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One Walking College Fellow’s Winning Recipe for Walkable Suburbs

Adriana Y. Hochberg is a 2017 Walking College Fellow and the creator of Sidewalk City, a blog about sidewalks and manhole covers from around the world and advocacy for more walkable communities.

Aspen Hill Road (Source: Berit Dockter)

It all started with a walk audit. On a humid July morning last year, I met Berit in the parking lot of the local library and set out on a walk to assess the walkability of Aspen Hill, a suburban neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland. The walk audit was a homework assignment for the Walking College. Aspen Hill is a car dependent residential community of 50,000 residents that came into being in the 1950’s. As a recent transplant to Aspen Hill who previously lived in walkable communities, I saw the potential for Aspen Hill to become more walkable. In the glimmer of my eye, I envisioned Aspen Hill as a place where local trips to the grocery store could be made on foot, with transit oriented development, healthier residents, and fewer greenhouse gas emissions due to reduced reliance on the automobile.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s get back to the walk audit. Berit, a Maryland Department of Health employee who was interested in walkability issues and lived near Aspen Hill, accepted my invitation to take part in the walk audit. Our goal was to complete a one mile loop along Aspen Hill Road, including the residential and commercial blocks. I was trying to kill two birds with one stone—complete the walk audit while scoping out a potential route for the first annual Aspen Hill Community Walk, which I was planning to organize in conjunction with Walk Maryland Day.

The nine lane crosswalk of Connecticut Avenue (Source: Adriana Hochberg)

The beginning of our walk audit showed promise. With contiguous sidewalks on both sides and frequent mid-block crosswalks, the residential blocks of Aspen Hill Road passed muster for a community walk. But when we arrived at the Aspen Hill Road intersection with Connecticut Avenue, we encountered a pedestrian’s nightmare. Nine lanes of traffic, including numerous turning lanes. Only 22 seconds for pedestrians to cross. No audible signal to inform visually impaired pedestrians when it was time to start crossing. No ADA accessible pedestrian island if one only made it half way across the intersection before the 22 seconds ran out. And cars were turning while pedestrians were crossing. Berit and I nearly got run over by a driver making a left turn who somehow didn’t see us. After the near miss, we agreed that this intersection should definitely not be included in my community walk route and I should contact elected officials to alert them of the pedestrian infrastructure problems we encountered.

Soon after the walk audit, I learned that the county and state transportation departments had known about these infrastructure deficiencies for over five years. The 2011 Connecticut Avenue Pedestrian Road Safety Audit (PRSA) had been prepared by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation in partnership the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), whose jurisdiction includes Connecticut Avenue. The PRSA indicated that “the occurrence of multiple fatalities and the large proportion of moderate to severe injury crashes support the need for additional pedestrian safety measures” on the Connecticut Avenue corridor along Aspen Hill Road and nearby. The PRSA included 53 “considerations” for action, of which few appeared to have been implemented by the time of my walk audit nearly six years later. At a Virtual Town Hall in October 2017, I asked Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett about the county’s plans to compel SHA to implement the actions identified in the PRSA. In his response statement, Mr. Leggett said that he recognized that implementation of the recommendations had been too slow, but added that the county “cannot compel the State to implement anything on their infrastructure.”

I decided to make this intersection a focal point of my Walking Action Plan for the Walking College. I resolved to submit infrastructure service requests to SHA to correct the deficiencies that I identified during the walk audit. The SHA has an online service request form that made it fast and easy to place a request. In the fall of 2017 I began placing the service requests. I created an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of each request, including a description of the request, the location, a picture of the site, and notes detailing the status of the request.

I also resolved to meet with my elected officials to obtain political support for the needed improvements to pedestrian infrastructure, and to join me on an outing to the infamous intersection, which I dubbed the “Connecticut Avenue Crossing Challenge”. In January, I contacted Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Navarro, whose district includes Aspen Hill, and was referred to one of her staffers. For the meeting with the staffer, I prepared a handout summarizing my vision for a more walkable Aspen Hill, an inventory of the pending service requests, and a list of asks for the Councilmember. One of the asks was a request for the Councilmember to prod SHA about the status of my pending service requests. The Councilmember’s staffer was responsive, and after the meeting she kept me abreast of the progress she was making in contacting her SHA liaison.

I’m happy to report that some of the infrastructure challenges at the intersection of Aspen Hill Road with Connecticut Avenue are finally being addressed. As a result of my service request, SHA doubled the time for pedestrians to cross Connecticut, from 22 to 43 seconds. Coincidentally—or not—this change happened within days of the Councilmember’s staffer reaching out to SHA on my behalf. SHA has also informed me that they will install an audible signal for visually impaired pedestrians, at an unspecified date.

Not all of my service requests have been fulfilled. SHA did not find a need to implement a lead pedestrian interval at the intersection, which would have given pedestrians a few seconds’ head start to cross before vehicles start turning. SHA also did not find a need to install an ADA accessible pedestrian island, recommending instead that slower pedestrians use the three other tiers of the intersection instead. But I live to fight another day for pedestrian safety, with a few new advocacy tools under my belt. I’m not planning to rest until my vision for a truly walkable Aspen Hill becomes reality.