My Two Cents: Pedestrian Safety Depends On A Change In Mindset

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 BethesdaNow.com.

Joseph HawkinsSeveral weeks ago, Bethesda Now covered a Montgomery County Council public hearing on transportation issues.

At the hearing, pedestrian safety activists advocated for smaller, pedestrian-friendly roads. I’m never really sure what this means, but I think if nothing else it means lots of sidewalks. But I guess it also means slowing down car traffic.

In that Bethesda Now piece, a Bethesda resident and member of the Action Committee for Transit said this about living and working in downtown Bethesda:

“I live and I work in downtown Bethesda and by my count of the number of times I’ve had a car come just this close to me is now up to five. Last winter, I bought this very bright white coat so I could be seen better by drivers. I have now twice nearly been hit while wearing this white coat while walking in the middle of the crosswalk,” Dancis said. “I invite any of you to take a tour of downtown Bethesda with me to see how it is that our current road code does not allow humans in cars and humans on foot to interact safely.”

Interesting — just five  car encounters. Heck, I know I’ve had way more car encounters than five.  Regardless, this activist makes downtown Bethesda sound like some kind of war-zone between pedestrians and humans in cars.

I actually believe roads, lanes, streets, and avenues — whatever — can and should be better designed for everyone’s safety. But I also believe that design is only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to pedestrian safety.

Several weeks ago, for work, I traveled to Boston. I spent six days in Boston. Boston is no stranger.  I went to undergraduate school in Boston.

Boston is one of those great American cities that I really love a lot. It is easy to get around on the subway and it is a great city for pedestrians and bicyclists. I wish I had dollar for every time I crisscrossed Boston on a bike when I was in college.

But something else is going on in Boston, and the state of Massachusetts, other than design.

Crosswalk at Wisconsin Avenue and Stanford Street (file photo)Now, I have no idea where it came from and how it became a mindset in Boston and the rest of the state, but when a pedestrian approaches a crosswalk, car traffic STOPS. And this behavior seems universal. A pedestrian can be 10 feet from the crosswalk, approaching the crosswalk and cars magically begin to slow and act as if they are about to stop.

I’m certain that Boston is no pedestrian utopia — although perhaps compared to downtown Bethesda it is — but the driver behaviors I witnessed certainly are a huge part of pedestrian safety.

Here is a true Boston story. One day, I was riding in a friend’s car, headed to a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event at Boston University. We were chatting and lost in conversation and my friend missed seeing a pedestrian stepping into a crosswalk. My friend broke the Boston golden-rule.  But she was so upset with herself that she stopped her car, pulled over, got out, walked back to the crosswalk and apologized to the pedestrian.

When was the last time we saw such an act of kindness in downtown Bethesda?  How about never!

And so, I support whatever designs we can put in place to make our streets safer and more pedestrian-friendly. But there also must be aggressive enforcement against those who disrespect pedestrians. Police need to do more on the enforcement side than a few sting operations.

And there has to be a massive change that takes with drivers and how they see and view pedestrians.

I have no idea how a large community like Montgomery County gets to that happy Boston pedestrian  state. I’m not even sure how a smaller community like Bethesda reaches such an outcome. But without these mindset changes in drivers, I don’t see much hope for us, regardless of how well we redesign our roads, lanes, streets, and avenues.

Of course, we could just ban all automobiles. I’m sure that would please a lot of county safety advocates. But just how stupid would that be? And that would be stupid, right?

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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