Maryland transportation officials have updated a statewide policy on road safety and transportation access for the first time since it was issued in 2012, expanding the policy’s reach and making it more difficult for projects to be exempt.

The new Complete Streets policy — which seeks to place an emphasis on the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and people using mobility devices in the design of roads — will now cover all major state transportation projects.

Bike lanes, more visible crosswalks and roadway intersections equipped with planters or plastic bollards are the kinds of road tweaks typically associated with Complete Streets. They are meant to make roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists, improve transit access, and discourage dangerous driving behaviors. Local transportation departments such as those in Baltimore City and Howard County have their own, similar policies for local roads; the updated state policy applies to all state-owned or maintained assets.

Transportation officials said the revised policy is needed to promote a culture change that places safety above everything else. It comes as the nation is still righting ship from a spike in roadway fatalities during the early years of the pandemic, including a roughly 40-year high in pedestrian deaths.

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“We must do more to save lives and prevent fatal crashes in Maryland,” said state Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld in a written statement.

Paul J. Wiedefeld, MDOT Transportation Secretary, gives updates on the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse at a news conference Tuesday morning. With Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Gov. Wes Moore (Jessica Gallagher+/The Baltimore Banner)

Last year, Maryland roadway deaths exceeded 600 for the first time in more than a decade. So far this year, Maryland has seen a 5% decrease in roadway deaths compared to the same time last year, according to state data.

Three decades ago, pedestrians made up about 21% of all roadway deaths across the country; by 2022, that number steadily grew to 36%, according to data compiled and analyzed by Smart Growth America, a organization advocating for sustainable transportation nationwide. In 2022, pedestrian deaths reached their highest point in roughly 40 years.

In Maryland, the figures were less grim: pedestrians accounted for about one in four roadway deaths in 2023, according to statewide crash data.

The United States has built an automobile culture “that, for whatever reason, we believe it’s just the cost of doing business that people out walking get killed everyday,” said Calvin Gladney, president and CEO of Smart Growth America, at a media briefing last week.

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Not everyone has welcomed Complete Streets initiatives. In the city of Baltimore, critics have said such projects snarl traffic and fail to actually make roads safer; they also claim that city transportation officials fail to properly involve the communities where they make changes. The city will soon be rolling out its plans for a nearly $10 million federal grant to help bolster its community engagement efforts around Complete Streets.

Supporters of such strategies counter that traffic congestion can actually be good if it slows vehicles enough to prevent crashes or make them less serious. They also advocate for a culture shift, saying that a “me first,” on-the-go mentality pushes motorists to drive more recklessly as long as it gets them to their destination as fast as possible.

In an interview, Wiedefeld said that leadership across all state transportation divisions “have bought in totally” to the safety framework. The heads of the Maryland Transit Administration, State Highway Administration, sub agencies operating the port, airports and toll facilities all signed on to the updated policy and now have six months to develop implementation strategies for their respective teams.

Four people stand and talk on a highway overpass with a large highway in the background.
(From left to right) State Highway Administrator William Pines, Motor Vehicles Administrator Chrissy Nizer, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld and Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller take questions from reporters on the Interstate 70 on-ramp over Interstate 695 for the start of Work Zone Safety Awareness Week on April 16, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny)

“We have to think of this [transportation network] as a system,” Wiedefeld said. “Everyone should be thinking along these lines.”

The updated policy also shifts authority to Wiedefeld for determining if state-level projects should be exempt from a Complete Streets framework. If a roadway project were designed to eschew certain required elements based on road classification — like ADA-compliant sidewalk ramps or a bike lane where appropriate — top officials would have to sign off first. Before, those decisions were made lower on the chain of command.

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Putting policy to work

“The policy is really important to get right in terms of the intent and the approach,” said Joe McAndrew, assistant secretary for project development and delivery at the Maryland Department of Transportation. “What’s 10 times more important is its implementation.”

Across the country, more people are killed on state-owned roads than interstate highways or local roads, according to Smart Growth America. That’s been true in Maryland in recent years: between 2021 and 2023, 43% of roadway deaths in the state happened on state-owned roads, according to data provided by state officials. Larger, arterial roads like Belair Road or Reisterstown Road in Baltimore County that see high volumes of local and through traffic tend to have more dangerous crashes than smaller, local roads, which are typically maintained by local transportation departments.

A stretch of Belair Road in Baltimore County will be one of the first to see changes since the signing of the updated policy.

State Highway Administration officials said the section from the Baltimore City line up to the interchange with Interstate 695 sees about twice as many crashes as the statewide average, due largely to high-speed weaving in and out of lanes. They are redesigning multiple miles of the road to reduce travel lanes, adding a middle left-turn lane serving both directions, and revamping sidewalks and crosswalks — currently, the corridor is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities act, officials said.

“I think this project is indicative of our administration’s shift in focus toward vulnerable users,” said Jeff Davis, deputy director for the Office of Highway Development at the SHA, at a recent meeting to present the plans to the community. “It’s going to have a huge impact on safety.”

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A previous, more expensive iteration almost made it through the design process until it was axed about a decade ago, in part due to cost, but it also didn’t have the support of the surrounding community, Davis said. Construction for the new design should cost around $10 million.

Some have expressed concerns to Davis that the planned design will cause a traffic nightmare. He countered that though traffic may be slower, it will be more consistent and predictable. Engineers will retime lights to help traffic flow consistently.

“We’re not just throwing something at the wall and seeing if it sticks, we’re following a data-driven approach,” Davis said.