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Where sidewalk ends, danger begins

By A.S. Berman, Journal staff writer
Reprinted with permission of the
Fairfax Journal, Fairfax, Virginia.
August 3, 1998, page 1.

John Z Wetmore stands at the intersection of Lee Highway and Gallows Road, waxing eloquent on the plight of the American pedestrian. He trails off in mid-sentence as a tractor-trailer rumbles past.

"They don't make it easy for you," Wetmore said, shaking his head in exasperation.

Since 1996, the Bethesda, Md., resident has visited highways and sidewalks in the Washington area and around the country, showcasing the best and worst of these on his 28-minute public access television show "Perils for Pedestrians."

The Lee Highway/Gallows Road crossroads earned the dubious distinction of becoming the program's "Intersection of the month" on the June 1997 episode.

Wetmore points to the faded crosswalk marks, sidewalks that simply end after several yards and the steep incline of a nearby sidewalk as being particularly pedestrian "un-friendly."

"A simple thing like having continuous sidewalks would be a great improvement around here," said Wetmore, 42.

Other "Intersections of the month" have included Fairfax Circle, Wilson Boulevard and Oakland Street in Arlington and Leesburg Pike in Tysons Corner.

A freelance video producer and longtime advocate for pedestrian safety issues, Wetmore decided to combine the two callings in the Spring of 1996. "I wanted to let the public know that they're not alone," Wetmore said. "I wanted to look at some of the solutions they've come up with in other parts of the country."

Soliciting recycled video tape from friends in the broadcast industry, Wetmore set to work shooting his first episode in September.

"When I was doing episode one, I wasn't sure what I was going to talk about," Wetmore admitted."After episode three, I realized it was a silly concern."

The first "Perils" took the videographer from a blind pedestrian's plight in Gaithersburg, Md., to what Wetmore considers to be the worst intersection in the Washington area.

Pedestrians trying to cross the triple threat of King Street, Braddock Road and Quaker Lane in Alexandria had better be fleet of foot, Wetmore warns.

"It's difficult to tell when it's safe to cross - you get intimidated," Wetmore explained. The way traffic signals are arranged, pedestrians can't tell from which direction traffic is likely to flow until it's too late. "It's a real sucker's intersection," he concluded.

With the first episode completed, Wetmore made the rounds of Washington area public access stations until he found sympathetic management and compatible video tape editing equipment at the Fairfax Cable Access Corp.

"It seems to be a well-timed show," said FCAC general manager James W. Halley. "What started out as real `niche' television turned out to be just ahead of the curve on an issue that has become a national concern."

Since "Perils for Pedestrians" has been airing on Media General Cable's Channel 10 (the second Tuesday of each month at 10 a.m.), the show has been picked up by over 20 public access channels in the U.S. From New York to Hawaii, his potential audience is estimated by Halley to be about 11 million viewers.

Wetmore and his video camera have traveled the country to document pedestrian traps and triumphs, visiting Oahu's award-winning transit system in Hawaii and the nation's longest walkway in St. Louis, Mo.

Thanks to the "Perils for Pedestrians" web site - http://www.pedestrians.org - the program has even generated interest from Great Britain, with London Weekend Television looking at including clips from the show in an upcoming special on transportation issues.

The appeal is simple, Wetmore maintains. It's not only that urban and suburban streets are difficult to traverse - they're becoming downright deadly.

"You can't send your 15-year-old five miles to get a carton of milk," Wetmore said. "There's no reason for that."

According to the "Mean Streets" report issued by Washington's Coalition for Smarter Growth last year, 6,000 pedestrians are killed in the United States every year after being struck by a car. Another 110,000 are injured.

"There are not many sidewalks in developing areas around Virginia," said the coalition's Laura Olsen. "Places are really unfriendly. Think about Baileys Crossroads - that's no place for a pedestrian. [A lack of sidewalks is] forcing people into their cars whether they want to drive or not. They don't have a choice."

The latest "Mean Streets" report will be released Aug. 6.

Northern Virginia may not be a walker's paradise, but that's not to say that improvements aren't being made, said Fairfax County supervisor Sharon Bulova, D-Braddock District.

During the recession in the 1990s, the county essentially stopped building and repairing sidewalks and trails, Bulova said.

"Now we're starting to recover somewhat. These last two fiscal years the board put aside money for the building of sidewalks, trails and walkways," Bulova said. The board allocated $1 million for these projects last year and $1 million this year.

Pedestrian sign from the
Manual of Traffic Signs,
by Richard C. Moeur

Updated October 07, 1999


Copyright 1998, 1999, and/or 2000


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