Monday, March 29, 2010

"What is Bobby Doing in the Street?"

This situation does as much to educate people as any well-planned event. In this case, the planning is poor, the message is bad, and the effectiveness is HIGH. If you want the answer to the question, "Why is Bobby walking in the street in Montgomery County?" Here is your answer. County and State reinforce the risky behaviors by failing to plan. Even the best intentions can't replace planning.

YOU figure it out

On Saturday afternoon Will and I went for lunch and haircuts. On the way back we walked down Fenton St. from Cameron to Sligo Ave. As I have shown before, MDSHA is replacing the curb cuts and signals at the intersection of Fenton and Colesville. While this is a good thing, how it is being done is questionable. To leave the site in this condition over a weekend means that hundreds – if not thousands – of people will put themselves in harm’s way trying to negotiate these obstructions. It is not a question of IF, it is a question of HOW MANY. I stood here for only a few moments and counted dozens. Demolition, excavation, and other activities that close the sidewalk need to be planned to avoid situations like this.

It is raining today, so these corners have now been closed for four days. How many people do you suppose have come this way during that time? Could MDSHA close the intersection to traffic for that long? Of course not. Well, in an urban setting pedestrians are just as important. Here it is plain to see MDSHA’s attitude towards pedestrians. This site basically says "YOU figure it out!" to pedestrians.

Also, the construction project between that intersection and the busy 8630 Fenton STILL forces pedestrians to walk in the street with traffic. People have been walking in the street here for months now. Do we need a series of accidents here to fix this? Is it too much to ask that we take precautions to avoid dangerous situations? We made it home alive, so I guess it’s good enough.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

One E Down

Yesterday Montgomery County held a Street Smart campaign event on Sligo Avenue, about a block from my home. The event consisted of some remarks from local officials (led by Ike Leggett) and a demonstration of how speed effects the distance needed to stop and the force to which a pedestrian would be subjected in a crash. A light truck traveled west on Sligo, slamming on the brakes at a pre-determined point to avoid “Bobby,” a pretend-pedestrian. The truck made three runs - each time upping the speed by a few MPG.

There were a lot of cameras and reporters, and the event was very photogenic. I checked local media that afternoon and evening, but I only caught one piece – on ABC7 - and the same piece on News8. Obama was signing the Health Insurance Bill during the event. I am interested to know how much time the event garnered on local stations. How do COG and local governments determine if Street Smart is actually working? They have been doing similar events for years now, and we still have just as many injuries and deaths as ever.

It is good to see the County taking pride in planning and installing good pedestrian infrastructure. I assume that Sligo was chosen for the event for a number of reasons – one of which must have been the beautiful new pedestrian refuge island at Sligo and Chicago.

Over the years I have heard the term, “The Three E’s” used to outline a comprehensive approach to pedestrian safety. These, of course, are Education, Engineering, and Enforcement. I am usually a big fan of things that come in 3s. There is balance in 3. Plus, 3 things are usually easy to remember. Unfortunately, if you remove one of three, things go wrong almost immediately. In this case, two legs of the pedestrian-safety tripod are a lot shorter than the one the stands for Education.

Education is the easiest thing to do. Education is photogenic and interactive. It plays well on camera and politicians feel at ease telling people what to do or how to act. Don’t misunderstand – I find great value in these Street Smart events. Some really valuable information gets out there in this way. I think politicians and other public officials should try to make people aware of dangerous situations. I thought the event yesterday was great.

But --- these events don’t make it easier for me to get from my home to Metro. They don’t fix the broken infrastructure that people with disabilities struggle with every day in Montgomery County. Running over dummies doesn’t clear the sidewalks of snow that lingers weeks after the roads are back to normal. I tried to talk with a reporter yesterday – about pedestrian infrastructure. I got the BIG BLOW-OFF. No, there would be no interfering with this highly-orchestrated event. Needless to say, Ike breezed by me on his way to the podium, and sneaked-out during the demonstration. Except for some curious passers-by and Karen Roper, the crowd was mostly public officials or press.

I had two other conversations of note yesterday. The first was with Peter Moe, who I have known since 2004. At that time he was with the National Center for Bicycling and walking in Bethesda. I was surprised to find that he now works for MDSHA – in the traffic safety office. I was also surprised to hear that he knew nothing of the poles on Sligoa Avenue, or the complaint I files with FHWA on March 1st, or anything about my situation. I explained it to him as best I could with all of the distractions going on around us. Basically, I explained what I have already recorded on this blog. I gave him my email address and the URL for this blog. Perhaps Peter is my “in” with MDSHA? Finally, I told him that I am very frustrated with MDSHA, and that I hoped he could do something to imrove the situation.

The second conversation was with Hohn Wetmore, who produce “Perils for Pedestrians.” He was there taking video of the event. He travels around the world taking video and interviewing people about walking and dangerous pedestrian infrastructure. He interviewed me back in 2001, during WSD.I also told John about the “Pole situation,” but again, there were distractions. He did talk briefly about similar utility poles/ROW issues in other places in the Country.

One “E” done well and fully. Now, how about the other two “Es?” And what about the “two Ps” and the “L” That would be POLICY, PROCEEDURE, and LEGISLATION. Good job. Now let’s keep on going!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Street Smart" Dummies

(photo from COG)

The last two weeks have been very busy on Sligo Avenue. MCDOT has ripped-up the sidewalk in front of my house and along this side of the street and installed a wider path. PEPCO contractors are moving the poles closer to the centerline, and it looks like this new configuration will be better. I am told that MCDOT and PEPCO are talking about the situation now, and I have hopes that policy is being formed and a systematic approach will be adopted.

I have heard nothing at all from MDSHA. I called their ADA Office on February 24th and left a fairly-lengthy message. I have sent notes (through Facebook) to several elected officials asking for help, to no avail. I wonder why I have not heard from them. Are they ignoring me? Do they even hear me at all? I f a persistent guy like me can’t get a response, what chance does the average pedestrian/transit user have? I have done everything I am supposed to do, and it just doesn’t work.

Next Tuesday – March 23 – The Washington Council of Governments is sponsoring a demonstration on Sligo Avenue. County Executive Leggett will be speaking, among others. Some kind of demonstration is planned. I don’t have the details. They are closing-off Sligo Avenue for a while to do something with cars and speed. I think perhaps dummies might be involved. No pun intended.

Here is the press release:

For Immediate Release
March 19, 2010 Contact: Emily Howard/Meghan Curtiss

Stopping Distances Increase Dramatically at Higher Speeds

WHAT : Demonstration showing how a pedestrian may be unharmed when a vehicle brakes at 25 mph, may sustain life-threatening injuries at 35 mph and may be killed at 40 mph.
• Law enforcement efforts to encourage safe walking, driving and cycling
• 2009 data on regional crashes and fatalities

WHY: Every eight minutes a pedestrian or cyclist is injured on our nation’s roadways.
• 101 pedestrian and cyclist-related fatalities occurred across the region in 2008
• Pedestrians and bicyclists account for one-fifth of fatalities in the Washington, D.C. region
WHO: Speakers
• C. E. Isiah Leggett, County Executive, Montgomery County
• J. Thomas Manger, Chief of Police, Montgomery County
• Kwame Brown, Chairman, Washington Council of Governments; Councilmember, DC Council
• Vernon Betkey, Chief, Maryland Highway Safety Office
• Gloria Jeff, Associate Director, District Department of Transportation
• Jeri Lee, Acting Chief of Police, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
• David Snyder, Council Member, City of Falls Church
• Jeff Dunckel, Pedestrian Safety Coordinator, Montgomery County

*SPANISH MEDIA NOTE: A Spanish-speaking officer will be available for interviews

WHEN: Tuesday, March 23, 2010, 12:00 pm

WHERE: Intersection of Sligo Ave. and Chicago Ave., Silver Spring, MD 20910
*Site Finder: One block west of Montgomery County Police Station.

**Parking: Street parking available on Sligo Ave. between Grove St. and Chesapeake Ave., within road closure. Officers will assist with entry.

I hope that I get a chance to speak with Ike. I want to tell him that – while current efforts are admirable – a new approach is needed. Pedestrian routes need to be identified and redesigned. Urban cores like Silver Spring need to rely on and plan for excellent pedestrian infrastructure. Pedestrianism needs to be embraced as a transportation solution. Narrow and obstructed sidewalks from the car-centric 50’s need to be modernized for 21st Century reality. Take cars off of the roads the old-fashioned way ; by putting people on the sidewalks. Basically, do what you did before, but in reverse.

Finally, I want to tell him that Sligo Avenue is a logical pedestrian route to the future trailhead of the Metropolitan Branch Trail (Phase One). I want to encourage MCDOT to think about routes, and not just segments. Approach sidewalks as part of the transportation system, not simply an amenity. No where is better suited to this approach than Montgomery County. Pedestrian access (which includes safety) should be a priority, and the County's approach should be proactive.

I am trying to practice patience. It isn’t easy.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Walk the Walk

Even though I started this blog only a few month ago, I have been at this for a while. Here are a few old photos from some of my efforts to promote walking as a transportation choice.

Barbara McCann talks about Complete streets during a workshop I organized in Silver Spring in 2007

Receiving recognition for organizing the 2004 National Congress of Pedestrian Advocates in Silver Spring.

Promoting Walking on the steps of the State House in 2003

Testifying for the Walking Bill in 2008

This article about my website - Montgomery Sideways - appeared in the Montgomery County Gazette in 2008.

I organized the first Walk to School Day in Montgomery County in 1999. I organized the event for three years and helped to spread the event across the County.While my kids were at East Silver Spring Elementary Schoo most of the approaches to the school got new sidewalks. This is the lobby of ESS, where the kids from several classrooms decorated for WSD in 2001.

Walking alongside Will down Sligo Avenue on WSD, 2001

Annapolis - outside the Hearing Room during the Maryland Bike/Ped Symposium. February,2002. I led this group of students, Teachers, and parents to the State Capitol to promote walkable neighborhoods.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Just Wait

Yesterday I sent the letter copied below to The Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights. I am not proud of this, but I think it needed to be done. Perhaps the term “Right-of-way” is so simple that people have forgotten the meaning. I moved to this place because I am blind and can’t drive – and yet, even here it is difficult for a disabled person to get around. “Right –of-way” refers to vehicles, not people.

If MCDOT and MDSHA can’t be depended on to make ROWs accessible for all, where can a guy like me turn? I am not a member of any group. I don’t have a lawyer – or money for one. My agenda is plain to see. This is personal, although I am saying what many would say if they were asked. A long time ago I went to a retail training seminar where they taught the 1-99 ratio for complaints. For every person who complains, there are 99 people who are just as dissatisfied but don’t complain. Because sidewalks and pedestrian access can be so mundane, I bet the ration for complaints is more like 1-999. Relying on complaints before planning infrastructure improvements is ludicrous. This approach relies heavily on people who are already dealing with disabilities, hard times, or busy lives. Does it really take a blind man to see what MCDOT and MDSHA can’t see? Or, are they just determined not to recognize the problem?

How many people walk and take transit in Silver Spring? A lot. How many of them do so voluntarily? Some, to be sure, but you might be surprised at the number of people who do it because they have no choice. Some are too poor. Others are disabled, or elderly. Children make up a large portion of the pedestrian population too. For many people sidewalks are the only access to the world. That shouldn’t be so difficult to understand - or so easy to forget. To paraphrase Cesar Chavez; It’s not about the sidewalks and curb cuts. It’s about the people.

I made my first “Sidewalk Call” to the County back in 1996. Fourteen years later, and I am still being told WAIT. WAIT another 30 years for the next time we change the utility poles. WAIT for MDSHA to actually get involved in the process of building pedestrian-accessible ROWs – and not simply respond to complaints. WAIT for laws and enforcement that prohibit actions that create dangerous situations for pedestrians. WAIT for change. WAIT until the next Pedestrian Safety Meeting. Wait, Wait, WAIT.

WAIT to be treated as if you have as much right to access on your own street as anyone who drives down it.

I have been called a curmudgeon by people at MCDOT - which I think highlights the situation perfectly. One definition of curmudgeon is: a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person. I never thought of myself as any of these things – at least, not perpetually. The truth is I was called this because that is how I am forced to deal with MCDOT and MDSHA. They will only act on complaints, but they can’t stand getting complaints. They call the people who use the infrastructure names when they report on the situation too often or too forcefully. I heard in a meeting once that MCDOT gets too many complaints to seriously address them all. It is no wonder that pedestrians with problems get frustrated and upset with the current approach. It is really no approach at all.
I am including the text of my brief complaint without the photos – which you have already seen.

March 1, 2010

Throughout Montgomery County, MD there are utility poles in the middle of sidewalks that make access for people with disabilities difficult or impossible. These poles are ubiquitous, and create obstructions for people with disabilities, like myself all over Montgomery County and the State of Maryland.

I I have complained about these poles to The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT), and the Maryland State Highway Administration (MDSHA) many times over the last ten years. Always, I was told that moving these poles was too expensive, and therefore not an option. Always, I would reply – “Well, when they DO replace them, they need to be done properly to create access.”

On December 1, 2009, I came home to find that many of the utility poles on my street had white “Xs” painted on them. I called my Councilmember’s office and MCDOT, but no one could tell me what the markings meant.

The following day, I came home to find a man with a concrete saw eyeing the pole in front of my house. We talked for some time, and he told me that he worked for a contractor who was replacing all of the poles. He also made it clear that he was the person who was placing the new poles, and that he had no idea what ADA is. He said that the contractor was also replacing poles on Piney Branch Rd., Dale Dr., and other streets in the neighborhood – dozens of poles on both MCDOT and MDSHA ROW.

I made frantic calls to MCDOT, and after threatening to get in the hole to stop them, PEPCO agreed to stop the project on my street. While they negotiated with MCDOT on how to fix my street,they continued on other streets. The replacement pole was placed in front of my house. The contractor said he already had the money in the hole. The replacement pole is larger, and obviously makes the passage too narrow for a person in a wheelchair, with a guide animal, or with a stroller.

While MCDOT is taking steps to fix the situation in front of my home, nothing is changing about how dozens of other poles throughout the neighborhood, county, and state are being replaced. I am happy that they are fixing the situation, but when I get to the end of the street there is another utility pole waiting for me, and another, and then another. MCDOT and MDSHA must approach this situation systematically – not in a patchwork fusion based on complaints from disabled people.

MCDOT said they were talking with MDSHA about this, but it has been 3 months and I have heard nothing. These poles are a serious impediment for people with disabilities. They come-up everywhere you go. They create narrow passages and other problems – sometimes depending on weather and time-of-day or night. MCDOT and MDSHA do not have plans to deal with these obstacles when the opportunity arises. By not having a plan, they are allowing crucial infrastructure to be installed incorrectly, which in turn pushes accessibility 30-years down the road for thousands of local residents like me and my family. In an urban, transit-oriented community like ours, that is just not acceptable. MCDOT and MDSHA must plan to remove barriers whenever they replace infrastructure, no matter how insignificant the single instance may be. A roadblock is a roadblock, no matter what form it takes.

These government agencies are discriminating against people who use sidewalks. People who use the ROW with a personal vehicle are treated in one manner, while those who walk and use transit are treated as inferiors. MCDOT and MDSHA spend a lot of money to maintain the roadway and almost nothing on the maintenance of sidewalks by comparison. Pedestrians in Maryland and Montgomery County are treated as second-class citizens.

In my opinion, both MCDOT and MDSHA are blatantly violating Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. I have notified them of this, and I believe that they do not intend to fully-address my complaint. I ask the Federal Highway Administration to investigate my claim and compel MCDOT and MDSHA to resolve this issue. MCDOT and MDSHA must understand the importance of planning to remove ROW obstacles for those who cannot drive. MCDOT and MDSHA must develop a self-evaluation and transition plan for the replacement of utility poles in the ROW. MCDOT and MDSHA must budget adequate funds to achieve this function. MCDOT and MDSHA must provide safe and convenient access to all users of the ROW regardless of their ability. Now, not 30 years from now. AS a blind person, I can’t wait that long.

In an effort to be brief I have not included all of the information I have pertaining to this matter. I have been keeping a blog about pedestrian access issues since October, 2009, and this topic is covered there more fully. I will provide additional information at your request.

William Smith