Thursday, June 12, 2014

Crossing the highway: a lesson in road design (video)

Colesville Road and University Boulevard define our community.  Aside from being the origin of our name, they also take us to where we want to go.  These two roads connect us to the rest of the region, and they get us to the places we visit for work, entertainment, and retail.  Even a visit to a business not on your "corner" of the intersection requires a short trip on one of these roads.  They are an undeniable asset to our community.

Unfortunately, that broader regional connectivity comes at a price of local division.  Had Colesville Road and University Boulevard been built with only Four Corners residents in mind, the intersection would be a quaint four way stop between two country lanes.  But the roads aren't just for us, they are for people all across the area, and they have been widened over the years to accommodate those who pass through.

This is the price of living in such a convenient place.

These widened roads have been designed for speed and maximum capacity.  The movement of motor vehicles is paramount, and any other use of the road must take a distant backseat to this functionality.  Motorists receive subtle and not-so-subtle signals that their speed and convenience is of the utmost importance.  Curves are made as gentle as possible to allow for drivers to navigate them with speed.  Grades have been smoothed out for the same reason (the shopping center with Red Maple and Kenny's Chicken wasn't always below the road surface as it is now).  11 and 12 foot wide travel lanes allow people to feel comfortable travelling at speeds of 40 or 50 miles-per-hour past homes and businesses.  Traffic lights are also timed for maximum speed and through capacity, even though it may not seem like it sometimes.  All of these road design factors send a clear message to drivers that their quick movement and convenience are priority one.

A victim of design.  The storefronts of this shopping center used to be at the same level as Colesville Road, before the highway was raised to a more gradual slope to facilitate faster vehicle movement.  These shops have seen much higher business turnover than other commercial properties around the intersection since the change. 

 When a local resident on foot or on a bike gets in the way of a motorist on one of these arterial roads, drivers not only feel immediately inconvenienced, but also, in an odd way; offended.

The entire environment of the road sends drivers a message of speed, and then these slow moving objects get in the way, causing even the kindest of drivers to feel frustration and anger within a few seconds.

This brings me to the unsignalized crosswalk at Colesville Road and Indian Spring Drive.  This crosswalk is located a quarter mile south of the Beltway on a curve in the road.  Pedestrians must cross 84 feet of pavement carrying 6 lanes of through traffic travelling 40 miles-per-hour (more like 50) as well as two turn lanes.  There is a 4 foot concrete median between the two 40 foot wide expanses of pavement.  The crosswalk is marked with striped paint and yellow pedestrian signs.  When a pedestrian is waiting on the side of the road with clear intent to cross, drivers are required by law to stop and let them pass.  A pedestrian waiting to cross a street is basically the same as a red light or stop sign, the only minor difference being that hardly anybody stops for pedestrians, unless the pedestrian is literally blocking the motorists path, or if there's a cop nearby.

I decided to make use of this crosswalk last week, and I made a quick video of it.  The video depicts the average experience of a pedestrian crossing an arterial highway at an unsignalized crossing, with all the accompanying sights and sounds.  The video is very shaky, since I was more focused on not getting killed than I was making a good video (I was holding my phone low so I could have a clear view of the road and make eye contact with drivers), but the video still gets the point across.  Take a look...                        

The four cars in the right lane at the start of the clip do not stop, even as I step off the curb.  The red car at 0:05 passed me when both my feet where in the travel lane (the car passed within two feet of me with no noticeable brake application).  Once I'm in the right lane, the approaching mini-van in the center lane makes no attempt to stop, even though there is time and room to safely do so.  The driver of the Ford pickup truck in the right lane slows down since I'm blocking their path.  As the pickup truck slows, a motorcyclist speeds around it into the center lane where I am walking, passing a couple feet behind me.  After that, the crossing goes smoothly (shoutout to that Prius at 0:19 for stopping in the correct spot and waiting until I was on the sidewalk before proceeding, that driver deserves recognition for actually knowing the law).

I hope this short video highlights that roads are shared spaces, and that our major roads are poorly designed to suit the community's needs.  While each driver who did not stop for the crosswalk willingly broke the law, its hard to blame them because they are receiving mixed signals from poor road design.  Everything about the road is telling motorists to travel fast, yet they are expected to come to a complete stop for someone crossing a highway.  It's not a good situation for anyone involved, and the only solution is community oriented road design.

Roads like Colesville Road and University Boulevard only have a chance of being redesigned if a major project comes along (like BRT) that provides an opportunity to fix the mistakes of previous projects.  A major project could also provide improved sidewalks around Four Corners, and add bike facilities which are currently lacking.  This would provide comfortable and viable alternatives for shorter trips between neighborhoods which are now only comfortable by car due to hostile road conditions (just listen to how loud the traffic is in the video).

Colesville Road and University Boulevard should connect our community both regionally and locally.  When crossing the road is such an unpleasant experience, they fail at local connectivity.  A balance needs to be found that caters to both residents and those passing through.            


  1. I was thinking about this the other day when driving past the North Four Corners Park construction site on University Blvd. There's a crosswalk going across University at Brunett Ave that would be South Four Corner's most logical access point to the park. Seems like a pretty dangerous situation unless they also install a pedestrian activated traffic light - I believe there's one further west on University Blvd that seems to work pretty well.

    1. Hi Chris,

      I am familiar with that crosswalk, it is very similar to this one on Colesville Road.

      Pedestrian activated lights are a good solution for areas with high pedestrian traffic, such as the one on New Hampshire Avenue in Langley Park.

      The issue I have with them in areas like this is that they are very inefficient for drivers, and to a lesser extant, pedestrians. These lights stop vehicle traffic for 30-45 seconnds, even though the pedestrian is only in the vehicles travel lane for a few seconds as they cross the street. Often times, the pedestrian has finished crossing the street and is well on their way before the red light turns off allowing drivers to proceed. If drivers would simply stop for pedestrians at unsignalized crosswalks, it would be more efficient for everyone involved. Drivers would only need to stop for 5-10 seconds as the pedestrian crosses their lane, and as soon as the pedestrian is out of the way, they can drive on. Signalized crossings hold drivers up for as long as 30 seconds after the pedestrian has crossed, which just annoys drivers and causes them to dislike pedestrians even more.

      I am more in favor of better signage (such as pedestrian signs with red LED lights on the edges and small LED lights embedded in the road at each crosswalk) and better driver education with regards to pedestrians than I am in favor of adding pedestrian activated signals at every crosswalk like this, for the reasons stated above.

      I do like the pedestrian activated signal currently in place on University Blvd by The Oaks because many seniors cross there and they need more time when crossing the street.

  2. Great piece about this. You're right that car trips are incentivized by the road design and driver bad attitude.

    I walk lots of places too and also live by a marked crosswalk that people do not stop their cars for. It is also dangerous to cross.

    I think that pedestrian activated stoplights for these crosswalks are a great solution, as are the police enforcement stings they had last spring. They were heavily publicized and surely did a lot to raise driver awareness that they are legally supposed to stop.

  3. "convenient place to live" -not