Climate Change and City Planning

LRT in DresdenAn impressive environmental movement has been building lately concerned about the warming of earth’s climate and what we should do about it. A major force in it has been the passions of activists, especially college students. The recent Powershift 2007 conference at our campus brought together students from around the country to consider what should be done about climate change.

What has been primarily discussed is the adoption of cleaner, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar-thermal panels, photovoltaic solar cells, or hydroelectric power. Or, they stress the need to develop alternative fuel technologies that reduce our demand for finite fossil fuels such as hydrogen or biofuels. However, I would like to bring attention to another major factor in the climate change debate: the carbon emissions brought about by Americans who continue to support wasteful, unsustainable lifestyle habits that lead to greater sprawl, greater congestion, and greater pollution.

Recently, the study “Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change” was released by the Urban Land Institute and Smart Growth America, in conjunction with the National Center for Smart Growth on the University of Maryland campus. The study found that vehicle-miles traveled (Or, “VMT”) in America are steadily increasing at a startling rate, three times the rate of population growth and at a faster rate than carbon emissions. VMT is scheduled to continue rising 60% over the next 30 years; all the while CO2 emissions would be 40% above 1990 levels even under a best case scenario with new Senate CAFE standards. Transportation CO2 emissions account for a third of total emissions in the US, and while policy initiatives have striven to improving fuel efficiency and carbon fuel content, precious little has been done to reduce the amount of driving that is being done.

Our communities have principally been designed for automobiles, where multi-lane freeways, spread-out subdivisions and expansive strip malls are the norm. Our attitudes have been cultivated from this way of living, with an increased prevalence in people moving farther away from work and eschewing public transit for time spent alone in their cars. These unplanned subdivisions encourage low-density zoning in areas that receive little to no benefit from mass transit, thus forcing everyone to drive to get around anywhere.

Portland Streetcar PlazaMost frustrating has been the lack of attention from environmental activists, especially students, on this topic. While policy initiatives on emissions caps are necessary and welcome, it takes a concerted emphasis on persuading the general public that global warming is real and is impacted by the decisions we make every day. Collective pressure on planning policymaking could bring about real change to the problem. While many “activists” are in tune with the more glamorous topics, such as the headline-grabbing “gloomsday” scenarios, they may be overlooking other aspects of the problem.

So here are the solutions. The best way to discourage driving is to reduce urban sprawl, which pushes communities further out from cities and increases vehicle travel distances that increase fossil fuel consumption and emissions released. These conditions lead to greater traffic congestion, which directly threatens the livelihood of our cities. Higher-density, mixed-use development around transportation centers (termed as “smart growth”), extensively implementing “green” building design features and promoting rural conservation efforts to control sprawl can have a pronounced effect on development patterns.

Environmental activist Mike Tidwell believes that it’ll be “very hard” to wean Americans off their unsustainable suburban existence, but it must happen eventually. We can start by giving citizens realistic alternative options to commuting in automobiles. Currently, the Federal Transit Administration appropriates 30 times less funding towards public transit projects than highway projects yearly, which reflects severe lack of foresight by this administration. The 2009 surface transportation bill (Transportation Equity Act) will decide the allocation of federal funding for the following 5 years and can set a tremendous precedent in reducing the amount of transportation greenhouse gases emitted. Further, cheap gasoline makes driving more financially viable to many compared to transit. Let’s fix that by instituting dramatically higher gas and displacement taxes that not only encourage people to drive less frivolously and carpool, but to use the extra proceeds to fund mass transit projects such as the Purple Line and reintroducing streetcar services. Antiquated zoning codes that worked to separate residential, commercial and retail spaces now work against achieving smart growth and must be reformed to encourage mixed-use development that puts everything within walkable distances. Local governments should also refuse to give sweetheart deals to private developers whose objective is to build over every last inch of open space.

And it’s important to note that I don’t believe that mass transit is the panacea to solve all of our traffic problems. Road improvements are long-overdue and even more necessary than before due to exploding population growth that has overburdened our transportation infrastructure networks. But diminishing the need for long travel distances by conveying changes in public attitudes and the way we plan cities is the vision that we need to start embracing. Promoting responsible planning and development is necessary to foster compact communities that can support lifestyles in the new age of conservation and sustainability. Curbing global warming takes more than just a signature. It requires a real, fundamental revolution in the way we live.

The Argument for a Heavy-Rail, Beltway Metro Line

Note: The following opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Rethink College Park, nor the views of other RCP contributors. Rethink College Park is always interested in contributed articles from community members.

With Purple Line’s cost-effectiveness as well as location on the University of Maryland campus being debated, perhaps we should take a look back on the history of the Purple Line route and how we got to where we are today.

The idea of a route connecting the two spokes of the Red Line surfaced not long after the initial construction of Metro, but it was not until the 1990s under then-Governor Parris Glendening that the line established steam and was expanded to include the line between Silver Spring and New Carrollton. At the time, there were two competing movements. Gov. Glendening championed a light-rail, Inner Line because that would do better to serve depressed, inner communities that could be well-served with more transit-oriented development. On the other hand, then-Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan supported a heavy-rail, outer Purple Line that more closely mirrored the route of the Beltway, under the notion that a Beltway line would better serve high-growth areas. At around the same time Gov. Glendening announced the Intercounty Connector project “dead”, the Inner Line won favor from politicians as the preferred route to connect the existing spokes of Metro in Suburban Maryland. When Robert Ehrlich became the next governor, he decided to rename the project the “Bi-County Transitway” to reflect the alternative proposal of bus rapid transit (BRT) that was being considered in addition to light rail.
Continue reading The Argument for a Heavy-Rail, Beltway Metro Line

Wawa Editorial and the Aftermath

In case you missed it, I wrote an opinion column that was published in last Wednesday’s Diamondback student newspaper entitled “Wawa, good riddance”. To read it, go here.

In summary, I celebrated the demise of the College Park Wawa and how it symbolized the less than desirable conditions of College Park. And while Wawa wasn’t the sole cause of College Park’s decline, it was perhaps the face of it due to routine weekend vandalizing from drunken bar-goers. I hoped that Wawa’s closing could catalyze future fundamental changes in downtown College Park to improve its sustainability and become more pedestrian-friendly. I called on JBG Rosenfeld Retail, the landlord of College Park Shopping Center where Wawa is located, to follow the East Campus Initiative’s lead and recognize the market and need for more attractive options for retail and housing in downtown College Park.

College Park Shopping CenterThe College Park Shopping Center was built in 1949, where a society dominated by car culture called for a strip mall with easily accessible surface parking at the expense of pedestrians. There are several long-term leases on the property, including CVS/pharmacy and Bank of America. JBGR owns this main L-shaped center, as well as the lot one block to the south, which encompasses FedEx Kinko’s and Applebee’s. The official profile of the shopping center can be found here.

Following publication, I received a lot of attention and feedback. However, almost none of it was from undergraduate students, which was my original intention. Even though the scope of my editorial went far beyond Wawa, I hoped that using it as a scapegoat would draw attention from those lamenting the loss of a late-night hangout. Instead, the bulk of feedback came from professionals and alums, most of whom praised my column and agreed with the principle that change was needed in College Park. One individual noted that it was a shame that downtown College Park did not more accurately reflect the presence of a nationally-recognized planning program, as well as the innovative National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education center on campus.

This week, I was surprised to learn that the principal of JBG Rosenfeld Retail, Robert Rosenfeld, teaches a class in Real Estate Finance in the Real Estate Development graduate program on campus. He had read my column and had assigned it to his students in preparation for class discussion. This past Monday, I introduced myself to Mr. Rosenfeld and sat in on his class discussion. While the reaction to my column was overwhelmingly positive, insightful questions such as the perceived lack of financial incentive for JBGR to redevelop the property were brought up. Mr. Rosenfeld responded that long-term leases that give an unusual amount of clout to tenants such as CVS make a revisionary effort in downtown more cumbersome.

However, Mr. Rosenfeld said that his company would observe the progress of East Campus very closely to see what impacts it has on the retail and development climate of downtown College Park. Finally, he offered a tentative plan to redevelop the southern lot with Applebee’s into a mixed-use, multi-story building with retail on the bottom floor and housing for rent on the upper floors. The plan is four years away, he says, but it would go towards transforming College Park from its present state.

In conclusion, I have welcomed all the feedback that I have received from the column and I look forward to yours. The question I grapple with everyday is how to ensure students get a seat at the table when their general apathy towards these issues persists. In the coming weeks, I hope to come up with ideas to encourage active student participation in a time of hope and transition for College Park. Stay tuned.

Meet us at First Look Fair!

umdRethink College Park will have their own booth at the First Look Fair this Thursday, September 20, from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. on McKeldin Mall at the University of Maryland campus. Come meet the contributors, learn more about what we do, and find out how you can get more involved. We will be located in the Community Service section of the fair. We look forward to seeing you there!

A Visit to East Campus

With the public input process well under way, more and more information is being released about the East Campus project.

On a mild weekday afternoon this past August, I decided to take some pictures to capture “before” images to contrast with the rough renderings that Foulger-Pratt released last spring to the general public. I parked my car in Lot OO by the Shuttle-UM bus depot and walked down currently existing Greenhouse Road where it intersects Campus Drive. From there I walked to the intersection of Route 1/Baltimore Ave and Paint Branch Parkway where a planned 12-story hotel would anchor the new development and provide a gateway to the East Campus for those traveling southbound on Route 1. The current view of this corner includes the campus mail facility.

Compare that to this image from the conceptual drawings released by Foulger-Pratt/Argo Investment of the same location.

Hotel conceptual drawing

Click read more for more before and after comparisons.
Continue reading A Visit to East Campus

DOTS Expands Weekend Service to Metro

Stamp Bus

Starting August 25, 2007, the Department of Transportation Services is offering expanded weekend service on Route 104 to the College Park Metro from central campus beginning at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings. One of the major complaints of bus riders within the campus community was the lack of weekend bus service from campus to College Park Metro Station on the Green Line. Buses would not leave Stamp Student Union on Saturday and Sunday mornings until after 12:00 noon.

With the extra hours of bus service, students will now be able to travel to DC for jobs or weekend activities via the Shuttle-UM bus and Metrorail earlier than previously made possible. Likewise, those wishing to visit College Park traveling from elsewhere in the DC Metro area on weekend mornings can now do so. Rethink College Park applauds the move as a way for DOTS to better facilitate access between campus and Downtown DC during the weekend morning hours. The full Fall 2007 schedule for the route can be found here. (PDF)

In addition to the Shuttle-UM Route 104, several other public bus lines run along Campus Drive to the Metro Station. The Metrobus (red, white, and blue buses) Routes C8, J4, F8, and the County’s TheBus Route 17 all provide service. Particularly during evenings or weekends, one of these buses may come before the Shuttle-UM bus. Metrobus costs $1.25, or $.35 with a transfer (automatic with a SmarTrip Card) and TheRide costs $.75. This is the best map we could find of the routes, if riding a route for the first time you can double-check with the driver to ensure you’re on the right bus. Links to all these transit services are always under “transit” on the right side of the page.

WMATA Bus Route Map