Create Gridlock Now?

In an unusual move, three members of the Montgomery County Council wrote the Planning Board to ask them to reverse their decision regarding the Capital Crescent Trail crossing at Little Falls Parkway. The Planning Board made the right call. Retaining the status quo both increases traffic and reduces biker and pedestrian safety.

In the wake of a tragic accident that took the life a recumbent cyclist trying to cross Little Falls on the CCT, the parkway was changed to reduce it from two lanes to one between Hillendale and Arlington Rds, located close by the trail. Unsurprisingly, taking away a lane and forcing a merge before busy Arlington Rd. has increased traffic in this area. More cars have also started cutting through residential Kenwood to avoid the new tie-up.

Instead of calling it an “intentional traffic jam” by cutting off use of an already existing and paid for road, proponents use the creative euphemism of a “road diet” to put a positive spin on it. Voters don’t much like sitting in traffic but diets connote virtue and health.

The major argument for the created traffic is biker and pedestrian safety with proponents arguing that fewer accidents have occurred than under the previous configuration. This might be a very good argument if it were truly needed to improve safety. Except it’s not. The Planning Board didn’t vote for a return to old trail crossing but to move it just a few yards away to a traffic light at Arlington Rd.

This is a much better solution all around for safety because it forces everyone to stop. Cars that face a red light have to stop and won’t even be allowed to turn right. Bikers and walkers will know they need to stop when they don’t have the light. Sounds simple, easy and cheap. Also a lot safer than a crosswalk even across one lane of traffic. Whether or not they see you, cars have to stop at red lights but, as in the case of the tragic accident, cars won’t stop if they don’t see you.

The people most unhappy with the Planning Board’s sensible solution are commuter cyclists. Instead of being able to race through at a straightaway if they see no traffic, fast moving commuter bikes will now have to slow down and stop as they bike a few yards down to light. Of course, if bikes have to slow down, one would think that would help reduce accidents.

The head of the Washington Area Bicyclists association has spoken out vehemently against the change, calling it unsafe because cars won’t stop at the traffic signal and make illegal right turns on to Arlington Rd., while pedestrians will be tempted to race across—either at the light or at the existing crossing even if the trail is moved.

In short, he is arguing that people will violate the law so we shouldn’t bother. I look forward to the county jacking up speed limits and eliminating speed cameras for the same reason. It also puts the county’s relatively recent anti-jaywalking campaign in a perplexing light. Pedestrians and cyclists also have responsibilities when it comes to safety and reducing the number of accidents. Drivers face significant penalties for making illegal turns.

The idea that people cross where it’s easiest is also more complicated than presented. People do sometimes jaywalk. But jaywalkers or jaycyclers tend to be selective about it. Otherwise, we’d have way more accidents at the many intersections without lights or crosswalks at the intersections of the county’s grand avenues like Georgia, Wisconsin, and Connecticut.

Beyond danger and the law, jaycycling could also be easily disincentivized by restoring the original terrain and putting up a few 3-foot concrete barriers where the CCT meets Little Falls. Like the red light, this tells people that you must stop and is certainly no harder or uglier than the bollards cutting off a lane of traffic.

I’m not unsympathetic with the idea that we don’t want to impede people unnecessarily. But it also seems to make sense to place this “minor inconvenience” on the vastly smaller number of commuter cyclists than on the far greater number of parkway users. Maybe we could call it a “speed diet” to make it more appealing?

The final argument for the “road diet” is that it has cut accidents by one-half so we shouldn’t make any changes. Except that the Planning Board isn’t going back to the old configuration. Putting the trail where motorists and cyclists must stop, as opposed to a crosswalk where they can drive through if they don’t spot anyone, should improve safety. Unlike the three councilmembers, the Board held a public hearing and heard from all sections of the community.

Traffic is also about to get much worse if “road diets” are now our preferred solution. According to the county database, for example, many pedestrian accidents occur in a short section of Georgia Ave. in Aspen Hill. I bet if we forced cars there to merge from three lanes into one, it will indeed be safer as no one will be going anywhere.

Pedestrian and cyclist safety are important. But induced traffic jams seem a dubious solution at best and benighted, when perfectly good alternatives exist. Indeed, the current solution got a two-year test, so why not give the Planning Board’s considered idea the same?