Thursday, December 30, 2010

Close Enough for Government Work

For more than two years now, construction sites on East-West Highway at the intersection with Blair Mill Road have completely blocked the sidewalk, forceing pedestrians to find other ways to get to their destinations. People with disabilities find a particular hardship in passing through this area - for a number of reasons.

For two years this has been a confusing and dangerous area for pedestrians. The current situation is still just as confusing and treacherous as ever.

These photos show the condition of the crosswalk across E-W Hghway, on the north side of the intersection.

The crosswalk is not alinged with the curb ramp. Pedestrians exit the crosswalk into mud. Wheelchairs or other wheeled devices cannot roll off the crosswalk at the current location.The curb cut is several yards to the north. The car to the left in the photo below is located at the current curb cut.

The landing on the west side is narrow, broken, uneven, and studded with trip hazards.

This stretch of sidewalk has been out of commission for more than two years.I have personally made many complaints about this, but no one seemed to know how to remedy the situation. DPS, SHA, and DOT have listened, promised to take action, and then let things remain pretty-much the same. I guess someone will need to be killed or injured before urgent action is taken to resolve these dangerous situations...

SHA or DPS would never allow a project owner to block E-W Highway for two or more years, but they have no problem with closing this section of ROW to people who don't drive. As I have said before, pedestrian collisions are not usually due to a single factor, but rather a combination of them. This location already comes equipped with many hazards introduced by neglect, poor enforcement of County code, and poor implementation practices by SHA and their contractors. The likelihood that a pedestrian or driver will make a mistake that will be compounded by these conditions is too high to be acceptable.

Here is a "Pedestrian-eye view" of the walk along East-West Highway - travelling south, approaching the interaction with Blair Mill Rd. What you have to do if you are a pedestrian trying to get to the crosswalk.

Here is an overall view of the location. I recommend pausing the video when you want to study a particular bit in detail.

And here is video I took two years ago:

View Montgomery Sideways in a larger map

Dry Socket

Two days ago crews removed a few of the long-troublesome utility poles on my street. Unfortunately, what was left behind were several large dirt holes - some of them several inches deep. These holes are difficult enough to maneuver during daylight hours, but they are nearly-invisible at night.

Do we care about pedestrians? Well, some people do. Obviously not the crew that worked removing these poles.. Imagine the uproar if a crew left comparable holes in the road service after a days work...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ice Ice Baby

I have heard a lot over the years about the slippery brick paving of the sidewalks along Fenton Street. Personally, I have never experienced slipping on these walkways - although I do have LOTS of other problems with them.

People tell me that they are treacherous during rain or ice, and I believe them.

The other day my wife and I went to the Safeway to stock-up for the impending inclement weather. The snow was just beginning to fall steadily, and on the way back I noticed that the ice was sticking to the brick, but not yet showing on the concrete. The bricks were, in fact, slippery. The concrete was fine. I took a few photos to show.

These bricks are treacherous. They are uneven in places - and these places seem to have no reason other than aesthetics. I imagine they have some curb appeal, but they are trouble for pedestrians - especially those with disabilities. Especially during inclement weather - when people should be expected to walk. While the streets are treated to melt the ice, the brick sidewalks may go for days without attention - if they ever get any at all.

Poles on the Ground

Yesterday afternoon I returned home to find a crew removing the old utility pole from in front of my house and others along Sligo Avenue. My son had his wisdom teeth out yesterday, too. I found the similarities amusing...

Having your wisdom teeth removed is a right of passage for many teenagers. It signals a time of change - reaching maturity. It is painful, but the pain is soon gone, and the lifelong benefits begin.

Let's just hope the extraction locations heal soon.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

New Plans for Sligo

Here are plans for sidewalk improvements on Sligo Avenue, east of Chicago Avenue.

It ain't over 'til it's over...

Our region got about two inches of snow on Thursday. This is considered a small amount, and the roads were clear by mid-morning on Friday. The sidewalks, however, remained ice-covered and slippery through Saturday. People and businesses did not shovel their walks, and the cold temperatures re-froze the slushy sidewalks.. Combined with bad practices like parking over sidewalks and across driveways, the little bit of snow can prove to be dangerous - even when drivers think the ice event is over.

Monday, December 13, 2010

White Cane

Just before Thanksgiving my daughter decided that she wanted to take another try at getting her permit to learn how to drive. We had been to the Motor Vehicle Administration branch on Industrial Parkway three times over the last four months, and each time we failed in this pursuit. Twice, we couldn’t meet the incredibly high identification standards, and she failed the test on our last visit.

This time we felt really good about her chances. She studied, and we walked straight in and she passed the test in about five minutes. She bounced out of the testing room and happily reported that she had passed. “I only missed one,” she proudly added. All we had to do then was survive the hour-long wait for her card.

As we sat on the perforated and contoured steel bench among the rows of other beleaguered MVA customers, my daughter laughed and said, “ you’re not going to believe the question I missed.” After I replied that it must have had something to do with an obscure topic, she smiled and said, “ It was a question about recognizing a blind pedestrian.”
You must be kidding…

The multiple-choice question asked how a motorist is to recognize a blind pedestrian at a crosswalk. My daughter answered “You can’t tell.” Here was a girl who had walked next to a blind pedestrian for her entire life – and she gave the incorrect answer. Even though the Driver’s Handbook says otherwise, she understood that you really can’t tell if the person at the corner can see you – cane, or no cane.

Chalk it up to inexperience. She could not possibly understand the way a driver thinks. Even though she has traveled many miles in a car, she is still primarily a pedestrian and transit user. Her sense of scale is different than most people. She is just beginning to learn and appreciate that speed de-humanizes people, so drivers need signs like white canes or dogs to identify hazards.

I have struggled with the idea of using a cane for some time now. It is a matter of vainity. I have a psychological barrier to admitting my disability – especially to strangers. My personal safety up to this point has been built around my physical appearance. As a tall-ish, 200-pound guy, I look like I can handle things. At least, that is how I hope to look. Somehow, toting a white cane blows a hole right through that projection. It’s like saying, “OK, so, I need a little help here…”

At least I know now that my daughter still buys the image, anyway.

So, I need to find a way to take up a white cane – not because I need one to find walls and curbs and the like, but to identify myself to drivers as a blind person. Like an "I'm Blind" sign. If I don’t choose the white cane I am putting myself at risk because drivers won’t recognize me as disabled and may not take care when driving around me. When my daughter leaves home to go to college in a couple of years I won’t have anyone to walk with me. No one to say “go” when the light turns white. My coping strategy is going to change by necessity. It’s almost time to ‘fess-up.

I hope by the time I am out there alone that government has discovered the importance of the pedestrian transportation system. I hope that innovative pedestrian solutions are sought as a matter of course, not of complaint. Most of all, I hope that I can remain active in my hometown after my kids are on their own. I hope that I won't succumb to the urge to stay in all the time to avoid the dangers and humiliation. Instead, I hope to grown enough to deal with my situation with confidence and grace.

After sitting for more than hour waiting to pay, we finally got my daughter’s learner’s permit. As in other areas of her life, she will have to depend on driving friends to get her learning hours. One day she will feel the freedom and responsibility that car ownership provides. It comes with an exhilarating feeling of pride that you have finally made it to the American dream. She will discover the wonder s and trials of driving. She will eventually forget what it was like before having a driver’s license, but I will always remember with particular pride that she got that question wrong on her test, and that it was the only one she missed.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Walking for Change

Last September I was invited to attend Montgomery County's main media event for Walk to School Day at East Silver Spring Elementary School – the place where I organized the first such event in the county in 1999. On October 6, I was flanked by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown as County Executive Ike Leggett recognized my years of work to promote walking and walkable communities. It had been years since I had been involved with Walk to School Day, and the trip from the 3rd District Police station to the school was a stroll down memory lane for me.

Since those early years, Walk to School Day has become a popular event at many county schools and an essential element of Montgomery County’s pedestrian-safety education campaign. It is difficult to say whether or not 11 years of observing this special day has done anything to improve the pedestrian situation in our communities, yet I thought participating in Walk to School Day again after all these years might provide me with some useful perspective.

Walk to School Day was part of an effort to make the areas around the school more walkable. The routes leading to the school should be the best in the neighborhood -- not the worst. At the time, the Montgomery County government was just waking up to the problem.More than 100 pedestrians have died on county roads since then, and thousands more have been seriously injured. These numbers have improved only slightly over the years, but things are generally much better around schools than they were 11 years ago.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Lt. Governor Anthony Brown

My kids are upperclassmen at Blair High School now, so it has been a long time since I walked to ESS with little kids. In 1997, my son, Will, entered kindergarten, and I walked him and his younger sister, Rachel, every school day. We moved here because the school was centrally located in the neighborhood, and I knew we could walk there. While most parents jump in their cars and race to the school when there is trouble, I had to run.

Even though the school was geographically close to homes, no route there was very walkable. Traffic speeds were high, especially during the periods when kids were walking to school. The sidewalks were narrow and obstructed by utility poles and fire hydrants. It seemed that the closer we got to the school, the worse the infrastructure became.

It was obvious that no one had given much thought to walking in the neighborhood for a long time. Fewer than 15 percent of the students made their way to school on foot in the mornings. The rest arrived by bus or were driven by their parents. A parade of minivans and SUVs lined in the school’s driveway each morning and afternoon. Bad sidewalks and inattentive motorists made parents feel that driving was the only safe way to get their kids to ESS. Because this was not an option for me, I decided to try and do something about the sidewalks instead.
My campaign began with calls to my councilmember, which soon led to new concrete sidewalks in a few locations around the school. The first Walk to School Day was a celebration of the new walkways and continued pressure to do more. It turned out that Walk to School Day was not only a community day but a chance for politicians to place themselves in photogenic situations with kids and safety mascots like McGruff the Crime Dog and the Crash Test Dummies. Hundreds of participants came out, including County Executive Doug Duncan and U.S. Rep. Al Wynn, among others. Over the next three years, federal officials, such as the surgeon general, the U.S. secretary of transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration heads made the pilgrimage to ESS to participate in Walk to School Day celebrations.

Car-centric Silver Spring residents usually don’t have much space in their busy brains for such a mundane topic. For most, bad sidewalks are overcome by driving. Walk to School Day was supposed to change that kind of thinking -- if only for the few minutes it took to walk to the school.

As a gateway to community change, Walk to School Day only partially delivered. The Montgomery County government embraced the event so tightly that it risked squeezing the life out of it altogether. Sometimes the media coverage took over, and the photo opportunities became more important than the message itself. However, this cynical interpretation always disintegrated when smiling and singing kids paraded their safety banners down the street with public officials and showed them what ordinary people are facing every day.

Even though the community was back to dodging cars and hopping over holes in the sidewalks the next day, Walk to School Day is at its core a hopeful event. It works on many levels, and the effects of such a program are not always evident at first.

Sure, public officials make use of the event to inflate their scant efforts, but there is also a subtle effect on public perception. The entire community rallied around this cause, and kids led the way. Perhaps this little shift in attitude will one day make a difference, and walking to school won’t remain something that is done only once a year.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fenton Street Follies

Last week I went to see my dentist at 8630 Fenton - a busy office building full of medical services. I was happy to see that the sidewalk project that had blocked the sidewalk for a few weeks was complete. Then I noticed that the sidewalks had been treated in much the same way as the rest of Fenton Street, headed south to Sligo Avenue. Disappointing, to say the least.

The rest of Fenton had been rennovated in the early 2000's, and the treatment was part pedestrian improvement, and part ridiculous folly. The good achieved by improved intersections were un-done by paver-covered tree boxes. From the treacherous slippery bricks to the ankle-busting trippy-tree boxes, the dream - or should I say, nightmare? - has been completed. No lessons learned, no improved methods - just the same old thoughtless design. Once again, aesthetics triumphs over practicality.

These sidewalks treatments are so obviously intended to look good from a vehicle. I don't know the person who designed Fenton Street, but I am sure that he doesn't understand what pedestrians need - or the importance of pedestrians in this area. The brick walls are unnecessary and make the path narrow/ Street lamps are places directly in the center of key points. Tree boxes seem designed to injure. What ever happened to learning from best practices? Maybe the designer of Fenton Street needs some advice on how to build a pedestrian-friendly sidewalk in an urban business district.

Sure, despite the unfinished dirt holes, the new sidewalk in front of 8630 Fenton Street looks OK, but in a few months they will look like the rest of the street - broken, uneven, and dangerous. Fit for a pedestrian.

A few tree boxes along Fenton Street are covered with iron grates like the one shown in this photo. This eliminates the hazards. Why not do all of them this way???

Not-so-Happy Anniversary

I took this photo this morning at about the same time I took the photo below - one year ago. These are the poles in front of my home, and there are several just like these up and down my street.

I took this photo this morning. The missing panel means a three-inch drop into a mud puddle. It has been one year, and our neighborhood of pedestrians and transit users continues to suffer from a lack of action. No wheelchair users permitted on this side of Sligo Avenue. A person with a vision impairment could easily trip here.

There might as well be a bear-trap in the bottom and a large safe dangling from a rope over the hole...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Am Not My Car

(My car, freshman year in college)

Yes, I was in love with cars once. We had seven good years together, but it couldn’t last.
At the age of fourteen, I began to lose my eyesight to macular degeneration and it has declined ever since. It was hardly noticeable when I first got my driver’s license at sixteen. I was set to be a driver like my father before me.
Now my vision is worse than 20/400 in both eyes. It’s probably more like 20/600. Legally blind is defined as 20/200.
I am legally blind, but I can still see quite a lot. In fact, I see more than I can’t, only my central vision is gone. It is what is commonly known as “a blind spot.”
Take an old pair of sunglasses and tape a dime to the middle of each lens. Put them on and try walking around. I see more than that, but you will get the idea.
The problem is what I can't see - and that what I can’t see is critical to things like reading, identifying someone at a distance, or driving.
I have great peripheral vision, but when I look at something directly my eyes fail me completely. Not only that, they play tricks on me. In place of normal vision, my blind spots crackle with chaotic activity.
It’s a 24-hour Pink Floyd planetarium laser show right in front of me. It’s similar to the lightshow that you might experience at the beginning of a migraine headache, only very concentrated in the center. Vibrating, pulsing, purple, yellow, and blue lights swirl around each other like hundreds of fluorescent atoms..
No matter where I cast my eyes, it’s there. It never stops. It interferes with my intentions like a chaperone on prom night. I can’t fix it. I can’t get around it. A crucial part of me is gone forever.
So, I am a pedestrian. I didn’t choose this lifestyle, but I am beginning to think that it agrees with me after all. My love for the automobile has been fully severed. But I have seen and learned a great deal as a pedestrian.
Geography is important to pedestrians and they tend to gather in places where owning a car is not necessary. We like our neighborhoods compact, self-sufficient and connected to transit. Proximity is everything. We like living where the occasional emergency cab ride doesn’t cost a small fortune.
That I ended-up in Silver Spring is no accident. When my wife Kathleen and I started looking for somewhere to raise a family, this place met a lot of the criteria – good schools, representation in Congress, close to Metro, and cheap.
Silver Spring was the logical choice for a blind guy to find some independence. Here the population is actually more pedestrian than the national average. Surely, local government recognized this and took steps to accommodate pedestrians.
One might expect Silver Spring to have some of the best pedestrian infrastructure anywhere – but they would be dead wrong. I don’t have difficulty getting around because I am disabled – it is the terrible pedestrian infrastructure and non- enforcement of laws to protect us that get in my way.
Even though Silver Spring should be the perfect place for pedestrians, the infrastructure is lousy and the State and County approach to pedestrians is even worse.
My discontent started with a stroller back in 1995. I remember trying to get to the library from my apartment by walking up Colesville Road, AKA Route 29. By either name, this is a very busy thoroughfare.
A portable chain-link fence had been set-up around a construction site meaning that I had to push the stroller in the road for about fifty-feet to get by. I watched in horror as dozens of people walked on the road with traffic racing by only inches away. This was in my nascent pedestrian days; I would never do something like that now.
When I tried to call the local Silver Spring government and let someone know what was happening I got a sarcastic and indifferent response. As if to say, “You’re kidding, right?”
I have been pursuing satisfaction on this issue ever since. Once again, my fate is decided by my blindness and my battles have included fighting for decent sidewalks in particular and a new approach to pedestrianism in general. But what is wrong with the current approach? I’ll tell you; the current approach is car-centric, and built for drivers by drivers.
Racing around in a car all the time does something to the human brain. I am convinced that speed has a hypnotic effect, and turns people into insensitive, rude, gluttonous, frantic maniacs. We spill oil all over ourselves to keep this frenzied motorized orgy going full speed. Our children are obese and stare into screens all day playing Grand Theft Auto. Our roads are getting wider and we don’t feel safe sending our kids outside to play. More and more the world is built for vehicles, not people. SHA and DOT count cars, but they are still having trouble seeing pedestrians. Our culture has embraced the idea that we are our cars, and no one without a car deserves much consideration.
I too was in love with cars once, but those days are over. My hands often smelled like gasoline. I paid several thousand dollars each year to maintain one. I got tickets and had accidents, and a large part of my life revolved around my car.Now I am free. I guess I needed to lose my sight to see that I am not my car.

Now, if I can just get others to see that, too. Especially those responsible for education, engineering,and enforcement on our rights-of-way. If this is you, perhaps you should try living without a car for a while.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Lure of a Promise

My wife and I moved to Blair Plaza Apartments from our Dupont Circle English basement in 1994. Our daughter Rachel was just 20 days old, and our son Will was 10 months old.
We loved living in D.C., but we couldn’t afford the room we needed for two kids. We took a two-bedroom, eighth-floor apartment that looked out over Blair Mill Road and the D.C. line. In winter, we could see the National Cathedral in the distance. In spring, when the windows were open we could hear Metro trains as they clattered by.
Our apartment was in a building right next to the Giant. There were playgrounds nearby, and the public library was just up the road. We thought we had found a great place to raise a family without a car.
My wife and I both worked in Downtown DC and took Metro. Two incomes, two bedrooms, a graceful Ethiopian nanny, living in proximity to all our needs. It seemed dreams were becoming realty.
Not for long.
My eyesight was worsening and I was struggling to figure out how to use visual aids at work. My boss was a jerk and made things even more difficult. Within a year the economy hiccupped and I was promptly laid off.
In turn, we laid-off our nanny and I stayed home with the kids while I looked for work. Things on the job front were bleak. Unemployment insurance paid half of what I was making; we were treading water financially and I had 26 weeks to find a source of income.
I am a Southerner — raised to be self-reliant and invulnerable. I had determined a few years before that I was going to make it on my own for as long as I could. Even though I had received some help from the state of North Carolina to pay for college, I was hesitant to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance.
Then I discovered that I could not apply for help from the Maryland Vocational Rehabilitation Services unless I qualified for SSDI first. It takes six months to qualify for SSDI, so I applied immediately. SSDI paid about half of what I was making, too, so I decided to try and stay home with the kids full time.
I had to get used to the idea of going with the infamous “Plan B.”
If I could manage the bureaucratic nightmare, maybe Vocational Rehab would find me a job later. Then we could get back on track. In the meantime, I busied myself with bottles and diapers.
It took a while to become somewhat comfortable with the moniker “Stay-at-Home Dad,” but I tried to make it work. All it takes is some humility, right?
I knew all along that dealing with macular degeneration and raising two young kids would be tough. Just imagine wrangling toddlers while wearing sunglasses with dimes taped to the center of the lens. Over time I was surprised to find that it also had positive effects on my life. My disability has caused me to make a lot of choices I never would have made otherwise. Some of these choices were good ones.
Moving to the D.C. area is an example, but it goes much deeper back in time.
My blindness took me away from my car in South Carolina and landed me on a sofa in Maryland next to the woman I would eventually fall in love with and marry. Call it fate, but for that reason alone, maybe this blind thing isn’t all bad.
Unfortunately, it took a while to figure that out.
I spent way too much time feeling sorry for myself. Depression is one of the major symptoms of this disease. The frustration of feeling unable to fulfill the destiny that exists in your own mind can be devastating. The feelings of inadequacy that come from not being able to live up to the expectations set by the culture in which I was raised was stifling some days.

I felt dread at going out in public, because someone might see me doing something “blind.” I was afraid to stick my face into an ATM screen or offer an over-enthusiastic greeting to someone I didn’t recognize as a complete stranger.
Asking a stranger for help was humiliating for someone like me. People were supposed to ask me for help. Asking for help is a sign of weakness, and I would not be pitied by anyone. Silver Spring seemed like the kind of place where I could live without having to ask for help all the time.
There is a promise in places like Silver Spring that all kinds of people will have equal access to the many wonderful amenities here. If you believe the press releases, Montgomery County is building a New Urban Paradise in Silver Spring.
In a lot of ways this is true — but not for everyone. Walk a few blocks on these sidewalks, and you will see reality looks much different. From this side of the street, it’s clear this promise is not being kept.
In 1997, we settled into our present house. The kids are almost grown, and we have built a comfortable life for ourselves.

Sometimes I wonder how we got this far.
Then I remember that it was caring, love and patience that made all the difference. Love and caring I have down; it’s my lack of patience that still trips me up.
Being a parent and blind has made me a bit more patient than I used to be. I have learned to step over or around most of the obstacles in my life so far. Thousands of other pedestrians are doing the same every day. We love living in Silver Spring, but the promise of equal access as a pedestrian that brought us here remains unfulfilled.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010