Ned Gaylin, a retired University of Maryland professor, loved cycling along the Capital Crescent Trail in his three-wheeled recumbent bicycle. The trail is a rare treasure in our region—an 11-mile hiker-biker path between Bethesda and Washington, D.C., that is one of the most heavily used rail-trails in the country.

The trail is an oasis from cars and cares—except, that is, where the path crosses Little Falls Parkway, a four-lane road where the speed limit is 35 mph.

On Oct. 17, a sunny day, Professor Gaylin, a father of four and grandfather of three, was hit and killed on his bicycle as he crossed Little Falls Parkway near the Bethesda swimming pool, in a well-marked crosswalk warning drivers to yield to cyclists and pedestrians. The crash happened around 11:30 on a Monday morning. Bystanders said they saw one car stop before the crosswalk. This car might have blocked the view of the second motorist in the adjoining lane. Such was the cause of a nonfatal accident on River Road earlier this month, when a car drove past a truck that had stopped for a pedestrian. A dashboard camera caught the collision.

The law requires that a driver stop in the adjacent lane when a vehicle in an adjoining lane has stopped, but the custom is not to stop or even to slow down. Drivers don’t want to be rude to cars behind them, and stopping might cause a rear-end collision.

A few days after Professor Gaylin was killed, the police held a press conference at the site of the crash—and called for pedestrians and cyclists to be more careful. Capt. Thomas Didone said pedestrians and cyclists must assume responsibility for their own safety to avoid being struck by a car. “The purpose of today is to let pedestrians know they don’t always have the right of way,” Didone said.

The press conference stunned those who had long advocated for safer crossings along the trail. “It was deeply insulting,” said Gregory Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “Someone was killed there. A family and a community are grieving. Use that as a reminder to drivers to drive with caution.” The police handed out copies of Maryland’s law saying that pedestrians don’t have the right of way if they dash into the street. This is “borderline victim-blaming,” Billing said.

Billing said it’s not only puzzling—a pedestrian or a cyclist didn’t kill Ned Gaylin—it’s also counter-productive: How does warning a cyclist or pedestrian make that intersection safer?

The road and intersections in the vicinity of the crosswalk desperately need redesign. The proposals below are consistent with Vision Zero, a plan to eliminate traffic fatalities. Vision Zero is a fundamental shift of priorities and perspectives, away from assigning blame and toward finding safe solutions that engage all in cooperative behaviors. The Montgomery County Council has endorsed Vision Zero plans. Vision Zero can’t come too soon. 

The Capital Crescent Trail crossing at Little Falls Road. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

Improve the design, don’t assign blame

The Montgomery County Parks Department, which is responsible for the Capital Crescent Trail and for Little Falls Parkway, has made improvements to that crossing because there are so many close calls. The new signage on the road is bright; the fresh paint glistens. But the message to drive with care near this mid-block crosswalk is overshadowed by the high speed, multilane road, which passes next to an entrance to the swimming pool. Worse, the traffic signal at Arlington Road, with its dedicated right-turn phase, is distracting to drivers passing over the trail, and subtly encourages speed.

The easiest, most effective and least expensive solution for the intersection where the trail crosses Little Falls Parkway would be to reduce the traffic lanes from two lanes each way to one lane each way before the traffic light at Little Falls Parkway. This could be done quickly by placing traffic cones in the excess lanes. These cones alone could have saved Professor Gaylin’s life. The peak traffic volume in one direction on Little Falls Parkway is less than 800 cars per hour. One lane can easily carry that traffic without delays. 

Other steps include reducing the speed limit to 15 mph along that stretch of Little Falls Parkway and eliminating the median to allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross the two-lane parkway completely.

These changes would do a great deal to calm the crossing, rather than trying to educate people in right-of-way laws that often contradict human instinct.

Another tricky section of Little Falls Parkway comes at the juncture with Arlington Road, where there is a traffic light. Many drivers do not stop there because they are turning right onto Arlington Road. The traffic light should be replaced with a one-lane traffic circle, with a posted speed limit of 15 mph. Little Falls Parkway should be reduced to one lane for Bethesda-bound traffic entering the circle, and one lane from the circle going to Hillandale Road.

The trail had been redesigned to introduce a “dog leg”—a short turn—to slow down cyclists. This does, indeed, slow them down, but it also makes them less visible to motorists. The following steps would help improve safety:

Restore the original direct crosswalk following the original (straightened) trail route.

Place the crosswalk on a speed table—a flat, raised speed bump, wide enough for cyclists and pedestrians to cross.

Remove the driveway entrance for the pool near the crosswalk—there is another entrance to the pool on Hillandale Road, away from cyclists.

Light the area from the trail through the crosswalk to well past the other side of the crossing.

The ultimate goal: cooperation among all road and trail users

This crossing should not be the sole focus of those who care about saving lives in our community. We need to focus on building a full roadway and trail environment in the vicinity of the crossing where Professory Gaylin was killed that maximizes effective cooperative behavior among drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. Such a plan would include lower speeds and a design that maximizes the time for eye contact between drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, and a reduction of distractions.

In 2005, the University of Maryland named a scholarship for Professor Gaylin, whose work focused on evaluating process and outcome, among other things. In his memory, this intersection should be re-designed in a peaceful process free of blame, to protect everyone on the road, including cyclists and pedestrians—the most vulnerable users of the Capital Crescent Trail. The current design victimizes everyone. A solution that enables all users to share the trail and the road responsibly would be a fitting memorial to Ned Gaylin.

Wendy Leibowitz is an attorney who lives, bikes and walks in Bethesda. Richard Hoye is a retired Montgomery County career firefighter who often bikes, with his dog, along Bethesda’s streets and trails.