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Public Spaces

Crosswalks: Is it time for a rethink?

Montgomery County's built environment runs the gamut from urban to rural, but we take a one size fits all approach to crosswalks. Maybe it's time for that to change. Bringing the pedestrian scramble back to MoCo will improve our urban areas.

Photo by Spacing Magazine on Flickr.

Part of what we are trying to accomplish with our visions for communities throughout MoCo is a blend of the best urban, suburban and rural environments. Over the past three years, the County Council has been bold in adopting plans that work toward creating an active, sustainable MoCo.

The key is implementation of those new visions.

Consider our pedestrian environment in places like downtown Silver Spring and along Rockville Pike, where redevelopment continues to change the street environment, generating more activity. In downtown Silver Spring, the latest significant change is the pending opening of the Live Nation entertainment venue on Colesville Road.

Let's fast-forward past the opening and imagine the streetscape after a concert ends. Hundreds of patrons spilling out onto Colesville, making their way to cars, Metro, or crossing the street to head into the downtown or hopefully, Fenton Village south of Wayne for an after-concert bite or beverage. (Yes, there is nightlife in Fenton Village—two of my favorites are Jackie's and the Quarry House.)

The concert-goers have two intersections they might cross: Colesville and Georgia or Colesville and Fenton. Both have recently been redone (one of them twice), and the result is the usual type of crosswalks.

But let's consider a different type of crosswalk. Something new (but actually old) that engages the pedestrian, giving him or her priority over the cars. Consider an intersection that actually makes the pedestrian feel secure. One that reduces apprehension about crossing a downtown street, where most of the cars are intent on just getting through the intersection to get somewhere else.

Should this be our priority? Helping cars move through our downtowns faster so they can get somewhere else? Or should we be focused on the people who want to stop, visit, patronize our businesses or enjoy our markets, events or meet friends? Can we do both?

Believe it or not, the Fenton/Colesville intersection was once just like the intersections that are all the rage in cities like London, where pedestrian traffic and motor car interactions are in constant conflict. This intersection was a "scramble intersection." When the light went red for cars, it went red in all directions. Then it was the people's turn to take priority to move through the intersection. You could walk in any direction in crossing. You could walk at 90 degrees, or even 45 degrees, to avoid crossing to the other side, then again to get to the opposite corner.

The Fenton/Colesville scramble intersection circa 1984. A lonely place, but much safer for pedestrians. Today, the intersection is a bustling downtown intersection that could benefit from bringing back a well-designed scramble crossing.

Implementing a scramble is about a shift in priority from autocentric to pedestrian- and bike-centric movement. It's a simple and very efficient way of moving people and cars, and we used to do it.

Oxford Circus Improvements from the City of Westminster.

This approach can work in many places here. Think about Rockville Pike a few years from now when the White Flint plan begins to become reality. We could create a pedestrian environment shared equally with cars.

DC's Barnes Dance from cruelsmath on YouTube.

Consider the many intersections in MoCo where this approach could be beneficial for people walking, in wheelchairs, on bikes, as well as in cars.

We are working on some designs in downtown Silver Spring, close to our offices, like at Fenton and Colesville, where this approach makes a lot of sense. If we could transform one or two intersections into a great multi-use intersection, maybe we could resurrect the model that MoCo had at one intersection so many years ago.

Imagine that Live Nation event emptying out onto Colesville, where hundreds of patrons will safely move south into the downtown. Beyond the post-event traffic, the hundreds of people who cross this intersection every day could do so safely, without the apprehension of conflicts with turning vehicles, cars running red lights, or crossing the street twice to get to the opposing corner.

This solution doesn't cost a lot. In fact, it makes the curb design simpler and only requires some changes to signals. And it removes street clutter. As we complete these designs, we will try to build a constituency to implement these at strategic intersections around the county.

This intersection above is at one of the busiest intersections in downtown Toronto. Where not only motor cars, but the subway and streetcar lines all converge. Count the streetcars moving through the intersection. Watch the crowds crossing in all directions then the cars. Unseen is the subway below. At any point in the day there are huge crossings of people and all types of vehicles.

The County is moving forward with some exciting new strategies for infill growth. We can bring our infrastructure along to help us realize the visions expressed in our plans for major intersections in places like Takoma/Langley, Long Branch, White Flint, and in our busy downtown areas. It is time to rethink how we do pedestrian infrastructure to complement our planning visions.

Crossposted at the Director's Blog.

Rollin Stanley is Director of the Montgomery County Planning Department. Previously, he held top planning jobs in St. Louis and Toronto. He blogs regularly at the Planning Department Director's Blog, which features the tagline, "No place is worth visiting that doesn't have a parking problem." 


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what happened to the Barnes dance?

I remember DDOT saying something that pedestrian volume wasn't high enough elsewhere. It would probably work well on M and Wisconsin and near Farragut Square.

by charlie on Aug 16, 2011 2:32 pm • linkreport

If you mean what happened to the term, it's still valid. Rollin chose to use an equally valid term, "pedestrian scramble".

If you're asking what happened to the Colesville/Fenton scramble, I'd guess MCDOT happened to it. But it could have easily been SHA. They went out of favor for a while, pretty much nationwide.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 16, 2011 2:36 pm • linkreport

Even more than the Fillmore, I would also add to this article the pending (well, alleged) completion of the Silver Spring Transit Center, that will see enough pedestrians every 60-90 minutes to fill up the Fillmore. The intersection of Wayne and Colesville (and to a lesser extent, Colesville at E-W Hwy) is practically screaming for a Barnes Dance, where you have a lightly traveled street crossing on a diagonal (Second Avenue), necessitating a long green light to allow pedestrians to cross Colesville. The result is few cars traveling at high speeds conflicting with a few jaywalking pedestrians on the busier side of Colesville. A shorter green for Second Avenue and a Barnes Dance period so that the short diagonal (from the Metro to the McDonalds) could be crossed would be safer and more productive here.

by Joe in SS on Aug 16, 2011 2:48 pm • linkreport

This is something Arlington should consider. Hopefully as part of this project, but also in Clarendon and Courthouse too.

by Novanglus on Aug 16, 2011 2:55 pm • linkreport

I love the Barnes Dance/Pedestrian Scramble in theory. But a lot of the time, they just don't work in practice. The pedestrian scramble only works as intended when pedestrians wait during the vehicular green (this is when cars turn). But such a large percentage of pedestrians don't want to wait and therefore you still have pedestrians and turning vehicles in the intersection at the same time. It's human nature-- you hear the traffic moving parallel to you and you almost can't help crossing even though the pedestrian signal says don't walk-- and then you are interfering with the turning vehicles.

The Barnes Dance in Chinatown dealt with this issue by prohibiting all turns (left and right turns) at the intersection. This way pedestrians don't have to wait so long before they get their turn to cross the street. I think this is a great way to do it, however it takes a lot of guts for a DOT to prohibit all turns as well as a lot of enforcement to make sure drivers follow the prohibition.

A typical installation of a pedestrian scramble (where vehicular turns are not restricted) actually increases delay for all modes-- pedestrians, bicycles, cars, buses etc. Everyone has to wait a longer time for their chance to cross. In my opinion, that is not pedestrian-friendly.

I much prefer the leading pedestrian interval in which pedestrians get to start crossing before vehicles get the green light.

by Jenny on Aug 16, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

Will the increased volume for a 30-minute period following late-night events a few times a week really merit these changes at the Colesville/Fenton intersection? I think there are busier intersections that need re-evaluation before that one. Specifically the Colesville/Georgia and Colesville/Second intersections.

The biggest issue is that we have intersecting 6-lane highways going through a dense, urban area. They "re-did" the pedestrian crossings at Colesville/Georgia, but the intersections still have wide, sweeping curves that allow traffic to speed around the corners. And, even with no-turn-on-red arrows, cars still proceed when pedestrians are beginning to walk on their walk sign. Bigger changes are needed here - I am not sure that Barnes dances are the answer.

by engrish_major on Aug 16, 2011 3:29 pm • linkreport

I had a professor at U-Md. who lived in Baltimore and said that back before I-95 opened, Silver Spring was the "place you turned left" going from Colesville Road to Georgia and on into DC. That's not the case anymore. Silver Spring is Maryland's second-largest CBD and transpo hub and should be treated as such. That means giving pedestrians greater priority.

I wish MCDOT and SHA were willing to "neck down" Colesville and Georgia to encourage slower auto traffic - tighter turning radii, bulbouts, along with wider sidewalks, more landscaping & street trees. Bike lanes would be nice, too.

by dan reed! on Aug 16, 2011 3:52 pm • linkreport

There currently is a Barnes dance (there aren't any special signs noting it, but cars are red in all directions) at the intersection of Lamberton Drive and Arcola Ave in Silver Spring.

by Gregory O. on Aug 16, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport

@Dan - I disagree with bike lanes on Colesville and Georgia - there are already great (albeit poorly signed) routes on Ellsworth to parallel Colesville, and traffic moves slowly enough on Fenton and Spring Streets for bikes to use the full lane, to parallel Georgia. I am all for traffic calming, but this is a US Highway we're talking about, so the capacity needs to stay, even if traffic moves a little slower through the area. I think the calming needs to be done on the more lightly traveled parts of Colesville and Wayne closer to the metro station.
I think that the "redoing" that engrish_major refers to actually worked pretty well, particularly now that they've readjusted the light cycle for SB Colesville traffic to turn left at the *end* of the green cycle than the beginning.

by Joe in SS on Aug 16, 2011 4:31 pm • linkreport

Glad to hear people like that change in the left-turn phasing... that was one of my additions :D Though I do hope people have gotten used to change as they cross Colesville! I remember standing out there a couple days after it was turned on & cringing as more cars turned right on the red arrow than green; and more peds crossed Colesville on Don't Walk than Walk.

I'm also hoping the pending changes to 16th St Circle will help folk envision what some other intersections could experiences in the area, somewhat in line w/ Dan's suggestions.

by Bossi on Aug 16, 2011 4:36 pm • linkreport

My school-home in Philadelphia is adjacent to Baltimore Avenue (US 13), which has bike lanes for most of its length. My point was more that bike lanes would be useful in downtown Silver Spring as a whole, even if not on Colesville & Georgia. I biked from Silver Spring to Petworth last week - four miles with only a small portion in a separated lane - and the portion in Silver Spring was much more uncomfortable because even the "smaller streets" like Fenton are designed for cars (just look at where Fenton meets 410!)


I think improving Blair Portal (16th Street Circle) would be tremendously helpful. What are the pending changes there? I'm not familiar with them.

by dan reed! on Aug 16, 2011 5:14 pm • linkreport

Shorter-term: add lane use signing & pavement markings. Add a new crosswalk on the north leg, tying into new sidewalk on the NW corner connecting to DC's sidewalk (I believe MCDOT has finished the sidewalk work). Use tubular markers to narrow the outbound Colesville & 16th St lanes from 3 to 2 lanes, providing ped bulb-outs which will taper back into the 3rd lane after further from the intersection.

Longer-term: full signalisation of remaining approaches. Connect sidewalk on NW corner to sidewalk along west side of 16th St. Fill in closed-off areas (last part of previous paragraph) with landscaping.

by Bossi on Aug 16, 2011 5:20 pm • linkreport

@Dan - Sorry if I misunderstood you, I agree there. I frequently ride from Four Corners to my office near the Blairs, and the portion from the end of Ellsworth to E-W Hwy can be...interesting at times. Could the on & off street parts of the MBT get you to Petworth?

@Bossi - Do you mind if I contact you thru your advertised page? I had a couple of other questions/ideas for the intersections mentioned above, and nearby ones in SS.


by Joe in SS on Aug 16, 2011 9:40 pm • linkreport

Go for it, though I've since moved on- not working in that same realm anymore :)

by Bossi on Aug 16, 2011 9:43 pm • linkreport

I'm old enough to remember the "Barnes Dance" at Colesville and Fenton, and it worked just fine.

There are three sort of Barnes Dances in nearby Takoma Park btw, along Carroll Ave, at Ethan Allen, Philadelphia and Laurel.

by Ken Firestone on Aug 16, 2011 10:19 pm • linkreport

Dan I highly doubt that "Silver Spring is Maryland's second-largest CBD". After Baltimore this is the largest business district in maryland?

by mike on Aug 17, 2011 10:19 am • linkreport

DDOT's decision to prohibit turns with the Barnes' Dance in Chinatown was actually a cynical devise to cook the data to show increased safety. The real impact is bad for pedestrian safety. It shifts the pedestrian/vehicle turning conflicts to other nearby intersections, where pedestrians don't benefit from the time where all vehicles face a red light. I didn't notice a post on GGW explaining how this unique implementation increases pedestrian risk at other nearby intersections.

by Allison on Aug 17, 2011 5:05 pm • linkreport

DDOT may have an industrious crew that comes through every few months and re-aims all the signals at 7th & H on the 90-degrees. The Barnes concept might work better if pedestrians at each of the 4 corners got correct signals from each of the 3 other corners.

by Turnip on Aug 17, 2011 10:12 pm • linkreport

Or just spin 'em back yourself. DC's ped signals pivot quite easily- on rainy days, I'll occasionally rotate the higher ones back with my umbrella.

by Bossi on Aug 17, 2011 10:14 pm • linkreport

These are all great ideas.

How about some enforcement on existing crosswalks that aren't at lights?

If you're the Montgomery County crosswalk person, can you give the Bethesda Police a heads up about the crosswalk on Wisconsin right in front of Pumphrey's funeral home? Almost no one stops/ yields for pedestrians there.

If they don't care about pedestrian safety, I'm willing to guess that they could make some money in tickets, at the very least.

by ed on Aug 18, 2011 4:09 pm • linkreport

Mr. Stanley is the Director of the Planning Department. He has very little to do with the actual installation of or enforcement of crosswalks.

Installation is typically the job of the MCDOT or SHA. Enforcement is done by the police. That being said, the Planning Department can make recommendations about locations and design.

Also, Bethesda is not an incorporated area (it's not a city). It is policed by the Montgomery County Police Department. You can direct your complaints to them.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 18, 2011 4:39 pm • linkreport

@Matt. Thanks for your response.

I always forget how much county government means down here, and how few incorporated cities there are.

Anyways, I just thought that, as the chief planner in the county, Mr. Stanley would have a working relationship with the police and his suggestion to them to enforce that particular crosswalk might have more likelihood of succeeding.

In a million years, I do not expect any police department to be responsive to one John Q. Public's request, especially given the size of the constituency of the whole county. I do not have the months or years of free time and lobbying in me to get any action on this one particular crosswalk, so I won't bother.

I just thought it wouldn't hurt to try to get someone on the inside to help on this particular crosswalk. If that is too much to ask, I am sorry.

by ed on Aug 18, 2011 5:06 pm • linkreport

I've been quite impressed w/ the Mont Co Police over the past couple years- they've really started to take on ped safety with more zeal than they'd had when I first started working in the area. While I have mixed feelings on some of their approaches and some divisions/districts are still getting a feel for things, having sat in with them on ped safety meetings I do feel that they're definitely headed in the right direction.

I'd suggest giving the MCPD District 2 office a call at 301.652.9200 & ask for their traffic enforcement unit to share your concerns. They're often out on the road, but my experience with the Bethesda district is that they've been pretty good at returning voicemails. Also their office is just a couple blocks south of the intersection you reference.

You might also send a message to the SHA District 3 Traffic Division ( as SHA maintains Wisconsin Ave. You should get an immediate response confirming they've received your inquiry & that should have a time estimate on how long until you can expect a response.

by Bossi on Aug 18, 2011 5:23 pm • linkreport

I wasn't saying it was too much to ask. I was just trying to clarify the relationships involved.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 18, 2011 5:39 pm • linkreport

Thanks guys. I'll give it a shot.

by ed on Aug 18, 2011 6:03 pm • linkreport

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