Sitting in our cars has become a daily ritual for many of us. Whether we’re driving to work or the grocery store or lamenting time wasted in traffic, it’s easy to forget about others who want or need to get around in other ways. And unfortunately, our streets are not designed to accommodate everyone.
When people think of Howard County, they often point to all the pretty lakes, trails and scenic rural roads. What they don’t know is that many of our neighborhoods lack safe, accessible and easy ways to get around without a car. In many county neighborhoods, including in Elkridge, Ellicott City, Clarksville, Jessup, Savage and, yes, even Columbia, too many of our streets are not accessible or safe for walkers, bikers, bus riders or people with disabilities.
As a result, it is too difficult for children to walk safely to school, for people to be more physically active and for people with disabilities and older adults to travel easily and independently. For example, in the Guilford neighborhood of Columbia, children who live a block away from the elementary school need to be bused to school because the roads are that unsafe. The community lacks sidewalks and crosswalks that would allow churches, parks and neighborhoods to be more accessible and easier to travel.
We lack sidewalks in busy neighborhoods, street crossings at active intersections and protected bike lanes and bus stops along congested roads, making it challenging and even dangerous for people to get around safely without a car.
These problems are especially pressing for older adults. AARP reports that a vast majority of older adults want to remain in their homes and communities. However, a lack of safe, walkable streets and easy access to public transportation can make that difficult for many. It can also prohibit them from remaining connected and engaged in the community, contributing to social isolation and significant health risks. More people will face these challenges as our population ages. In fact, the proportion of county residents age 65 and older will increase from 10% in 2010 to over 21% by 2035, according to a 2015 report from the Howard County Government.
People of all ages benefit from policies and programs that make neighborhoods walkable, allow multiple options for transportation, enable access to key services, provide opportunities to participate in community activities and support affordable housing. Well-designed, age-friendly communities foster economic growth and make for happier, healthier residents of all ages. We need to implement solutions now that will enable our residents to age in place and be a part of a thriving community well into the future.
Howard County can and should do better to provide streets for all and ensure that developers and county planners design safe, connected roads for everybody, not just cars. Complete streets (a term describing roads that allow safe and accessible travel for everyone who uses them, whether you’re walking, biking, riding a bus or using a wheelchair) have street crossings, accessible and connected sidewalks and bike lanes that make it easy for people to get around in the way that they choose. When street-scale improvements such as these become the norm, they will improve residents’ health, boost property values and retail traffic, and protect the environment. Better and more accessible transportation also allows for older adults to age in place and safely, preventing isolation and increasing social engagement and independence.
We were pleased that the Howard County Council recently passed County Executive Calvin Ball’s resolution that sets a new vision for how streets should be designed. This is a great first step to get us closer to the streets for all we need. Now the council needs to finish the job by turning this policy into law, which is the best way to achieve long-lasting permanent changes to street design. A law, unlike a resolution, will create strong, binding commitments to build the streets we need, ensuring future generations of county residents will enjoy the benefits, no matter who holds elected office or runs county departments.
There is a lot of work to be done to make Howard County a more walkable, bikeable, accessible and age-friendly community for all. Passing a world-class complete streets law is the best way to get us there, and we urge the county government to get this done in short order.
Nikki Highsmith Vernick (NHVernick@thehorizonfoundation.org) is president and CEO of The Horizon Foundation. David Conway is an executive council member of AARP Maryland.