Photo by Dave in the Triad on Flickr.

“We’re all drivers. We’re all pedestrians. We all just want to get to where we’re going,” said one Germantown resident at the Action Committee for Transit’s public forum on pedestrian issues in upcounty Montgomery County in Germantown on Saturday.

The 50 or so participants ranged in age from elementary school children to senior citizens. The lively discussion pointed to road problems that need fixing and road policies that need changing.

Barbara McCann, founder of the National Complete Streets Coalition, spoke to the residents. Complete Streets are streets that “are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.”

According to McCann, Montgomery County has adopted a Complete Streets policy, but with exceptions “big enough to drive a truck through,” and a rating of only 46%.

McCann laid out 4 steps for implementing a Complete Streets policy:

  1. Changing procedures.
  2. Educating staff and others.
  3. Re-writing manuals (such as Montgomery County’s road code).
  4. Establishing new performance measures (for example, adding level-of-service measures for pedestrians, as well as drivers).

When McCann remarked that implementation also required a champion in the transportation department, Jeff Dunckel, the Pedestrian Safety Coordinator for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT), spoke up to say that this was his job. In addition, he referred to Montgomery County’s Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Traffic Safety Advisory Committee, which meets every other month.

The second presenter was Frances Heilig, a Gaithersburg resident whose neighbor, Yessenia Martinez Rivas, was killed at a crosswalk across Muddy Branch Road north of Suffield Drive in Gaithersburg in November, leaving three young daughters. Another pedestrian had been killed at this location in 2009.

Heilig explained that there is a lot of pedestrian traffic at this crosswalk because of the Muddy Branch Square shopping center, but that with a speed limit of 45 mph (and speeding drivers), drivers who stop for pedestrians risk getting hit by other drivers. Another Gaithersburg resident added that southbound drivers focus on the traffic signal further down the hill at Great Seneca Highway, rather than on the crosswalk.

Finally, Clarksburg resident Edward Rothblum talked about how his requests for a marked crosswalk to connect his neighborhood to the elementary school on the other side of Stringtown Road have been repeatedly denied by Montgomery County.

There are curb ramps and a pedestrian refuge here, anticipating a traffic signal one day, perhaps in the far future. In the meantime, though, the county is not willing to put in a crosswalk to help people cross. Catherine Matthews, director of the county government’s Upcounty Regional Services Center, said she had spoken with Emil Wolanin, chief of MCDOT’s Division of Traffic Engineering and Operations. Matthews said they are now considering a policy of simply not installing any pedestrian features at an intersection until all of the planned road construction is complete.

After the presentations, participants created a list of 5 problematic spots in the county for pedestrian safety, and identified 4 specific actions the county can take to improve pedestrian mobility.

Participants specifically highlighted these problem places, plus all rural upcounty roads, at the meeting for particular pedestrian danger. Image from Google Maps.

Problem places range from rural to fairly urban

The first problem spot is Germantown Road/MD 118 in Germantown, between Wisteria Drive and the I-270 interchange. The stretch of road combines high-speed commuter traffic in up to 9 lanes of traffic with increasing pedestrian (including school) and business activity. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it has been the location of multiple pedestrian deaths recently.

Captain Thomas Didone, director of the Traffic Division of the Montgomery County Department of Police, said that the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) had recently agreed to the county’s request to lower the speed limit along this stretch from 50 mph to 40 mph.

A second problem place is the intersection of Dairymaid Drive and Great Seneca Highway in Germantown. As the well-defined goat track shows, people living in the Farmingdale Estates neighborhood use this unmarked crosswalk across Great Seneca Highway to walk to the Kingsview Village shopping center.

Third, at the intersection of Mateny Road and Clopper Road (MD 117) in Germantown, there are (narrow) sidewalks, bus stops, and pedestrian signals, but no pavement markings or signs to alert drivers. Note that there are plans to build 104 townhouses in the former shopping center in the northeast corner of this intersection.

A fourth problem place is the more rural parts of the upcounty, where people do not feel safe walking to playgrounds and parks that are in walking distance. For example, Kings Valley Road in Damascus is a rural two-lane road, but because there are no shoulders or sidewalks, residents feel unsafe walking along the road, especially with children. And crossing Ridge Road/MD 27 on foot, on the way to Damascus Regional Park, is something only a committed pedestrian would dare to attempt.

Finally, participants pointed to the crossing in front of Gaithersburg City Hall in Gaithersburg, where drivers do not stop for pedestrians.

The county and state can do better

To make these and many other unsafe spots better for pedestrians, Maryland could change its law to make the use of a non-hands-free cell phone while driving primary offense instead of a secondary offense. Didone said that it is difficult for police officers to issue citations for cell phone use because they must first have another reason to pull the driver over, such as speeding. (Under Maryland law, texting while driving is a primary offense.)

Second, the county could put up signs at every school for lower speed limits during school hours. In Germantown, for example, there are such signs at Northwest High School and Seneca Valley High School. Didone said that enforcing these speed limits is difficult.

A third action would be repainting worn crosswalks. Dunckel commented that budget cuts had affected many maintenance issues, including crosswalk painting. He advised reporting such crosswalks through the county’s 311 system, noting the service request number, and then following up a few weeks later if there were no response.

Finally, we must improve driver awareness as well as pedestrian awareness. Montgomery County does conduct such pedestrian safety campaigns. Enforcement, however, is more often aimed at pedestrians rather than drivers, though there are exceptions.

Dunckel and Didone both emphasized that the upcounty was not built for pedestrians and that, with over 5,000 lane miles of county roads, plus state highways, changes to improve pedestrian safety and mobility cannot happen overnight.

But that’s all the more reason for the county to design complete streets from the get-go in new development in the upcounty, such as in supposed-to-be transit- and pedestrian-oriented Clarksburg. And it’s all the more reason to keep pushing for change in the rest of the county as well.