Before more than 50 people — residents, elected officials, and planning and transportation experts — walked a nearly milelong stretch of Old Georgetown Road on Friday morning, Carlos Alvarenga took a moment to address the crowd.
Alvarenga’s 18-year-old son, Enzo, was killed along that part of Old Georgetown Road in June when the bicycle he was riding fell off the sidewalk and he was struck by a white 2012 Ford F-250 Cargo van. On Friday, in the parking lot of North Bethesda United Methodist Church, Alvarenga urged the state’s transportation officials, elected leaders in Annapolis and Montgomery County residents to push for safer conditions along the road.
“You didn’t know Enzo, but I wish you had … the shoes I am wearing are the same shoes he was wearing that day, so I still carry a part of him with me,” said Carlos Alvarenga, who lives in Bethesda. He said it shouldn’t take dozens of more pedestrian or bicycle deaths before any infrastructure improvements are made.
County Council Member Andrew Friedson, along with state Sen. Susan Lee (D-Bethesda), Dels. Ariana Kelly (D-Bethesda) and Marc Korman (D-Bethesda), and a representative of Del. Sara Love (D-Bethesda), helped lead a pedestrian and bicycle safety walk along the road Friday morning. Members of the Montgomery County Planning Department and the state Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration also joined residents on the walk.
Friedson told those gathered on Friday that he and other elected officials organized the walk to raise awareness and urge action on dangerous corridors in the county, like along Old Georgetown Road.
Between Lone Oak Drive and the southern exits onto I-270, much of the sidewalk on both sides of the road is adjacent to the traffic lanes of Old Georgetown Road, which residents say is unsafe for pedestrians and bikers. Further north along the route, near an Exxon gas station, there is a grass buffer between the curb and sidewalk.
The participants were split into two groups, and Derek Gunn, SHA’s acting district engineer for District 3 — which covers Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — joined one group. At the intersection of Old Georgetown Road and Democracy Boulevard, he listened as multiple residents offered feedback and asked questions. SHA officials and employees of Highway and Safety Services, a contractor that does construction work on state roads around Maryland, blocked off a lane of traffic in both directions, in order to provide more of a buffer from traffic for the walkers along the route.
Suggestions for traffic improvements included ways to make crossings safer — such as a configuration that would allow all pedestrians and bicyclists to cross an intersection in multiple directions while all cars are stopped — to noting that better buffers are needed at certain intersections, especially because students from nearby Walter Johnson High School often walk to the Wildwood Shopping Center for lunch and other activities.
Bethesda resident Carly Tu, who participated in the safety walk, said in an interview that she has been an avid cycler for 15 years, but that she would never bike along Old Georgetown Road because of how dangerous it is.
Ideally, there should be separate bike infrastructure — with lanes divided by curbs and barriers, not flexposts or paint, Tu said. But she acknowledges that there are likely easier fixes like installing bike signals at intersections.
“I believe any time you see an adult riding a bicycle on a sidewalk, there needs to be better bike infrastructure in that location … full-grown adults shouldn’t feel like the sidewalk is their only option,” Tu said.
Gunn said in an interview that talking with participants was helpful and that a resurfacing project along Old Georgetown Road this fall might also provide some insight on what improvements could be made to the roadway.
Some bicyclist and pedestrian advocates have argued that SHA officials still prioritize automobiles over pedestrians and cars when considering future projects. Residents expressed that sentiment during the safety walk.
In a response to that criticism, Gunn noted that the administration uses a “context design” approach that allows different types of road projects, depending on the area: “urban core, urban center, traditional town center, suburban activity center, suburban area or rural area,” according to the SHA.
“We’re looking at opportunities to fast-track projects … with the context design, I think that gives us some great tools and a great platform that we can really expand our toolbox and make sure we’re being responsive to pedestrians and bicyclists on the corridor,” he said.
Jason Sartori, division chief of the countywide planning and policy division within the county’s planning department, said in an interview that the department has its own toolkit for Vision Zero — the county’s initiative to reduce traffic and pedestrian deaths by 2040. In that toolkit, residents can recommend options like bicycle crossings, mini roundabouts, high-visibility crosswalks, separated bike lanes, and dozens of others.
Sartori said that for decades, local road networks have been focused on vehicle travel and the change to more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly infrastructure isn’t going to happen overnight.
Some residents, like Roby Fields, understand that. But with recent deaths along state roads and other corridors in the county, there needs to be a push to make it happen more quickly, he said. He thinks that any proposed development in the White Flint area, for example, should be geared toward pedestrians and bicyclists and not cars.
“We’re not going to get less cars, we just have to accept it,” Fields said. “But if we could at least acknowledge that the intention of moving in this area was to be close to the Metro [station], and the intention of the development project was to be pedestrian-friendly, then invest in fixing the infrastructure,” said Fields, who lives in the Old Georgetown Village condo complex.
Chris Conklin, director of the county’s Department of Transportation, said that some maintenance and operations, like clearing debris from sidewalks, of the Old Georgetown Road corridor have increased since Enzo Alvarenga was killed. But there also needs to more discussion on whether a buffer between the sidewalks and traffic lanes should be created and the impact that would have on traffic capacity and flow.
“There is a fundamental tension between keeping the traffic moving on these corridors and allowing people to get to and from the places they need to be,” Conklin said. “And in order to accomplish the things that we’re talking about, we need to convince the decision-makers that you need to shift the priorities and take that step.”