In all the discussion of our traffic and transportation problems, we seldom hear about the problems of a significant type of commuter -- the pedestrian who is trying to reach public transportation. Pedestrians in Maryland face so many hazards in their journey to public transit that it's no wonder many choose to stay in their cars where it is safer. The list of the dangers they face is daunting:
Intersections. At one time, when the signal said "walk," it was safe to do so. Today, pedestrians must watch for traffic as they cross because of the "right-turn-on-red" policy, which while promoting fuel efficiency, also promotes the "let's keep rolling" mentality. Further, traffic in right-turn-without-stop lanes is not coordinated with pedestrian signals, so the "walk" sign only ends up giving pedestrians a false sense of security. Too often, pedestrians also must cross major intersections in an inadequate amount of time.
No Sidewalks. Because the law does not require sidewalks beside unimproved property, expanses along many major streets have no pedestrian facilities, not even paths to busy bus stops. Those on foot have the unappetizing choice of walking in the street "with" or "against" traffic.
Inadequate Sidewalks. Pedestrian rights-of-way are regularly sacrificed when streets are widened. Narrow sidewalks that hug the curb are the rule in Montgomery County and elsewhere in Maryland even though the Vehicle Encroachment Theory, published by the National Research Council, states that "the greater the distance of the walkway from the road edge, the lesser the chance of a pedestrian-vehicle collision."
Developers who benefit most from road widenings rarely concern themselves with safe sidewalks. Their interest usually ends at their property lines, because they are not legally required to take an interest beyond that. The concept of donating property and/or amenities for pedestrians is so unusual in this area that it was newsworthy enough to make a recent "Dr. Gridlock" column.
Unfortunately, individual property owners also create roadblocks.
Many homeowners successfully have fought sidewalk setbacks only to complain later when the roads in front of their houses are filled to capacity. This situation doesn't have to continue, however. We can promote pedestrian safety, which in turn will promote the use of public transportation and help relieve our clogged roadways. For example, we can:
Reconsider right-turn-on red. Particularly at busy intersections, this law could be excepted, while coordination of pedestrian and vehicular signals could be improved, providing longer crossing durations as needed.
Establish sidewalk width and setback standards. The state leaves the standards for sidewalk construction up to each county, but in the absence of a comprehensive plan or standard for sidewalk setbacks, sidewalks typically are built in the least expensive manner, which ignores roadway conditions. That could be changed.
Increase the budget for sidewalks. We could build more sidewalks, create sidewalk cutaways and install barriers where vehicular accidents are frequent and severe (particularly where the sidewalk setback has been sacrificed for street widening).
We also could install rumble strips and signs on the approaches to ramps onto interstate highways to remind drivers that they are crossing a pedestrian way, particularly wherever visibility is questionable.
Facilitate a "grant of right to construct sidewalk agreement." In Montgomery County, Form 1838 is available from Gordon Aoyagi, chief of sidewalk projects, for those who would like to donate property for a sidewalk/bus stop improvement. This costs the property owner nothing, and the liability and maintenance costs are assumed by the county.
Other Maryland counties may offer similar programs.
Enable volunteerism. The pedestrian environment is deteriorating faster than our ability to deal with it. Volunteers could help by taking photos of offending vehicles in intersections, for example. Jeanne Bernard of Montgomery County's police department also recommends that those concerned about pedestrian safety write to Police Chief Donald Brooks.
Last May, House Bill 786 would have made it mandatory for all state road projects in urban areas to include the construction of sidewalks. The bill passed both houses but was vetoed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who apparently is unaware that by improving sidewalks we would be improving access to the public transportation system he is promoting.
Interested Marylanders might take it upon themselves to explain to our governor that transportation tax dollars should not be just for our roadways and that street widenings benefit only those taxpayers in cars.
They might also tell him that the elimination of sidewalk rights-of-way combined with the need to cross wider and more dangerous streets have left pedestrians dangerously stranded -- and without protection; in Maryland, there is no public liability to pedestrians in the case of public negligence.
It's time that Schaefer and regional planners reconsidered the reasons why so many commuters will sit in standstill traffic rather than use public transportation. Fear of being on foot might be one of them.
Arlene S. Allen