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

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.

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?