To clear up any confusion: Rethink College Park is not shutting down in the foreseeable future. We’re limiting ourselves to one post a week over the summer because of time constraints.
This post may just be a rehash of everything we’ve been saying all year, but we’ll try to reprocess it all into one coherent and well articulated message:
The University of Maryland issued 1,200 fewer commuter parking permits this year than 3 years ago. On the day before classes ended this month, Shuttle-UM registered its record shattering 2-millionth bus ride of the school year. If you’ve been following this site for awhile, you know exactly what accounts for this shift: more walkable and transit-convenient student housing like the University View and University Towers (in Hyattsville). Indeed, we knew last September that change was afoot in College Park as Shuttle-UM ridership jumped 50% over the previous year. Also, we discovered during the Fee Waiver debacle that over 75% of UMD student living way out at the UTC Tower in Hyattsville were utilizing the Shuttle-UM route instead of driving to campus. While the graphic below only shows public-private projects like Commons and Courtyards (not the University View and current and future Grad Student Housing), the point is still clear: Students are increasingly moving on or closer to campus while enrollment is holding steady (in the face of the widespread perception that it is increasing).
It’s should be perfectly clear to everyone that student housing is a brilliant Smart Growth strategy. We’ve been saying all year that college towns are resoundingly pedestrian places because by nature they contain potentially thousands of people living and working in the same place. Yet the fundamental component of that scenario is that students actually live in the city. For the commuter/beltway-oriented UMD and College Park of years past, that ideal college town goal seemed like a distant vision simply because students didn’t live in College Park. Recently, it appears as though the market may conspire to change that vision of a great College Park into a reality as more students and professionals seek to live closer to the University and downtown DC.
Yet students (and professionals) can’t just live in College Park. They have to live at sufficient densities to make transit not only practical, but cheaper and more convenient than driving. A college town and particularly an inner-suburban college town is a perfect place to do that. Our implicit message all year has been: If we can’t achieve common sense growth in College Park, then where can we?
So we’ve firmly established the link between student housing and Smart Growth: more student housing has certainly meant a net reduction University-related car trips on Route 1 over the past 5 years or so and students are the easiest of the 50,000 people that come to campus everyday to get into high density housing on and near campus. The need for thousands of beds of student housing (in addition to faculty and staff beds) on East Campus is undeniable and would go a long way towards alleviating the traffic concerns regarding that project. We’ll leave it at that.
Another thing we have only touched on a little is College Park’s trail system. UMD has a severely lacking bike culture and the University could work much more closely with the City of College Park and the County to get students not just off the roads and onto buses, but onto the city’s extensive trail system. Such a feat will only be possible if officials turn the locally incoherent (but regionally sensible) trail system into a viable commuting alternative. What exists today is a unlit, meandering, unsigned, and largely unknown trail system which is plagued by meager funding and the necessarily piecemeal approach by which it has been constructed. College Park has made a concerted effort to require developers to connect their properties to the trail system. Yet the poor design of University View’s backdoor and its pedestrian bridge configuration leaves the 1100 students in that complex asking “what were they thinking” nearly everytime they walk to class.
Fixing these problems will become increasingly more important as various forms of housing go up along the Route 1 Corridor. Unfortunately, as the recent waypoint signinage between the metro station and campus has proven (put in nearly 15 years after the completion of the Green Line) – it takes awhile for obvious things to materialize in College Park.