

Fares from riders on the Purple Line will go not to the private company that builds and operates it, but into a special state fund. Meanwhile, the Transportation Trust Fund will pay the operator for the cost of running and maintaining the light rail line.

The operator will get a second payment, a so-called "availability payment," from the fare fund. Its amount will depend on how well the light rail line performs. This money will go to repay the lenders and investors who put up money for construction.

It's not clear whether this arrangement will pass muster, and MDOT has yet to work out all the details. On September 12, the agency requested guidance from the state's Capital Debt Affordability Committee on "parameters for structuring the availability payments to avoid classification as tax-supported debt that would impact the State's debt affordability analysis."

One issue is whether it's proper to separate operating costs from fare revenue. There can't be fare revenue without the state's ongoing expenditure of tax money to run the Purple Line.

Tax money supports the Metro much as it will support the Purple Line, but Metro does its accounting differently. WMATA subtracts revenues from operating costs and calls the difference its "operating subsidy." State and federal aid derived from taxes pays for new construction. If the P3 did its accounting like WMATA, MDOT would pay its construction debt with tax money.

A second question involves 'equity' investors. About $180 million of the Purple Line's construction costs is supposed to come from this source. These investors will get compensation from a share of the availability payments, plus operating profits and minus losses.

What will happen if the operations of the Purple Line are not up to snuff, and MDOT cuts its availability payments to the operator? The investors are likely to be large institutions whose managers get bonuses based on each quarter's returns. They might well push for a cutback on maintenance to generate operating profits in the short term.

That would surely be bad for riders. And would it not divert tax money meant for rail maintenance into repayment of construction debt?

Whether or not it avoids the debt limit, P3 financing will be more expensive than direct state borrowing. A private entity set up to run the light rail line will not have Maryland's AAA credit rating. The Maryland Department of Transportation also asserts that a P3 would manage the rail line better, resulting in lower construction and operation costs, but it does not promise any net savings. Indirect borrowing for the Purple Line is only wise if the other transportation projects it pays for are worth the money.


How to fix a broken bikeshare key

Can you fix a bikeshare key that suddenly won't fit into the slot? You can, but as I found, the repair is only temporary. If you use this trick, be sure to also call Capital Bikeshare and get a replacement key.

CaBi key with circuit extracted. Photo by the author.

The problem came up on the day CaBi opened in Montgomery County. I was eager to use the new docks, and I had an errand that bikeshare could save 15 minutes on compared to walking. On my way home from work, I got off the Metro in Bethesda and walked to the dock. But my key wouldn't go in the slot.

I called Capital Bikeshare and a representative helpfully explained that old keys tend to get thicker and stop fitting in the slot. They promised to send another in a week or 10 days. They also offered a refund if I used a credit card; I declined, thinking it would be less trouble to walk to my destination.

From the beginning, I was puzzled. Plastic does age, but it gets stiff rather than expanding. After a few days, I looked more closely at my key. It was made of two layers of plastic that had begun to separate at the end with the arrowhead. When I began to pull them apart, a plastic sheet with an electronic circuit fell out.

One layer of red plastic had a slot for the circuit. I put the circuit into the slot, making sure to correctly position the raised circular dimple that's on the back of the square circuit in one corner. Once I got the circuit into the right place, presto: with the key squeezed between thumb and finger, it went into the slot. And I was off on bikeshare again.


Bus Rapid Transit is a toolbox, not a package

Is Bus Rapid Transit a good idea? The answer depends on what BRT means. At its best, BRT is a toolbox full of techniques that make buses faster and more convenient. At its worst, it's an excuse for highway-building in places where rail transit is needed.

BRT in Eugene, Oregon. Photo from Lane Transit District.

The term is used in so many different ways that the only way to judge is to ignore the label and look at the specifics. What Chicago calls BRT is a plan to speed up buses that already carry 31,000 riders a day. In San Diego, BRT is an excuse to build freeways instead of expanding light rail.

In Eugene, Oregon, BRT is a bus that runs every 10 minutes in its own lane between a university campus and two downtowns. In St. Louis, what's advertised as BRT is buses that would run 60 minutes apart outside rush hour, get stuck in traffic jams, and detour off the interstate to stop.

The Chicago Transit Authority has a definition that is vague enough to be accurate: BRT is "a term applied to a variety of bus service designs that provide for faster, more efficient and more reliable service than an ordinary bus line." The key to making BRT work is to understand that it's still a bus, and has to be planned as part of the bus network. Do only what helps the riders.

Seeing BRT as a toolbox is important because one tool can get in the way of another. One BRT technique is placing stops farther apart. Another is bus-only lanes in the center of the road. Either one moves buses faster, but they rarely work well together.

When BRT is in the middle of the road, local buses that stop more frequently run in the regular traffic lanes. For the rider, unless the buses come very frequently, the fastest way to reach a destination is to take whichever bus comes first.

As transit expert Jarrett Walker points out, there is a cost when local and limited buses make different stops. Riders on the limited may lose more time by missing the local bus than they gain from the exclusive lane. The better solution is then either a center bus lane where all buses run local, or a curb lane that buses share with turning cars.

"Gold-standard" BRT in Bogota, Colombia. Image from Streetsblog.

Even worse is what happens when all the tools in the box are used at the same timewhat enthusiasts laud as the "gold standard" that resembles a "subway in the street." If buses are to carry subway-like passenger volumes, traffic lights and pedestrians can't get in the way. Gold-standard BRT becomes an interstate-like highway through the city, what urbanists have been fighting since the 1960s.

When BRT is seen as a toolbox, on the other hand, there are opportunities to help riders even on lightly used routes. The technique of off-bus fare payment can speed up any bus. For example, faregates could easily be placed between the Shady Grove Metro station and the bus stops on its east side. That would make boarding faster on all the buses that stop there, not just a few "BRT" lines.

Bus stops on the east side of Shady Grove Metro. Photo from Google Earth.

With large passenger volumes, rail is the best transit solution. Rail cars can be hooked one behind the other without swinging to the side, so a single train can carry many times more riders than any bus.

It's not hard to cross a street where 3-car trains run 3 minutes apart; buses carrying the same passenger loads would need to run less than a minute apart and pedestrians would have to be fenced out.

And when ridership gets high enough, trains can easily go underground. There are bus tunnels in Boston and Seattle, but the transit they offer is hardly rapid. Boston has speed limits as low as 6 mph where buses creep around blind curves. At the entrances to both tunnels, buses stop to latch onto overhead wiresrunning diesel buses underground would require expensive ventilation.

Where BRT shines is as a "middle-range" solution, when there are enough riders that buses deserve their own right of way, but not enough to justify a rail line. Veirs Mill Road is an example in our area. Buses there already carry as many passengers as a lane of auto traffic.

Transit advocates are justifiably wary of BRT because opponents of the Purple Line, the Silver Line, and other rail projects frequently push bus lines that no one really wants as a ploy to stop the rail. But the fact that BRT is no substitute for rail shouldn't blind us to the need for better buses. What matters is not whether a plan is labeled as BRT, but what it does.

Start out with the aim of building something you can call BRT instead of paying for a rail line, and you invite a debacle like Minneapolis' new $112 million-dollar "Red Line." Passengers get dropped off on a suburban highway that is ferociously hostile to pedestrians, buses go back into traffic just where the road backs up, and there are only 800 riders a day.

But when BRT is taken as an opportunity to rethink how we use our roads, it can have a big payoff. Bus priority becomes a means of making more efficient use of the pavement we already have. It enables us to stop fruitlessly trying to fight congestion with wider highways, and instead turn traffic sewers into walkable streets.


Montgomery police ticket pedestrians obeying the law

Montgomery County police are finally paying attention to the needs of pedestrians. But officers on the beat don't seem to have gotten the message yet. Pedestrians have even been ticketed for crossing the street in a legal manner.

Photo by Kate Mereand-Sinha on Flickr.

In May, the county's police department held their first "sting" targeting drivers who don't stop at crosswalks. Just last week, when a student was hit by a fast-moving driver while crossing Veirs Mill Road, the police told TV stations that mid-block crossings are allowed at that location. This is a sharp reversal from the past, when the police would sometimes say a collision occurred outside a crosswalk without explaining that it's legal to cross there.

But last week, a GGW reader in Bethesda spoke with an officer who was ticketing drivers making a forbidden turn into a residential neighborhood, but ignoring speeding violations on a street where many walk. Roads are made for cars, not pedestrians, she was told. The officer said that those on foot have a claim to safety in crosswalks only when drivers are kept away by red lights.

And earlier this month in Silver Spring, another GGW reader saw officers ticket pedestrians who were obeying the law. They were crossing Georgia Avenue mid-block between two intersections that don't have traffic lights. This is perfectly legal, as long as the pedestrian yields the right of way to oncoming cars. The same officers ignored genuine violations by drivers, who failed repeatedly to stop for people walking in the adjacent unmarked crosswalks.

The Georgia Avenue sting took place on August 13 between Fenwick Lane and Planning Place. Neither of these intersections has a stoplight. Under Maryland law, unmarked crosswalks exist at both intersections, but motorists seem unaware of that fact. When drivers don't know these crosswalks exist, and police don't try to educate the drivers, there's little reason for pedestrians to use them.

Green lines indicate marked crosswalks. Blue lines are unmarked crosswalks. The orange line is where ticketed pedestrians were crossing.

The distance between the nearest signalized intersections, located at Cameron Street and Spring Street, is 849 feet. The walk from halfway between the traffic lights to the signal and back takes 4 minutes. That is a lot of time to add to a short trip; traffic engineers consider an intersection "failing" when drivers are delayed by 80 seconds. Georgia Avenue is lined with offices, apartments, restaurants, and shops, so many pedestrians take the most direct route, as is their legal right.

What's the law?

Maryland law is very clear about where pedestrians can and cannot cross. And the Silver Spring sting occurred where it is legal to cross.

First, let's look at how crosswalks are defined in Maryland. The Maryland Transportation Code section 21-101 includes definitions for the terms relevant to transport. A crosswalk is defined as

that part of a roadway that is:
  1. Within the prolongation or connection of the lateral lines of sidewalks at any place where 2 or more roadways of any type meet or join, measured from the curbs or, in the absence of curbs, from the edges of the roadway;
  2. Within the prolongation or connection of the lateral lines of a bicycle way where a bicycle way and a roadway of any type meet or join, measured from the curbs or, in the absence of curbs, from the edges of the roadway; or
  3. Distinctly indicated for pedestrian crossing by lines or other markings.
While the third point may seem obvious, the first point is important to note. Any place where a street with sidewalks intersects another street, those sidewalks "extend" across the intersection, whether or not the department of transportation has put paint down.

And while it's not directly relevant to this discussion, Maryland law also defines "sidewalk." It doesn't have to be a paved area. Even when a traditional concrete sidewalk is not present, crosswalks still exist at every intersection.

But pedestrians aren't required to cross only at crosswalks, either. Section 21-503 explains what their rights are:

  1. In general.If a pedestrian crosses a roadway at any point other than in a marked crosswalk or in an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, the pedestrian shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching on the roadway.
  2. Where special pedestrian crossing provided.If a pedestrian crosses a roadway at a point where a pedestrian tunnel or overhead pedestrian crossing is provided, the pedestrian shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching on the roadway.
  3. Between adjacent intersections.Between adjacent intersections at which a traffic control signal is in operation, a pedestrian may cross a roadway only in a marked crosswalk.
  4. Crossing intersection diagonally.A pedestrian may not cross a roadway intersection diagonally unless authorized by a traffic control device for crossing movements. If authorized to cross diagonally, a pedestrian may cross only in accordance with the traffic control device.
Let's break this down. Pedestrians are allowed to cross at places other than crosswalks in certain circumstances. When crossing outside of a marked or unmarked crosswalk, pedestrians must yield the right-of-way to motorists.

Paragraph C is also important. It's illegal for pedestrians to cross a street when both adjacent intersections are signalized. Otherwise, it's okay to cross, so long as you yield to drivers.

The stretch of Georgia Avenue where Montgomery County police ticketed pedestrians does have two stoplights, at Cameron Street and Spring Street. But between them are two intersections without signals, at Fenwick Lane and Planning Place. That means this stretch is broken into 3 blocks, and it is perfectly legal to cross any any point in this stretch.

As a counter-example, take the block of Georgia between Ellsworth Drive and Colesville Road, in front of the Discovery Channel headquarters. Both of those intersections are signalized, and there are no intermediate intersections. Therefore, it is illegal to cross mid-block there.

Law requires drivers to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks

There are a few other laws that are noteworthy. Under section 21-502(c), it is illegal for any motorist to pass a driver stopped at a marked or unmarked crosswalk to allow a pedestrian to cross.

Section 21-502(a)(2) deals with when drivers must yield. In Maryland, waiting on the sidewalk is not enough. A pedestrian does not assert his or her right to cross until they step off the curb into the crosswalk. However, once the pedestrian steps into the crosswalk, they have the right-of-way on that half of the street, and they gain it on the other half when they step into the adjacent lane.

That means that if I'm crossing Georgia Avenue from west to east in a crosswalk, once I step into the southbound parking lane, the two southbound lanes must yield. Once I step into the leftmost southbound lane, northbound traffic must yield. I've found that a handy way to remind drivers to stop without endangering myself, when I'm walking to the grocery store, is to reach forward and wave my shopping bag in the next lane, but wait until the car begins to slow before I walk in front of it.

However, section 21-502(b) does make it illegal for a pedestrian to step out in front of a vehicle whose driver would not have time to stop. So although you ordinarily have the right-of-way at marked and unmarked crosswalks, you must let drivers pass first if they are too close to stop.

These laws set the basic framework for walkers, cyclists, and motorists to share Maryland roadways. With diligent and even-handed enforcement, we can have safer streets and more livable neighborhoods.

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