Pedestrian-unfriendly Colesville Road. Photo by the author.

Montgomery County’s urban areas are growing, but their wide, fast streets, designed to prioritize drivers over everyone else, are holding them back. A new bill going before the County Council could level the playing field for pedestrians and cyclists.

Last month, Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Hans Riemer introduced several amendments to the county’s Road Code, notably to reduce the “target speed,” which is usually the speed limit, of new or rebuilt streets. All streets in urban areas would be designed for speeds of 25 mph, or between 30 and 40 mph on suburban arterials. On smaller residential streets, the target speed would be 20 mph.

To achieve those lower speeds, in urban areas like Silver Spring, the bill would allow lanes no wider than 10 feet, tighter curb radii at intersections, and curb bumpouts, which reduce the distance pedestrians have to cross a street. It also lets developers work with the county to put bikeshare stations or car charging outlets in their projects.

"The overarching goal of this bill is to‚Ķfacilitate the implementation of pedestrian friendly, bike friendly, walkable, livable urban areas as envisioned” in county plans for areas like White Flint and Wheaton, write Berliner and Riemer in a memo to the council.

Bill 33-13, as it’s officially called, is an update of the county’s Road Code, which was approved in 2008 as an attempt to create “complete streets” that accommodate pedestrians and cyclists in addition to drivers. To offer recommendations, County Executive Ike Leggett convened a 24-member task force, including representatives from groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, as well as AAA. Many of the bill’s progressive features fell by the wayside due to AAA pressure to allow wider roads and remove street trees, which spokesperson Lon Anderson called a hazard to drivers.

Berliner and Riemer’s amendments will help the Road Code fulfill its original purpose. Whether in emerging urban places like Wheaton or older communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring that were built before cars became common, wide, fast streets are unpleasant to walk on at best, and at worst, a danger to pedestrians. This bill will make those streets safer by slowing traffic and forcing drivers to pay attention.

But complete streets are also better for the county’s economy. More people want to live in a walkable community, which translates to rising home prices in places like Silver Spring.

Streets that are nicer to walk or bike along mean more foot traffic, which means more customers for local shops and restaurants. And studies show that pedestrians and cyclists spend as much if not more at businesses than drivers do. That’s especially good news for the county’s Nighttime Economy Initiative, which seeks to encourage nightlife in its urban areas.

As in 2008, this bill could face resistance both now and if it’s passed. The county’s Department of Transportation has been reluctant to create more pedestrian-friendly streets in White Flint or even in school zones. Despite efforts to promote pedestrian safety, county police still side with drivers even when those on foot aren’t breaking the law.

Berliner and Riemer’s bill deserves all the support it can get. But for it to be successful, we’ll need a change of attitude towards pedestrians and cyclists. Some will call lower speed limits and curb bumpouts an inconvenience to drivers, but they remove barriers to making Montgomery County a better and more prosperous place to live.

The County Council will have a public hearing about Bill 33-13 Thursday, January 23 at 7:30 pm at the Council Office Building, located at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. To sign up or for more information, you can visit the county’s website.