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...