Saturday, April 6, 2013


A 'Guest' blog by William Smith (April 2, 2013)

As a person with a serious vision impairment, I moved with my family to Silver Spring 19 years ago. We chose Silver Spring in part because of my disability. This community has many of the things we were looking for, all in walking distance. My wife and I raised two children in East Silver Spring with no car.

Now that my children are away at college, I find that I am more isolated than before. This is mostly due to my lack of trust in the pedestrian infrastructure and enforcement in my hometown. I’m never sure when I will come upon an obstacle that will force me (or encourage me) to do something unsafe like trying to get by an obstacle by stepping into the street.

For  the last 15 years I have done all I could do to raise awareness of the plight of Silver Spring pedestrians. At first, this was because of my children. Now it’s for me.

Like me, over 30% of our community does not drive. The young, the disabled, the elderly, people who can’t afford a car, or those who simply want to live a car-free life. In Silver Spring, there are as many as 30,000 people who don’t drive. Many are minorities, and many depend entirely upon pedestrian infrastructure and transit to go about their daily routine.

I have a vision impairment, but ironically, it has forced me to see things that most people would never see. Dealing with the world on foot changes your perspective.

Recently, over lunch with Reemberto Rodriguez, Director for the Silver Spring Regional Area, the conversation evolved to trying to identify the top five challenges to pedestrians in Silver Spring. These may not seem ‘earth-shattering’ to most people. But, if walking and transit are your primary modes of transportation, they are critically important. A narrow passage or slippery pavers may not bother most people, but to a pedestrian they can be real impediments.  While an individual obstacle may be easy to overcome, if it is repeated on every block it becomes a systemic problem that is much bigger to deal with. This list contains five easy to see and understand challenges that pedestrians face in Silver Spring and other parts of Montgomery County. Addressing these five challenges would do a lot to make Silver Spring accessible to everyone.

There are many other challenges to being a Silver Spring pedestrian. Please add your own as a ‘comment’ to this blog. This list is ‘only the beginning’.

Top 5 Challenges for Silver Spring pedestrians:
1. Snow-plowed roads mean snow-covered sidewalks.
2. Trash day obstacle courses.
3. A “Sidewalk Closed “ sign is not enough!
4. Poles and hydrants.
5. Think before you park.
1. Snow-plowed roads mean snow-covered sidewalks
Removing ice and snow from County roads is a priority for the Department of Transportation whenever there is a snowstorm. The County budgets as much as $8 million a year on recovery efforts after storms. It’s important to get roadways open so that emergency vehicles can make their way. In recent years, the Department of Transportation has received good marks for clearing roads quickly – even during storms with 20 or more inches of snow.

Part of the plan for removing snow quickly from County roads seems to be depositing the snow on adjacent sidewalks and across intersection ramps. While roads may be cleared of ice and snow within a matter of hours, snow plowed up onto the sidewalks can go untouched, and can remain blocking the sidewalks for weeks. Most Silver Springers are familiar with the act of walking in the street after a snowstorm. While the County did enact a law several years ago that requires property owners to clear sidewalks in front of their property within 24 hours after the storm, the problem of sidewalks blocked by plowed snow persists.

After it snows, can we simply commit to treating pedestrians and transit users as important in the recovery?

2. Trash day obstacle course
Trash day in Montgomery County follows the same course as in many other jurisdictions. Residents place their garbage and recycling containers on the curb, and early in the morning on a particular day solid waste management trucks come by and empty them. The containers are then haphazardly tossed back onto the sidewalk.

While many people take care to place their trash receptacles on the curb in a way that keeps the sidewalk open, solid waste management employees do not necessarily do the same. Sidewalks across Montgomery County are blocked one day a week with toppled trash cans and recycling bins – making them obstacle courses for everyone and almost impassable for people with wheelchairs, canes, guide dogs, or even strollers. Montgomery County’s trash and recycling collection system is probably in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I am proud to live in a community that takes solid waste management so seriously. It is about time to revisit County trash collection policies, with a view to ending the weekly denial of right-of-way access to certain people.

3. A “Sidewalk Closed” sign is not enough!
We live in a growing community, dotted by numerous construction sites. Very often, these construction sites are designed in a way that impedes access to the right-of-way for pedestrians. While it is understandable that some construction sites must obstruct sidewalks for some length of time, some are blocked for months, or even years.

There are regulations in place to ensure safe and continuous flow of pedestrian traffic. County and State laws require construction sites to consider using temporary pedestrian facilities that allow pedestrians to safely pass through the worksite.  Uniform enforcement of these requirements seems to be lacking.  In reality, many sites simply close the sidewalk for the duration, even if it means that thousands of pedestrians will come across the obstruction and simply walk in the street to get by. In effect, failure to enforce the law encourages (and I would say, even trains) pedestrians to walk in the street.

How can we ensure that regulations to ensure pedestrian flow and circulation during construction are adhered to?

4. Poles and hydrants
There are many actors in County right-of-way. Aside from County agencies, Pepco, Verizon, Comcast, and WSSC all maintain infrastructure in the right-of-way. Utility poles and fire hydrants have especially long service-lives. Many of the poles still standing in Montgomery County were installed in 1960 or earlier. Fire hydrants can be expected to serve even longer.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (and the Rehabilitation Act, passed in 1973 – 40 years ago) requires anyone doing work in the right-of-way to follow certain guidelines. Among these, is a requirement that these companies fix any ADA problems when they maintain their infrastructure. This means that W SSC should replace non-ADA-compliant hydrants when they replace old water mains. Pepco should replace utility poles so that they are no longer in the center of well-traveled sidewalks. The County, as manager of the public right of way, has the responsibility to ensure that these companies and their contractors follow federal, State, and County laws.

Ensuring that everyone who works in the right-of-way is doing the right thing is how we make Silver Spring accessible to everyone for the next thirty years. How do we get everyone to do the right thing?

5. Think before you park.
While there is some discussion about what constitutes illegal parking, for a pedestrian it means parking a vehicle in a place that causes pedestrians to walk in the street. Many drivers have no concept of what it means to rely entirely on sidewalks to get around. Consequently, they think nothing of leaving the back end of the car hanging-out into the street. Every time the behavior is tolerated, it makes it seem more okay to everyone else. We should expect more from drivers.  We cannot tolerate parking that endangers people’s lives.

Perception plays a key role in this problem being overlooked, or even tolerated. County Police should routinely train officers to recognize and act on pedestrian hazards. Occasional pedestrian enforcement should be routine. In my experience, the rules seem ambiguous to some officers. We should require more from drivers, and educate and inform the public – sometimes through enforcement.

Parking that endangers pedestrians is rude AND dangerous. Let’s clear-up the rules and make sure everyone follows them.

In closing, when you ignore a problem, you are in effect endorsing the behavior. In other words, failure to recognize a problem causes pedestrians to adjust their behavior accordingly. Thus, permitting bad behavior effectively trains pedestrians to walk in the street.

Silver Spring has many of the elements it takes to build a thriving pedestrian culture. Walking is good for business, health, and the urban environment. Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, pedestrians are an indicator species for a thriving community.

How can we embed in our bureaucratic culture – and culture in general – the sense that attention to pedestrian access is as critical as attention to vehicular flow and circulation? What does it take to make pedestrians as important as drivers?

A walkable community is one of the goals of smart growth, but it doesn’t happen all by itself. Leaders must embrace the idea that pedestrians are a central part of urban life and must be provided for in plans and budgets. If we really are trying to build a great example of new urbanism, it is essential that we start prioritizing pedestrians now… These ‘top five’ examples can provide a good place to start.


Robert said...

This is a very useful and informative post.

My comment concerns: "While roads may be cleared of ice and snow within a matter of hours, snow plowed up onto the sidewalks can go untouched, and can remain blocking the sidewalks for weeks. ... While the County did enact a law several years ago that requires property owners to clear sidewalks in front of their property within 24 hours after the storm, the problem of sidewalks blocked by plowed snow persists."

Where can snow be plowed except to the edge of the road? But requiring property owners along major streets like Georgia Avenue or Colesville Road to clear sidewalks that have been plowed full of tons of compacted snow from 3 or 4 traffic lanes isn't a reasonable or practical solution. If county or state snow plows put the snow on the sidewalks, then the county or the state should clear the sidewalks they impacted. That would probably require trucking the snow away, but that is probably the only practical way to keep the sidewalks open along major streets.

William Smith said...

I believe plow drivers can be trained to alter their practices enough to make a big difference. Where this doesn't go far enough, the County should develop a method or going out after the emergency and clearing particularly difficult or high-traffic locations.

It will take some innovation and a new perspective to solve these issues, but it is a matter of transportation equity. 99.99 % of County funds and efforts are directed at drivers, while pedestrians and transit users are left to their own devices. The right-of-way is supposed to be for everyone, not just those who are driving. As a community we accept these discriminatory practices without much question. Are we really second-class citizens because we aren't in a car?

Avocado said...

Great post and wonderful photos to go with each point!

When I lived in small-town Ohio there was a motorized snowplow that plowed the sidewalks. It was the same width as the sidewalk and seemed about the size of a riding lawn mower. One person rode it around and around the town's sidewalks like a riding lawn mower whenever it snowed and the sidewalks stayed nicely plowed.

A crew of a few people with these machines should be able to easily plow all of downtown Silver Spring's sidewalks and the surrounding neighborhoods. I'm shocked more places don't provide plowing service for the sidewalks in addition to the streets. As you say, we walkers and transit users certainly deserve the same level of infrastructure maintenance that car drivers enjoy.

William Smith said...

The last photo was taken on Sligo Avenue, about a block from the 3rd District police Station. The truck was parked there for hours, and was driven-past by Police vehicles a dozen times or more. No one but me spoke to the truck driver about this - and he ignored me.

This is not the first time this type of thing has happened, so I know not to bother calling the Police non-emergency number and asking for help.

Jessica Fusillo said...

DEP Solid Waste Services appreciates your post! Container placement is an issue collectors and residents struggle with every day. Very few residences have an easy access for containers for collection.

In response, we took a look at the issues surrounding container placement in our most recent blog.

DEP's Solid Waste staff and contractors continue to strive to deliver Montgomery County’s residents the highest quality in trash and recycle collections.

William Smith said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond to the post. I wish we would have heard so quickly from other County officials regarding the other four challenges listed.

Obviously, the issues that concern pedestrians on County ROW are interconnected. Many of these problems will undoubtedly compound as Silver Spring continues to grow - and become even more difficult to solve if not addressed.

John Z Wetmore said...

Here is my take on sidewalk obstructions:

The embedded video shows what the WSSC has done with a brand new hydrant in Bethesda.

Post a Comment