A Walk to the Grocery Store
Since moving to Silver Spring, my wife and I have almost always walked to the grocery store. Downtown Silver Spring has several groceries within a short walk of the condo we rented. Now that we live in a house just inside the Beltway, our local grocery store is Sniders. As I have learned, it’s an institution.
While we enjoy shopping there, the 300-yard walk is not pleasant. Unfortunately, that walk resembles pedestrian-challenged spaces so common in auto-oriented environments. Our challenge: we have to cross six-lane Georgia Avenue and several surfaced parking areas for gas stations, dry cleaners and walk in the roadway because there is no sidewalk, to get there.
Georgia Avenue is super busy, terrifying both to walk along or cross. Stand at the bus stop at Seminary Place and Georgia and try to feel safe. Motorists attempting to rapidly change lanes as they get closer to the Beltway on-ramps are traveling fast. Meanwhile it’s also a busy pedestrian space with many commuters waiting to catch the bus. Keep in mind that for a motorist to make eye contact with a pedestrian, they need to be driving less than 24 mph.
While we like our house and neighborhood, do we have to accept such a shoddy, unsafe pedestrian infrastructure? Can better pedestrian routes co-exist with high levels of car traffic?
This situation is not unique to Montgomery Hills. Exhibit A: Rockville Pike. Exhibit B: Route 198 in Burtonsville. Or even Georgia Avenue farther north in Wheaton. There are so many places where the pedestrian is at risk. Is this the best we can do?
The answer is, of course, no. But before we consider how to improve, it is important to consider a number of constraints.
- Anyone driving through Montgomery Hills or the other routes mentioned above, is in a hurry. They cannot get to where they are going fast enough (or drive close enough to the car in front to prevent someone from cutting in to get onto the I-495 on ramp).
- Georgia Avenue is not a special or favored route. Next time you are driving east on I-495 past Connecticut Avenue, read the exit sign prohibiting trucks from exiting to go south. Hmmm, why is that? Georgia Avenue which has a much higher amount of pedestrian traffic gets all the truck traffic.
- Georgia Avenue is a state road.
That part of Montgomery Hills is zoned commercial-only, perpetuating gas stations, curb cuts, and surface parking lots, all creating points for vehicle and pedestrian conflicts. Is it really necessary for the corner gas stations to have three points of vehicle access? And there are five gas stations within two blocks on a very busy road.
Not every intersection is the same. Different improvements should be considered to fit the needs of each situation.
Believe it or not, the Colesville Road-Fenton Street intersection in Silver Spring was a scramble intersection back in the early 1980s. We have investigated reversing back to that design. I wrote about this in a post last year. This is a place where such an investment could really make a difference to the pedestrian and bring motorists back to reality about driving through more urban places. This design also could work where Colesville crosses Georgia Avenue.
The big reaction against this type of design or many traffic calming measures comes from those who are sure it will slow them down behind the wheel.
The intersection I use at Seminary Place to cross Georgia Avenue does not warrant a scramble intersection because there are too few pedestrians. But the intersection could benefit from some simple fixes.
- Striping. Enhance the pedestrian crossings with highly visible crosswalk markings, possibly even texture changes. I realize the snow plows have a small issue, but how often do they plow Georgia Avenue? Where I come from, the City of Toronto uses texture changes for crosswalks and it snows a whole lot more. And striping is just a few thousand dollars.
- Look at zoning changes that might result in new uses like small buildings with residential uses on top bringing more people to the street frontages. More people on the sidewalk can really help change things by making drivers more aware.
Slow the cars down. People move through this area at well over 40 mph. We’ve got speed cameras a quarter-mile south, and people slow their cars. We should do the same in Montgomery Hills.
- Reduce the number of curb cuts and establish right-of-way requirements so that as properties redevelop, wider sidewalks can result.
- Emphasize at the County level that pedestrians matter. I agree that we need to move cars, but if it takes 15 seconds longer to move though three blocks of Georgia Avenue, is this a big impact on motorists?
The State Highway Administration is starting to look at this stretch of Georgia Avenue and maybe some of these suggestions should be considered. Let’s hope that by working with SHA we can find ways to improve this busy stretch of road that could serve as a model in other parts of the County. This is especially important as we advance the idea of bus rapid transit, which will bring more folks onto the sidewalks to await their buses. Many of those stops may be in a center median, requiring pedestrians to cross, then stand with cars passing on both sides.
Let’s use the Georgia Avenue-Montgomery Hills intersection rethink as a precedent for how to create safe and functional pedestrian infrastructure in harmony with motor vehicle traffic. I welcome hearing from residents where they think we can do better in their neighborhoods.