This story was updated at 12 p.m. on July 19, 2022, to clarify what the county’s Planning Department released earlier this month.

Earlier this month, the county’s Planning Department introduced part of a draft pedestrian master plan with dozens of recommendations to improve sidewalks and similar infrastructure. It could, if implemented, change the parking rate structure for residents countywide, implement infrastructure like raised crosswalks at intersections, or lead to new laws to help ensure more snow is cleared, among others.

The portion of the draft is more than 60 pages long, and contains dozens of recommendations centered around six themes: 

  • Build: building sidewalks and other pedestrian infrastructure more quickly and equitably
  • Maintain: Maintaining sidewalks, intersections, and other pedestrian spaces
  • Protect: Implement actions and policies that protect pedestrians from injuries and deaths
  • Expand access: Create more amenities and infrastructure that serves residents with disabilities
  • Monitor: Develop systems that keep track of what projects county officials have undertaken in pedestrian networks, and what still must be done
  • Fund: Create new revenue sources to pay for infrastructure improvements, whether that is specific taxes, different parking rates, a registration fees, or other sources

Eli Glazier, the planning department’s project manager for the plan, said the process for drafting a pedestrian master plan began in September 2019. The department heard from community members who talked about systemic issues in various communities across the county regarding pedestrian infrastructure and safety, Glazier said.

County planning officials also collected a “significant” amount of data, ranging from pedestrian traffic levels at certain intersections and how wide sidewalks are in various neighborhoods to vehicle crash data involving pedestrians from 2015 to 2020, Glazier said.

Glazier said county planning officials will continue to solicit feedback on the recommendations, and that they will brief the county’s Planning Board in September. A final vote on the entire plan — which will include more information about the plan’s overall goals, data collection and other information — won’t occur at the Planning Board until 2023, he added.

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One of the plan’s recommendations is to move from a reactive approach to  a more data-driven, equitable design process for building new sidewalks in neighborhoods or repairing existing ones.

Glazier said officials are still finalizing what that data-driven process might look like, but areas near transportation centers that have seen a larger number of collisions involving pedestrians and vehicles, and overall pedestrian demand are some factors that will help prioritize projects over others.

Part of what is contributing to the above issue, he said, is that a number of collisions involving pedestrians and vehicles and other traffic issues are happening on roads controlled by the state. Changing the right-of-way and control of those roads to be under county government will help, Glazier said. It won’t happen overnight, but conversations need to occur between county and state officials, he said.

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“I think the larger issue is … when we’re talking with community members about some of these dangerous roads, they just want these problems to be fixed, right?” Glazier said. “And we oftentimes have to say … that’s a state road, and the buck passing that that entails, it’s not satisfying to the resident. It’s not satisfying to the person that has to say that, and it’s not good government.”

Outside of that issue, there are specific recommendations in the plan regarding infrastructure improvements. It suggests raised pedestrian crossings — like speed bumps, but more gradual — in residential areas, in order to help motorists and pedestrians know they’re reaching an intersection. 

The plan also suggests that county and state officials adopt changes to local laws, such as one that would require a four-foot wide path of snow to be removed by property owners on their sidewalks following a storm. Currently, county law requires snow to be removed, but it’s unclear how much snow, Glazier said.

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Another proposal is  state legislation requiring a new commercial drivers license for motorists. It would apply to vehicles that create visibility and safety issues for drivers — like large trucks or similar vehicles — when they’re operating in areas close to high-trafficked pedestrian areas.

Other recommendations include ways to create new funding sources to pay for new infrastructure. Glazier described one recommendation as a “dynamic pricing structure” for on-street parking spaces around the county, including near urban cores. 

Research by Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles, has shown that a lot of traffic in urban areas is often drivers looking for parking spaces, Glazier said.

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By creating fair market rates for parking spaces — which vary depending on demand and the time of day — county officials can help motorists more easily find a place to park, reducing traffic congestion and making pedestrian walkways safer, Glazier said.

“We can reduce some of the road rage, anger issues that we see on our roads that are likely to adversely affect pedestrians,” Glazier said. “The recommendation is in the funding section [of the plan] because what we’re talking about is … directing an increment of that increased parking cost into investments in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in the surrounding areas.”

Glazier said that the county has underinvested in pedestrian infrastructure in the last 50 or 60 years, something the plan attempts to combat. Increasing parking costs may be more feasible in the short term than other changes, like increasing state registration fees for vehicles that aren’t as pedestrian friendly or are more expensive, he added.

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Miriam Schoenbaum, a board member for the Action Committee for Transit — a local group focused on local transportation issues — said the county’s pedestrian master plan is “outstanding.”

The detail in the recommendations is a great start, she said. But it will be important for county agencies and elected officials to execute them.

“What do the relevant agencies that are responsible for this — and the elected officials that fund it — what are they going to do with it?” Schoenbaum said. “And my hope is that they will take this as a blueprint for action.”

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Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com