Pedestrian Street Smarts
Walkable Bethesda! Restaurants, theatres, galleries, boutiques and farmers markets invite us onto Bethesda’s wide brick sidewalks. But this is no walker’s paradise.
One of Montgomery County’s most dangerous roadways for pedestrians cuts through the heart of Bethesda. And the surrounding streets have their share of pedestrian accidents as well. I live in downtown Bethesda, and most days I walk three miles or more. I love Bethesda, but walking its streets is serious business.
Nowhere is it more serious than the six-block stretch of Wisconsin Ave. between Montgomery Ave. and Leland St. This short stretch of roadway saw 22 pedestrian collisions between 2003 and 2007—none fatal. (It also had 108 motor vehicle collisions during the same period.) The collision count led the county’s Traffic Engineering Operations Division (TEOD) to flag this as a “high incidence” area. Last fall it commissioned a pedestrian road safety audit to find ways to reduce pedestrian collisions. The findings are sobering.
Unlike a 2008 safety audit of Piney Branch Road -- which found that pedestrians crossing mid-block were largely at fault--in Bethesda most pedestrians were legally in the crosswalk. “Most crashes occurred at intersections, and drivers were primarily at fault,” says Fred Lees, with TEOD. In most of the Bethesda pedestrian collisions, vehicles were making turns.
This section of Wisconsin Ave. is a major commuter road six lanes wide. It’s lined with businesses and has heavy foot traffic from metro rail, bus stops and nearby residential areas. Pedestrian safety is a problem, agrees Margo De Muro, a police department crime analyst in the Bethesda office. “We have motorcycle and bicycle officers there constantly,” she says.
The safety audit identified a variety of safety improvements, including new signs, changing the timing on traffic signals, adding street lights and extending the median, among others. County and state highway officials are reviewing the recommendations and will begin to implement them this summer. But problems are not limited to the Wisconsin Ave. study area. In 2008 there were 26 pedestrian collisions in the broader D2 police district which includes downtown Bethesda. (“D2” district runs from Jones Bridge Road and Battery Lane on the north, down Wisconsin Ave. to Bradley Blvd. on the south, and roughly 4-6 blocks on either side of Wisconsin.) Of the 26 pedestrian collisions in D2 last year, 24 of them were outside the six block Wisconsin Ave. study area. That’s two reported pedestrian collisions every month.
“For every time someone was hit, how many close calls were there,” asks John Wetmore, Bethesda-based independent film producer of Perils for Pedestrians. “And if you were close to getting hit yesterday, how comfortable would you be walking around?”
I’ve had a few close calls myself. At the intersection of Hampden Lane and Arlington Rd. last fall a motorist had pulled too far into the intersection for me to cross in front of him. As I was crossing behind him, he shifted into reverse. I jumped out of the way with mere inches to spare. I now feel like a sitting duck at intersections and prefer to look for a big gap in traffic and cross mid-block where traffic comes from two directions, not four. The Wisconsin Ave. corridor is not typical of the rest of downtown Bethesda, where much has already been done to improve pedestrian safety, notes Dave Dabney, Executive Director of Bethesda Urban Partnership (BUP). He cites the use of safety “bump outs,” particularly along Norfolk Ave. Bump-outs sacrifice parking spaces at intersections to “bump” the sidewalk into the roadway. This shortens the distance pedestrians navigate when crossing the road. The bump-outs also hold large flower planters.
Restricting right turns on red, which has worked in other urban areas, would also make Bethesda more walker-friendly, he suggests. Dabney also encourages walkers to respect the crosswalks, but notes that BUP has no authority to set traffic laws. So what’s a pedestrian to do? Be careful, very careful. Scan for potential problems. That includes drivers turning left and drivers turning right on red. Try to make eye contact, Wetmore says. Unfortunately, he adds, the constant looking and checking can be stressful and tiring for pedestrians.
If walking at night, consider using reflective bands (See side bar, “Reflective Bands Boost Night Visibility”). You can also call the traffic enforcement office to report problem areas. Tell the police, “I have concerns about pedestrian safety at ________ intersection.” The number is: 301-652-9200. In the meantime, let’s all try to share the road.
By Nancy Koran