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In auto-centric Montgomery, planners suggest ways to make walking safer

Montgomery County and other suburbs were designed for driving. As traffic worsens, planners are working to make walking safer and less stressful.

Pedestrians cross Georgia Avenue at Connecticut Avenue in the Aspen Hill area of Silver Spring in Montgomery County in 2019. (Montgomery County Planning Department)

Montgomery County residents who need a sidewalk must ask for one and typically wait up to 10 years to get it — and that’s if there’s no outcry from neighbors opposed to losing a favorite tree or space for street parking.

But as traffic congestion grows, the population ages and an increasing number of lower-income residents can’t afford cars, Montgomery planners say their 1 million residents need faster, more proactive and data-driven ways to make walking safer and less stressful.

Building sidewalks more quickly — and before residents have to ask — is one of dozens of recommendations they presented this past week for the first countywide “pedestrian master plan” aimed at retrofitting a suburb designed for cars.

Other proposals range from adding street lighting and more tree shade to gradually buying smaller firetrucks and other government vehicles that leave drivers with fewer pedestrian blind spots. Planners say they will use public input and safety data to prioritize improvements based on where they are needed most, rather than catering to residents who press for them most persistently. The current approach, planners say, can give short shrift to lower-income communities where people tend to walk more but might have less connection to government.

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They say the county also must respond to rising demand for more walkable communities, as revealed by higher home prices in neighborhoods where residents can walk to pick up dry cleaning or grab a cup of coffee.

“We really see this as an economic competitiveness issue,” said Montgomery transportation planner Eli Glazier, who is leading the effort. “I think this plan really understands the need to shift in a more walkable direction if we’re going to become the sustainable, attractive and climate-resilient county I think we all want it to be.”

About 11 percent of all trips in the Washington region are made by foot or bicycle, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Even as the region has opened new trails, added bike racks to buses and incorporated pedestrian and cycling facilities into larger transportation projects, COG officials say, safety remains a problem.

COG senior transportation planner Michael Farrell said most Washington-area jurisdictions, including Montgomery, require “complete streets" that provide, and sometimes prioritize, pedestrian and bicycle facilities. He said Montgomery also stands out for developing an algorithm that predicts the likelihood of crashes — and the need for proactive safety improvements — at different locations based on vehicle speeds, the surrounding land use and other factors.

“A lot of these environments are inherently unsafe to walk in simply because of the speeds people go and how wide these roads are,” Farrell said. “It’s very difficult for a motorist going 50 mph to see a pedestrian in a crosswalk in time to stop.”

Montgomery planners previously focused pedestrian safety improvements at a more micro level when updating individual communities’ long-term growth plans. The county also recently approved new design guidelines for local roads to encourage slower driving speeds, such as by narrowing lanes, and adopted a bicycle master plan in 2018.

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Even so, pedestrians remain among the most vulnerable road users. While they were involved in 4 percent of all Montgomery collisions between 2015 and 2020, they suffered 27 percent of severe injuries and fatalities, planners say. The dangers are particularly acute in lower-income areas, which contain 14 percent of the county’s road miles but have 40 percent of all pedestrian collisions.

“I think there are lot of people in the county who would walk more if they felt safe, if they felt comfortable, if they felt their needs as pedestrians were considered in making some of the decisions about our roads,” Glazier said.

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He said the Montgomery plan will be one of the first in the country to include the mapping of dirt paths, cul-de-sac cut-throughs and other shortcuts that walkers have created for more direct routes. It also goes beyond other local plans, he said, by suggesting more public restrooms and benches so walkers, particularly those who are older, will know where they can take breaks.

Boyds resident Miriam Schoenbaum, a pedestrian and transit advocate, said she hopes public officials will devote enough funding to carry out the recommendations. Not only would people walk more if it felt safer, she said, but drivers would welcome reducing their chances of hitting someone.

“There needs to be a countywide recognition of walking as something people do to get from Point A to Point B in the county,” said Schoenbaum, a statistician for a federal agency. “Otherwise transportation planning mostly focuses on the roads, and then they stick the pedestrian stuff on afterward.”

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Glazier said he’s aware some of the recommendations probably will face pushback in a county where about 90 percent of trips are taken by car and motorists suffer through some of the country’s worst traffic congestion. Road space for a new sidewalk might require taking street parking on some narrow roads, while a longer “walk” signal in one direction could mean a longer red light in the other.

He said he also appreciates that finding the money to expand and upgrade a pedestrian network neglected for decades will be a “really big lift.” The plan suggests additional funding could come from higher state vehicle registration fees for larger vehicles that are more dangerous for pedestrians and higher market rates for public parking.

“We’re really digging out of a hole,” Glazier said.

Montgomery planners will solicit public input on the recommendations this summer and fall before the planning board delves into the details early next year, he said. The county council would then vote on the plan by early 2024.

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