Multiple Pedestrian Fatalities Finally Spur Action on Rt. 1

Walk Smart College Park (via UMD Police)

It’s been a deadly year for pedestrians crossing Route 1 in College Park.  The tally from the first half of 2014 was grim: five persons struck and three deaths.  As the casualties mount, there is growing concern about the dangers that Route 1 poses to pedestrians, particularly the stretch by the University of Maryland campus, between Guilford Rd & Berwyn Rd.  The situation finally became grave enough to produce action, with a number of measures already implemented along Route 1 since July to improve pedestrian safety, and additional enhancements planned shortly after the start of the UMD Fall semester.

One of the most common misunderstandings around town is figuring out who is actually responsible for pedestrian safety on Route 1.  UMD students, who are most familiar with the dangers along this stretch of road, have demanded safety improvements from College Park officials.  But the mayor of College Park is not responsible for Route 1 safety, nor is the City Council, UMD administrators, or even Prince George’s county.  Because it is a state highway, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is ultimately responsible for the situation on Route 1.  In fact, pleas for Route 1 pedestrian safety improvements from the from the City Council have gotten little response over the years, until the situation grew dire enough this year to spur the SHA into action.

To be sure, the ingredients for multiple pedestrian fatalities on Route 1 have been in place for a long time.  In the last eight years, over 3400 beds have been added to the west side of Route 1 in College Park in the form of four large apartment complexes.  Meanwhile, more rental houses in the Old Town and Calvert Hills neighborhoods have attracted growing numbers of UMD students, increasing their footprint in these areas.  Though a number of enhancements have made streets on the UMD campus friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists, Route 1 has retained the same dangerous features of a state highway over the years: wide lanes, fast cars, heavy traffic and few visual warnings to drivers that they are entering a campus zone with a high number of pedestrians.

The situation can become chaotic at night, as hundreds of UMD students are crossing from campus to the East side of Route 1 to get to bars and other attractions.  At times, crowds of students gathering in front of local establishments can grow too large for sidewalks, forcing people into Route 1 traffic.  Along with poor visibility, the risks of intoxication from both pedestrians and drivers goes up during nighttime hours, which is also when speed cameras have been turned off in the past.  In short, the potential for risky behavior and bad decisions and skyrockets at night, which is when all of the Route 1 pedestrian fatalities so far in 2014 have occurred.  As UMD President Loh noted: “There are actually people standing not on the sidewalk but on the road, and cars are zipping by. My major conclusion was: I am surprised more people have not been hit.”

Most of the measures outlined by the SHA, UMD and City Council to address pedestrian safety issues were implemented in the July-August time frame, with the remaining enhancements to be completed during the Fall semester.  Lowering the Route 1 speed limit from 30 to 25 mph near the UMD campus and changing the speed cameras in this zone to operate 24/7 are two small steps that could help calm traffic and improve pedestrian safety.  A new pedestrian safety campaign (Walk Smart College Park) and an increased presence by the UMD Police on Route 1 during nighttime hours on weekends could also make a difference.   The planned overhead pedestrian signal at Route 1 & Hartwick Rd intersection, similar to signals on Route 1 near Fraternity Row and on Paint Branch Parkway, could eventually give pedestrians another important option for crossing Route 1 along its most dangerous stretch.

The most controversial enhancement is definitely the fence along the Route 1 median between Knox Rd & Hartwick Rd to help deter jaywalking.  The median fence is intended to be temporary and hopefully that will be the case.  Critics of the fence rightly point out its unsightliness and the risk that it may actually be counterproductive to pedestrian safety if drivers perceive Route 1 as being a divided highway, though it will only be in place for one block.  Unfortunately, the situation had deteriorated to the point where status quo on Route 1 was unacceptable, and questionable measures like the median fence could no longer be avoided.

There is a long term solution that would likely go much further than the steps taken this summer towards improving pedestrian safety in our city.  Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose sight of that solution, because the reconstruction of Route 1 in College Park has been in the works by SHA since 1998.  At least sufficient funding was in place to start the design of the first phase of the reconstruction near the UMD campus back in Feb. 2012 and hopefully the design work will be complete by next year, as planned earlier.  Basic features of the reconstruction include transforming Route 1 from a five-lane to a four-lane highway, with wider medians,  improved sidewalks, and even bike lanes.  Though all of these improvements sound exciting, at this point, it’s impossible to even predict a start date for Route 1 reconstruction.  Now would be a good time to get an update from to SHA and find out: (a) when the design work will be complete, and (b) a projected timeline for the first phase of Route 1 reconstruction.

 In any event, the number of pedestrians will only be increasing on Route 1.  A quick read through the latest College Park Development Update shows that in the not too distant future, a 4-star UMD Conference Hotel, as well as two more large apartment complexes (Landmark College Park, Terrapin Row) are scheduled to open near the most dangerous stretch of our “main street”.  College Park can’t realize its vision of becoming a Top 20 college town with a poor reputation for pedestrian safety.  The first steps have been taken, but this will likely be an ongoing challenge. Officials from the SHA, UMD, College Park and Pr. George’s County must continue monitoring the situation and work together to improve pedestrian safety on Route 1.