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Montgomery County Congestion Report Includes Pedestrian Numbers

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By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

In just six hours every morning and afternoon, as commuter traffic courses through downtown Silver Spring, nearly 2,000 people cross the intersection of Colesville Road and East West Highway on foot, making it one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in Montgomery County, a new study says.

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For the first time, the county planning department's Highway Mobility Report, which analyzes congestion at 130 intersections across Montgomery, also counted pedestrians, who until recently were often given short shrift in discussions about how to make roads and intersections safer and more efficient.

"We wanted to make sure we were accounting for all different modes of travel," said Dan Hardy, transportation planning supervisor for the county's Department of Park and Planning, which released its 2009 report last week and presented it to the Planning Board on Monday. "We're trying to factor pedestrians into more of the decisions."

Those decisions include what priority the County Council gives to improving certain roads and intersections and where bus stops and sidewalks are located, Hardy said.

The vehicular traffic analysis produced what has become a notorious list of Montgomery's 10 worst intersections. First on the list was Shady Grove Road at Midcounty Highway in Derwood. But what is drawing the attention of many who live and work in Bethesda are two other infamous bottlenecks: Rockville Pike at West Cedar Lane, which ranked second, and Connecticut Avenue at Jones Bridge Road, ninth.

Some say the fact that both are failing underscores long-held concerns that the area will soon drown in traffic. Both intersections are close or adjacent to the National Naval Medical Center, which is undergoing a major expansion as part of the Pentagon's base realignment and closure plans. The medical facility is expected to add 2,500 workers by September 2011, for a total of 10,500, and visits to the campus could double -- to 1 million annually -- officials have said.

The area also draws heavy commuter traffic from the 17,000 employees at the National Institutes of Health across Rockville Pike, which carries other traffic between the Capital Beltway and Bethesda's central business district.

Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said he hears community concerns that the intersections will further deteriorate under heavier traffic loads, even with the state's plans to upgrade traffic signals and add turn lanes.

Only better transit options, such as shuttle buses and a bus rapid transit system along Rockville Pike, would help long term, Berliner said. If the Defense Department builds an entrance to the Medical Center Metrorail station on the Navy hospital's side of Rockville Pike, that would encourage more people to take Metro, he said.

"We need to do everything we can to get people out of their cars on the pike," he said.

Those who walk instead of drive are getting more attention from county planners assessing the impact of development and from officials trying to make walking safer.

The latest mobility report found that other intersections popular with pedestrians during the morning and evening rush are Veirs Mill Road at Randolph Road (1,452 crossings daily), East West Highway at 16th Street (985 crossings) and Hungerford Drive at Middle Lane/Park Road (671 crossings). Many of the busiest pedestrian intersections are near Metro stations or bus stops, the report says.

Transportation planner Justin Clarke said the study is not comprehensive because it counts pedestrians only at the 130 intersections that were chosen for review based on their high volume of vehicle traffic. Some more heavily used pedestrian crossings, such as in downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda, were not included because they had fewer vehicles, he said.

"We're thinking of pedestrians," Hardy said, "but we're just beginning this shift."

County officials have stepped up their focus on pedestrian safety over the past decade, when some years had more pedestrian fatalities in Montgomery than homicides. Some of the attention followed a push in the late 1990s to ease traffic congestion by widening roads and taking out sidewalks, which put pedestrians in greater jeopardy, said Jeff Dunckel, Montgomery's pedestrian safety coordinator.

Last year, 444 pedestrians were hit by vehicles in the county, including 18 people who died, said Esther Bowring, a county spokeswoman.

Dunckel said the county recently began studying how roads and intersections in "high incidence areas" could be made safer. Such areas include Piney Branch Road between Flower Avenue and the Prince George's County line, Wisconsin Avenue between Montgomery Avenue and Woodmont Avenue and Georgia Avenue between Sligo Avenue and Colesville Road, he said.

Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which advocates for better pedestrian access, said Montgomery deserves credit for paying more attention. However, she said, more could be done to make street lanes narrower, which would slow vehicles and make it safer to cross intersections on foot.

"We need to evaluate our road network for all users," Cort said, "not just based on how many vehicles we push through an intersection."


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