Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Safe Routes To School


When a Maryland middle schooler walks on snowy paths, one teacher is not sympathetic

Recently, we posted contributor stories about times they'd walked in places where most people don't. A reader who is in middle school, Leo from Maryland, posted this comment which we think is worth highlighting:

Students (not Leo) walk to school. Photo by Dan Slee on Flickr.
I am an urbanist, stuck in suburbia. (I'm in Middle School, so "stuck" isn't exactly the right word.) Anywayyy...... I am an urbanist, right? And I also like walking, biking, public transit, etc.

So, I bike or walk to school almost every day. I live about a mile from my school. People are SHOCKED when they hear I bike or walk to school. The school doesn't bother salting the ped. walkways to school, so they are covered in ice the day school reopens after a snowstorm.

I was walking to school, and I fell and slipped twice due the the ice. My HW was soaked, b/c my backpack fell in snow. 1st period teacher wouldn't take my HW even though I did the work correctly, and you could still see my answers. I tried to explain the situation, he wouldn't listen.

His solution to my problem? Tomorrow, have your parents drive you to school. Lol, my mom's left for work already when I leave, and my dad works till midnight, and is asleep when I leave.
Perhaps Leo and his school could work with an organization like the National Center for Safe Routes to School, which focuses on providing students and parents with options to get to school on foot or by bike. (Update: Locally, there's also the Safe Routes to School Regional Network.) It may be too late for Leo's homework assignment, but it's never too late to improve walking conditions in all of our communities.


Small changes can make walking to school safer

Montgomery County could do a lot to make walking to school safer and more convenient, and at little cost. All it takes is a few changes to the law, signs and paint, and retiming some traffic signals.

Photo by The Tire Zoo on Flickr.

These are the recommendations from the Safe Walk to School campaign, which launched last week. The Action Committee for Transit, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the mother of a high school student killed while walking to school last October, and others started the campaign because walking to and from school in Montgomery County can be hazardous.

In this school year alone, at least 8 kids and one parent have been struck by cars:

Unsafe walks to school cost Montgomery County residents millions of dollars a year. Montgomery County Public Schools must provide "hazard busing" for children who live within walking distance of school but can't walk there safely. Parents driving children to and from school adds meaningfully to traffic congestion. Children who don't walk to school experience decreased physical activity and mental well-being. And the air pollution from school-related car trips contributes to asthma and premature deaths.

To make walking to and from school safer for children in Montgomery County, the Safe Walk to School campaign calls on the Montgomery County Department of Transportion (MCDOT) to take the following low-cost but effective steps:

Expand school zones: Amend the county's criteria for school zones to include all county roads within a half-mile radius of a school. This would allow MCDOT to reduce speed limits and increase fines on roads near schools.

Lower speeds and limit unsafe right turns: Change the following rules in the amended school zones and post new signs to inform drivers:

  • Establish a maximum speed limit of 20 miles per hour during school hours, including arrival and dismissal. This could decrease the risk of child pedestrian crashes by up to 70%.
  • Double the fines for speeding violations, to motivate drivers to slow down.
  • Prohibit right turns on red during school hours to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and drivers at traffic signals.
The engineering cost would be about $350 per sign, including installation. (For comparison, the estimated cost in 2011 of the 1.62-mile Montrose Parkway East project was $120 million. That's equivalent to the cost of roughly 340,000 signs.)

Retime traffic signals: Change traffic signal timing in the amended school zones in the following ways, to make it safer for pedestrians of all ages to cross the street:

  • Put in leading pedestrian intervals for traffic signals at intersections where at least one of the roads is an arterial, to allow walkers to get a head start crossing busy streets.
  • Use a walking speed of 2.5 feet per second to calculate the minimum pedestrian clearance interval, to give everyone, including children and adults pushing strollers, sufficient time to cross.
  • Have the walk signal appear during every signal cycle during school hours at intersections with traffic signals, without pedestrians having to push a button. This can be done either by putting the signals in pedestrian "recall" during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) or by removing the pedestrian pushbuttons altogether.
  • Shorten traffic signals during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) so kids don't have to wait longer than 40 seconds for a walk signal on any leg of an intersection. This would lead more pedestrians to wait for the walk signal to cross.
The engineering cost for retiming the traffic signals would be about $3,500 per intersection. (For comparison, the estimated $120 million cost to build Montrose Parkway East would be equivalent to the cost of retiming roughly 34,000 signals.)

Change road markings: Add paint to the pavement in school zones in the following ways:

  • Mark all crosswalks with a "ladder" or "zebra" crosswalk, using material embedded with retroreflective glass beads. This increases the visibility of crosswalks, raising driver awareness and encouraging pedestrians to cross at crosswalks.
  • Narrow traffic lanes to 10 feet, to reduce vehicle speeds, increase drivers' compliance with the 20 mph speed limits, and reduce the length of pedestrian crossings across traffic lanes.
Ladder crosswalks cost about $300, and lane restriping costs about $1,000 per mile. (For comparison, the estimated $120 million cost of Montrose Parkway East would be equivalent to the cost of roughly 400,000 crosswalks or 120,000 miles of lane restriping.)

Montgomery County says they support safe walks to school. To encourage them to show they mean it, go to and send an e-mail to the Montgomery County Council.


What will get more families biking?

Washington DC has made great strides over the past decade towards creating a vibrant bicycle culture. How well does this extend to families so far? How can bicycling be more appealing to families?

Families biking to school via Stanton Park

Recent research has found that children who bike or walk to school perform better. A Danish study found that exercise, including from biking or walking to school, helped kids concentrate better, while chauffured children had a poorer grasp of geography, another study found.

In spite of the benefits, there are a number of reasons why families may not choose to or be able to bike. The reason I most often hear from parents is safety (even when biking is convenient). I feel the same way. Too often, I have found myself biking with my children, following all road and safety rules, only to be overrun by a driver who sees my small children as obstacles, not a family.

Mayor Gray's sustainability plan sets goals for "safe, secure infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians" with a target to "increase biking and walking to 25% of all commuter trips."

Part of this needs to be a concerted effort to focus on making it easier for children and families to commute to school and get around in general, by bike.

The city has programs aimed at stimulating families to bike. For families with school age children, the District Department of Transportation's (DDOT) offers the Safe Routes to school program, run by Jennifer Hefferan. She works with schools to support various types of active transportation models, including biking.

At my own children's school, Jennifer has designed more efficient drop-off and pick up processes, helped us to get appropriate signage, and worked with us to develop a comprehensive longer-term safe routes plan for our school. On biking, DC's Safe Routes program coordinated with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) to triple the number of bike racks for the school, as well as advise and support us on efforts like Bike to School Day and Fuel Free Fridays.

There are also advocacy organizations like WABA, who offer safety and skills education opportunities, including Bike Rodeos for children. KidicalMassDC promotes "safe, fun family biking in the Greater Washington area" by holding regular mass family rides and teaming up with DDOT, WABA and bicycle shops like BicycleSpace and the Daily Rider to host the ABC's of Family Biking.

Personally, I find programs like ABCs of Family Biking particularly compelling, because they bring together a comprehensive community of stakeholders invested in promoting family biking. There are opportunities to learn from each other, practice skills, and discover gear that makes sense for individual needs and lifestyles.

What seems to be lacking, however, is education (and skill-building) directed at drivers. Those who bike spend time learning how to co-exist with drivers, but until drivers learn to co-exist with cyclists, families will continue to face safety-related obstacles when considering whether or not to bike.

What obstacles do you see to getting your family or other families to bike?


Clarksburg crosswalk would cost $27 million

Only in Clarksburg would it cost $27 million to get a marked crosswalk so that children can walk to school safely and conveniently. That's because the Montgomery County Department of Transportation refuses to install one until it spends $27 million on road construction.

Clarksburg strip mall. Photo by Mr. T in DC.

Clarksburg, Montgomery County's last master-planned development in the I-270 corridor, is an on-going planning headache. One reason is that the 1993 Master Plan envisoned Clarksburg as a "transit- and pedestrian-oriented town", but there is little to walk to and almost no transit.

12 years after construction began in Clarksburg, the planned shops and supermarket at Clarksburg Town Center are still vacant land. There will be no library in Clarksburg until after fiscal year 2018, if then, according to Montgomery County's Capital Improvement Plan .

While the residential part of Clarksburg's Cabin Branch development is proceeding, the future of the associated 2.4 million square feet of commercial development is uncertain since the Maryland Health Commission ended Adventist HealthCare's plans to open a hospital in Clarksburg.

Clarksburg's transit still consists of 2 weekday-only buses and a tiny MARC station 4-5 miles away.

Although the County Council recently put the next phase of Clarksburg development on hold, this was not because the Clarksburg built to date falls so far short of the 1993 Master Plan's promise. Instead, the County Council worried that construction would degrade the Ten Mile Creek watershed and further reduce water quality in WSSC's Little Seneca reservoir.

And earlier this year, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) turned down a request from Clarksburg parents to mark a crosswalk at Stringtown Road and Observation Drive. Parents in the Gateway Commons development use the unmarked crosswalk to walk their children to the elementary school that is literally within sight of their homes.

The parents persisted, asking Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett to reverse MCDOT's decision. But last week, Leggett instead supported MCDOT's denial. Why?

Because, he explained in an e-mail, the county will not install a marked crosswalk at this intersection until the county has built a 2-mile, multi-lane, divided road (Observation Drive Extended) between Germantown and Clarksburg.

It's bad enough that Stringtown Road did not include a marked crosswalk when the road opened in 2007. After all, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved the site plan for the Gateway Commons development in 2003, and the elementary school has been there since 1909.

Did nobody think that people living on the southeast side of the road might want to walk to the school on the northwest side of the road? Was the road's $8.8 million budget too small to pay for a marked crosswalk?

But Leggett's explanation actually makes it worse. The Stringtown Road construction project did include curb cuts and pedestrian refuges at the intersection with Observation Drive. The parents assumed, reasonably, that the county had included these pedestrian facilities so that pedestrians could use them.

But this assumption was incorrect, Leggett's e-mail explained. Rather, the reason the Stringtown Road project included the pedestrian facilities was "to minimize the expense and operational impacts on the roadway when Observation Drive [Extended] is constructed".

Observation Drive Extended is not on the county's Capital Improvement Plan. But it is possible to get a rough estimate of its construction costs, if the county were to build the road today. The similar 1.2-mile extension of Father Hurley Boulevard in Germantown opened in 2011 and cost $10.9 million, or roughly $9 million per mile. So Observation Drive Extended might cost roughly $18 million.

$8.8 million for Stringtown Road plus $18 million for Observation Drive Extended adds up to $27 million that must be spent before parents and children, in a town planned as pedestrian-oriented, can cross at a marked crosswalk on their safe, convenient walk to school.

At that cost, it's no wonder that, as Leggett's e-mail said, "[t]he County simply does not have the resources to provide crossing guards or other control measures at every potential crossing location to make them as safe as possible for everyone who wishes to use them."

Instead, these parents will have to continue to choose between crossing safely at an inconvenient, marked crosswalk and crossing conveniently at an unsafe, unmarked crosswalk.

As Leggett's e-mail explains, "When in the judgment of our engineers and school transportation professionals it is better to compromise the convenience of a pedestrian...than to potentially compromise their safety, I will back that decision. Like them I believe that installing a marked crosswalk at this location may not improve the safety of those who wish to cross there."

But why must there be this trade-off between pedestrian convenience and pedestrian safety? Surely MCDOT is capable of designing a marked crosswalk at this intersection that would allow pedestrians to cross both conveniently and safely. Such a crosswalk would, however, compromise the convenience of drivers.

The Clarksburg Master Plan says that it will "carefully guide the growth of Clarksburg from a rural settlement into a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town". Ike Leggett says that he supports "mak[ing] our area more pedestrian-friendly". MCDOT says that the county supports improvements to "the walkability of our communities".

Why is it so hard to get Montgomery County to do what it says?


Montgomery DOT tells children: Don't cross the street

Buster Keaton was being funny when he drove across the street to propose marriage in his 1924 movie The Navigator. But the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) was completely serious last month when they told children in Clarksburg to take a school bus 4 miles out of the way instead of walking across the street.

Stringtown Road at Observation Drive, Clarksburg. Photo by the author.

Many parents in the new Gateway Commons development in Clarksburg walk their children 5 or 6 minutes to Clarksburg Elementary School. They cross Stringtown Road at Observation Drive, the development's main street, and then use a pedestrian path that leads to the back of the school grounds.

The intersection at Observation Drive is the rational place for people from Gateway Commons to cross Stringtown Road on the way to or from school. Unfortunately, however, it is not a safe place. Yet MCDOT denied the parents' request for a crosswalk.

Why is the crossing unsafe?

First, many drivers go faster than the 35-mph speed limit. This is not surprising, given the design and purpose of this section of Stringtown Road. The county built the road, which opened in 2007, to move motor vehicles between Clarksburg and I-270. It's an arterial highway, four lanes wide plus turning lanes and a median, and designed for a posted speed of 40 mph.

Second, the two crosswalks across Stringtown Road at Observation Drive are completely unmarked. There are no signs, either on the side of the road or in the median, to alert drivers to the possibility of schoolchildren crossing. There isn't even paint on the pavement. And though the law requires drivers to stop for pedestrians in unmarked crosswalks, they don't, even when children are standing in the median obviously waiting to finish crossing.

Parents in Gateway Commons wanted the unsafe street crossing to be made safe. So they asked MCDOT at the beginning of this school year to install a pedestrian crosswalk across Stringtown Road at Observation Drive.

But MCDOT said no. They gave four reasons.

First, according to the MCDOT traffic engineer who first denied the request, the crossing at Observation Drive is in "close proximity" to the marked, signalized crosswalks at Frederick Road (MD 355), 550 feet to the northeast, and Gateway Center Drive, 650 feet to the southwest.

From a windshield perspective at 35+ mph, these crosswalks are indeed in close proximity. But they are not so close from the perspective of Gateway Commons parents and children walking to school. For them, crossing at these crosswalks instead of at Observation Drive means an extra ¼ of a mile out of their way and double the travel time.

Second, if MCDOT marked the crosswalk, then people might use it, and that would be unsafe. According to an e-mail from Emil Wolanin, chief of MCDOT's Division of Traffic Engineering and Operations, "inappropriate crosswalk installations" dangerously "encourage pedestrians to cross at a less than optimal location".

This is an odd reason, given that the request for the crosswalk came about specifically because pedestrians are already crossing there, and the crossing is already unsafe.

And for whom is the location less than optimal? Not for pedestrians, or else they wouldn't have asked MCDOT to mark the crosswalk there.

Third, not enough people cross at the crosswalk. MCDOT's study found "little or no pedestrian activity", according to an e-mail from an engineer at MCDOT. And, again according to Mr. Wolanin, "[i]nstalling marked crosswalks at locations with very low pedestrian volumes diminishes their overall effectiveness. When motorists cross [marked crosswalks] rarely if ever seeing a pedestrian they are "trained" to not expect someone to be using them."

The people who asked for the crosswalk installation are walking evidence that there are pedestrians at this crossing. And, by the logic of Mr. Wolanin's previous argument, a marked crosswalk might even increase their numbers.

In addition, it's not as though drivers were currently stopping at the unmarked crosswalks. Is it worse if a driver blows past pedestrians at a marked crosswalk, rather than an unmarked one?

Fourth, the safe way to get across Stringtown Road is to take the school bus that Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) provides to Gateway Commons because crossing Stringtown Road on foot is not safe.

The school bus stops on the south side of Frederick Road, at the entrance to Gateway Commons. It then goes 2 miles southeast on Frederick Road to pick up children from another development, turns around, and goes the same 2 miles back, plus another half a mile, before finally dropping the children off at school. The bus trip takes about 20 minutes. Walking takes about 5.

In short, MCDOT's message to Gateway Commons parents is clear and simple. If they want to get their children safely to a school many can see from their windows, they should either cross the street where it causes the least inconvenience to drivers, or put the children on the bus.

Using a motor vehicle to cross the street is as ridiculous today as it was in 1924. Isn't it time for Montgomery County to join the Complete Streets Coalition and tell MCDOT that streets are for everyone, not just people in cars?


Safe Routes to School benefits kids and the community

On a recent Thursday, Vienna Elementary School had only 25 cars in the kiss-and-ride when there are usually 70. This dramatic decrease reduced congestion around the school and improved the morning commute for the entire community. The students attended class but did not arrive in cars.

Photo by Trailnet on Flickr.

Today is International Walk and Bike to School Day, and more than 100 schools throughout the region are hosting events to encourage students to walk and bike to school.

Parents driving their kids to school account for 10-14 percent of morning traffic. This one day event makes a big splash and hopes that the school, students and parents will learn how easy it is to change transportation mode even a few days a week.

Reduced congestion is not the only benefit. Reports like F as in Fat have raised alarm about the growing obesity rate. Students who walk or bike to school are more physically active and have lower obesity than students who are bused or driven. Students who are physically active also enjoy better academic performance.

Vienna Elementary finds success with Safe Routes to School

Safe Routes to School programs encourage students to increase their physical activity through walking and bicycling to school. In October of 2011, Vienna Elementary School started Walking Wednesdays. 3 parent coordinators send home flyers with the students encouraging them to walk or bike to school every Wednesday. The parent coordinators give students who walk or bike a foot token or special reflector for key chains that attach to their backpacks. Parents who walk or bike with their students drink free coffee.

With to this once-a-week commitment, Vienna Elementary School has gotten results. Scott McCall, volunteer Safe Routes to School Coordinator, says the principal is reporting students are more focused in class and more students are walking and bicycling every day of the week, not just Wednesday.

Vienna Elementary has achieved half of their student population walking or bicycling in one day and regularly has 20 bikes in their racks compared to 3-4 last year.

This example contrasts with another local school. In a letter in the Washington Post, a parent at Bailey's Elementary reported she could more easily leave Nationals ballpark on opening day than pick her child up from school.

While her family lives within a mile of the school, the streets are busy and there are no sidewalks. This makes it unsafe and infeasible for this family to walk or bike to school. The consequences are an hour-long wait to pick up her children, congested roads, and a missed opportunity for physical activity.

The difference between the schools is that Vienna Elementary not only has adequate sidewalk infrastructure and is directly adjacent to the W&OD trail, but the Safe Routes to School program makes it fun to for students to walk and bicycle to school.

Infrastructure is a big hurdle for walking and bicycling to school and in communities. Retrofitting existing communities is expensive and built out communities sometimes have little room in the right-of-way for sidewalks and bike lanes. It is not only about how communities spend their money but also about the policies in place that make our transportation system inclusive of pedestrians and cyclists.

Complete Streets policies make streets work for all users

One policy that can prevent further disregard for pedestrians and bicyclists is Complete Streets. Complete Streets policies ensure that streets are designed, maintained and operated for all users of the roadpedestrians, bicyclists, persons using wheelchairs, older adults and children. Infrastructure improvements will still take time, but the policy ensures the local transportation agency works to accommodate all users within a network throughout the community.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) adopted a regional Complete Streets policy in May. The TPB policy encourages all local jurisdictions to adopt their own policies and commit to multi-modal transportation planning. This is an opportunity for local jurisdictions to commit to easier morning commutes and happy children safely walking and bicycling to school.

Vienna Elementary School shows the huge benefits from the right infrastructure and a little effort. The transportation culture of a school changes. Most likely, now that the trip to school has changed, families are changing their mode of travel for other trips such as to the library or grocery store.

The Greater Washington Region Safe Routes to School Network is posting photos and stories from International Walk and Bike to School Day on their website. It will feature an award ceremony for the Takoma Park Safe Routes to School program, which recently won national recognition.

If you are still not convinced that Safe Routes to School is a solution, look at the kids' faces. They do not know they are reducing congestion or receiving health benefits. They are just really happy to be outside with their friends on their way to school.


Reducing school traffic would help rush hour congestion

Here's a simple suggestion to improve the morning rush hour: Get more kids to walk, bike, and bus to school.

Photo by The Bywaters on Flickr.

It is estimated that 20% of morning traffic congestion in Fairfax County is related to parents driving kids to school, and despite the availability of alternates, drop-off lines are only getting longer.

No one wins under the current system. Taxpayers pay too much for kids to get to school, parents lose valuable time serving as chauffeurs, and kids forfeit an opportunity to learn independence and healthy habits. And, of course, everyone suffers when traffic swells.

For the time being, there are almost no programs or policies in Fairfax that promote an alternative to the curbside drop-off. In fact, at several schools, principals prohibit students from walking or biking to school, even though Fairfax County has endorsed these options.

Within the county, elementary school students living more than a mile from school, and middle and high school students living more than a mile and a half, are entitled to bus service. Those within close proximity of their schools have the option to walk routes deemed safe by the county, with buses provided if the journey is deemed hazardous, no matter the distance.

And yet, despite these accommodations, according to Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), nearly 60% of designated walkers and just over 30% of designated bus riders frequently use the kiss & ride method instead.

As a result, taxpayers pay multiple times for students to get to school. They pay teachers and administrators to staff large-scale kiss & ride operations, while at the same time they pay for the empty bus seats that students and their parents choose to forgo. Meanwhile, they also pick up the indirect costs associated with increased traffic congestion and on-road incidents.

There are many reasons why walking and biking to school benefit children and the community. Children develop independence at an earlier age, they get the health benefits of exercise, they are more alert in school, and they develop a lifelong healthy habit of walking or biking.

While there will always be many parents who need to drive children to school for a wide variety of reasons, FCPS can encourage more students to walk and bike by addressing the safety and logistical concerns of parents that lead so many of them to drive their children to school.

MWCOG is working to address this issue by experimenting with a new system called School Pool that will help parents find other parents to form bike trains, walking school buses, and regular car pools.

Likewise, FABB, Fairfax's bicycle advocacy group, and others are working with FCPS to develop a more streamlined process for applying for Safe Routes to School funds. FABB is also trying to communicate to parents the costs of driving kids to school, as well as the benefits of walking and biking.

If you want to learn more about Safe Routes to School activities in Fairfax visit the Fairfax Safe Routes to School Facebook page.

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