Downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Rockville are where it’s easiest to walk around in Montgomery County. They are also where drivers are least likely to kill someone on foot.
A decade of traffic fatalities in the Wheaton-Glenmont area. A red person represents a crash where the driver died. Orange is passenger, yellow is pedestrian, and purple means multiple people died. Image by Max Galka.
An extraordinary new interactive map by Metrocosm shows the location of all traffic fatalities in the United States between 2004 and 2013.
Zeroing in on Montgomery County, the map shows that pedestrian death comes in clusters that center on high-speed suburban arteries. Drivers killed eight people on foot in Aspen Hill, for example, four in downtown Kensington, and five on a 3500-foot stretch of Route 118 in Germantown Town Center.
The places where people walk the most are far safer. One pedestrian died in Bethesda’s downtown, one in Rockville’s, and three in Silver Spring’s — and all five of these killings occurred on the fringes of the urbanized centers.
Drivers killed 4 people walking in downtown Kensington (top) and one on downtown Bethesda’s more urban streets (bottom), even though Bethesda’s downtown is bigger, has more people on foot, and is hardly as easy to walk in as it might be. Photos by the author.
These downtowns are hardly walking paradises — they contain many of the county’s identified hotspots for frequent pedestrian crashes — but they share some characteristics that seem to prevent fatalities. Streetcorners are close together, stores front directly on the sidewalk, and speed limits are reduced.
Trends elsewhere in the region are similar. In the District, roads engineered for incoming commuters, New York Avenue in particular, are deadlier than downtown streets where far more people are on foot. Old Town Alexandria and, to a lesser degree, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor stand out as islands of safety in the Virginia suburbs.
Indeed, researchers who looked at data from the entire country found that there are fewer traffic deaths of all kinds, and especially fewer killings of pedestrians, in counties with denser population and smaller blocks.
Unfortunately, Montgomery County continues to build the kind of roads where drivers kill. County and state transportation officials have made concessions in the long-running battle over street widths and speed limits in the rebuilt White Flint, but elsewhere they continue to resist life-saving urban street designs.
The highway engineers have been especially obstinate in insisting on dangerously large street blocks. At Glenmont Metro, for example, the State Highway Administration rejected a street connection for being too close to another corner. With evidence accumulating that smaller blocks are safer, the agency will be on very shaky legal ground if it tries to issue such vetoes in the future. Under Maryland law it may only deny a builder access to a state highway “to promote safety.”
The new data show a way forward to make pedestrian killings the rare events they should be. The urban places that the market now demands are not only more pleasant, but safer too. Rebuilding suburban highways as city streets saves lives.