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Montgomery County Department Of Transportation

Transportation Nation

D.C. Suburb, at a "Crossroads," Eyes Bus Rapid Transit

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

WAMU

The official kickoff to Montgomery County's BRT discussion was punctuated by worry and hope -- and was underscored by the sense that the densely populated county is at the transportation crossroads.

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Transportation Nation

Bike Advocates Wonder Where the Completed Met Branch Trail Is

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

More than two years after its southern segment opened, bicycling advocates are asking District and Maryland transportation officials why there has been no progress extending the 8-mile Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) that is supposed to run between Union Station and Silver Spring, Md.

The southern segment is a completed, off-road bicycle path running straight north from Union Station through Northeast Washington to the Brookland neighborhood, but the remaining three segments are a combination of off-road and “interim routes” that force cyclists to leave the path and crowd onto city streets.

“In a couple of places it actually goes up relatively steep hills. In one place it goes against traffic,” says Shane Farthing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. The group is urging the District Department of Transportation to begin work on the northernmost segment inside the district, from Riggs Road to the Montgomery County line.

“We’d like to see DDOT pushing harder on that,” Farthing says.

But starting work on the MBT’s center segment in D.C. is more complicated: there are outstanding land-use issues that have to be resolved by the National Park Service, DC's transit agency (WMATA), and the DDOT concerning federal property around Fort Totten, where the proposed trail makes a sharp left turn in the vicinity of a trash transfer station.  That is where bicyclists face the thorniest part of their ride as two-way bicycling traffic has to squeeze into one of the “interim trails,” a one-way street for cars.

“For kids and novice cyclists who might want to try this connection, I do think where you are sent into oncoming traffic it is intimidating,” says Farthing, who gave an interview at the noisy intersection of Fort Totten Drive NE and Gallatin Street NE.

“All of the area around Fort Totten is National Park Service land, and there are certain agreements that WMATA has with rights of use to get the Red Line through. So they have to make sure (that) all those different legal agreements on land use work together to allow for the trail access,” he added.

The partial completion of the MBT is not stopping bicyclists from using it as part of their daily commutes or for recreation. There were 11,503 trips on the MBT last year, a nearly three-fold increase from 2010, according to DDOT figures.

Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s associate director for policy, planning, and sustainability, said funding and land use issues have delayed progress.

“Some of what we face is a challenge of resources and dealing with multiple trail projects moving forward at the same time,” he says, adding that the Fort Totten area “is probably one of the most challenging sections of the trail in terms of dealing with competing needs of the right of way.”

Zinbabwe countered criticism that the DDOT isn't prioritizing the project.

“We don’t feel that we are [idle]. I think that we continue to try to move it forward,” he says.  Although Farthing says he believes the entire bike trail could be finished in two to three years, Zimbabwe called that goal “optimistic.”

In Montgomery County, where the proposed trail would end at Silver Spring, there are also outstanding conflicts concerning land use.

The group Montgomery Preservation Inc. is unhappy with a plan to run the trail between its building that houses a B&O Railroad museum and Metro’s Red Line tracks.  The plan also calls for building a bicycling bridge over Georgia Avenue that would block views of the historic railroad bridge.  The MBT is part of the county’s master plan and the Montgomery County Council has approved funding.

“The county council, county executive, and bicycling community are all interested in completing the design and construction and opening up this important part of this heavily used trail,” says Bruce Johnston, the chief of MCDOT’s division of transportation engineering.

Although frustrated by the slow progress, Farthing looks forward to a day when commuters can ride their bicycles all the way from Silver Spring to Union Station without squeezing past moving vehicle traffic.

“The ability to take your bike on and off Metro, the ability to mix it with bike share, we’ve got a lot of different ways that you can integrate biking into daily life, but it is important to have the trail so the people can do it safely and easily,” Farthing says.

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Transportation Nation

Why So Few Walk or Bike to School

Friday, May 11, 2012

(Washington, DC -- WAMU) What was routine a couple generations ago is now relatively rare.  Nearly 50 percent of Americans kids walked or biked to school in 1969.  Today the figure is 13 percent.

The decline in children’s physical activity is blamed on an array of factors, from the design of road systems to accommodate automobiles instead of pedestrians and bicyclists, to poor parenting.

Whatever the reasons, the results are alarming: approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents are obese.  Supporters of more walking- and bike-friendly neighborhoods partly blame rising the obesity rates on the drop in the number of kids who walk or pedal to school.

In the greater Washington area, determined parents and advocacy groups are trying to get kids moving again.  The solutions, however, are not as easy as simply telling kids to get up and go.  There are concerns about the safety of streets, including missing sidewalks, heavy traffic congestion around schools during morning rush hour and, in some places, crime.

It’s also a matter of convenience and time.  Some kids live too far from their schools to make walking or bicycling practical; some parents find it more convenient to drop their kids off at school while driving to work.

“Kids just aren’t used to it right now.  They are used to getting bused or being in the car.  It’s really about teaching kids.  That’s the education part,” says Christine Green, the regional policy manager at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, a group that encourages communities to address this issue by making streets safer.

“My job as the regional policy manager is to bring all the players in the community together.  That’s the school system, the transportation engineers, the planners, the public health folks, and the community advocates,” Green says.  “We bring everybody together under this common mission of not only kids walking and biking but entire communities being able to walk and bike for all their trips.”

Communities apply for federal Safe Routes to School grants.  “You must complete a school travel plan before you do an application,” Green says.  “A school travel plan requires you to look at the infrastructure around your school, it requires you to do some counts about the numbers of kids walking and biking to school currently.”

The entire budget of the Safe Routes to School program covers only seven percent of all schools in the United States, according to Barbara McCann, the executive director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, based in Washington.

“There’s just a tremendous need to change the way we design our roads so that the people who need to use the roads do so, and that includes kids,” says McCann, who organization largely faults road designs over the last half century for the decline in peoples’ physical activity.

“When parents are looking at going with their kids to school they have to think about is there a sidewalk, is there a safe crosswalk, is there a signal?” McCann says.  “It should be a priority of the community to have safe routes to school.  Sidewalks make a tremendous difference in safety.  They can reduce pedestrian crashes exponentially.  In many communities it hasn’t happened and hasn’t been a priority.”

In the Forest Hills neighborhood of northwest D.C., sidewalks are the focus of Robin Schepper, a mother of two young boys and leader of the Safer Routes to School program at Murch Elementary School.  She has successfully fought to have sidewalks built on several streets, but some homeowners have also successfully resisted.

“There are a lot of people who really don’t want sidewalks,” says Schepper.  “They have landscaped all the way to the curb even though the city owns four to five feet up. They don’t want sidewalks because they don’t want to disturb their landscaping.”

Schepper and a WAMU reporter made the 17 minute walk from her home west to Murch Elementary.  On some streets there are no sidewalks on either side.  She accompanies her sons, 6 and 10, on their walk to school every day.

“I was stopped by a police officer about two months ago and she said, “Hey, you got to be careful.  This is not safe for your children.”  And I said, “I know.  I’ve been trying to get a sidewalk here for years,” Schepper says.

Missing sidewalks (and landscaping crews whose trucks make the streets even narrower) are not the biggest concern among neighborhood parents, says Schepper.

“We did a survey at Murch Elementary School when we got a ‘Safe Routes to School’ grant and we did a survey of what were parents’ biggest fears of letting their kids walk and bike to school.  And the number one reason was speeding cars,” she says.

Connecticut Avenue runs north/south through Schepper’s kids’ route to school.  The posted speed limit is 25 miles per hour, but motorists were seen speeding at about 45 or 50 miles per hour during her interview with WAMU.

“We have traffic coming from Maryland so Connecticut Avenue in the morning is like a speedway,” she says.

While Schepper fights for sidewalks in D.C., in Vienna, Virginia Jeff Anderson is waging a different crusade: getting kids on bicycles.

“I started here at Wolftrap Elementary by asking our principle for a bike rack one day,” says Anderson, who has three young kids with whom he bikes to school.

Once a month Anderson organizes a bike train – a caravan of bicycling students – to encourage more kids to eschew the back seats of their parents’ cars for a two-wheeler.

“I usually have between 10 and 15 kids who join me.  We take the back roads and avoid the main roads,” says Anderson, who started the bike trains about 18 months ago.  “There was no bike rack.  We now have four.  The goal is to get them to see that it is easy to do.  Eventually they don’t do the bike train anymore. They just ride on their own.”

Anderson says getting more kids on bicycles or walking is not as simple as he’d like.  Parents are concerned about traffic congestion, and some just want to talk with their kids in the car for those precious few minutes before the busyness of the day takes over.

“Everyone is rushed these days to get out for all kinds of reasons.  People err on the side of convenience and ease versus taking 15 minutes with your child walking to school,” he says.  However, there is a downside to choosing convenience, says Anderson, a member of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling.

“In the ‘60s, fifty to sixty percent of kids biked or walked to school.  We didn’t have Type 2 diabetes in children.  We didn’t have an obesity problem in children.  And now only 13 percent of children walk or bike to school nationally.  That’s the same number we see here at our school on any given day, too,” he says.

Anderson’s daughter Laurel, 9, is happy to be in the minority.  “I like doing it because we are not using energy, it’s a lot of fun, and I like getting exercise,” she says.  Younger brother Eric, 7, says he feels better at school after he bikes in the morning.  “You can think better,” he says.

Awareness of the benefits of safe streets is not lacking in Kentlands, a community of about 5,000 residents in Montgomery County, Maryland.  A model of ‘new urbanism,’ the Kentlands was designed for walking, not only driving.  Sidewalks are wide and roads are narrow.  Front steps meet the sidewalks.

“Narrow roads calm traffic, keep cars going more slowly, and keep the houses closer together which creates neighborliness.  They also provide for wider sidewalks on each side,” says John Schlichting, the chairman of the Kentlands Community Foundation.

The children of the Kentlands were raised as walkers.  Their schools, friends, and favorite hang-outs are close by.

“I always cross in the crosswalks, and there are lots crosswalks and sidewalks in the Kentlands, so it’s not like you’re walking in the middle of the street.  But if I were somewhere else I might not feel as safe,” says Elena Dietz, 11.  Here sister Hannah, 13, says she notices a big difference between the way she lives compared to friends from other towns that rely on their parents for transportation.

“They have to get parent permission for everywhere they go, everything they do.  Whereas I can be like, mom, I going to walk three doors down and go to my neighbor’s house,” Hannah says.

Another child of the Kentlands, Sebastian Zeineddin, 8, says he is lucky to live there.  “I like walking to school because I also have friends that I can walk and talk with, too.”

Sebastian’s observation raises an issue any parent can relate to: no responsible adult would let their child walk to school, especially alone, if they believe the roads aren’t safe.  Thirty percent of traffic deaths for children up 14 years old happen when they are walking or bicycling.

In the Kentlands no child has to walk by himself.  The close proximity of neighbors produces camaraderie among the kids.  Thus, advocates like Barbara McCann and Christine Green believe that the effort to get more kids walking and bicycling cannot succeed without major changes to the design of their neighborhoods and towns.

At the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, engineer Fred Lees is in charge of improving the ‘walkability’ of roads.  The head of the traffic engineering section, Lees is working on creating walking routes to the county’s schools.

“One of the biggest problems we have with schools in general is parents dropping off kids, buses, and kids walking, all converging in the same fifteen minute period,” says Lees.  In fact, 20 to 30 percent of morning traffic is children being driven to school, according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

“We’ve found that along some of the designated walking routes some of the crosswalks are not there or are in bad condition, so we will certainly go out there and mark those and remark ones that are faded,” says Lees.

Getting half of all American school kids walking or biking to school again may seem like an improbable task, but advocates say it is possible through a multi-pronged effort to improve the design of communities, educate parents and children, and encourage physical activity.

In D.C. Robin Schepper is determined to make a difference one street at a time.

“The proudest moment I have in doing this type of work is that when [my kids] point to sidewalks, they say that’s mommy’s sidewalk,” she says.

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