My Two Cents: A Big Idea For Pedestrian Safety

My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Joseph HawkinsIn a recent Bethesda Now column, I mentioned that I thought it was a good idea to close a few downtown Bethesda streets to automobile traffic.

The purpose was to throw out ideas to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety. In short, I was brainstorming — period. And I learned a long time ago that when brainstorming, one does not edit the ideas. Just throw them on the table and discuss.

I have no idea if a pedestrian mall for downtown Bethesda would work. It’s an idea. But because I’m not a trained city planner, I turned to one — Dan Reed — for his insights. Of course, Dan quickly reminded me that Bethesda Lane already works and works well.

Dan is the blogger behind Just Up the Pike.  Just Up the Pike focuses on life in Silver Spring and eastern Montgomery County. However, Dan also has been involved in planning for the new White Flint. In addition, Dan was a member of the Montgomery County Nighttime Economy Task Force. Dan works as a planner at NelsonNygaard Consulting Associates, a transportation planning firm. He holds a Master of City Planning degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Bachelor of Science in Architecture and a Bachelor of Arts in English, both from the University of Maryland at College Park.

Me: Tell us a little about how you got involved in Montgomery County planning issues?

Reed: I grew up in Silver Spring and closely followed the revitalization growing up. Eight years ago, I started writing Just Up The Pike while at Maryland as a way to raise the profile of eastern Montgomery County and talk about some of the disparities between the east and west sides of the county. I planned to become an architect, but after college, I worked for County Councilmember George Leventhal, advising him on land use and development issues. That inspired me to go to planning school. 

Since returning to the area in 2012, I served on the County Executive’s Nighttime Economy Task Force and joined the board of the Action Committee for Transit. I also worked as associate editor of Greater Greater Washington, a regional planning blog, and wrote for the Friends of White Flint.

Me:  On Feb. 14, former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan appeared on WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show. At the beginning of the show, Duncan pointed out that little in Montgomery County changed quickly. He further made the point that we love to over-analyze issues. I agree. And so with that in mind, what needs to be analyzed — seriously considered — if Montgomery County was going to seriously consider a pedestrian mall for downtown Bethesda?

Reed: The first thing we’d have to do is figure out what we’re trying to accomplish in Bethesda, and how (or if) a pedestrian mall can help. Then, we’ll have to look at examples of pedestrian malls that worked or didn’t work, and try to understand why that happened in each case. We’ll also need to think about who could use it (only pedestrians, or cyclists as well, or transit) and how closing a street to cars might impact traffic patterns elsewhere in Bethesda.

Bethesda Row Arts Festival (file photo)But sometimes the best way to find out if something will work is simply to try it. Many American cities, from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, have done trial attempts at creating pedestrian plazas or pedestrian malls by closing off a street for a few months, throwing some paint down, and setting out some chairs.

Businesses and drivers often complained at the potential for inconvenience and traffic, but they turned out to be very popular. Many of them, like Times Square in New York, have since become permanent.

Me: Tell us about some of the cities in the U.S. where pedestrian malls work well, and why they work well.

Reed: The places that have successful pedestrian malls usually have a high population density and lots of pedestrians. Not surprisingly, many of them are in college towns, like Madison, Wisconsin, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Boulder, Colorado, which have lots of students who don’t drive.

It also helps when the pedestrianized area is compact, because people will only walk so far. Santa Monica, California’s pedestrian mall is only three blocks long, short enough for visitors to see the entire thing in a couple of minutes. But there are many more examples of unsuccessful pedestrian malls. D.C. and Philadelphia have both taken them out, and Baltimore’s Old Town Mall has basically been abandoned. They’re not a one-size-fits-all solution, and if any of those three things I mentioned don’t already exist, a pedestrian mall may not work.

Me: Pedestrian malls sound rather permanent. Would regular periodic street closures work for Bethesda? Silver Spring has Ellsworth Drive closed periodically and it seems to work well.  Wouldn’t that same solution work for Bethesda?

Bethesda Row streetscapeReed: Bethesda already has a sort of pedestrian mall in the form of Bethesda Lane, and it seems to have been really successful. Periodic street closures would definitely be a good way to test whether it could be expanded. The key is whether it would work on a normal weekend when there isn’t an event going on, like on Ellsworth Drive.

Me: If pedestrian malls and temporary street closures, are not the solution for pedestrian and bicyclist safety than what is?

Reed: If we want to create the kind of environment that supports a pedestrian mall, we need to have a critical mass of pedestrians and cyclists. That means making our other streets safer and more enjoyable to pedestrians and cyclists, because at some point they’ll have to use them as well.

Downtown Bethesda sits at the junction of several state highways that carry a lot of car traffic. But that doesn’t mean we can skimp on things like sidewalks and bike lanes, or on transit that allows people to reach Bethesda without a car in the first place. Make it more desirable to walk on all of Bethesda’s streets and a pedestrian mall will make a lot more sense in the future.

Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.

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