Greater Greater Washington

MoCo road code, AAA oppose tree-lined medians

Montgomery County is finalizing a new "road code" to define basic standards for roads of different types across the county. It's a good idea to update the standards, but in the hands of MoCo's traffic engineers and some county leaders, it's become a blindly pro-traffic sledgehammer that will force pedestrian-unfriendly design throughout the county.


MoCo Road Code Mojo Jojo.

Unveiled by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett during Pedestrian Safety Week, the road code actually works against pedestrian safety. It sets a minimum speed of 30 mph for all streets, even those in urban areas (like downtown Bethesda) that should be 25. Arterial streets like Wisconsin or Georgia have even higher minimums, whether or not that's appropriate.

"We're very disappointed that the road code revisions didn't focus enough on pedestrian safety and putting a greater priority on making our vibrant urban areas safe and walkable," Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth told the Gazette. The environmental provisions are more laudable, requiring all roads to absorb stormwater runoff, though, according to the Gazette article, environmentalists feel the absorption requirements don't go far enough.

The Planning Board wasn't pleased either, writing that the proposed minimum speeds are too high, the minimum widths too large for pedestrian safety and important traffic calming, the bicycle facility requirements too vague, and the standards too devoid of trees along the edges and in the medians.

That upset AAA spokesperson Lon Anderson, who participated in the working group that formulated the initial proposals. Anderson, whose organization consistently advocates for devoting as much public space as possible to cars, slammed the Planning Board and its non-car-centric ideas:

"Park and Planning thinks if every road was 20 mph or 25 mph that'd be great and every road should be tree-lined," Anderson said. ... "'It's our way or the highway' is an old maxim that apparently planners at the Montgomery County Planning Board take very seriously," said Anderson, who called the decision by the planners to offer separate recommendations "an outrageous and arrogant attempt to circumvent an appropriate study process."
Of course, Anderson's way is the highway. But while not every street should be 20 or 25 mph, some should, and many should be tree-lined. The road code prevents that. Anderson, though, thinks no streets should have tree medians. Commenting on an article in Just Up the Pike, Anderson wrote:
We are all for trees, but want them set back adequately to ensure they don't limit motorists' and pedestrians' site[sic] distances, and obscure things like traffic signals, stop signs, and pedestrians and children preparing to enter the roadway. Additionally, trees set too close to roads can kill motorists who run off the roads.

Please know that AAA has long played a role as a leader in the fight for pedestrian safety, and sponors over 36,000 children as AAA School Safety Patrols in the DC area, and I served on Doug Duncan's Pedestrian Safety Task Force a couple of years ago. We must design our roads in ways that encourage pedestrians, bikers and all users, but in the safest possible ways, and that's what I worked for in my efforts on the Road Design Study Commission.

If Anderson is sincere, he's woefully misinformed about traffic safety. "Blocking sight lines hurts safety" is a 1950s concept. But, in truth, when sight lines are blocked, motorists drive slower; when they're wide open, they drive faster. And since a pedestrian is 85% likely to die if hit by a car at 40 mph but only 5% likely at 20 mph, we do more for safety by slowing down the cars in areas where pedestrians will be crossing. A narrower street without sight lines, therefore, is often the safest kind precisely because the driver can't see everything and has to proceed with care.

There are two ways to keep pedestrians safe. One is to keep all the pedestrians far away from the main roads, build big barriers against crossing roads and locate buildings far apart, and giving the cars lots of room to run off the road without hitting anything. Problem is, then nobody can get anywhere without driving, we get crushing traffic (which Anderson professionally complains about), high rates of car crash injuries, asthma-inducing pollution, and depressingly sprawly communities. Or, we design our environment for cars, people and bicycles to coexist smoothly and, in the denser areas, at slow speeds. The Planning Board wants more of the latter, while Anderson, Leggett, and the rest of the authors of the Road Code want the former. That's only a recipe for more sprawl, which helps nobody except, perhaps, AAA Mid-Atlantic.

P.S. Remember that if you belong to AAA, part of your money goes to lobby against tree-lined streets and against pedestrian safety. There's a better choice.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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well summed up. I would just like to invite Mr. Anderson to try to cross one of his mega roads on foot. Maybe he should try crossing at four corners. How about Georgia Ave at Forest Glen Rd... right next to a Metro. There's no pedestrians there, right? We should make George Ave. wider there. I cross the intersection of University and Viers Mill in downtown Wheaton all the time. It's fantastically dangerous because the signals are set up so that there is no time for pedestrians to make it across the two parts of three lanes of traffic.

I would also like to say that Mr. Leggett has been fantastically receptive to backwards looking NIMBY types. It's been a disappointment so far. While I applaud him taking up the issue of pedestrian safety, his policy prescriptions have been very backwards and wholly counterproductive.

by Cavan on Oct 1, 2008 11:04 am • linkreport

Anderson is not sincere.

by Ralph G on Oct 1, 2008 11:18 am • linkreport

What stood out to me in this summary was Anderson's concern about a car hitting a tree and injuring the driver. So he wants the speeding out of control car to run up unobstructed onto the sidewalk and kill or injur pedestrians instead? Yeah, I guess hitting people instead of a tree is a softer landing for the (possible) drunk driving the out of control car. The drivers' safety is far more important than the saftey of any people who might be on the sidewalk.

by Bianchi on Oct 1, 2008 11:41 am • linkreport

Thanks for writing this well argued editorial, David. You're absolutely right that the evidence is piling up against the AAA / traffic engineer argument, and in favor of the planners and pedestrian advocates. Elizabeth MacDonald has studied on the topic of street trees and sight lines specifically, in her study Street Trees and Intersection Safety. Here is a magazine article MacDonald wrote about her research, and here is my summary of the study.

On the safety record of livable streets that include trees, Eric Dumbaugh is a trailblazer. His article Safe Streets, Livable Streets outlines his doctoral research on the topic, and the full dissertation is also available. As the APA summarized it, Dumbaugh found that pedestrian-friendly, "livable" streets are safer than streets designed with wider lanes and fewer roadside obstructions.

There are a whole raft of traffic engineering innovations that go under the heading "shared space," which are based on the observation that drivers drive more safely when they have to think for themselves, instead of having idiot-proof "clear zones" and the like which encourage drivers to switch off their brains and stop paying attention.

Also, the evidence shows that streets with more pedestrians and cyclists have lower crash risk. For more links and citations about these and related topics, see the post Connectivity Part 7: Crash Safety.

by Laurence Aurbach on Oct 1, 2008 12:31 pm • linkreport

Great post. Great summary of the bad arguments and good work knocking them down.

Anything that can be done to amend this road code?

by Boots on Oct 1, 2008 1:21 pm • linkreport

Well, I'm a Montgomery County resident and I'll be happy to write to Mr. Leggett's office.

by Cavan on Oct 1, 2008 1:30 pm • linkreport

I'm trying to find out what stage the Council is at with their review of the Planning Board's comments. I heard the Council recently voted. I'll get back to everyone and maybe we can do a petition.

by David Alpert on Oct 1, 2008 1:32 pm • linkreport

This argument comes down to whether you are pro-car or anti-car. One side follows the idea that roads are designed for cars to convey people in an effecient safe manner. In other words to move people around cities and between cities as quickly as possible. This argument makes sense since the car is designed to be driven relatively fast (40+ mph).

The other camp believes in the anti-car concept which is to shove everything including the kitchen sink into the road as a means to SHARE the road and CALM the driver. It is obvious that forces the car to slow down to the speed of the surrounding environment. You do not need a Phd to figure that out. But, it also destroys the ability to quickly convey people and goods throughout a city...a serious disadvantage and counter productive in many other ways.

Neither side is right. What is going on is simply a war of ideas. Some people prefer the benefits and concepts of fast roads and others subscribe to treating roads as an extention of their living room or something. Sounds a bit like highway socialism to me.

But, one thing is for sure; you might mitigate accidents by forcing drivers to slow down because they are driving without sight lines. But ultimately, you will increase frustration and rage. There is nothing more inferiorating than having a vehicle designed for one use and being forced to use it in a completely different manner. It completely defeats the whole concept of the car. If all-inclusive roads are the new trend then cars should be more like electric shopping carts instead of interstate bullets.

Also, I love the part where they argue that getting rid of lines of sight creates more safety. Well then, just require drivers to drive blind folded and you will have no accidents since no one will bother getting in a car.

Personally, I dislike the approach of 'Dumbing Down' technology and design to suit something less adapted. If you seek compatibility then find other design approaches that accomlish this instead of dumbing down the more capable. This is the equivilent of forcing the brighter of the students to not progress farther as there are some whom take much longer to gain an understanding, then going one step farther and making them stop at a certain level of understanding and not progressing any farther at all.

Also, I wonder if these calmed streets with no sight lines are well adapted for emergency vehicles which tend to be large and fast moving. I can't imagine that a large fast moving vehicle will fair better in a cramped road full of slow moving vehicles, people, bikes, pedestrians, pets and kids playing soccer with no lines of sight and chock full of trees, shrubs and grasses. I would not want to be the guy whose life depended on it. So, you are basically trading one safety for another here as I see it.

Additionally, if you purpose to slam a bunch of pedestrians and bicycles into a road with cars then as the cars are forced to drive slower than designed, constantly having to brake, accelerate, stop then go, you are reducing effeciency and creating far more pollution. Additionally, you are placing people into a position where they will become comfortable walking near, in front of, behind, and around moving vehicles. I guess not chasing the ball into the street no longer applies eh? Well I guess not since they want the kids and the ball playing in the street to begin with anyway.

What you have here is a simple message that if you place tables and chairs and people eating food on a shooting range that you will reduce the number of accidents at the shooting range because it forces people to shoot more straight and accurate. Yeah, DUH! But it is really a stupid concept to begin with.

Then take the dumb idea of speed bumps and humps. As people gain more experience with them (due to more and more encounters with them) you will find drivers eventually going over them at 40+ MPH because they effectively have no effect on a car at high speeds. Everyone I know hits speed bumps and humps at high speeds now because it is less disturbing than going 5MPH over them. So these are self-defeating in many respects.

Anyway, I do not subscribe to the Traffic calming camp and I think they have got it very wrong in many ways. The idea should not to calm traffic. If you have traffic it is because you have high density and a lot of business activity. There is your problem. Solve it by killing your business and you will have a lot less traffic. And personally, districts with traffic calming are not conducive to my visiting them to do business. So perhaps, the calming method do eventually work (if you goal is to place people into socialist poverty and restrict freedom of movement).

by Dude23 on May 25, 2009 2:01 pm • linkreport

Districts with slowed traffic speed and reduced traffic volume have been known to experience a remarkable increase in business, because the quality of the environments are so immensely improved that customers enjoy visiting them as places, instead of the standard strip or big box center shopping experience that so often is just a chore to be dispensed with as quickly as possible.

Yesterday, New York City took the historic step of closing Broadway in Times Square to auto traffic and converting it to pedestrian space. Early reports are that the change is a huge success, according to eyewitnesses and photos. With a hugely improved pedestrian space, along with reduced congestion resulting from the simplified street pattern, I'm predicting the businesses in Times Square will see a significant uptick in sales.

by Laurence Aurbach on May 25, 2009 3:40 pm • linkreport

What is funny though is that anything above 30-35 mph is not the most efficient quick speed through a city. That speed gives you the most car throughput as they can bunch closer together in safe manner. I have seen plenty of cities with pedestrian only main streets and the results are pretty spectacular. I wish NYC great luck and success with this endeavor.

by NikolasM on May 25, 2009 10:27 pm • linkreport

Laurence, if what you say is true then I stand corrected. I appreciate your comments. They are interesting indeed. I think I will need to spend some time reading up on the subject more. Thanks.

by Dude23 on May 26, 2009 12:07 am • linkreport

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