Greater Greater Washington

Pedestrians


Upcounty residents call for action on pedestrian safety

"We're all drivers. We're all pedestrians. We all just want to get to where we're going," said one Germantown resident at the Action Committee for Transit's public forum on pedestrian issues in upcounty Montgomery County in Germantown on Saturday.


Photo by Dave in the Triad on Flickr.

The 50 or so participants ranged in age from elementary school children to senior citizens. The lively discussion pointed to road problems that need fixing and road policies that need changing.

Barbara McCann, founder of the National Complete Streets Coalition, spoke to the residents. Complete Streets are streets that "are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities."

According to McCann, Montgomery County has adopted a Complete Streets policy, but with exceptions "big enough to drive a truck through," and a rating of only 46%.

McCann laid out 4 steps for implementing a Complete Streets policy:

  1. Changing procedures.
  2. Educating staff and others.
  3. Re-writing manuals (such as Montgomery County's road code).
  4. Establishing new performance measures (for example, adding level-of-service measures for pedestrians, as well as drivers).
When McCann remarked that implementation also required a champion in the transportation department, Jeff Dunckel, the Pedestrian Safety Coordinator for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT), spoke up to say that this was his job. In addition, he referred to Montgomery County's Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Traffic Safety Advisory Committee, which meets every other month.

The second presenter was Frances Heilig, a Gaithersburg resident whose neighbor, Yessenia Martinez Rivas, was killed at a crosswalk across Muddy Branch Road north of Suffield Drive in Gaithersburg in November, leaving three young daughters. Another pedestrian had been killed at this location in 2009.

Heilig explained that there is a lot of pedestrian traffic at this crosswalk because of the Muddy Branch Square shopping center, but that with a speed limit of 45 mph (and speeding drivers), drivers who stop for pedestrians risk getting hit by other drivers. Another Gaithersburg resident added that southbound drivers focus on the traffic signal further down the hill at Great Seneca Highway, rather than on the crosswalk.

Finally, Clarksburg resident Edward Rothblum talked about how his requests for a marked crosswalk to connect his neighborhood to the elementary school on the other side of Stringtown Road have been repeatedly denied by Montgomery County.

There are curb ramps and a pedestrian refuge here, anticipating a traffic signal one day, perhaps in the far future. In the meantime, though, the county is not willing to put in a crosswalk to help people cross. Catherine Matthews, director of the county government's Upcounty Regional Services Center, said she had spoken with Emil Wolanin, chief of MCDOT's Division of Traffic Engineering and Operations. Matthews said they are now considering a policy of simply not installing any pedestrian features at an intersection until all of the planned road construction is complete.

After the presentations, participants created a list of 5 problematic spots in the county for pedestrian safety, and identified 4 specific actions the county can take to improve pedestrian mobility.


Participants specifically highlighted these problem places, plus all rural upcounty roads, at the meeting for particular pedestrian danger. Image from Google Maps.

Problem places range from rural to fairly urban

The first problem spot is Germantown Road/MD 118 in Germantown, between Wisteria Drive and the I-270 interchange. The stretch of road combines high-speed commuter traffic in up to 9 lanes of traffic with increasing pedestrian (including school) and business activity. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it has been the location of multiple pedestrian deaths recently.

Captain Thomas Didone, director of the Traffic Division of the Montgomery County Department of Police, said that the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) had recently agreed to the county's request to lower the speed limit along this stretch from 50 mph to 40 mph.

A second problem place is the intersection of Dairymaid Drive and Great Seneca Highway in Germantown. As the well-defined goat track shows, people living in the Farmingdale Estates neighborhood use this unmarked crosswalk across Great Seneca Highway to walk to the Kingsview Village shopping center.

Third, at the intersection of Mateny Road and Clopper Road (MD 117) in Germantown, there are (narrow) sidewalks, bus stops, and pedestrian signals, but no pavement markings or signs to alert drivers. Note that there are plans to build 104 townhouses in the former shopping center in the northeast corner of this intersection.

A fourth problem place is the more rural parts of the upcounty, where people do not feel safe walking to playgrounds and parks that are in walking distance. For example, Kings Valley Road in Damascus is a rural two-lane road, but because there are no shoulders or sidewalks, residents feel unsafe walking along the road, especially with children. And crossing Ridge Road/MD 27 on foot, on the way to Damascus Regional Park, is something only a committed pedestrian would dare to attempt.

Finally, participants pointed to the crossing in front of Gaithersburg City Hall in Gaithersburg, where drivers do not stop for pedestrians.

The county and state can do better

To make these and many other unsafe spots better for pedestrians, Maryland could change its law to make the use of a non-hands-free cell phone while driving primary offense instead of a secondary offense. Didone said that it is difficult for police officers to issue citations for cell phone use because they must first have another reason to pull the driver over, such as speeding. (Under Maryland law, texting while driving is a primary offense.)

Second, the county could put up signs at every school for lower speed limits during school hours. In Germantown, for example, there are such signs at Northwest High School and Seneca Valley High School. Didone said that enforcing these speed limits is difficult.

A third action would be repainting worn crosswalks. Dunckel commented that budget cuts had affected many maintenance issues, including crosswalk painting. He advised reporting such crosswalks through the county's 311 system, noting the service request number, and then following up a few weeks later if there were no response.

Finally, we must improve driver awareness as well as pedestrian awareness. Montgomery County does conduct such pedestrian safety campaigns. Enforcement, however, is more often aimed at pedestrians rather than drivers, though there are exceptions.

Dunckel and Didone both emphasized that the upcounty was not built for pedestrians and that, with over 5,000 lane miles of county roads, plus state highways, changes to improve pedestrian safety and mobility cannot happen overnight.

But that's all the more reason for the county to design complete streets from the get-go in new development in the upcounty, such as in supposed-to-be transit- and pedestrian-oriented Clarksburg. And it's all the more reason to keep pushing for change in the rest of the county as well.

Miriam Schoenbaum lives in Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve. She serves on the MARC Riders' Advisory Council and is a member of the Action Committee for Transit

Comments

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"Finally, participants pointed to the crossing in front of Gaithersburg City Hall in Gaithersburg, where drivers do not stop for pedestrians."

It's not clear to me why they focused on that particular crosswalk. First, that crosswalk is in the City of Gaithersburg, so it is not in the jurisdiction of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (to whom these comments were directed, right?). Second, drivers tend not to stop for pedestrians at any crosswalk where there's not a traffic light, so why call out that one in particular?

by J. Walker on Jan 29, 2013 3:15 pm • linkreport

Catherine Matthews, director of the county government's Upcounty Regional Services Center, said she had spoken with Emil Wolanin, chief of MCDOT's Division of Traffic Engineering and Operations. Matthews said they are now considering a policy of simply not installing any pedestrian features at an intersection until all of the planned road construction is complete.

Are they serious? The County will never get pedestrian amenities at that rate. It takes 20+ years for some areas to 'finish' being built out and all the final improvements in place. The policy should read "installing all pedestrian facilities at intersections when they are first constructed" or something of that nature.

by Gull on Jan 29, 2013 3:29 pm • linkreport

sorry for the second paragraph in italics, that was my own quote.

by Gull on Jan 29, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

J. Walker said: "Second, drivers tend not to stop for pedestrians at any crosswalk where there's not a traffic light, so why call out that one in particular?"

Because it's right in front of Gaithersburg City Hall, where you'd think the presence of so many government officials and police officers would generate a higher compliance rate.

If drivers don't stop for pedestrians in front of City Hall, chances are they won't stop at others, either, especially without a traffic light.

by Capt. Hilts on Jan 29, 2013 3:37 pm • linkreport

Simple idea: Find a way for force the county to mark every single unmarked crosswalk with full zebra stripage.

It would cost quite some paint, but it would make it very obvious to drivers that pedestrians exist.

by Jasper on Jan 29, 2013 4:22 pm • linkreport

If drivers can't be bothered to stop at marked crosswalks, what hope do we have for unmarked crosswalks?

by SJE on Jan 29, 2013 4:26 pm • linkreport

If drivers can't be bothered to stop at marked crosswalks, what hope do we have for unmarked crosswalks?

Probably none. That's precisely why the roads should be designed for and accommodating to all users of all abilities from the get go.

by thump on Jan 29, 2013 4:49 pm • linkreport

That policy of not installing any pedestrian safety infrastructure until a project is complete is akin to not buying your child shoes until her feet are done growing. Its stupid and short sighted and disrespectful.

by Tina on Jan 29, 2013 6:24 pm • linkreport

thump: I'd add that there also needs to be better enforcement, education, and penalties. How many people go to jail for killing pedestrians at marked cross-walks, let alone unmarked.

by SJE on Jan 29, 2013 9:18 pm • linkreport

Marked vs. unmarked crosswalks. See linked FHWA study: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/research/safety/04100/04100.pdf

Or NCHRP Report
http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/nchrp/nchrp_w91.pdf

Comfort and perception-wise, people feel better when crossing at a marked crosswalk, but in statistically terms the difference in safety compared to an unmarked crosswalk is not significant or in some cases worse. That is not to say that there should not be improvements at these locations, there are many different options as noted here: http://www.walkinginfo.org/problems/problems-crossing.cfm

But, engineers would strongly prefer to implement choices that have real results in improving safety, not something that just looks good or feels good.

by Some Ideas on Jan 29, 2013 11:16 pm • linkreport

engineers would strongly prefer to implement choices that have real results in improving safety, not something that just looks good or feels good.

Traffic engineers' priority is moving cars, safety comes second, and moving pedestrians comes last.

When there's a "safety campaign," MCDOT and other suburban highway agencies tell pedestrians to cross at marked crosswalks. But when asked to mark a crosswalk, they reply that marked crosswalks are no safer than unmarked ones.

Everyone agrees, of course, that a marked crosswalk is safer for pedestrians if it has a traffic light. But traffic lights slow down cars, so there are rules that limit their use. Even if those rules are changed as your second link proposes, signalized crosswalks as a pedestrian safety measure will be forbidden unless there are already around 100 pedestrians per hour crossing at the location four hours per day. The net effect of these policies is that it's impossible to get a new crosswalk unless 400 people do what they're told not to do and cross at the unmarked crosswalk.

Even if you can assemble those 400 troublemakers, the rules also forbid signalized crosswalks if there is another one within 300 feet. The pedestrian is required to make a 600-foot detour -- 2½ minutes at 4 ft/sec plus the time required to wait at the light. An intersection where cars must wait 2½ minutes plus the red light time is considered "failing" by traffic engineers.

by Ben Ross on Jan 30, 2013 7:26 am • linkreport

Has anyone done a decent study on mid block crossings? I'm not a fan of people who do it, but if its going to happen maybe we can at least try to make it safer.

by Alan B. on Jan 30, 2013 9:51 am • linkreport

"Traffic engineers' priority is moving cars, safety comes second, and moving pedestrians comes last."

A real traffic engineer focuses on safety first and creating real solutions...anyone else is a poser.

by Some Ideas on Jan 30, 2013 11:36 am • linkreport

Some ideas - So you believe that the authors of the MUTCD are posers, not real traffic engineers?

by Ben Ross on Jan 30, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

So your saying that the MUTCD makes crosswalks, pedestrian signals, bicycle lanes and traffic lanes unsafe?

by Some Ideas on Jan 30, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

Yes. MUTCD forbids use of traffic lights for pedestrian safety purposes (with a partial exception near school zones). Only when the volume of pedestrian traffic is high enough to interfere with vehicle movement does pedestrian traffic warrant a traffic light.

Not only that, but the number of cars crossing at an intersection that justifies a traffic light is fewer than the number of pedestrians needed. Even though a pedestrian is obviously in more need of protection than a driver, due to lesser visibility and absence of a metal shield.

That is just one example.

by Ben Ross on Jan 30, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

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