When cycling safety advocate Peter Gray learned U.S. diplomat Sarah Langenkamp had been killed while riding her bike in Bethesda last month, he was both saddened and demoralized.
Langenkamp, 42, was struck and killed by a flatbed truck driver around 4 p.m. Aug. 25 while riding home from her children’s elementary school, according to county police. The Bethesda mother of two was riding in a bike lane in the 5200 block of River Road at the time.
“We sort of have this deal that basically the highest priority is for people in cars to get from point A to point B in the quickest manner. And the fallout from that bargain is that some people are gonna die – people who are walking, cycling, people in other cars. This is something that’s unacceptable,” Gray said.
Gray is a member of Montgomery County Families for Safe Streets, an organization that advocates for safer roads and transportation in addition to offering support to families who’ve lost loved ones in traffic accidents. In partnership with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and the nonprofit advocacy group Action Committee for Transit, the organization held a memorial ride for Langenkamp on Labor Day, dedicating a white “ghost bike” in her memory at the spot where she was struck. This isn’t the first time the organization has done this, and Gray fears it won’t be the last.
In 2022 alone, 34 people have already lost their lives in traffic crashes in the county as of Aug. 31, according to county data. Eighteen were drivers of motor vehicles, five were passengers, eight were pedestrians and three were cyclists.
A total of 681 people have died in motor vehicle crashes in Montgomery County between 2006 and 2021, with an average of 42 fatalities per year. Of those people killed, 198 were pedestrians and 16 were cyclists, according to the data.
Montgomery County is one of the first county governments in the United States to initiate a Vision Zero plan, a plan to eliminate all traffic-related deaths by 2030, and the County Council started reviewing a proposed Pedestrian Master Plan last week. Also, the council is expected to hear a briefing Tuesday on the county’s Vision Zero efforts.
But in the wake of Langenkamp’s death, and its similarity to several other cyclist and pedestrian deaths that have occurred in the county, Gray and other community members are charging that the county isn’t moving fast enough, and that lives aren’t being prioritized over traffic efficiency.
“The county and the state have to decide what’s the highest priority, moving people in cars from point A to point B or not having people die on the road,” Gray said.
What are Vision Zero and the Pedestrian Master Plan?
Vision Zero is a nationwide movement and strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries through equitable transportation and infrastructure. It was first implemented in Sweden in the 1990s and has gained traction across the United States in recent years.
Montgomery County announced its Vision Zero commitment in 2017 and released a new action plan for fiscal years 2022 and 2023 with a goal of eliminating all traffic-related deaths by 2030.
Vision Zero is designed to factor human failing into its approach to preventing crashes from occurring. This includes looking at areas where crashes occur and comparing them to similar roads and intersections in the county and trying to prevent similar crashes there.
“The same systemic issues exist across the U.S. and we’re not immune to that,” said Wade Holland, the county’s Vision Zero coordinator.
Every two years, the county puts out a plan aligned with the fiscal years to decide how to prioritize implementing Vision Zero solutions with its allotted funding.
County Executive Marc Elrich and the council approved $123.1 million in fiscal year 2023 expenditures in support of Vision Zero. About $54 million was allotted for Vision Zero initiatives while another roughly $69 million is earmarked for capital improvements. Holland said the county also applies for grants to help supplement funding for improvements.
“Multi-lane, arterial roads or highways don’t have space for anyone but people in cars, so we’re looking at the build-out of our bus and rapid transit network, looking at the build-out of the highways to make them multimodal boulevards,” Holland said. “We have a vision of what we want things to be in the future. It’s just, you know, we can only do so much at a time. It’s definitely a journey to get there.”
The Pedestrian Master Plan is in the proposal and development stages, spearheaded by the Montgomery County Planning Department with a goal of making walking safer and more accessible for pedestrians. Unlike Vision Zero, this plan has not been implemented yet, and the planning department is in the process of presenting its recommendations to county officials.
“We have been working for a number of years on pulling that together. And we’re at a point where we have certain draft recommendations that are out there for public review,” said Jason Sartori, chief of countywide planning with Montgomery Planning.
Montgomery Planning developed almost 100 recommendations by collecting data on existing conditions throughout the county and on pedestrian perspectives about the safety, convenience and accessibility of county roads and sidewalks. Recommendations range from building sidewalks and other pedestrian infrastructure more quickly and equitably to changing traffic-related policy to keep pedestrians safe.
Sartori said planners will be presenting the recommendations to the Planning Board and fleshing out the plan based on recommendations from the board and community members. The goal is to have a plan fully adopted by May. Montgomery Planning’s data illustrates that like other communities around the country, the county underinvested in pedestrian connectivity, comfort and safety for decades while prioritizing vehicle travel. If the Pedestrian Master Plan is approved, it would provide recommendations to the county on which safety measures should be prioritized in both funding and policy.
Who is responsible?
During a press briefing Sept. 12, County Council President Gabe Albornoz said in the wake of Langenkamp’s death, he wants to accelerate efforts to make roads safer.
“Although this has received a great deal of attention from a policy perspective, as well as a budget perspective, we need to do more and we need to do it as quickly as possible and it must be done,” Albornoz said. “We cannot let this tragedy [befall] another family and we are aggressively moving forward.”
But it’s not all up to county officials. There’s also the fact that the state is in charge of some roads in the county, including major thoroughfares such as River and Veirs Mill roads, University Boulevard and Wisconsin, Connecticut, Georgia and New Hampshire avenues. When that’s the case, the county has to work with the Maryland Department of Transportation to come up with solutions.
“I still spend a lot of time thinking, who is really responsible for fixing this problem?” said Miriam Schoenbaum, a member of the Action Committee for Transit, a local organization that advocates for safer and more accessible roads and transit options.
Holland said it is a joint effort between the county and the state when it comes to state highways, for example. Langenkamp was killed on River Road, also known as state Route 190.
“There’s times where the county actually spends county dollars on state roadways, for example putting up new pedestrian beacons, lighting, sidewalks or full track color signals on state facilities. So we do go through a permitting process and work with them to get approval because [the state] owns and maintains those roads,” Holland said.
“We also expect the State Highway Administration to work in concert with us because they also have a Vision Zero policy to work with us on these projects. Again, they’re also constrained by resources especially as we look at a statewide network, but we want to work closely with them to make sure that our roads are also part of the priority,” Holland said.
Sartori said when various localities are competing for state resources, the state may have to decide what areas need improvements the most.
“It’s really incumbent on those agencies to prioritize what are relatively scarce resources,” Sartori said.
Sartori says planners have the data to back up why the Pedestrian Master Plan is important when presenting it to the council and other government bodies. But sometimes it’s about more than just data, said Bicycle Master Plan Project Manager David Anspacher, who is also working on the Pedestrian Master Plan. It’s about showing the human side.
“The other component is being able to tell a story,” Anspacher said.
For example, when presenting the Veirs Mill Corridor Master Plan, Anspacher and his team took videos of children having to cross the four- to six-lane road that runs from Wheaton to Rockville to get to their school bus stops.
“I remember presenting this to the County Council and just hearing their gasps as they were watching these children cross a six-lane highway. This is happening everywhere in the county, and so the ability to sort of show this and convey that this is not just Veirs Mill, this is not just River Road, this is occurring throughout the county – it’s quite telling,” Anspacher said.
Quick fixes and long-term plans
When it comes to making roads safer, officials including Holland say some changes detailed in these plans can be made quickly and relatively inexpensively.
These can include implementing HAWK signals, which are traffic beacons that allow pedestrians to press a button to trigger a stoplight, or flex posts, which provide an additional visual and physical barrier between lanes. Or it could be a matter of lowering the speed limit in a particular area.
“We think about what are potential short-term things that we can do, and then also are looking at what the long-term build-out for those things look like. So, for example, at Middlebrook Road [in Germantown], we have an interim bike lane claim set up there right now, but then we also have a facility planning project to go look at what potential long-term things could be done there,” Holland said.
But other fixes, such as changes to the physical roads and sidewalks themselves, are much more complex and expensive and require substantial review processes from local government bodies. These can include expanding sidewalks or putting a road on a “road diet” by narrowing or limiting the number of available driving lanes.
“I wish I could snap my fingers and make the changes that we have planned to do. I’d love to do it in one year,” Holland said.
But these solutions require support – including budgetary support – from local officials. While the county has put millions of dollars toward Vision Zero, safe streets advocates are concerned this is not enough when each road project can easily cost millions by itself.
“I assume that the people in the [local government] are like, ‘Look at all these things that we’re doing. Why is everybody always yelling at us?’ We’re yelling at them because what they’re doing is not enough,” Schoenbaum said.