A table full of coloring books and colored pencils
Montgomery County Planning Department

To share concepts from its “low-stress” bicycle master plan, Montgomery County, Maryland, chose the ultimate stress-busting medium of the coloring book.

On October 14, officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, ceremonially opened a new protected bike lane in downtown Silver Spring, a fast-urbanizing part of the 1-million-person county near Washington, D.C. Like many local government events, this one featured a ribbon-cutting, short speeches, and leaflets spread out on tables. But there was a novelty: “Color Your Stress Away,” a table sign urged. Beside it were jars of colored pencils and stacks of coloring books, with plain, line-drawn scenes of urban cycling waiting to be filled in.

(Montgomery County Planning Department)

The book, “Enjoy the Ride,” was the idea of Bridget Schwiesow, the communication manager for the Montgomery County Planning Department. Since 2015, county planners have been working on a bicycle master plan to increase local cycling rates. Reducing the stress experienced by cyclists and would-be cyclists on busy, high-speed suburban arterial roads is a particular focus of their efforts. “While about 70 percent of the roads in the County are already low-stress, they are often surrounded by high speed and high volume roads, effectively creating ‘islands’ of connectivity,” reads a preliminary report on the plan.

Last year, county planning staff launched an online bicycle stress map, which won an award from the American Planning Association.  The map rates streets according to a measure called Level of Traffic Stress, which quantifies the amount of stress that cyclists feel based on traffic speed, traffic volume, number of lanes, ease of intersection crossings, and other variables. On a low-stress street, most people would be willing to ride their bikes; on a high-stress stretch of road, only the most intrepid would.

“The whole premise of the bicycle master plan is this low-stress bike network for Montgomery County,” says Schwiesow. About a year ago, she was talking with colleagues about how to present its key ideas to the public, and she thought of an activity that, for her, was the epitome of low stress. “I personally am a fan of stress-relieving coloring books. I’m a new mom and I find [coloring] very relaxing,” she says.

Producing a book that was informative as well as pencil-friendly was not so straightforward. The department started with photos and designers’ renderings illustrating different biking conditions. But the level of detail obscured the concepts. The images were “too complicated to give people a sense of a separated bike lane or an off-street trail,” Schwiesow says. They decided to strip the pictures down to simple outlines, “so we’re conveying the main themes but making it fun to color.” Many, but not all, of the settings shown in the 36-page book are within the D.C. region.

Off-Street Trails: Capital Crescent Trail, Bethesda, Maryland (Montgomery County Planning Department)
Separated Bikeways: Calgary, Canada (Montgomery County Planning Department)

“We started making it more of an educational piece,” says David Anspacher, the lead planner for the bike plan. “Not only did we want to have images for people to color, we wanted to teach them what these bikeway types are all about, and show them how it [all] fits back into the bike plan.”

It’s not uncommon to see coloring sheets for little kids produced by government agencies. But “Enjoy the Ride” is more sophisticated, aimed at the 10-and-up crowd. Schwiesow says she doesn’t know of any other examples of planning departments publishing adult coloring books. Given the trend for grown-up coloring (which, however, is waning) and the power of a simple image compared to esoteric urban-planning jargon, it may only be a matter of time.

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