Route 1: A Main Street by Default

Route 1

A recent article in The Diamondback commended the rise of mixed-use development on our university’s main street, as it should. After years of housing shortages and blight, College Park is finally being rejuvenated. But in current discussions of College Park’s redevelopment, there is a huge elephant in the room: Route 1 itself.

Dangerous and traffic-clogged, our principal road hardly functions as a hub of campus life. A typical main street is lined with independent businesses for meeting friends, street furniture for sitting and chatting and wide sidewalks for leisurely strolls. Route 1, however, is a different story. As evidenced by the constant rotation of restaurants in Terrapin Station, this street has managed to extinguish business in our downtown corridor. Lacking infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, this unsafe road seems set on exterminating our human population, as well.

Two major factors contribute to an establishment’s success. The first is population density, a store’s customer base. The second is foot traffic, the stream of pedestrians from which stores can fish out these customers. Clearly, College Park has the population density to support a bevy of businesses, yet we are lacking the foot traffic. Why? Because traversing Route 1 on foot is a death-defying feat. Anyone who has tried to cross Route 1 at Hartwick Road knows I’m not being hyperbolic.

Sadly, the ills of Route 1 are not unique to College Park. In Hyattsville, where Route 1 also serves as the default main street, the city has been trying to bring life back to a strip that was, until recently, dominated by vacant lots and used car dealerships. While the development project is anchored by a Busboys and Poets and features intriguing locally owned businesses, the speed and noise of Route 1’s traffic prevents Arts District Hyattsville from becoming a comfortable environment for spending an afternoon.

Particularly telling is a bench located outside of Busboys. Instead of facing outward toward the expansive view of the surrounding neighborhoods, as benches typically do, it faces inward toward an unsightly brick wall. Hyattsville’s developers are trying to build public space that fosters a thriving community and economy, yet these four lanes of traffic make that impossible to do.

Route 1 is in desperate need of traffic taming — steps that would retain the street’s automobile capacity, yet make the road more comfortable for pedestrians. By narrowing lanes of traffic as currently planned, we could finally widen sidewalks, install bike lanes/cycle tracks and add street furniture and greenery. These measures would attract College Park residents from their homes to the street, helping to repopulate our downtown corridor and ensure the success of our new businesses.

Roads are the building blocks of our communities, and it is simply impossible to build community around six lanes of traffic. We cannot continue to herald new businesses when they come to town, yet neglect to create an environment where they can thrive. The establishments in the new mixed-use high rises require a Route 1 that accommodates both cars and people.

There is nothing “new” about Route 1. It remains a main street by default, not by definition.

Making College Park A Bicycle Friendly Community

Commons Bikes

The League of American Bicyclists, the nation’s premier cycling advocacy organization, recently released its list of Bicycle Friendly Communities, recognizing municipalities and states that have shown an across-the-board commitment to making their communities bikeable. In the Washington Metropolitan Area, many communities are dedicated to making cycling a viable form of transportation—the state of Maryland was ranked 11 out of 50 in terms of Bicycle Friendly States and Baltimore has achieved the bronze designation for its efforts. Other college towns like Bellingham, Washington, Boulder, Colorado, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina are rated. However, College Park seems to be getting left behind; it’s unclear whether or not the city has even submitted an application. Using the League’s criteria, let’s consider College Park’s prospects of becoming a bicycle friendly community.

Engineering. In terms of bicycle friendly infrastructure, the university falls short. The campus is nearly impenetrable by bicycle, relegating cyclists to sidewalks and paths better suited for pedestrian usage. There is a dearth of bicycle parking near campus buildings. Bikes are instead haphazardly locked to trees and fence posts, while the inconveniently located cycle parking in Regents Drive and Mowatt Lane garages goes unused. The university is making attempts to rectify this situation, allowing bike commuters to request new bike racks and incorporating biking into the update of the Facilities Master Plan, yet as Associate Vice President for Facilities Management Frank Brewer readily admits, “Biking hasn’t really been a part of the culture at Maryland because we don’t have enough paths, racks or storage areas.” It will take a great deal of work to change this culture.

Education. University officials are making big strides in education. First, the Department of Transportation Services is in the process of redesigning its website with a hearty cycling section, including information on convenient routes, safety regulations, and local bike shops. They have also launched bikeUMD, an initiative that uses social media and on-campus events to connect with and educate students. While bicyclists are becoming more knowledge about their resources and rights, drivers have been left out of this educational process. It takes two to share the road; without motorists being well-versed in cyclists’ rights, cyclists cannot safely transverse the city.

Encouragement. Through bikeUMD’s presence at on-campus events, including its first Bike Week last spring, the university administration has been working to encourage more students to ride their bikes. However, as The Diamondback reports, there is a gender gap in the on-campus cycling population; only 20% of riders are female. The university has yet to address this issue. Without advocacy efforts to engage half of the campus community, it is hard to imagine cycling on campus increasing.

Evaluation and Planning. The university has worked to make bicycling a priority of future development by hiring a new bike coordinator, working bicycling into the Facilities Master Plan, and funding the Campus Bicycle Study. Yet, there are still a few roadblocks to comprehensive bicycle planning in the city. The City of College Park’s strategic plan initiated much need collaboration between the university and the city government on smart growth initiatives. With plans for a “city-wide bike route,” it seems local officials are moving in the right direction, yet the strategic plan has been deemed “weak” and “vague” by some city officials. Without clear steps for implementation, the strategic plan will remain a “dream book.” Further, the university is known for taking one step forward and two steps back on cycling. While the administration originally planned to spend $1 million on biking over the next three years, it has only budgeted $100,000. As we’ve previously reported, despite the economic climate, the university must present a sustained commitment to making College Park more bicycle friendly.

Enforcement. While College Park has followed a few of the League’s enforcement regulations, such as increasing its use of bicycle patrol officers, its attempts to maintain the rights and responsibilities of all road users has come with mixed results. Cyclists are frequently targeted with harsh fines for unlawful behavior, yet much of this behavior spawns from poor cycling infrastructure that makes following laws unsafe. For instance, one student recalls receiving a ticket for running a red light to escape fast-paced Route 1 traffic. Instead of educating both drivers and cyclists on how to best share the road, local police have resorted to the easy solution of “threatening” cyclists. It seems that College Park has faltered in “[treating] bicyclists equitably.”

In terms of on-campus cycling, the university has made education and encouragement a clear priority. Their commitment is commendable, but if cyclists have nowhere to ride, increased advocacy becomes pointless. A commitment to advocacy must be matched with a commitment to infrastructure. Planning must be met with implementation. Until then, College Park will remain unfriendly for bicyclists, falling behind its local peers.

Ehrlich Transportation Plan Unsuitable for College Park

light rail
Light rail transit in Portland, OR (image via the Rethink College Park Flickr Page).

Before casting your vote today, please consider what you would like your commute and that of future College Park residents to look like. Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob L. Ehrlich surely has: His transportation platform, as outlined below, does not help actualize the vision of the modern college town that we all would like College Park to be.

More buses? The key to Ehrlich’s transportation platform is halting construction of the Purple Line light rail extension to the Metro system. The Purple Line would transverse Washington suburbs, connecting the Orange Line at New Carrollton to the Red Line at Bethesda. The route would have five stops in College Park—just outside the city limits at UMUC, in front of Stamp Student Union, East Campus, the existing Green Line metro stop, and on River Road at M-Square—quickly carrying local faculty and staff to campus, students to internships in D.C., and all residents to the businesses it would attract along the Route 1 corridor. Instead of investing in this speedy, commercially-viable transit system, Ehrlich would like to create a “rapid bus service” along the route, adding to the deluge of buses and shuttles that already hurdle up and down Campus Drive and get caught in mid-afternoon traffic across the region. Even The Diamondback, which endorsed Ehrlich yesterday morning, noted that when it comes to the Purple Line, Ehrlich’s plan is “less popular, less efficient, and less environmentally friendly.”

Roads over rail? Last week, Ehrlich promised to completely halt construction of the Purple Line if he gains office, claiming, “the dollars aren’t there”. While he cannot find money for light rail, there seems to be ample dollars available for roads. Ehrlich intends to divert the $80 million that O’Malley has dedicated to light-rail engineering to local road projects. Ehrlich has long given preference to roads over transit, beginning construction of the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector during his term, while spurning the $1.6 billion light rail project. As Ehrlich’s representative on the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority board Robert J. Smith told The Washington Post, Ehrlich’s complaints of funding woes for the Purple Line are an attempt to “delay the project” and direct “all money available” to the Intercounty Connector, a nearly completed freeway marked by its environmental infirmity. In College Park, where nearly 50% of students come to campus by some other means than alone in a car, Ehrlich’s antiquated, autocentric scheme is unsuitable for the needs of the campus community.

Simply, when it comes to transportation, Bob Ehrlich does not have the needs of College Park in mind. While the Purple Line surely faces other obstacles in the reluctant University of Maryland administration, the Prince George’s and Montgomery County Councils have already agreed to the project, proving that the need and the desire for modern transit is here. All we need now is a visionary governor who will bring our ideal of a livable, vibrant college town to fruition.

For a similar viewpoint, read architecture professor emeritus and Purple Line NOW president Ralph Bennet’s guest column, “Fear the purple,” in The Diamondback.