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In Montgomery County, Maryland, planners suggest ways to make walking safer

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

But as traffic jams mount, the population ages, and growing numbers of low-income residents can’t afford cars, Montgomery planners say their one million residents need faster ways, more proactive and data-driven to make walking safer and less stressful.

Building sidewalks faster — and before residents have to ask — is one of dozens of recommendations they put forward last week for the first countywide “pedestrian master plan” aimed at to modernize the suburbs designed for cars.

Other proposals range from adding street lighting and more tree shade to phasing out smaller fire trucks and other government vehicles that leave drivers with fewer blind spots for pedestrians. Planners say they will use public feedback and safety data to prioritize improvements based on where they are most needed, rather than addressing the needs of residents who clamor for them most persistently. The current approach, planners say, may make light of low-income communities where people tend to walk more but might have fewer ties to government.

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They say the county must also meet the growing demand for more walkable communities, as revealed by rising house prices in neighborhoods where residents can walk to dry clean or grab a cup of coffee. .

“We really see this as an economic competitiveness issue,” said Montgomery transportation planner Eli Glazier, who leads the pedestrian planning effort. “I think this plan really understands the need to change in a more walkable direction if we are to become the sustainable, attractive, climate-resilient county that I think we all want it to be.”

About 11% of all trips in the Washington area are made on foot or by bicycle, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which has its own long-term plan to improve access for pedestrians and cyclists. 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 an issue.

Montgomery planners previously focused pedestrian safety improvements on a more micro level when updating the area’s long-term growth plan. The county also recently approved new design guidelines for local roads to encourage slower driving speeds, for example by narrowing lanes, and passed a bicycle master plan in 2018.

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However, pedestrians remain among the most vulnerable road users. While they were involved in 4% of all collisions in Montgomery between 2015 and 2020, they suffered 27% of serious injuries and fatalities, according to planners. The dangers are particularly acute in low-income areas, which contain 14% of the county’s road miles but 40% of all pedestrian collisions.

“I think there are a 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 taken care of. in making certain decisions about our routes,” Glazier said.

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He said the Montgomery plan will be one of the first in the nation to include mapping of dirt roads, cul-de-sac crossings and other shortcuts that walkers have created for more direct routes. It also goes beyond other local plans, he said, by suggesting more public toilets and benches so walkers, especially older ones, know where they can take breaks.

Boyds resident Miriam Schoenbaum, a pedestrian and transit advocate, said she hopes officials will commit enough funds to implement the recommendations. Not only would people walk more if they felt safer, she said, but drivers would appreciate reducing their chances of hitting someone.

“There needs to be county-wide 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, the transport planning focuses mostly on the roads, and then they stick the pedestrian stuff in afterwards.”

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Glazier said he was aware that some of the recommendations would likely be pushed back in a county where more than 90% of weekday trips are made by car and motorists suffer from some of the worst traffic jams in the country. Road space for a new sidewalk may require on-street parking on some narrow roads, while a longer “walk” signal in one direction may mean a longer red light in the other.

He said he also appreciates that finding the money to expand and upgrade a pedestrian network that has been 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 a hole,” Glazier said.

Montgomery planners will seek public comment on the plan this summer and fall before the planning board considers details early next year, he said. The departmental council would then vote on it in early 2024.