While pedestrian deaths and injuries have been increasing across the United States, in low-income communities and communities of color, it has long been a crisis.
Walking becomes dangerous. Bus stops are poorly-situated, with inadequate sidewalks and crosswalks forcing people to walk through speeding traffic. To counteract this, Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, is developing Vision Zero policies in two places where walking is riskiest: the Veirs Mill Corridor and the Aspen Hill neighborhood. (Full disclosure: In 2016 and 2017, I was part of the Veirs Mill Corridor Advisory Committee for bus rapid transit.)
A crash in which a car injured four high-school students waiting at a bus stop is only the most recent. “Some high-profile crashes in the last year or so” have spurred concern with pedestrian safety, Maren Hill, the project manager of the Aspen Hill Vision Zero study, told me. From a national perspective, the Vision Zero movement has accelerated such concerns. “There’s a lot more awareness and a lot more commitment to change right now,” Hill said.
Neighborhoods change, traffic goes on
Developed at a time when cars were the single, dominant transportation mode, and consisting predominantly of single-family homes, both the Veirs Mill corridor and Aspen Hill changed in recent decades.
Veirs Mill is one of the most heavily-used bus corridors in the county. Household incomes are only three-fifths of the county average. The population is young and nearly a quarter use public transit to get to work, which necessitates some walking.
Adding all these people walking to roads designed primarily for cars means conflict between vehicles and people. Indeed, 53 percent of traffic deaths in Aspen Hill occur to people walking and biking, which is 25 percent more than in other suburbs, according to Hill.
The Veirs Mill Master Plan is harsh in its assessment of current conditions, explaining that the corridor “severely lacks necessary infrastructure for people who walk, bike and use transit, including continuous sidewalks, safe crosswalks, bicycle facilities, and pedestrian routes to transit.” If Montgomery County is serious about Vision Zero, something has to be done.
A vision of safe walking
In 2017, Montgomery County adopted a two-year action plan to eliminate traffic deaths by 2030. At the same time, the county was working on the Veirs Mill Corridor Master Plan, centered around the introduction of a Bus Rapid Transit route. However, community feedback indicated the need for a serious rethinking of safety issues for people walking and biking. leading to a revamping around Vision Zero. On December 13, this plan was approved by the planning board and sent to the county council for consideration.
“When we started the Veirs Mill Corridor master plan, we really thought it would be more about land use in relation to the future of bus rapid transit along the corridor,” Jessica McVary, a project manager for the Veirs Mill Corridor Master Plan, told me. “But in our initial outreach, and throughout our engagement efforts with the community, we heard loud and clear” the need to prioritize “things like sidewalks along Veirs Mill, safe ways to get across the street, to get to the bus stop or to get to school, and really things like the speed of cars.” This fit right in with Vision Zero, and pedestrian and bicycle safety and access have become integral to the Veirs Mill plan.
Solving traffic deaths in two stages
The Veirs Mill Corridor Master Plan recommends two stages for remedying the dangerous conditions for people walking and biking. Among the priorities in the first stage, McVary explained, are sidewalks all along the corridor; frequent, protected crossings; and bikeways on parallel streets all along the corridor.
In the long term, as the bus rapid transit line is built, the plan is for transformation to complete streets, with lane width reduced to 10 feet to slow vehicles, and with separate, protected lanes for walkers, bikers, buses, and drivers. The right turn and bus lane, currently used as a through lane by aggressive drivers, will be separated for bus-only use, explained McVary.
These changes will slow down cars somewhat, but will most importantly encourage other ways to get around. “There is a paradigm shift,” said McVary, “a need to think how about how we can accommodate all road users safely.”
Fortunately, Veirs Mill has adequate right of way to expand and encompass a complete streets perspective. This will mean taking out parts of what are now some peoples’ yards but is legally in the right of way. In the long run, it will mean a transformed corridor.
Even in the very short term, changes to protect walkers are likely. Community consultation has led to two immediate recommendations: a beacon upgrade to a full light where Veirs Mill crosses a popular bike trail and a new crosswalk along a school route.*
Aspen Hill thinks forward
While the Veirs Mill plan evolved from a land-use study to, at least partially, a Vision Zero document, Montgomery Planning is now specifically looking at Vision Zero. The Aspen Hill Vision Zero Study is just beginning and expects to build on the success of the Veirs Mill Corridor Master Plan.
The challenges are profound. Aspen Hill is crossed by two major state-owned highways, which Hill described as “high-speed, high-volume roads,” Georgia Avenue and Connecticut Avenue.
Aspen Hill’s demographics make traffic safety an equity issue. More than 85 percent of residents earn below the county median income, according to Hill, while 50 percent are Hispanic, compared to 19 percent county-wide. In addition, the population is extremely young, with one-third under 19 years old. With these demographics, more people use transit; 20 percent in Aspen Hill commute by transit, with three-quarters of that number using buses.
The first step is data collection. This begins with traffic counts and speed studies, standard planning tools, but extends into community outreach. Local community members, after all, know trouble spots intimately and often have ideas for needed changes. Beyond traditional meetings, Montgomery Planning has posted a React Map, on which individual users can make suggestions. Comments already include specific crossing needs, dangerous driveways, the need for buffer space, lack of ADA accessibility, dangers to children, and more.
Yet much of Aspen Hill’s population is hard to reach by traditional tools or the internet. The study is therefore providing child care and conducting outreach in as many ways as possible, such as weekend meetings and showing up at community festivals. A recent bilingual walking tour was a good starting place. And all materials are presented in both English and Spanish.
It is still too soon for the study to draw definite conclusions. However, Hill said, early results indicate the need for slowing traffic on streets “designed for speed not safety,” where cars currently cruise at 40 or 50 mph through residential neighborhoods. More marked crosswalks are also crucial, as is the need for more lights at busy and dangerous crosswalks.
Importantly, the Aspen Hill Vision Zero Study is building not just on results from the Veirs Mill Corridor Master Plan but on relationships built during the study, said Hill. The county, after all, has to work not just with the community, but with the Planning Board, the county council, the county Department of Transportation, and the State Highway Administration.
It takes a plethora of actors to get something done. But it all starts with planning, with listening to a variety of voices, with a determined commitment to do something about the loss of life that our auto-centric development has spurred.
*Editor’s note: a reader wrote to us saying that this crossing has been updated. “After not one but two cyclists were killed crossing there in separate incidents, the State Highway Administration did indeed take action there. There is now a flashing light across the intersection that pedestrians/cyclists can signal to cross; the light turns from yellow to solid red, stopping traffic in both directions. Mr. Goffman’s article indicates that this is yet to be done, but this action has (thankfully) already been taken.” Thank you Amanda!