Best Practices: Five Vision Zero Tips for Suburbs

Montgomery County, Maryland is leading the nation in implementing policies and procedures to make its community safer

Montgomery County developing policies to make its suburban neighborhoods safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
Montgomery County developing policies to make its suburban neighborhoods safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

The suburbs have a harder job than their urban counterparts to make streets safer, but one county outside Washington D.C. is showing that it is possible to cater to cyclists and pedestrians in a place built around the car.

Officials in Montgomery County are unabashedly embracing innovative traffic safety policies that you might recognize in urban areas where Vision Zero first caught on in the late 1990s.

Transportation planners in the Maryland county have installed some of the first bike signals on state roadways and bike-friendly intersections in the mid-Atlantic region and are currently launching a pedestrian safety master plan which aims to show where crosswalks and sidewalks are needed in towns north of D.C.

Transportation Supervisor David Anspacher. Photo: Montgomery Planning
Transportation Supervisor David Anspacher. Photo: Montgomery Planning

“We have a lot of challenges to figure out,” the county Planning Department’s Transportation Supervisor David Anspacher told Streetsblog. “We have five to 15 really big roads everyone is traveling on and have more traffic. How do we take these six-lane suburban arterial roadways to be safe?”

Unlike cities, which have a consistent street grid, slower roads, and more foot traffic, suburbs have historically had an even more dominant car culture where motorists make all manner of short trips and town roads are designed to get drivers to their errands as quickly as possible.

But as suburbs are becoming more urbanized, some residents are cutting back on driving or abandoning their cars altogether for transit, thanks to increasingly dense corridors where they can walk to stores and restaurants.

“What has surprised me is how much our community has welcomed this,” Anspacher said. “We’re a suburban jurisdiction, travel speed is a big deal here. We get pushback how this is going affect my trip but the support is much higher than expected.”

And if other communities adopt five pillars that have guided Montgomery County, the suburbs could take a significant step toward reducing traffic fatalities for cyclists and pedestrians.

Speed and road design

Lowering the speed limit of multi-lane roads is the first and often least expensive step toward getting your suburb or exurb on the road to Vision Zero.

Speeding, after all, makes a traffic collision more likely and the speed of a vehicle the main predictor whether someone survives a crash. County leaders reduced speeds on a number of arterial corridors by five to 10 miles per hour, but found they needed to change the design of the road by narrowing lanes, adding curves, and installing other elements like bollards and medians to slow down drivers.

Once the lanes are narrowed, the county uses the extra asphalt to create a larger shoulder and eventually cede the space to cyclists and pedestrians.

“Over time we want to reclaim that space for wider street buffers, between sidewalks and the road, which helps reduce crossing distance for pedestrians,” Anspacher said. “Depending on the type of road you can put a bike lane in. A two- to four-lane road could have bike lanes on it, but beyond that, it’s too much traffic. But if you want a protected bike lane that’s another story.”

Bicycle and pedestrian features

Having master plans for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure shows the public how crossing lanes and bike paths make their neighborhoods more livable.

Montgomery County finished its bicycle master plan a year ago and is well underway forming its pedestrian master plan, which will recommend where new sidewalks and crosswalks are most needed.

“The lack of focus on suburban walking really shows in suburban counties,” Anspacher said. “We’ve completely ignored it and that might have been fine 50-60 years ago, but now we’re a diverse community. Some have access to cars, we have a huge transit-riding population, people need to get to bus stops and metro rail stations and walking is preferred mode in getting there.”

A bicycle plan is more about infrastructure since planners aim to identify areas on a map that have uncomfortable cycling conditions, then build bikeways to make it more comfortable to navigate. But its pedestrian plan will be more about making a recommendation prioritizing streets that need sidewalks and crosswalks the most since most neighborhoods don’t have enough infrastructure.

So far, he’s found that pedestrian connectivity varies based on the age of a development project and how close they are to a dense commercial area.

“In the oldest neighborhoods in the county sidewalks are nonexistent but in newer neighborhoods, crossing opportunities remain limited and it takes longer to get anywhere,” He said. “But in areas undergoing redevelopment projects we’re starting to see really good sidewalk networks emerge.”

Land use and density

Redesigning whole neighborhoods certainly takes longer than repaving some asphalt, but suburbs can adjust land-use policies to encourage denser development near good transit. That will ultimately affect traffic safety — giving residents an option to keep their cars stowed in the garage.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, Montgomery County has worked on developing new master plans for rail stations on the Metro’s Red Line whose eastern and western terminals poke through the southern edge of the county. Planners have since added a network of bus rapid transit corridors at station locations that duplicate the rail line or connect rail stations, giving commuters several different options of travel across the county and into Washington.

“We put in place master plans along those areas, re-envisioning the stations as denser places with finer-grain streets, better bike ways, and better sidewalks,” Anspacher said. “We are retrofitting our suburban community to be more urban especially around existing or proposed transit stations.”

Transit-oriented development is harder to do if there isn’t an extensive light rail or commuter rail network in a region, but even doing little infrastructure improvements can pay off.

“If you have a commitment to really excellent transit then you have to focus on getting people to those stations and that’s going to be by walking or cycling,” he said. “We focus on building out the infrastructure in a specific area for three to four years.”

Change the culture

Getting colleagues in government to buy into Vision Zero priorities, especially if they rely on cars to get them everywhere, can be a challenge.

“You have people who have learned a profession and focus on the profession for same way for 10, 20, 30 years it can be very difficult for any of us to change,” Anspacher said.” You really need the commitment from leadership to make change happen.”

The Montgomery County Council and its county executive both heralded a Vision Zero program in 2017, giving the signal that staffers must incorporate its priorities in individual projects. An engaged local media also helps drill down the message, even if the public might still be skeptical.

“Improving safety doesn’t have to make a negative effect on mobility or if it does it’s very slight,” he added. “Life takes priority over mobility. I might have to slow down traffic a little bit but fewer people will be hurt and fewer people will be killed.”

Collaborative partnerships

Leaning on relationships with advocacy groups, schools, and other stakeholders to educate the public about traffic safety is essential.

A lot of the work Montgomery County leaders had to do to make its roads safer was with partners at Maryland State Highway Administration, which controls some of the largest and fastest roads that run through the country.

“The majority of our fatalities and injuries occur on those roads,” Anspacher said. “The county can focus on roads its controls but if we’re not working with the state on its roads we’re leaving a big gap on safety.”

Transportation advocacy groups are easily the most effective stakeholders because they can lobby public officials on projects and deploy volunteers to survey residents at their homes or at transit stations, as Boston-area advocates have done to support its campaign for more busways.

But suburban leaders would be remiss to neglect public school systems which transport thousands of kids twice a day on local roads.

“Working with kids is crucial for transportation,” he said. “They traditionally have not focused on safety and they might not have seen it as their purview but increasingly our school system is getting on board with advocating for safety.”

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