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MD highway planners to pedestrians: you’re on your own

If you're a pedestrian who uses a state road in upper Montgomery County, don't expect much help from the State Highway Administration (SHA).

Photo by Gary Kavanagh on Flickr.

That's the message in highway planners' response to a letter from the Action Committee for Transit (ACT) about pedestrian safety in the upcounty. ACT's letter asked SHA to look at 4 problem areas for pedestrians on state roads designed to prioritize driving over everything else.

At one location, SHA agreed to conduct a pedestrian audit, but did not agree to actually use its audit's recommendations. At 2 others, SHA declined to mark a crosswalk because not enough people use the unmarked crosswalk. And at the fourth, SHA declined to mark a crosswalk because it would inconvenience people in cars.

The first problem area is Germantown Road (Route 118) between Wisteria Drive and the I-270 interchange in Germantown. This stretch of road has up to 9 lanes of high-speed commuter traffic. At least 5 pedestrians have died there in recent years, including a student at Seneca Valley High School.

ACT asked for a pedestrian road safety audit, and SHA agreed to conduct one. This is a good start. But will SHA then do what its own audit recommends? SHA says only that they will evaluate "which suggestions [from the SHA audit] are warranted and feasible".

The second problem area is the intersection of Great Seneca Highway and Dairymaid Drive in Germantown. People who live in the townhouses and apartments east of Great Seneca cross here and then follow a desire path to the Kingsview Village shopping center. ACT asked for signs, pavement markings, and engineering so that people can cross safely and conveniently.

SHA responded that too few people cross this intersection on foot to warrant a marked crosswalk. In addition, they explained that a marked crosswalk would be more dangerous, because people might then feel safe crossing there, even though crossing there is not safe. How could SHA make crossing there safe? SHA's letter does not say.

The third problem area is the intersection of Clopper Road (Route 117) and Mateny Road in Germantown. Both drivers and pedestrians have died along this stretch of road in recent years. ACT asked for walk signals and high-visibility pavement markings for all 4 legs of this intersection, as well as signs to alert drivers about people crossing the street on foot.

SHA responded that there are plans (it's not clear whose) for improving the intersection for pedestrians, including marking the crosswalks across Mateny north and south of Clopper. Thus, 3 of the 4 legs will have marked crosswalks, instead of just one. This is good news. However, the fourth leg will still not have a marked crosswalk. SHA explained that a marked crosswalk is unnecessary because not enough people cross there.

In addition, SHA said that they would not mark the crosswalks with high-visibility markings because the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) calls for 2 parallel lines.

The last problem area is the intersection of Route 355 (Frederick Road) and Shady Grove Road, between Gaithersburg and Rockville. A pedestrian needs eight and a half minutes to cross the street here. ACT asked for high-visibility pavement markings, signs, signals, and appropriate walk intervals for all 4 legs of the intersection, in conformance with the Shady Grove Sector Plan.

SHA explained that they can't mark the crosswalk in the south leg of the intersection, for 2 reasons. First, if drivers turn from northbound Shady Grove onto southbound 355 using the combined right-turn/through lane, they cannot see people in the crosswalk well. Second, the amount of car traffic makes a separate pedestrian-only signal phase impractical.

Impractical for whom? Presumably for people in cars, since a marked crosswalk with a walk signal would be very practical for people trying to cross the south leg of the intersection on foot.

7 of the 11 pedestrian deaths in Montgomery County in 2013 so far occurred on state roads. The Montgomery County government says that "crossing the street [should not be] a death defying act" and that engineers should design and operate roads so that people on foot can use them safely and conveniently. Wouldn't it be great if SHA learned this lesson too?

Miriam Schoenbaum lives in upcounty Montgomery County. She is a member of the Boyds Civic Association, the Boyds Historical Society, and the Action Committee for Transit


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For number 2...

The law says thats a legal crosswalk, right? With the same status as a marked crosswalk?

Why on earth do they think they can flaunt the state laws and discourage people from crossing there?

by JJJJ on Nov 5, 2013 3:31 pm • linkreport

At some point, you have to accept that the system doesn't work and do it yourself. Get a few willing guys, buy some paint and plastic cones, and build it yourself. It's amazing how much cars slow down for a well-placed plastic cone. Take some photos and email the local press. After the local council bods come round to take your new infrastructure away, wait a couple of weeks, then build it again.

by renegade09 on Nov 5, 2013 3:58 pm • linkreport

While there are many more pedestrians than cyclists, the pedestrians are less organized. We are gradually seeing the adoption of bicycle infrastructure guidelines that improve the situation even on state highways.

A sustained effort by a group of pedestrian advocates is necessary. it must be conducted on many fronts, and to the extent that the guidance is inconsistent with safety, then the guidance and MUTCD must be changed.

The majority of drivers do not even know that they are supposed to stop at marked crosswalks, and the majority of police do not know they are supposed to stop at unmarked crosswalks. The police are only interested in enforcing the law where there is a high rate of fatal accidents, and the causes there may be idiosyncratic more than reflecting the countywide systemic problems.

I would push for SHA to test a new warning sign to state that drivers must stop for pedestrians at all **intersections** since no one knows what a crosswalk is. They do not need to get warning signs in the MUTCD so you could push for such signs at all these intersections--and SHA would probably not claim that such signs cause pedestrians to take more risks since the peds would not see the signs.

by JimT on Nov 5, 2013 4:24 pm • linkreport

renegade09 is right, sometimes guerilla activism/urbanism is needed and gets things done.

by Adam Lind on Nov 5, 2013 4:37 pm • linkreport

I gotta love the logic.
SHA: the road is crazy busy and people have died crossing
ACT: then you add a ped crossing
SHA: but not enough currently cross there
ACT: perhaps that has something to do with your first point.

by SJE on Nov 5, 2013 4:52 pm • linkreport

This is not just an issue in the upper part of MoCo.

The Maryland SHA is a major impediment to creating better urban environments in places like downtown Silver Spring, Wheaton, and White Flint. All of these locales are traversed by major roads that happen to be state highways. In addition to vehicles traveling at high speeds along these roads, there are usually limited marked pedestrian crosswalks, and some of the ones that are marked are highly unsafe due to the speed of traffic. (One of the worst ones is the marked crossing on Colesville Road near the current Silver Spring library. I have NEVER seen traffic stop there for pedestrians.)

I recently moved to Wheaton, and I see people constantly attempting to cross University Boulevard in the middle of blocks, probably because the distance to the nearest marked crosswalk is at least a quarter mile. Although the Wheaton Sector Plan calls for the speed limit of "urban boulevards" to be 30 mph, the current speed limit along University is 40, and as a pedestrian it seems that most cars are traveling much faster than that.

Something needs to change at the SHA or Montgomery County will never realize its vision for places like Wheaton and White Flint.

by Rebecca on Nov 5, 2013 5:00 pm • linkreport

time for organized assertion of rights. schedule times for people to cross the road en mass, alert the media, milk the press opportunity. even better if the police try to arrest people for crossing the street or if SHA manages to express their opinions on camera.

by Mike on Nov 5, 2013 5:08 pm • linkreport

I ask again: If this is the same O'Malley administration that's supposed to be such a big supporter of transit-oriented development and complete streets, why is SHA not reigned in by the Transportation Secretary or the Governor's office? I understand that the primary mission of SHA is moving automobiles through Maryland, but where state highways pass through urban areas, that priority needs to be balanced with the priority of safely coordinating a variety of travel modes (walkers, bikers, transit riders, etc.). Maybe SHA needs an Urban Roads division and a Rural-Suburban Roads division?

by Bradley Heard on Nov 5, 2013 5:11 pm • linkreport

If we can *barely* get the DOT in DC to take any sort of half-assed measures to support pedestrians and cyclists, I'm not sure how suburban jurisdictions--which have an even more diverse group of parties--can be expected to do anything but continue their awful policies.

by oboe on Nov 5, 2013 5:14 pm • linkreport

@oboe: you just keep pushing until they do.

by JimT on Nov 5, 2013 5:20 pm • linkreport

I ask again: If this is the same O'Malley administration that's supposed to be such a big supporter of transit-oriented development and complete streets, why is SHA not reigned in by the Transportation Secretary or the Governor's office?

Institutional change is hard; even when it happens, it happens slowly.

Add in the fact that a great deal of the structure of state DOTs is set by the way federal dollars flow, you've got some serious hurdles within the decision-making chain to overcome.

by Alex B. on Nov 5, 2013 5:25 pm • linkreport

@JimT - Actually you only need to stop at a marked, unsignaled crosswalk if there is already a pedestrian within the marked crosswalk. Of course, said pedestrian(s) are not legally allowed to step into the crosswalk if it is not safe to do so (traffic is not clear yet).

That said, I think a public education campaign that makes all road users aware of their rights and responsibilities would go far towards making these roads safer for everyone.

by DaveG on Nov 5, 2013 5:54 pm • linkreport

DOT is a political body. If drivers are inconvenienced, they complain, and so DOT responds. If a pedestrian is killed, they chalk it up to pedestrian error.

You need a political solution.

The shortest way IMO is to set up a camera on some of the intersections and film people trying to cross. Interview some people, especially parents with children, people in business suits and elderly folks (preferably veterans). Edit the video to only show the relevant material, then post it on GGW. Ask what the DOT is doing for the children and the veterans. Ask why our business community is suffering because people can't cross the road.

by SJE on Nov 5, 2013 6:08 pm • linkreport

@DaveG: you are dangerously misstating the law. Maryland Code § 21-502: "A pedestrian may not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield." There is a heck of a big difference between "impossible for the driver to yield" and "traffic is not clear yet". The typical motorist response to a pedestrian at a crosswalk a quarter mile away is to speed up and try to intimidate the pedestrian into relinquishing their right of way. In fact, the pedestrian has every right to enter the crosswalk, and the motorist is required to stop, as long as it is *possible* for the motorist to stop.

by Mike on Nov 5, 2013 8:24 pm • linkreport

SHA doesn't understand that the ABSENCE of crosswalks deters people from walking????

Sad. And stupid.

by Capt. Hilts on Nov 6, 2013 8:52 am • linkreport

Miriam, thanks for this article. Those of us who advocate for pedestrians really have our work cut out for us.

by Ronit on Nov 6, 2013 8:55 am • linkreport

@DaveG: Sorry for any ambiguity. I did not mean to suggest that crosswalks are equivalent to stop signs. The distinction I am making is that one must stop, not merely yield, for pedestrians in the crosswalk.

As a practical matter, the minute a pedestrian puts a toe on the pavement, the ped is in the crosswalk and it is time for all traffic on that side of the road (or all traffic in either direction if it is a 2-lane road) to stop, whether the crosswalk is marked or not.

Of course that does not mean that a runner can continue a sprint and expect to cross safely. And drivers are not obiged to stop for pedestrians who look like they will probably enter the crosswalk--often they don't. Therefore, it is often the case that when you put your toe on the crosswalk, you do have to yield to the first car in the right lane, who can not safely stop for you at that point. But the car behind him most definitely can stop, and the fact that the pedestrian waits in the crosswalk for one car to clear the intersection is no excuse for the next car to follow him.

Drivers must stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, whether or not they are moving, and whether or not they are directly in front of the car. (Mike's comments on this thread are also correct.)

by JimT on Nov 6, 2013 9:17 am • linkreport

@Mike - I don't think you and I are in disagreement at all. Perhaps I should stick to directly quoting the law from now on :-)

by DaveG on Nov 6, 2013 1:46 pm • linkreport

What a wonderful, if sad, article. Thank you for your continued advocacy of a person's basic right to walk around in this state.
One thing is missing: names. The State Highway Administration is composed of people--someone must make a decision, or decline to act, and it's not Governor O'Malley. We have to look at the people in charge and call them to account.
Thank you again, Miriam, for highlighting this important issue in a detailed, persuasive way. I remain hopeful that with enough articles, VIDEOS and advocacy--and decent people in decision-making positions--that we can create a walkable community.

by Wendy in Bethesda on Nov 6, 2013 1:53 pm • linkreport

Have you considered appealing the points made by SHA Assistant District Engineer Anyesha Mookherjee to the SHA Administrator?

Melinda B. Peters, State Highway Administrator
Maryland State Highway Administration
707 North Calvert St.
Baltimore, MD 21202

(410) 545-0400; 1-800-323-6742 (toll free, Maryland)

by Tighe on Nov 6, 2013 3:23 pm • linkreport

This may seem like a pedestrian issue, but this is a huge problem for Maryland's economy looking forward 10, 20, 30 years. Uncrossable multi-lane roads designed only for high-speed commuting traffic are not wise infrastructure choices for the future. Neither are multi-billion dollar underused toll superhighways for that matter. The era of sprawl is winding down, and Maryland will be stuck with some enormously bad investments. The only good news is that excess pavement can easily be repurposed.

The problem is the "Highways" in SHA. It should be the State Streets and Roads Administration. They're not all highways, despite SHA's insistence on trying to make them so.

by Greenbelt on Nov 6, 2013 4:10 pm • linkreport

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