Thursday, August 25, 2016

Is it the distance, or the road?

Yesterday, a story aired on WJLA about children who have to walk up to 1.5 miles to Eastern Middle School in often dangerous conditions.  The story focused largely on the distance children have to walk, since any student within 1.5 miles of the school is not eligible for busing per county policy (parents have requested busing to give their kids a safer trip to school).  However, I think this situation is also an opportunity to examine how the design of one road, University Boulevard, makes this walk both uncomfortable and dangerous.

Narrow sidewalks at the curb are standard on most of the county's six lane roads.  They're also known to be the most dangerous pedestrian facility imaginable.  Photo by the author.

Eastern Middle School draws a large portion of its students from the neighborhoods south of the school along the University Boulevard East corridor, from Franklin Knolls down to New Hampshire Estates.  From any one of these neighborhoods, walking along University Blvd is the most direct route to reach the school, since adjacent neighborhood streets are disconnected or very indirect.

A hypothetical student walking from the Clifton Park Village neighborhood saves .75 miles of distance by using University Boulevard instead of taking the calmer neighborhood streets.  Saving that amount of time and distance motivates many Eastern students to walk on University Blvd, even if it is unsafe.  Take a look at the map below for a visual.

Now, the news piece focuses mostly on the distance the students must walk rather than the type of road on which they have to walk.  However, not all roads are the same, and therefore, not all walks are the same.

Take a look at the two videos below.  One depicts a walk along a residential street in my neighborhood, where it's quiet and there are few cars.  I don't think many people would take issue with students walking up to 1.5 miles in these relatively pleasant conditions.  

The next video depicts a walk along University Boulevard East south of Eastern.  It's loud, windy, and the vehicles travelling 40+ miles per hour are just a fall away.  There is a clear difference between a pleasant stroll along a residential street, and a walk along a six lane arterial road with a 40 MPH speed limit.

The location of this sidewalk is not a place that anyone would willingly occupy, since it's such an inhospitable environment.  Let's start with the noise,  Anyone who has walked along a road like this with a friend knows that the conversation has to pause whenever a wave a traffic passes.  It's like trying to talk at an NFL game after the hometeam just scored a touchdown: one can barely hear the person next to them.  Then there's the wind.  On a hot day, the nearly constant breeze is almost refreshing,  On a cold day, the wind is bone-chilling, even with a coat on.  Also, if it's raining, prepared to get splashed repeatedly by passing vehicles.        

No one would willingly stand this close to fast-moving vehicles, yet the people who built this road put the sidewalk here.  Photo by the author.

The proximity of the sidewalk to the road isn't just a discomfort, it's a real danger.  Cars occasionally crash and go off the road, and this stretch of University Boulevard East is no stranger to violent collisions.  In fact, one part of University Blvd along the route to Eastern Middle School sees so many crashes, the State Highway Administration (SHA) installed a guardrail to protect drivers from crashing into houses and hurting themselves.  

The SHA installed this guardrail on University Blvd at Patton Drive to protect these homes from crashing cars, and to protect those errant drivers from a more serious impact with a brick wall.  Photo by the author.

It's clear that the SHA recognized that this location is dangerous, since they don't install guardrails on arterial roads like this without good reason.  Such accommodations are normally reserved for limited-access highways, but I guess they figured that traffic on University travels close enough to freeway speeds to warrant a guardrail.  If there was any doubt that cars sometimes jump the curb here and crash, here's a closer look at the guardrail:

Someone definitely crashed into this thing.  Photo by the author.

There is evidence that someone crashed into this guardrail sometime recently, and the guardrail did its job by diverting the motorist away from the wall and saving the home.  However, there's someone this guardrail didn't protect: anyone standing on that sidewalk between it and the road.  If someone was standing on the sidewalk when a car/truck hit that guardrail, they're probably in a wheelchair now... or dead.  Thankfully, I don't think a pedestrian happened to be there when that crash happened, but someone easily could have been, since the sidewalk is where it is. 

Why didn't the SHA put the guardrail between the sidewalk and the road, so that pedestrians could be protected from crashing cars just like the adjacent brick wall?   I don't have an answer to that,  The best guess is that those who ordered the installation of the guardrail didn't even consider pedestrian safety when doing so.  Or, maybe the masonry was deemed more worthy of protection than a human life.  

If there's one thing that sums up how the SHA views pedestrian safety, it's a sidewalk in the killzone between a high-speed road and a mangled guardrail.    

Another curve, this one at University Blvd and East Melbourne Avenue, where a car has probably crashed onto the sidewalk before.  Photo by the author.

So, is it alright for students to walk up to 1.5 miles to middle school?  That's debatable.  Is it alight for students (or anyone) to walk any distance on dangerous sidewalks, which were designed with a clear disregard for the safety and comfort pedestrians?  That's the main question we should be asking here.  

No wonder these parents want their kids bused to school.  


  1. Excellent post. You might also have pointed out that the intersection of University and Franklin is a god awful intersection, with poor sight lines up and down University. School mornings traffic around EMS is a mess, with kids, buses, and cars going every which way turning left and right, coming off side streets, pulling out of school parking lots--it's so bad that I learned long ago to avoid it. Unfortunately, kids going to school can't.

    1. University & Franklin really is awful. Much of the issue is caused by the heavy left turn traffic from Franklin onto University westbound, which causes a ripple effect of confusion for cars going different directions during Franklin's green phase. It also leads to a situation where most drivers are too worried about looking for other cars than looking for pedestrians, so there are many close-calls.

  2. Montgomery County should just let kids use their bus pass in the mornings - Problem solved.

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  6. Yesterday, a story aired on WJLA about children who have to walk up to 1.5 miles to Eastern Middle School in often dangerous conditions.

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