Pedestrian plan update looks to make Howard County more walker-friendly

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Foot traffic in Howard County could soon see a boost, as the county this week unveiled a draft to its update of the Pedestrian Master Plan, meant to improve walking conditions in the area.

Produced by the Office of Transportation, the plan updates the 2007 master plan and is one of multiple transportation face lifts in the county. Last year, the county council approved plans for a county-wide bike path network, and the county continues its work on the Central Maryland Transit Development Plan to improve bus service in the county.

The Pedestrian Master Plan update began with public meetings and an advisory team in 2015, and includes project and policy recommendations for areas of need throughout the county, highlighting where new or improved sidewalks, crossings, bus stops and curb ramps are needed.

Bike and Pedestrian Coordinator Chris Eatough said the update was a chance for the department to review how the original plan had fared over the last 10 years, and see where “priorities may have shifted” in the county.

Eatough said a key area the plan focuses on is walker accessibility in the county, particularly to public transportation. The plan offers recommendations to ensure bus stops and public transportation are safely accessible by foot and are compliant with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Of the county’s 566 bus stops, 421 are in need of an ADA element, such as a landing pad, according to county data.

Department officials did extensive fieldwork to walk and assess pedestrian conditions throughout the county, Eatough said, and gathered public input through meetings and surveys. The process is meant to help create a plan that can improve pedestrian life for everyone in the county, he said.

“If you can have a sidewalk and crosswalk that can be used by an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old, then everyone in between can also use it,” he said. “We design for the ends of the spectrum.”

Larry Schoen, a Columbia resident and the county’s Multimodal Transportation Board representative to the plan’s advisory team, said that while the plan includes a variety of strong ideas and much-needed pedestrian connections throughout the county, without proper funding and follow-through from county officials it will do little to improve life for walkers. Schoen said implementation of the transit development plans should be expedited to align more with the pedestrian improvements, as better public transit options and pedestrian access to those options go hand-in-hand.

“The plan itself means everything and at the same time it means nothing,” Schoen said. “For it to mean something, we need [County Executive Allan Kittleman] to put in the proposed budget funding for that pedestrian plan, combined with better funding for public transit.”

That work included identifying locations of dangerous areas in the county, particularly Route 1. The area along the major roadway, parts of which are infamously known as “Dean Man’s Curve,” is known for posing a threat to pedestrians. Most recently, a man was hit in November while attempting to cross the road, and in 2016 six people were killed in Howard County on or near the roadway.

The plan designates Route 1 as an “area of special focus,” and the county is currently performing a safety evaluation of the area for ways to improve safety over the next five years. Schoen described portions of Route 1 lacking sidewalks as one of many “micro-areas” in the county in need of “little connections that can make an enormous difference.”

The updated master plan looks to address those dangers and others, putting a priority on adding pedestrian facilities to areas that are missing sidewalks and crosswalks, and to improve maintenance of existing facilities, Eatough said.

Recommendations include reducing the number of right turn on red lights allowed at intersections with a high volume of pedestrians; developing a “Beyond the Minimum” program for ADA compliance; and introducing a county-wide Safe Routes to School program to help children walk or bike to school.

The plan outlines 44 specific “structured projects” to be implemented in the county, the majority of which are to install sidewalks and crosswalks in different areas, as well as improve bus stops. The projects range in cost from just over $10,000 to more than $400,000. The plan also lists 17 “priority connections” for spots in the county that critically need crosswalk connections.

“We tried to prioritize using structured projects,” Eatough said. “They’re designed to be bite-sized pieces, rather than having huge mega projects or one very small project that doesn’t connect to anything.”

Eatough said the department plans to present a final plan to the county council later this year; because the plan is tied to the county’s budget cycle, the earliest a project could receive funding and begin work would be July 2019.

“To make [the plan] meaningful there has to be a plan to get these things actually built on the ground,” Schoen said. “We have to put our money where our mouth is to make the whole transportation network work better for bikes, transit and pedestrians as well as it now works for cars.”

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