In October 2016, Chevy Chase resident Ned Gaylin was struck and killed by a driver while bicycling through the intersection of Little Falls Parkway and the Capital Crescent Trail in Montgomery County. It wasn’t the first crash at that crossing—in the previous two years, drivers had struck five other cyclists and six pedestrians there. In response, the county narrowed the roadway and lowered speed limits while it figured out a permanant safety fix.
The response in Chevy Chase to these roadway changes reveals a severe case of motorist entitlement—a pervasive condition in suburban areas designed around the automobile, and one commonly accompanied by a lack of self-awareness. Case in point? In a recent blog post, David Lublin, a professor and the former mayor of the Town of Chevy Chase, denounces the narrowing of Little Falls Parkway as an “intentional traffic jam.”
A matter of life or death—or status?
Three months after the crash that killed Gaylin, the Parks Department installed an interim “road diet” to make the area safer for more vulnerable road users. It narrowed the four-lane road to two lanes, and lowered the speed limit from 35 to 25 miles per hour. It was really successful: The frequency of crashes was slashed by more than half. Plus, drivers were only delayed an average of seven seconds.
But Lublin and other area residents want Little Falls Parkway widened back to four lanes. Recognizing the safety hazard of the pre-2017 setup, they proposed that trail traffic detour to the nearby traffic light at the intersection of Little Falls and Arlington Road. In a controversial four-to-one vote, the Park and Planning Board in June rejected its own staff’s recommendation for a permanent road diet, and opted for the other plan instead.
The road diet confines traffic to a single lane in each direction, so lineups of three, four, five or more cars do occur when the crosswalk is in use. But the resulting delay in automobile travel will not be cured by a return to four lanes. In fact, the plan for a trail crossing at Arlington Road requires a longer red light with no right turn allowed, which will delay drivers by an average of 13 seconds—six seconds more than the road diet does.
So road diet foes are willing to sit in their cars at a red light if cyclists are delayed too. Conscious of it or not, it seems they’re not upset so much about car delays from the road diet as about the indignity of waiting on line to watch cyclists and pedestrians go first. The car-first suburban status hierarchy is in question.
Nine speed bumps in 4,000 feet
Another example of how residents in this area defend their status? The myriad ways they work to keep “outsiders” off their streets.
At one time, Maryland Route 82 provided access into the south end of downtown Bethesda, allowing drivers coming from the east to bypass the backups where East-West Highway meets Wisconsin Avenue. But the State Highway Administration removed Route 82 from the state highway map, and in 2005 it sold the section within the Town of Chevy Chase (parts of Leland Street and Maple Avenue) to the town for $1.
Today, the town leaves no stone unturned in its efforts to keep traffic off the 4,000 feet of former state highway that lie within its boundaries. On the east, entry from East-West Highway is banned at all times; entry from the west is forbidden from 4 to 6 pm; and a rush hour do-not-enter sign is posted at a third point in the middle. The town has installed no fewer than nine speed bumps on this short stretch of roadway.
Yet during his tenure on the town’s governing board, Lublin never challenged these as “intentional traffic jams.” It seems his priorities are different for the Town of Chevy Chase, where slow speeds are encouraged and outsiders are restricted from driving, and the Little Falls Parkway crossing outside the town, where he wants better driving throughput.
The Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) pointed out that Lublin’s preferred crossing is more dangerous than the road diet setup because drivers may ignore the no-turn-on-red sign and hit someone on bike or foot. But Lublin argued this wasn’t so because “Drivers face significant penalties for making illegal turns.” Cue the laughter from any pedestrian who has ever stood at a traffic light and watched driver after driver turn right on red without the required full stop.
There is, to be sure, one kind of illegal turn that can easily earn a ticket for a Montgomery County driver: The forbidden turn into a leafy single-family neighborhood. A neighborhood association or small municipality that complains to the police about so-called “cut-through” traffic can expect a vigorous response. These traffic enforcement priorities encapsulate the suburban status hierarchy, where the tranquility of affluent homeowners ranks above the lives of people walking and bicycling.
When wealthy neighborhoods that restrict who can and can’t use their streets work to maintain the unsafe status quo elsewhere, people get hurt. How many more people have to be injured or killed before this changes?