Photo by The Tire Zoo on Flickr.
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.
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:
- On October 3 (International Walk to School Day), a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old were struck by a car while on the sidewalk on their way to Springbrook High School in Silver Spring.
- On October 31, Christina Morris-Ward, age 15, was struck by a car and killed on the way to Seneca Valley High School in Germantown.
- On December 11, a 9-year-old was struck by a car while in a crosswalk on the way to Westbrook Elementary School in Bethesda.
- On February 27, a 3-month-old baby in a stroller was struck by a car while in a marked crosswalk during the walk signal, next to Bethesda Elementary School in Bethesda.
- On March 12, a 16-year-old was struck by a car while in a marked crosswalk next to Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg.
- Also on March 12, an 8-year-old, a 10-year-old, and their mother were struck by a car while on the sidewalk one block from Gaithersburg Elementary School in Gaithersburg.
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.)