On October 17, Ned Gaylin was hit and killed crossing Little Falls Parkway while out for a morning ride on the Capital Crescent Trail. This past Wednesday, Montgomery Parks announced that it is taking swift action to dramatically reduce the risk of fatal crashes at this busy trail intersection.
Anyone who has walked or ridden the Capital Crescent Trail into Bethesda knows the Little Falls Parkway crossing. It is one of only two at-grade road crossings between Bethesda and Georgetown. After a sharp turn, the trail emerges from woods to an unsignalized crosswalk across four lanes of traffic. Signs remind drivers to be on the lookout for trail users and trail users to use caution before entering the crosswalk. However, the road is designed as a highway with two wide lanes in each direction and a 35 mile per hour speed limit.
As built, this intersection is a recipe for disaster. In September 2016, 87,000 walkers, joggers, and bicyclists passed through this intersection. A safe crossing requires every player to be fully attentive, know their responsibilities, and carry them out without mistake. A person walking or biking must approach the crosswalk with caution. She must be sure not to enter the crosswalk in the immediate path of an oncoming car. Four lanes of drivers must see her, must recognize their responsibility to yield, then slow down and come to a stop.
Now consider what actually happens on our roadways at any given time: add a litany of distractions and competing motivations. Drivers, facing wide lanes, a high speed limit and an attention grabbing green light down the road do not want to slow down. Bicyclists don’t want to lose their momentum and start again from a dead stop. Pedestrians do not want to wait for a break in traffic. Everyone is in a hurry. In practice, most people do the right thing, but we need a road designed to minimize conflicts and reduce the risk of harm, acknowledging that not all humans behave perfectly at all times.
A Fix is on the Way
Wednesday night, Montgomery Parks, which maintains Little Falls Parkway and the Capital Crescent Trail, announced new changes to Little Falls Parkway which will simplify crossing interactions and dramatically reduce the chance of crashes that could cause a fatal or serious injury. A road diet on Little Falls will reduce the parkway to one lane in each direction between Hillandale Road and Fairfax Rd. The speed limit will be lowered from 35 mph to 25 mph in the same area. Signage, flex posts, and pavement markings will give drivers ample warning for this new configuration and speed reduction.
Each of these changes will make Little Falls Parkway safer for drivers and trail users. The road diet will remove the outside travel lanes, which shortens the crossing distance and makes trail users more visible as they approach the crosswalk. Drivers will approach the intersection more slowly, which shortens the distance a car travels before coming to stop after the driver hits the brakes.
Going to one lane also prevents the cause of many fatal crashes on multilane roads, in which one driver yields and comes to a stop, but the driver in an adjacent lane does not stop because the crossing person is obscured behind the stopped car. Under Maryland law, drivers must stop at an unsignalized crosswalk if a vehicle in an adjacent lane is already stopped for a pedestrian, but in practice, many drivers don’t do so. This is a chronic problem on Little Falls Parkway. Going from two lanes to one lane will eliminate the problem entirely.
If a crash does happen, it will be at a lower speed, and that means fewer and less severe injuries to pedestrians and bicyclists. Studies show that when a driver traveling at 40 mph hits a person it will result in a fatality 90% of the time, but just 10% of the time at 20 mph. Speed kills, and road design has an enormous impact on speeding. By changing the speed limit and narrowing the road, drivers are more likely to comply.
Some will object to these changes, raising concerns about increased traffic and delay on the parkway. However, road diets like the one proposed often accommodate as many vehicles as the wider road they replace by creating a separated space for turning vehicles and eliminating weaving. Moreover, this will keep people from getting hurt, which ought to be the priority. Empirical research shows that road diets reduce overall crashes, including car on car crashes by 29%. Elevating safety over speed is just the right thing to do. At a time when Montgomery County is working to increase safe transportation options and creating a Vision Zero action plan to eliminate all traffic fatalities, we cannot turn a blind eye to safety for the sake of a few seconds of delay.
Rapid Implementation Saves Lives
Starting later this month, Montgomery Parks will implement these changes using relatively cheap materials like lane striping, flex posts and signage. New York City took a similar approach, using paint, planters, and flex posts to test traffic calming, sidewalk widening, pedestrian refuges, and intersection changes. Many of these inexpensive installations are now cast in concrete after a pilot phase. County staff are studying a permanent fix on Little Falls, but planning could easily take years and millions of dollars to install a signal, re-route the trail to another intersection or redesign the road. In the meantime, this fix will immediately make the crossing safe for millions of trail users each year.
Help Us Thank Montgomery Parks for Swift Action
When tragedy strikes, excuses are never in short supply and decisive action to change the status quo is often met with opposition. Montgomery Parks and the Planning Board deserve enormous credit for their quick work to prevent future crashes on the Capital Crescent Trail. Please sign our petition to thank the department staff and Montgomery County leaders for their action.