Fear and Loathing: Life as a Silver Spring Pedestrian

This is why I'm glad I bike/Metro. Crazy MD driver trying to force her way thru traffic.
How, exactly, am I supposed to get across the street?

I commute to Silver Spring from DC every day and I hate it. As the train pulls into the station, I see the looming specter of the failed Silver Spring Transit Center and I’m filled with low-grade dread. Why do I hate it so?

Bisected by six-lane highways, downtown Silver Spring is a spectacularly pedestrian-unfriendly environment. Trudging the streets as cars whiz by at 50 mph, you immediately feel like an outsider. I have to cross a river of cars just to get a cup of coffee. Every morning, I press the “beg button” and wait for the light to change to ford the river of cars on East-West Highway.

If I’m lucky, the light turns red and everyone stops. More typically, the light turns yellow and drivers rush into intersection blocking the crosswalk. Pedestrians have to weave around cars, trucks and even 60-foot long articulated Metro buses. I get my coffee at Peet’s and repeat the process, keeping an eye out for impatient drivers coming up behind me as they blow through the shopping center stop sign.

The first thing the new MD governor should do is blow up the crumbling, never-opened Silver Spring Transit Center
The Silver Spring Transit center. Five years late and a $100 million over budget. Built with flawed concrete and now the subject of litigation.

Working in Silver Spring, there are some intersections you learn to avoid, like East-West Highway and Colesville Road. Accidents happen there regularly and sometimes include pedestrians. You also know where drivers make rolling rights on red and which crosswalks they ignore (all of them).

I bike everywhere in DC. I do not bike in Silver Spring. Why? There are no bike lanes of any kind. Traffic is fast and crowded. There’s BikeShare in Silver Spring but I’ve never seen anyone use it. People know that biking in the street is an experts-only activity.

Some friendly signage.

While Silver Spring is pedestrian-unfriendly, it is filled with pedestrians. Huge employers are located downtown like Discovery and NOAA (where I work). They fill the streets at lunch hour and after work.

The neighborhood where everybody jaywalks – that’s what Greater Greater Washington calls it. They do a great job at illustrating the consequences of poor design. Silver Spring has organized the city for cars, not people.

My first flat white. It's like a cappuccino but without the froth. I had it at Bump 'n Grind, a new coffee place with bearded baristas and a tattooed clientele that's right up the street from the suits at NOAA. #igdc #coffee #flatwhite #dtss #lifeiswander
A flat white at Bump N’ Grind.

There are places that I love in Silver Spring – like the cool Bump N’ Grind and the awesome Big Greek Cafe ($5 gyros on Wednesdays!). The city has also tried to sex up their image to sell apartments.

But poor design makes it impossible for new residents and local employees to spend their cash. You’re not going to go to that cool coffee place if crossing the street is a death-defying act. Until Silver Spring becomes truly walkable, it will continue to be regarded as a second-class city.



Metro and the Culture of Organizational Indifference

Silver Spring Transit Center, doomed to never open?
The empty Silver Spring Transit Center. Total cost: $125 million. And rising.

Every morning, I walk by the empty shell of the Silver Spring Transit Center. It was supposed to be a glorified bus shelter, where people could transfer from one bus to another. Construction began in 2008. Six years and $125 million later and it’s still not open.

Why? Because it’s unsafe. The concrete in the structure has started to crack and crumble. Who is responsible? Montgomery County blames the contractors; the contractors blame the subcontractors; the subcontractors say they just followed the Montgomery County specs; and so on. It’s a perfect circle of blamelessness, where no one is at fault.

On Monday, there was a fire in Metro, the subway system for Washington, DC. Smoke is not uncommon in the aging system.

I ride the Metro every day and can’t imagine a more nightmarish scenario than being trapped in a train car as it filled with smoke. People waited as the train operator assured them that help was on the way. They waited patiently for 45-60 minutes, in a tunnel, as smoke overwhelmed them. One person died; 83 others were sent to the hospital.

At the time, I tweeted:

Why won’t anything change? The people who manage, operate and oversee Metro have no incentive to change. General Manager Richard Sarles is retiring with a generous pension. Senior Metro executives will receive bonuses. The rich provisions of union contracts will continue to be honored. The Board of Directors will meet and chat. No one will be fired and everyone will find someone else to blame for this tragedy.

The attitude of this elite class of public sector professionals reminds me of Tom and Daisy from The Great Gatsby, after they ran someone over in another transit-related tragedy:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Except no one will clean up this mess. Fires, derailments and other safety hazards in Metro will continue and get worse.

Nothing will change at Metro until we make individuals accountable. That means firing everyone associated with Monday’s fire, including:

  • The Train Operator.
  • The Station Manager.
  • The Manager in Charge of Track Maintenance.
  • The Manager of Operations Control Center.

This should be done – at a minimum. It would be a small step to demonstrate that Metro takes this seriously.

Metro does not need to wait for the NTSB investigation to do this. Someone died in the system that they manage. There needs to be an immediate consequence for this tragedy.

Metro will say, “But we can’t fire anyone – they’re in a union.” Then the union should be abolished. Passenger safety is more important than organized labor. You cannot institute individual accountability with a labor union controlling hiring, firing and work rules.

Train arrives in Silver Spring #igdc #wmata
A train arrives in Silver Spring

Over the next few months, the familiar cycle of blame will set in. Metro will say that the accident is because the Board didn’t give them enough money; the Board will say that they did all they could; union will blame management; management will blame union; Metro will blame passengers; and on and on as everyone remains in their jobs. It will be business as usual – unless we demand better.

Washington is supposedly the land of the “best and the brightest.” And we have no want for resources – we literally print money in this city. If Metro is The Great Society Subway, then the failure to make it safe for riders is an indictment of the entire idea of big government.  Walter Olson at the Cato Institute nails it:

If the cream of the nation’s political class, living within a 50 mile radius in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C., cannot arrange to obtain competence from their elected local officials in delivering a public service that’s vital to their daily work lives, what does that tell us about their pretensions to improve through federal action the delivery of local government services – fire and police, water supply and schooling, road maintenance and, yes, transit itself – in the rest of the country?

Big government and other large organizations need to be made accountable. That means punishing people. To break the cycle of organizational indifference, then we have to ensure that there are real penalties for screwing up.

Metro must be reformed. Our lives depend on it.