MoCo Road Code

Mojo Jojo.

Montgomery County is finalizing a new “road code” to define basic standards for roads of different types across the county. It’s a good idea to update the standards, but in the hands of MoCo’s traffic engineers and some county leaders, it’s become a blindly pro-traffic sledgehammer that will force pedestrian-unfriendly design throughout the county.

Unveiled by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett during Pedestrian Safety Week, the road code actually works against pedestrian safety. It sets a minimum speed of 30 mph for all streets, even those in urban areas (like downtown Bethesda) that should be 25. Arterial streets like Wisconsin or Georgia have even higher minimums, whether or not that’s appropriate.

“We’re very disappointed that the road code revisions didn’t focus enough on pedestrian safety and putting a greater priority on making our vibrant urban areas safe and walkable,” Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth told the Gazette. The environmental provisions are more laudable, requiring all roads to absorb stormwater runoff, though, according to the Gazette article, environmentalists feel the absorption requirements don’t go far enough.

The Planning Board wasn’t pleased either, writing that the proposed minimum speeds are too high, the minimum widths too large for pedestrian safety and important traffic calming, the bicycle facility requirements too vague, and the standards too devoid of trees along the edges and in the medians.

That upset AAA spokesperson Lon Anderson, who participated in the working group that formulated the initial proposals. Anderson, whose organization consistently advocates for devoting as much public space as possible to cars, slammed the Planning Board and its non-car-centric ideas:

“Park and Planning thinks if every road was 20 mph or 25 mph that’d be great and every road should be tree-lined,” Anderson said. … “‘It’s our way or the highway’ is an old maxim that apparently planners at the Montgomery County Planning Board take very seriously,” said Anderson, who called the decision by the planners to offer separate recommendations “an outrageous and arrogant attempt to circumvent an appropriate study process.”

Of course, Anderson’s way is the highway. But while not every street should be 20 or 25 mph, some should, and many should be tree-lined. The road code prevents that. Anderson, though, thinks no streets should have tree medians. Commenting on an article in Just Up the Pike, Anderson wrote:

We are all for trees, but want them set back adequately to ensure they don’t limit motorists’ and pedestrians’ site[sic] distances, and obscure things like traffic signals, stop signs, and pedestrians and children preparing to enter the roadway. Additionally, trees set too close to roads can kill motorists who run off the roads.

Please know that AAA has long played a role as a leader in the fight for pedestrian safety, and sponors over 36,000 children as AAA School Safety Patrols in the DC area, and I served on Doug Duncan’s Pedestrian Safety Task Force a couple of years ago. We must design our roads in ways that encourage pedestrians, bikers and all users, but in the safest possible ways, and that’s what I worked for in my efforts on the Road Design Study Commission.

If Anderson is sincere, he’s woefully misinformed about traffic safety. “Blocking sight lines hurts safety” is a 1950s concept. But, in truth, when sight lines are blocked, motorists drive slower; when they’re wide open, they drive faster. And since a pedestrian is 85% likely to die if hit by a car at 40 mph but only 5% likely at 20 mph, we do more for safety by slowing down the cars in areas where pedestrians will be crossing. A narrower street without sight lines, therefore, is often the safest kind precisely because the driver can’t see everything and has to proceed with care.

There are two ways to keep pedestrians safe. One is to keep all the pedestrians far away from the main roads, build big barriers against crossing roads and locate buildings far apart, and giving the cars lots of room to run off the road without hitting anything. Problem is, then nobody can get anywhere without driving, we get crushing traffic (which Anderson professionally complains about), high rates of car crash injuries, asthma-inducing pollution, and depressingly sprawly communities. Or, we design our environment for cars, people and bicycles to coexist smoothly and, in the denser areas, at slow speeds. The Planning Board wants more of the latter, while Anderson, Leggett, and the rest of the authors of the Road Code want the former. That’s only a recipe for more sprawl, which helps nobody except, perhaps, AAA Mid-Atlantic.

P.S. Remember that if you belong to AAA, part of your money goes to lobby against tree-lined streets and against pedestrian safety. There’s a better choice.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.