County wants to make informal paths safer, more formal

By Robbie Webber

Montgomery County, MD, is asking residents to mark the informal paths that they have been using to reach destinations. Many paths are worn through woods, cul-de-sac ends, and beaten into the grass where good pedestrian connections don’t exist. The county is updating its Pedestrian Master Plan, and wants the walking environment to be improved for those who may not want to or be able to negotiate these dirt tracks.

In many cases, bus stops, shopping areas, employment centers, and new developments do not have direct pedestrian access because of past auto-oriented development patterns. As the county becomes denser and encourages walking, biking, and transit use, the planning department is creating a transportation network that serves all ages and abilities. One way of doing so is by crowd sourcing the connections that people are using now in order to decide which ones should be formalized. Residents and visitors can mark the paths on the Pedestrian Shortcut Map and explain where the shortcut goes and how it is used.

In addition to looking at current informal connections, the Pedestrian Master Plan is assessing crosswalks, sidewalk conditions, and other current infrastructure to recommend improvements and create a Pedestrian Level of Comfort analysis. They are also conducting a crash analysis to fix high-crash locations.

Regardless of where one lives, so-called “goat paths”—or, more charitably, “desire lines”— mark where people want to walk but lack a sidewalk or developed path. Although they serve to make walking distances shorter, they can be dark at night or muddy after a rain, and they don’t serve all users, especially those with mobility issues.

Comments accompanying the paths input to the Montgomery County map show how important these connections can be. A sampling was documented by WAMU:

“We use this path to walk to the bus stop on Thayer Avenue or to walk to downtown Silver Spring,” one user wrote. “[It’s] very steep, completely unlit at night and overgrown with Japanese knotweed. People throw their trash here. We avoid it completely when it’s dark or when it rains or snows because it can be really slippery.”

In the North Kensington neighborhood, one person wrote: “This a critical link for students walking to school.”

In Gaithersburg: “A sidewalk connection is desperately needed along Redland Rd. … Adding this 200-yard segment would connect the current sidewalks along Redland Road and allow safer access to the Shady Grove Metro one mile away. Currently, pedestrians and bicyclists are forced to either use the narrow two-lane road portion of Redland Rd or walk along the shoulder, both options very dangerous.”

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.