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Some Chevy Chase residents are fighting one of Montgomery County’s proposed bus rapid transit routes on Wisconsin Avenue, saying it will create new pedestrian hazards. But building a better transit system can lead to a safer, more walkable environment as well.

Pedestrian safety is an issue in Montgomery County. On average, drivers strike 400 people in the county each year, accounting for 20% of all traffic deaths. Nationally, buses were responsible for less than 1% of all crashes, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The lion’s share of threats to pedestrians come from passenger vehicles, not transit.

As they stand now, the proposed BRT routes are a dangerous environment for pedestrians: fast, wide roads designed to maximize the flow of cars. By promoting a more multimodal transportation network, building a better transit system on these roads can be part of the solution. After all, people have to walk to the bus, and we need to get them there safely.

Concern that dedicated lanes will hurt pedestrian safety by allowing buses to travel faster also doesn’t hold up. In Los Angeles, which has two major BRT lines, the rate of accidents in designated BRT lanes is significantly lower per mile than in the city’s conventional bus system. Los Angeles has also reduced the speed limits for buses crossing intersections, reducing collisions even more. BRT is a fast and reliable service because vehicles have their own lane to bypass traffic, not because they speed on our already-busy roadways.

The rate of accidents in BRT lanes in Los Angeles is significantly lower per mile than in the city’s conventional bus system. Photo by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr.

At a basic level, more cars on the roads means more potential for trouble. According to a recent report by EMBARQ, higher driving rates lead to more traffic fatalities. By attracting more riders, high quality transit service reduces the amount of vehicles on the road, directly reducing the chance for crashes and fatalities.

Montgomery County Planning Department staff have found that without rapid transit, countywide vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will increase 22% by 2040. That’s a whole lot of additional cars on the roadways, meaning even more danger to pedestrians. In contrast, the Rapid Transit proposal is projected to actually reduce VMT levels by as much as 6% by 2040.

Higher transit use also means a greater number of pedestrians on the road, which studies have demonstrated make drivers more attentive. A report on the health impacts of BRT in the San Francisco Bay Area reinforces the safety in numbers concept, finding that pedestrians are less likely to get hit by a car if there are more pedestrians around.

Implemented correctly, Montgomery’s rapid transit plans will add more foot traffic to the county’s major thoroughfares, exponentially increasing pedestrian safety.

New Bike-Pedestrian Priority Areas in Montgomery’s Bus Rapid Transit plan. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Design that encourages pedestrian use and alerts drivers to the presence of pedestrians will be critical. The current BRT proposal before the Montgomery County Planning Board incorporates several important recommendations for pedestrian and bike safety, like designating several new Bicycle Pedestrian Priority Areas, a state designation which targets investment in pedestrian infrastructure to certain areas. The plan also calls for improving intersection and sidewalk lighting, using different lane striping to highlight pedestrian areas, having more traffic signals to accommodate pedestrian and cyclist crossings, and building median refuges at intersections near bus routes.

These recommendations are a strong start, but we need to ensure the county both implements these plans and additional measures to stop treating pedestrians like second-class citizens. The proposed BRT routes are all roads under the jurisdiction of Maryland’s State Highway Administration, which historically has prioritized moving cars over moving people. We will need to remain vigilant to ensure that BRT can help transform these dangerous, suburban roadways into multi-modal boulevards of the 21st century.

Doing nothing ensures continuing the status quo of unsafe roads, high pedestrian fatalities, and worsening traffic. Redesigning these roads to accommodate mass transit, as the BRT proposal suggests, provides the opportunity to improve these conditions and create a more walkable, safe environment on these roadways that Chevy Chase residents and undoubtedly many others desperately want.