When I moved to East-West Highway in South Silver Spring last fall, I quickly noticed one thing: people cross the street without using crosswalks all the time. Even as the surrounding area becomes more urban and walkable, this street remains a relic of its industrial, car-oriented past.
East-West Highway was built in the 1920s to connect Bethesda and Silver Spring and provide an alternative to Military Road in the District. (An extension to Prince George’s County came later.) Industrial uses like bottling plants, commercial bakeries, and repair shops sprouted up along the road in Silver Spring. When the Blairs complex was built in the 1950s, the developers purposefully faced it away from East-West Highway because it was so unattractive.
When the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring took off about 10 years ago, those buildings gave way to apartments and condominiums. More recently, businesses including Denizens Brewing Company, Bump ‘N Grind, a coffeeshop/record store, and Scion, a restaurant based in Dupont Circle, have flocked to the area.
South Silver Spring is now one of the region’s youngest neighborhoods, with a large number of transit commuters. Even the owner of the Blairs is embarking on a redevelopment plan to face the street again.
As Silver Spring redeveloped, it became more walkable. But East-West Highway never caught up.
Even though it’s fairly narrow, it’s still designed like a high-speed commuter route, even as more and more people are walking and bicycling in the area. In some places there are no sidewalks, and the two crosswalks between Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road are each a quarter-mile apart, at least a five-minute walk. Even when you get to a crosswalk, the signals are timed to move cars through, making pedestrians wait for up to two minutes to cross.
So people choose to cross where it feels convenient, or safer. In four months of non-scientific observations, I noticed that everyone seemed to cross in a few specific places. I started crossing there as well, and realized that most drivers will stop for you. And when I drove out of my building’s garage, I always waited before turning, knowing that someone might be crossing.
Where to cross East-West Highway. Stoplights are in red, popular informal crossings are in blue. Click for an interactive map.
But this isn’t ideal. A century of training people not to walk in the middle of the street means that nobody, including drivers, expects this to happen. Thus, informal crossing points aren’t as safe as formal, designated places to cross that pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers can all recognize. And the unpleasant experience of walking in South Silver Spring depresses foot traffic, which hurts both existing businesses and prevents new ones from opening.
Even if it wasn’t built for walking, East-West Highway became a place with lots of walkers. It’s time for this street to adapt. More crosswalks would be a good start, as would filling in the missing gaps of sidewalk. More stoplights, or pedestrian-only signals called HAWKs, would be even better, as would a median where people could wait while crossing.
Yes, these things might cause additional delays for drivers. But as one of those drivers, I’d rather have a slower, safer street with more places to shop and hang out. As its surroundings become more urban, East-West Highway is a highway in name only.