Posts about SHA
After 40 years of planning, an extension of Montrose Parkway through White Flint could soon become a reality. County and state transportation officials say the highway is needed to move cars, but residents and county planners say it contradicts their goal of making White Flint an urban center.
Yesterday, the Montgomery County Planning Board recommended that the State Highway Administration and Montgomery County Department of Transportation change their plan to build a $119 million, 1.62-mile extension of Montrose Parkway from Rockville Pike to Veirs Mill Road. They questioned how it fits into the White Flint Sector Plan, which calls for the creation of a place "where people walk to work, shops and transit."
"It's hard to see this as consistent with a pedestrian-friendly environment," said Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier, who lives near White Flint. "It detracts from our efforts to create a grid of streets ... it makes our transportation goals harder."
Work on Montrose Parkway began in the 1970's, when it was planned as part of the Outer Beltway, which was eventually built as the Intercounty Connector. Later, a portion of the highway's route between Veirs Mill Road and New Hampshire Avenue was turned into Matthew Henson State Park.
Planning for the current version of Montrose Parkway began in 1998 and resulted in the construction of the segment west of Rockville Pike, which opened in 2010. The Planning Board's recommendations, which aren't binding, will next go to the County Council for a vote. SHA officials say that construction won't begin for at least 5 years.
The proposed four-lane highway would have a stoplight at Chapman Avenue and overpasses at Nebel Street and the CSX railroad tracks. At Parklawn Drive, there would be a single-point urban interchange or SPUI (pronounced "spooey"), where drivers on Parklawn would stop at a light before turning onto the highway. A SPUI already exists at the junction of Falls Road and I-270.
SHA and MCDOT representatives insist that Montrose Parkway is needed to handle anticipated traffic from the redevelopment of White Flint. "If you build more density, you're going to have more traffic congestion," said Edgar Gonzalez, MCDOT's deputy director for transportation policy.
However, recent studies and local examples suggest that compact, mixed-use development like what's proposed here will actually reduce traffic, raising the question where MCDOT and SHA's concerns are actually valid.
Parkway would reduce east-west connections
Since the latest plans for Montrose Parkway were first presented two weeks ago, residents have expressed concerns about the state's plans to close Randolph Road, a major east-west thoroughfare running parallel to the parkway, where it crosses the railroad tracks.
"One of the biggest problems in White Flint planning is the lack of east-west crossings," wrote Barnaby Zall last week. "We've been trying for years to figure out a way to bridge that gap."
SHA officials say it'll improve safety. The Federal Railroad Administration calls it the 4th most dangerous crossing in Maryland: there have been 21 collisions there in the past 35 years, including one death. Since 2007, there has been just one collision. Separating the road from the railroad tracks also means trains won't have to blow their horns when they pass through, something many neighbors have complained about.
Randolph Road would end in a cul-de-sac just east of the tracks, and anyone who wanted to go further west would have to get on Montrose Parkway. Chair Carrier worried that this would hurt access to shops along Randolph Road. "It would be hard to imagine that the businesses there would remain viable," she said.
Gonzalez said it could be a safety hazard. "You have to weigh the benefits [of access to Randolph Road] with the possibility of a future event occurring," he said. "Nobody wants to be in a train collision."
Nonetheless, board members voted to keep Randolph Road open at the railroad crossing, which planning department staff recommended because it gives travelers more options, reducing the traffic burden on any one road.
Debate over whether interchanges are "barriers"
Much of the debate about Montrose Parkway revolved around the proposed interchange with Parklawn Drive. Board members worried it would become a barrier between White Flint and Twinbrook, making it difficult for people to walk or bike from one side to the other.
"We should rethink what we're doing in the context of the future land use of White Flint," said Planning Board member Casey Anderson. "We're not trying to build these huge slabs of asphalt that divide communities into pieces."
In the past, county planners have recommended putting a stoplight there instead. Former planning director Rollin Stanley argued that interchanges in White Flint "[reinforce] the view that Rockville Pike is a runway to get through White Flint versus moving through the area as a destination itself." Last fall, acting planning director Rose Krasnow wrote a letter asking MCDOT and SHA to consider it, but was rebuffed by MCDOT director Arthur Holmes, who said the interchange would "improve safety and reduce barriers by separating conflicting flows" of cars, pedestrians and bicyclists.
Likewise, Gonzalez said that an at-grade intersection, which would require that Montrose Parkway be 9 or 10 lanes wide to handle projected traffic, which would be just as bad for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Planner Larry Cole argued that it's because the county and state's plans are "overdesigned" and overestimate the amount of future car traffic in White Flint. "The reason [Montrose Parkway] is this big is that the space is available," he said.
Nonetheless, the board eventually voted in favor of keeping the interchange after officials from MCDOT and SHA promised to look at ways to make crossing the interchange safer and more pleasant for pedestrians, such as restricting right turns on red. The parkway will already have a 10-foot path for bicyclists and pedestrians on the north side and a 5-foot sidewalk on the south side.
Over time, the vision for White Flint has changed a lot. Forty years ago, the Outer Beltway was supposed to pass through it. Twenty years ago, the Planning Board sought to build multiple interchanges along Rockville Pike. Even the White Flint and Twinbrook sector plans, which are less than 5 years old, included the Montrose Parkway.
However, these neighborhoods are envisioned as urban places where people will be able to drive less, and to succeed it needs a street network where people feel comfortable and safe not driving, and Montrose Parkway as proposed could undermine that. The Montgomery County Department of Transportation and State Highway Administration work for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users, not just drivers, and their plans for places like White Flint must reflect that.
Crossposted on the Friends of White Flint blog.
The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has started installing new signs informing users that "Bicycles May Use Full Lane." But most roads are managed by local governments, and none of them yet plan to use the sign as extensively.
Photo by Richard Masoner, www.
The decision to place "use full lane" signs on state highways took a sustained campaign by the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) and an intervention by the state's Secretary of Transportation, followed by a year-long debate among senior SHA managers, which had to be settled by SHA Administrator Melinda Peters.
Why was there so much angst over a sign that merely states the law?
According to state employees, the sign came to symbolize a struggle between two schools of thought among traffic engineers: the traditional view that cyclists should ride as far right as practicable, and if that's not safe, stay off the road; and the modern view that cyclists are welcome on all roads, even if that requires riding in the center of the lane.
Within SHA, skeptics became supporters
While gradual, SHA's transformation has been remarkable. In April 2011, its Office of Traffic and Safety announced that SHA would not post any "use full lane" signs (PDF).
Tom Hicks, who was director of the office, explained in June 2011: "We assume that the bicycle requires a 4-foot operating width all the way to the right, while the automobile requires a 10-foot operating width. Drivers may have to move left into the next lane to pass. Potential conflict is increased if the cyclist moves farther to the left."
With some encouragement from MDOT Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley, a few months later, Mr. Hicks became a strong supporter of Maryland's yellow "use full lane" warning sign. "We think that this sign will be very useful on some highways," he told me. "I knew there was a solution in there somewhere." Last week, SHA posted the white rectangular version of the sign on MD-193, MD-212, MD-450, MD-500, and MD-704, which suggests that Cedric Ward, his successor, may prefer that version of the sign, which is officially known as "R4‑11".
Once the guidance on these signs is refined and fully implemented, there will be no ambiguity on state highways about where a bicyclist is assumed to ride.
Local governments have different stances
Cities have been most eager to use the signs. Laurel has the white rectangular signs and sharrows as part of a bike route parallel to US-1, and the city engineer endorsed placement of the yellow warning sign along US-1. The City of Baltimore uses the R4-11 signs on bicycle boulevards. Across the state line, the District of Columbia and Arlington (which operates its own roads) have used the R4-11 sign for more than a year.
Montgomery County has not posted any "use full lane" signs yet, but it intends to follow the approach described in the recent SHA guidance for the sign (PDF), according to Fred Lees, the county's chief of traffic engineering studies. Anne Arundel plans to limit the signs to a few cases where citizens report hazards caused by drivers not expecting to see cyclists using the full lane. "We already have 70,000 signs on county roads. Signs that merely tell people the law should not be needed," says James Schroll, the chief traffic engineer for Anne Arundel County. "There are better ways to inform residents that the law allows cyclists to take the lane."
Prince George's County still has the ambivalence about bicycling that SHA had in the past. Haitham Hijazi, Director of the Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T) says that the County will use the R4-11 signs along some roads that have at least two lanes in each direction.
But the county has rejected requests to post those signs on two-lane roads. In a meeting with WABA, DPW&T explained its reasoning:
DPW&T believes that signs and pavement markings increase its liability because doing so would imply endorsement of riding those roads. Today, cyclists ride those roads at their own risk. The County has never stated that all of its roads are part of the cycling transportation network. Installing signs and pavement markings would in effect endorse biking on those roads, making the county liable.In rejecting a request for a sign on Church Road, where drivers regularly honk at cyclists using full lane, DPW&T traffic engineer Cipriana Thompson said that "this is a use-full-lane situation," but disputed the research that R4-11 signs increase safety. Others at DPW&T suggest that cyclists who use the full lane do so for political reasons, rather than their own safety:
DPW&T cares about public safety and is concerned when members of the community take safety lightly or knowingly commit acts of high-risk behavior as a mechanism to achieve a public action.Advocates and officials seek common ground
WABA and other advocates disagree with the view that cyclists should not ride on 2‑lane roads that are too narrow to share. But rather than debate the point, they plan to work with Hijazi on specific roads that he is willing to improve. Councilman Eric Olson (D‑College Park) supports a pragmatic approach: "I look forward to working with DPW&T and the bicycle community on the new signs."
The American Automobile Association (AAA) is also supportive. John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic, who lives in Prince George's County, has seen first-hand the need for better signage. "When I drive to church on Sunday morning, I see a lot of bicyclists on Lottsford Vista Road," he observes.
"That road has been widened in some places, but parts are still narrow, and cyclists move into the lane there. We already have deer warning signs, so surely we should have signs to warn about vulnerable people in the roadway."
The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) yesterday posted nine rectangular signs stating "Bicycles May Use Full Lane" along MD-953 in Glenn Dale, a narrow 2-lane road that crosses the Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Trail. SHA plans to post similar signs on 18 state highways in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
The signs will "warn motorists that bicycles may be operating anywhere within a traffic lane," according to SHA Administrator Melinda Peters, marking a step forward for driver education and cyclist safety in Maryland.
Within the Capital Beltway, SHA operates most of the direct bike routes into the District of Columbia from Prince George's and Montgomery counties, as well as key cross-county routes such as University Boulevard and East-West Highway. Decades ago, SHA converted most shoulders on these roads into general travel lanes, forcing cyclists and drivers to share the road.
The meaning of "share the road" has evolved. For decades, the law required cyclists to keep as far to the right as practicable. This made sense when most cyclists were children proceeding slowly. But at higher speeds, riding too far to the right is hazardous. Drivers and pedestrians are not looking for fast vehicles close to the curb, and cyclists can't see them emerging from driveways, cross streets, or parked cars.
When lanes are too narrow for a car to pass a bike safely, too many drivers try to pass bikes within the lane anyway. So on those roads, it is safer for a cyclist to ride near the center of the lane, according to Maryland's Driver Manual.
Section 21-1205(a)(6) of the Maryland Transportation Code says that a cyclist may ride in the center of a narrow lane. But many drivers learned to drive (and bike) back when cyclists were supposed to simply keep to the right. And on any given road, drivers and cyclists may have different perceptions about whether the lane is too narrow to share. So "drivers and cyclists often must guess what the other is going to do," says Shane Farthing, Executive Director of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association.
Signs will educate, warn drivers
The Federal Highway Administration's official handbook of highway signs, The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), included a new sign in its most recent update to ensure that drivers and cyclists have the same expectations. This sign, called the R4-11, says "Bicycles May Use Full Lane." Because it has the shape of a white rectangle, R4-11 is technically a "regulatory sign," giving it the force of law. Wherever it's posted, cyclists may ride in the center of the lane, even in states that have not legalized this practice, such as New Jersey.
In Maryland, which allows cyclists to take the lane, the shape and color of the sign does not change the driving rules. But there are certain requirements for the placement of all regulatory signs, according to Tom Hicks, who recently retired as SHA's Director of Traffic and Safety. Those requirements can be administratively burdensome, so SHA will also use a yellow diamond "warning" sign with the same words.
"The signs will increase safety by providing drivers with a warning about where bikes may be," says Dustin Kuzan, SHA's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. A study in Austin, Texas found that placement of similar signs has little impact on where cyclists ride. But drivers moved to the left as they passed bikes enough to increase the median passing clearance by 3 feet.
John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic agrees: "These signs are a really good idea. Bicyclists have the right to use the full lane on narrow roads. As drivers, we are operating the heavier vehicle which can seriously injure a cyclist. So it is up to drivers to avoid a collision. But drivers need information about where the bicyclist might be riding, and these signs will help."
"The signs may also decrease hostility between drivers and cyclists by informing all road users that cyclists have the right to be in the center of the lane," Kuzan adds.
SHA plans to post the signs on state roads through Montgomery and Prince George's Counties this summer. Additional details on SHA's plans and policies are available on Washcycle.
Prince George's County
|US-1||Baltimore Ave., Rhode Island Ave.||US-29||Colesville Rd.|
|US-1 Alt||Baltimore Ave., Bladensburg Rd.||MD-384||Colesville Rd.|
|MD-193||Greenbelt Rd., Unversity Blvd.||MD-193||University Blvd.|
|MD-212||Riggs Rd.||MD-97||Georgia Ave.|
|MD-500||Queens Chapel Rd.||MD-390||16th St.|
|MD-953||Glenn Dale Rd.||MD-650||New Hampshire Ave.|
|MD-450||Annapolis Rd., Bladensburg Rd.||MD-320||Piney Branch|
|MD-704||Martin Luther King, Jr. Hwy.||MD-355||Wisconsin Ave.|
|MD-202||Landover Rd.||MD-190||River Rd.|
|MD-414||Oxon Hill/St. Barnabas|
The new signs aren't for every road
The "Bicycles May Use Full Lane" signs are a step toward implementing the general bicycle policy established by the previous SHA administrator, Neil Pederson, shortly before he retired last summer. Under that policy, every state highway where bicycles are not prohibited should have one of five bicycle configurations:
- Wide shoulder
- Bike lane
- Wide lane (and possibly sharrows) for side-by-side lane sharing
- Narrow lane with "Bicycles May Use Full Lane" signs (and possibly sharrows)
The new signs will not be used on all roads with narrow lanes. Some rural highways have little or no shoulder, but SHA is unlikely to post the "Use Full Lane" signs in areas where there are few if any cyclists.
Additionally, some highways have wide shoulders that could technically become bike lanes, but poor pavement or right-side hazards like driveways and vegetation make them unsafe for cycling. Neither cyclists nor SHA want additional substandard bike lanes.
SHA is reluctant to post "Use Full Lane" signs where there is a real shoulder. "SHA is still discussing the use of the R4-11 in these situations," says Kuzan. "The challenge is determining which shoulders are so unsuitable that a cyclist should not even straddle the fog line," which might leave enough room for a car to pass within lane.
Signs by themselves will make only a small difference during rush hour. On any weekday morning, the state highways leading into Washington are full of cars traveling 40-50 mph. These speeds are intimidating to cyclists, whether the cars are passing with one foot or four feet of clearance.
SHA plans to widen parts of US-1 near College Park to add bike lanes, according to Gregory Slater, SHA's planning director Along MD-450 and MD-704, Prince Georges County has asked SHA to implement a "road diet" and reduce the number of general travel lanes to create space for bike lanes and better sidewalks. SHA officials are discouraged from using the term "road diet", but Mr. Slater says that SHA is looking at "redistributing roadway capacity." "Things have to slow down a bit," he says.
Realistically, bike lanes along most state highways inside the Beltway are still decades away. The "Use Full Lane" signs are something we can afford now. They are likely to make these highways safer during off-peak times, and they may help to educate drivers about how to share the road.
Will that education carry over to local roads? Or will drivers assume that bicycles may not use full lane if these signs are not posted? We don't know yet.
Quick quiz: According to the Maryland State Highway Administration, what is the purpose of guard rails on roads?
(1) to protect everybody
(2) to protect people in cars
The correct answer is (2).
I found this out recently when I asked the SHA for a guard rail after two people drove their cars into our side yard. The yard is on the top, flat side of a T intersection with a 3-way stop. The house has been there since 1911; the T intersection, since 1926.
One April night in 2010, a driver on the stem of the intersection drove past the stop sign and right on into our yard, banging into a pine tree and running over one of the two apple trees, until his car stopped with its headlights shining into a bedroom window. Luckily, nobody, including my family, was injured.
I figured that this incident was a fluke.
Almost exactly one year later, another driver on the stem of the intersection drove past the stop sign and right on into our yard, running over a pine tree and the second apple tree. Again, luckily, nobody was hurt, or so we assume, given that the driver was somehow able to back out of the yard and drive away before we got home.
With no more apple trees left, I was worried that the next car would hit a family member. So I asked for a guardrail.
After a thorough and professional site visit by a SHA engineer, I received an email from Cedric Ward, Assistant District Engineer - Traffic (Montgomery County) at SHA, which said,
According to [SHA's] guidelines, a roadside barrier is warranted for only the most severe roadside obstacles.... Considering that none of the[se]...roadside obstacles are present at the subject location, a traffic barrier is not warranted at this location.Looking at the 2006 Guidelines for Traffic Barrier Placement and End Treatment Design Ward referred me to, I learned that "the function of a roadside barrier is to shield the motorist from impacting an obstacle along the roadside."
According to the SHA guidelines, a traffic barrier is warranted only if there is a roadside obstacle that cannot be removed or relocated out of the road's clear zone, defined as "the total roadside area, starting at the edge of the travel lane, available for safe use by errant vehicles."
Thus, the guidelines allow SHA to put up a traffic barrier to protect people in cars from driving into embankments, bridge parapets, non-breakaway signs or lights, signal supports, water bodies more than two feet deep, large boulders, utility poles, drainage ditches, and/or trees.
But they do not allow SHA, in general, to put up a traffic barrier to protect people who are not in cars from being driven into. People who are not in cars are not a roadside obstacle that motorists need shielding from. And indeed, at least judging from our experience, it is not dangerous for a person in a car to drive into a yard where people, not in cars, might be.
To be fair, the guidelines concede that, on urban streets, a traffic barrier may be placed "in sensitive areas such as school playgrounds." So perhaps we might have qualified for a guard rail if the driver were likely to drive into our house, instead of just our yard.
As yet, the lack of a guard rail has not really been a big problem for us. Nobody was hurt, apple trees can be replaced, and we have installed some new, large landscaping on our property. And the SHA did put up a yellow sign with a black two-directional arrow at the intersection.
But the lack of a guard rail was a very big problem for Kelay Smith and Derrick R. "Mooky" Jones, who were killed by a driver in Prince George's County in August 2008 while they were walking along a stretch of MD Route 4 without sidewalks or guard rails.
State traffic barrier guidelines notwithstanding, people in cars are not the only users of the road. What will it take to get the SHA to revise its guidelines to routinely take the safety of all road users into account? This is not a rhetorical question.
When construction must close a sidewalk, barriers should be placed in the roadway to create a temporary space for pedestrians. That often doesn't happen, and didn't in two recent cases in Takoma and Silver Spring, forcing pedestrians to walk in traffic or cross illegally.
Left: Carroll Street in Takoma. Image by Julie Lawson.
Right: Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. Image by William Smith.
Julie Lawson tweeted about one case at Carroll and Maple streets, along the main path from the Takoma Metro to Takoma Park. The sidewalk was blocked for construction at an adjacent building site.
Following resident complaints, DDOT sent an inspector to check out that site. ANC Commissioner Sara Green reported in an email to the Takoma listserv that the contractor was required to restore the sidewalk. Next week, when they get a permit, they will be able to close it again but will need to put up barriers to create a temporary walking path.
Meanwhile, Montgomery Sideways posted about a case where the Maryland State Highway Administration closed the Georgia Avenue sidewalk as it dives below the railroad tracks in Silver Spring, despite a policy against doing that. William Smith writes,
I stood there for a awhile and saw pedestrians crossing Sligo Avenue a few yards to the east of the crosswalk. Sure, there is a sign there telling you to cross the street, but if you need to go the other wayAnd if a driver hit one of these pedestrians crossing, would police blame the pedestrian for not walking far out of the way to find a legal crossing?
— say, to Jackie's, or Lotus Cafe — what do you do? Cross illegally, that's what you do.
Each case may be individually relatively minor, but they all create danger that can cause injury or death. And when many exist in the same area, they create a broadly unsafe situation. Worse yet, sometimes these closures last for months or years, like a closing on East-West Highway in Silver Spring which Eric Fidler documented in a video:
Update: Commenter Shipsa01 pointed out a hilarious example in the Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood, where buildings on both sides of a street both tried to close their sidewalks and posted signs instructing pedestrians to cross to the opposite side... where there was an identical sign pointing the other way.
Back in February, we showed you a Silver Spring sidewalk closure that violated SHA's own policies.
Three months later, the intersection remains virtually unchanged, and pedestrians are still forced to choose between backtracking nearly 1,000 feet or dashing across a busy highway.
In an email last week to both officials and state and county transportation staff, Evan Glass of the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association explained that "the neighborhood's patience eroded months ago."
For more than two years, in fact, Silver Spring residents have navigated unnecessary sidewalk detours due to residential construction at the intersection of East-West Highway, Newell Street and Blair Mill Road.
There have been small changes to the corner, but it remains closed. In late March, operating pedestrian crossing signals were removed and new signals were installed, but these remain inoperable.
In addition, "no parking" signs were placed along the approaches to the corner in front of 1200 East-West Highway. Despite the no parking zones, barriers for a temporary sidewalk to protect pedestrians were not installed. Finally, the sidewalk is in the process of being built, but it's unclear how quickly that will be completed.
"Our SHA inspectors are coordinating on a weekly, if not daily, basis with the developer, his contractor and the utility companies to facilitate the completion of the work at this intersection," the response explained. "Once the signal work is complete and Pepco finalizes its work to power the new signal controllers, the contractor will be able to complete the sidewalk and pedestrian ramps and have them open to pedestrian traffic again."
Regardless of the cause of this months-long delay to open a sidewalk, the issue remains: during construction, there should have been a temporary provision for pedestrians. SHA's own policies state that "completely closing a sidewalk for construction and rerouting pedestrians to the other side of the street should only be done as a last resort."
This "last resort" has been standard operating procedure at this and other intersections for too long. Pedestrians continue to cross at this corner. The latest delays only extend the dangerous conditions that should not have been created in the first place.
The treatment of pedestrians at this intersection has been unacceptable. Pedestrians don't just disappear when construction happens, especially in an urban, transit-accessible area like Downtown Silver Spring. It's disappointing that SHA has allowed projects to all but ignore pedestrians during years of construction. The latest delay is just adding insult to injury.
Ongoing residential construction on three projects in Silver Spring needlessly closed sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to either navigate confusing, circuitous detours or to walk in the roadway. For neighbors, it's been an ongoing nightmare.
The Maryland State Highway Administration has put Silver Spring pedestrians in danger by failing to uphold its own standards for pedestrian safety at the construction sites, at the intersection of East-West Highway, Newell Street and Blair Mill Road.
Silver Spring resident William Smith started Montgomery Sideways, a blog dedicated to pedestrian safety in the county. "Passage through this intersection is horrible if you're trying to get across East-West Highway, because it's been neglected," he tells us.
Even the signs indicating sidewalk closures are poorly placed. Rodney Elin navigates the neighborhood in his wheelchair. "Construction and temporary signs," he says, "are actually placed in the pedestrian pathway," forcing him to double-back. On the northern side of the intersection, the nearest alternate crosswalk is almost 1,000 feet from the sidewalk closure.
"If these road closed signs were placed in a more thoughtful way," Elin says, "I would actually be able to get by these signs that are supposed to help me."
SHA's own guidelines for "Accommodating Bicyclists and Pedestrians Through Work Zones" state:
Completely closing a sidewalk for construction and rerouting pedestrians to the other side of the street should only be done as a last resort. To the maximum extent feasible, the alternate pedestrian route should be provided on the same side of the street as the disrupted route.As SHA's guidelines suggest, there is a better way to handle construction than simply shutting down sidewalks. Three years ago, the District announced new standards for temporary sidewalks at construction sites, putting an end to the practice of closing sidewalks in busy urban areas. State roadways go through urban areas, including Silver Spring. SHA must recognize the necessity of sidewalks to the state's walkable communities.
It may too late for this intersection, but SHA needs to start upholding its own standards when construction results in long-term closures and detours. It is unacceptable for SHA to permit a sidewalk closure that forces pedestrians to choose between backtracking nearly 1,000 feet or dashing across a busy highway.
Pedestrian fatalities stopped declining in early 2010. Unfortunately, a safety nonprofit and its chairman, Maryland's highway safety head, chose to blame pedestrians for getting killed while downplaying other, equally important causes.
According to the report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, an association of the safety departments of the various US states and territories, the overall number of pedestrian fatalities increased by 0.6% in the first half of 2010, possibly halting a four-year decline in pedestrian crashes.
The report (PDF) also evaluates a number of possible causes, including the rise in pedestrian travel, distracted driving, and distracted pedestrians. Even though it cites about the same number of anecdotal cases where the driver seemed to be at fault and where the pedestrian appeared responsible, the GHSA press release and quotes from GHSA's chairman, Vernon Betkey, Jr., the head of Maryland's Highway Safety Office, twists the report into a one-dimensional message blaming pedestrians for the crashes.
GHSA gave the Examiner a statement actually claiming that Michelle Obama's initiatives to get more people outside walking and exercising could be a cause of the deaths. Not only is that ridiculous, it's misleading: even if more people walking has led to an increase, more people walking will lead to safer conditions generally.
If more people are walking, the
rate number of crashes may rise simply because of numbers, but the actual crash rate, any person's chance of being hit or killed, is lower. More pedestrians get hit every year in New York than in Miami, but it's far more dangerous to be a pedestrian in Miami; it's just that so many more people are walking in New York. More get hit in downtown DC than elsewhere in the city, but walking is riskier in many of those other areas.
The press release also ignores the report's recommendations that government do more to design safer roads. Perhaps that's not a surprise since the organization comprises state highway safety officials who have done little to even admit to, let alone address, their governments' complicity in these pedestrian deaths.
In his writeup of the report, the Post's Ashley Halsey III buys into Betkey's narrative wholesale. He talks about how many fatalities in Prince George's and Fairfax counties, in particular, involve crossings at night, away from crosswalks.
But missing in this discussion is the question of why people are trying to cross dark roads where there are no crosswalks. In many busy areas of those counties, there are shopping centers along multi-lane arterials with poor lighting and long distances without crosswalks. If someone on foot wants to get to one of those stores and isn't in a car, they have few alternatives. The pedestrian could be more careful, but also the government could be putting in better streetlights, crosswalks, and traffic signals.
To frame his piece, Halsey cites a fatality in Landover which did involve a signalized crosswalk. According to the article, the pedestrian signal was flashing the red "don't walk" hand icon, during which time three teenagers ran across the road. A driver hit and killed 15-year-old Wayne Cuffy. Halsey's piece is dripping with accusations against Cuffy:
It is the kind of risk teenagers take: darting across six lanes of traffic, paying no mind to the flashing sign warning pedestrians to await the green light. Wayne Cuffy and his buddies bolted across Landover Road on their way to the mall Tuesday night, a mistake that cost the 15-year-old his life when he stepped in front of a Ford Expedition at Dodge Park Road. ... It was dark, and rush hour was winding down when they dashed into traffic toward the mall. Cuffy was struck just after he left the curb.But wait. The signal was flashing the red hand. That means the traffic light was red for cross traffic. For the driver to hit Cuffy, the driver had to have run the red light (added: or made a turn without yielding).
Yet there's absolutely no mention of this fact in Halsey's article. Who's really at fault: a teenager who hurries to get across the road before the light changes, but while cross traffic has still got the red light, or the driver who hits him despite the red light?
Other state officials did acknowledge these issues, like this statement in the report from North Carolina:
Rapid urbanization, a weakened economy, and growing numbers of vulnerable populations (including older pedestrians and socio-economically disadvantaged groups) without other transportation options have challenged the State to keep up with issues specific to pedestrian safety and mobility.Or from Nevada:
Like many other places in the southwest, the road network in Clark County consists of arterials that are designed as six lanes with intersections jumping to eight lanes. In urban area that bisects freeways or beltways, intersection can be as large as 12 lanes! Streets are flat with wide lanes that are comfortable for speed and there are few places marked for pedestrians to cross the street. On major arterial streets the norm is to have nowhere for up to a mile stretch for pedestrians to safely cross the street.Betkey seems to ignore this serious problem in his own state. It's too bad the safety heads from North Carolina or Clark County, Nevada aren't the ones running GHSA, and that the safety official in such an urbanized state is blind to the other serious factors behind pedestrian safety besides
If you live in Maryland, please email Betkey, his boss Neil Pedersen, and Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley and express your disappointment that your safety official is ignoring serious road design issues. Ask them to prioritize fixing dangerous roadways in Prince George's and elsewhere in the state that give pedestrians no safe opportunity to cross streets.
It's easy to blame iPods or Michelle Obama, but more important to work to make the roadway network actually usable by pedestrians. That's the real way to improve both the numbers of people walking and their safety.
Update: GHSA is disavowing the Obama quote to Dave Jamieson of TBD, but the Examiner reporter, Scott McCabe, insists they suggested it.
After a recent tragedy where two young men were killed crossing Rockville Pike by the White Flint Metro, a friend of one of the families reached out to Maryland Delegate Jeff Waldstreicher (D-18) to create something positive come out of the terrible circumstances.
The tragedy is a profound argument in favor of properly funding the smart growth-oriented White Flint Sector Plan. Even though it will be a few years before White Flint starts to resemble Bethesda's urban form, it is already starting to urbanize.
Many new residents have moved into White Flint in order to take advantage of its proximity to transit and amenities. New grocery stores and cafes have already started opening up. The demand is there for a more urban format, although we're stuck with an inappropriate 1960's legacy urban form for the very near future.
Back in October, Delegate Waldstreicher cc'd me in an email conversation he was having with Sarah Libby, the friend of one of the tragically deceased young men. She wrote,
I was trying to figure out a way to turn this terrible tragedy into something positive and I was thinking that perhaps there could be some sort of legislation regarding blinking lights around metro stops and large intersections. Adam and Rory were being responsible drinkers in that they took the metro home from the bar rather than drive ... after a certain time, the lights at that intersection [Rockville Pike and Marinelli Road] go from Green and red to blinking yellow and there is no walk sign.Sarah struck a chord with my life experience. I use the Metro for play as well as work and have walked home after many nights out. The thought of being tragically killed after responsibly using the Metro for nightlife is sobering for anyone. When I asserted that Rockville Pike in its current pedestrian-unfriendly form would be an impediment to realizing the vision of the White Flint Sector Plan, I did so from the both the heart and from personal experience as a pedestrian.
After speaking to staff and the Maryland SHA and MCDOT, Del. Waldstreicher updated Sarah on November 9,
MCDOT and SHA are conducting a station-by-station review to focus their safety efforts on those Metro stops with significant post-midnight pedestrian traffic. For example, I assume there will likely be light changes near stations like Wheaton, Glenmont, and Bethesda (in fact, this has already happened at the White Flint station). Meanwhile, less dense stations like Medical Center and Grosvenor will likely have no light changes. I think this common-sense approach is exactly what we need from both a procedural (less bureaucracy) and substantive point of view.Delegate Waldstreicher made another fair point,
Hard-red lights at 2 a.m. could possibly encourage non-compliance by drivers (there's no-one around so they'll just go). It may have the same effect on some pedestrians. Even though I believe we are in the right and the net effect will be positive, I don't want to pretend that cycled lights are a silver bullet.As frustrating as the substance of this point may be, I think it's a valid concern. A traffic light could lull a pedestrian into a false sense of security when a motorist is just going to run them over anyway while ignoring a red light. Sarah subsequently replied:
I understand the concern of non-compliance with the lights during the later hours causing more danger and might I suggest red light cameras in those intersections? ... If nothing else I do believe that the 24 red/green lights will slow people down. According to some witnesses, this young man who killed Adam and Rory was going between 70 and 100 mph.The replies from the SHA, MCDOT, and the county police were all very prompt, professional, and responsive. They deserve credit for listening and trying to make things better in the short term. None of the current staff of MCDOT or the SHA is responsible for decisions in the 1960's that turned Rockville Pike into the monster that it is today.
Being from the area, he like most of us probably knows that all of the lights around here blink after midnight and while yellow means yield, realistically that does not happen. I think that had he known that there is an actual non-blinking light ahead he would have started to slow down, especially if he knew he could get a red light ticket."
This tragic event shows how quickly people who are otherwise uninterested in transportation policy quickly become experts when it touches their life. It also underscores how much our infrastructure and urban form shape our everyday life. In another email with Sarah, I compared my experiences that inspired me to become an advocate to taking the Red Pill in The Matrix, a metaphor she agreed with. Sarah and the families of Adam and Rory have taken the most painful kind of Red Pill.
Very often, a painful life experience can inspire someone to make a difference in the world. The silver lining of the tragic deaths of Adam and Rory is that the county and state are now closely examining pedestrian transportation policy around Red Line Metro stations. The actions will move Montgomery County towards a more balanced transportation system for all.
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