Greater Greater Washington

Pedestrians


Walking to school in Montgomery gets a little safer

Last year, drivers hit nine people walking to school in Montgomery County, and residents are agitating for change. With classes starting this week, the county's Department of Transportation has taken a few small steps toward making the walk there safer, but it's not enough.


A student at Bethesda ES. Photo by Ronit Dancis.

Tracy Simmons walks her two kids a mile to Bethesda Elementary every day. She says it's simply not safe, citing sidewalks too narrow to walk on, poorly-timed stop lights, and drivers who speed and don't yield to small children crossing the street. "Drivers need to stop thinking about their destination and be aware of what's going on around them," she says. "The streets are for everyone and everyone has the right to be safe while on them."

The Action Committee for Transit, a transit and pedestrian advocacy group, joined with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and area parents to launch the Safe Walk To School campaign last spring, asking MCDOT to make small improvements that could make walking to school safer.

According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, nearly half of all children between 5 and 14 walked to school in 1969. 40 years later, just 13% did. Studies show that kids who walk or bike to school are healthier, more independent and even learn better. But many parents won't let their kids walk to school due to fears about safety. Fast, wide streets that favor drivers can make walking to school quite dangerous.


Last year, a student died while walking to Seneca Valley High School in Germantown. Photo from Google Street View.

However, students at 2 county schools got a safer walk when classes started on Monday. At Bethesda Elementary in downtown Bethesda, MCDOT has lowered the speed limit on adjacent Arlington Road from 30 to 25 when school is in session. In February, a driver of an SUV hit a baby in a stroller in a marked crosswalk in front of the school.

Yesterday morning, members of ACT and local parents handed out flyers and balloons outside Bethesda Elementary to raise awareness about their campaign. Safe Walk to School's list of recommended safety improvements are small: they include a maximum speed limit of 20 and banning right turns on red in school zones, higher fines for speeding violations, more visible crosswalks, and changing traffic signals to give pedestrians more time to cross. But together, they could have a big impact on pedestrian safety.

ACT board member Ronit Dancis says one parent told her that he's physically pulled kids out of the intersection in front of the school to avoid cars making illegal right turns at a red light. "I've spoken with parents throughout Montgomery County who want their children to be able to walk (and bike) safely to school," says Dancis. "They are frustrated by how difficult it is."


A new crosswalk outside Galway Elementary School. Photo by the author.

And at Galway Elementary School in Calverton, MCDOT added new bumpouts and crosswalks, slowing cars down and making it easier for students to cross. Many students live within walking distance of Galway, which is one of the county's largest elementary schools with over 800 students, almost 2/3 of whom come from low-income families.

The school is located on a busy neighborhood street with other things kids might walk to, like a park, a church, and a swim club. But even those who live 4/5 of a mile away like my brother, a former student, rode the bus there instead.

Montgomery County is finally beginning to take pedestrian safety seriously. County police held a sting for drivers who didn't yield to walkers last spring, writing 72 tickets in 2 1/2 hours at one crosswalk on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton. MCDOT is also doing community outreach, hosting events to raise awareness about safety issues.


New bumpouts will help slow traffic outside Galway Elementary School. Photo by the author.

The improvements are a small step in the right direction, but more work needs to be done. As recently as last year, MCDOT recommended that the school system bus students living across the street from Clarksburg Elementary to school so the agency wouldn't have to install a crosswalk.

And the agency has been reluctant to accommodate walkers outside of school zones as well. Traffic engineer Bruce Johnston told residents at a meeting in White Flint in June that if they want "complete streets" designed for pedestrians and bicyclists in addition to drivers, they should tell the governor.

Downtown Bethesda resident Wendy Leibowitz notes that walking to school isn't as new or foreign an idea as some make it sound. "I challenge [transportation officials] to think back to their own trips to school when they were young. Can we provide a similar safe walk to our kids?" she says.

"Or do we have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to bus children small distances so the kids can be home by 3:30 in front of a screen of some kind?" adds Leibowitz. "Then we hear lectures about childhood obesity and screen addiction."

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

Comments

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Until MDOT is changed from the top down, I'm afraid it will be very hard to get the county to fix this problem.

by Thayer-D on Aug 28, 2013 2:33 pm • linkreport

An adult woman was killed crossing the street in front of Bethesda Elementary a few years ago.

by Capt. Hilts on Aug 28, 2013 2:45 pm • linkreport

The buses to/from Bethesda ES are so packed that they told parents that if a kid wants to go on playdate with a friend, a parent has to pick them up. There is simply no room for one more kid. With MoCo introducing bike share in a few weeks, its time that they prioritize pedestrian and bike safety.

by SJE on Aug 28, 2013 3:05 pm • linkreport

Arlington Road needs a total redesign. It's a downright pedestrian hostile.

by Crickey7 on Aug 28, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

A Montgomery County police officer in downtown, Bethesda for traffic enforcement last week told me that the roads are for cars, not for pedestrians. He said it was usually pedestrians at fault.

Straight from the mouth of the folks we rely on to enforce the laws.

by Capt. Hilts on Aug 28, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

Capt Hilts: did you get the name and number of the officer? Such attitudes are a big part of the problem. He might be a little more nuanced if he was on foot patrol for 6 months, instead of insulated in an 8 cylinder Crown Vic that can turn the flashing lights on whenever traffic is an issue.

by SJE on Aug 28, 2013 4:32 pm • linkreport

"A Montgomery County police officer in downtown, Bethesda for traffic enforcement last week told me that the roads are for cars, not for pedestrians. He said it was usually pedestrians at fault.

Straight from the mouth of the folks we rely on to enforce the laws."

The officer is correct. Most pedestrian vs. vehicle accidents are the fault of the pedestrian.

by Jack on Aug 28, 2013 6:33 pm • linkreport

Arlington Road used to be relatively quiet - not much need for crosswalks since cars passed by only intermittently. Then someone decided to start a condo-building race downtown (still going on today), and now the street is choked with traffic around rush hour. The price of density I guess.

by Chris S. on Aug 28, 2013 7:55 pm • linkreport

@Jack Unless it is a limited access highway, the roads for people however they wish to use them: driving, riding a bus, walking biking. How many drivers were killed by errant pedestrians last year? Now, how many pedestrians were killed by errant drivers.

We've also learned from several recent stories that police reports on who is at fault in a crash are rarely accurate, and not to be trusted at all. (Witness the car crash in DC "you must be at fault, you're a biker" that was completely overturned by video evidence, the Natasha run over in PG that was initially incorrectly blamed on her not having lights, the crash initially deemed driver not at fault but later found that the driver only cleared a tiny patch of windshield from frost to see through, the SUV that killed the child recently in PG where the police said speed was not a factor but the crash damage indicated otherwise. The lists go on and on.

Unfortunately, the police are our enemy -- they hate pedestrians and cyclists because they associate biking and walking with undesirables and poor people -- and their reports cannot be trusted. They do not protect us. They protects motorists rights to speed at will regardless of who they kill. It's less paperwork than trying to enforce the law.

This cop was wrong.

by Greenbelt on Aug 28, 2013 9:41 pm • linkreport

"Capt Hilts: did you get the name and number of the officer? Such attitudes are a big part of the problem. He might be a little more nuanced if he was on foot patrol for 6 months, instead of insulated in an 8 cylinder Crown Vic that can turn the flashing lights on whenever traffic is an issue."

Yes, I got his name. And, yes, he was surrounded by a Crown Vic-type vehicle. He said the County should take down the "Stop for Pedestrians in Crosswalk" sign because it gives pedestrians a false sense of safety. He also said that pedestrians are legally only permitted to cross when the lights on either side of the crosswalk are red. Live and learn!

by Capt. Hilts on Aug 28, 2013 9:46 pm • linkreport

Then someone decided to start a condo-building race downtown (still going on today), and now the street is choked with traffic around rush hour.
I know; people are the worst! I moved to a densely populated area specifically to avoid them, but somehow they're all around me.

by Gray on Aug 28, 2013 9:49 pm • linkreport

Jack: Bethesda ES does not have any more room on its buses. How do kids get to school?

by SJE on Aug 29, 2013 1:58 pm • linkreport

@ Greenbelt "Unfortunately, the police are our enemy -- they hate pedestrians and cyclists because they associate biking and walking with undesirables and poor people"

That's right, and not only that but the whole speed camera Big Brother regime is encroaching further by the day. Next thing you know they'll be ticketing bicycles.

by Chris S. on Aug 30, 2013 10:41 am • linkreport

I wonder if they same safety/bus people are in Bethesda that are in Rockville. About 8 years ago, we walked Viers Drive/Scott Drive with the county's bus department to show them how dangerous the walk to Robert Frost Middle School can be. (Especially since one stretch of the road features no curb, and a 12" grass strip.) During the walk (attended by school officials, county officials and parents), we actually witnessed a car drive off the road and onto the grass strip. Still, the county's minds were made up, and they refused to allocate enough buses for the ride along that dangerous stretch. To this day, I typically see muddy tire tracks running across the sidewalks along that route. I fear that it's only a matter of time before an terrible accident.

by Jons on Sep 3, 2013 4:41 pm • linkreport

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