Let’s Rebuild Greenbelt Road as a “Complete Street”

| January 5, 2014 | 13 Comments
Civilized, "Complete" Streetscape

Civilized, “Complete” Streetscape

Making Greenbelt Green Again, Starting with Greenbelt Road

Over the last 50 years, the state of Maryland has widened our suburban local arterial roads to the point where they’re like mini-highways, complete with on-ramps and partial cloverleafs, speed ramps, double (and triple) turn lanes, with limited sidewalks and no bike lanes. This design is ugly, encourages speeding and lane weaving, discourages roadside businesses, and makes the roads dangerous to ride on, disgusting to walk beside, and difficult to just get across. Even in a car!  (The old Greenbelt joke about the “new, improved” interchange at Routes 201 and 193 was “Of course traffic will go down, only a fool would want to drive through that mess!”)

Widening roads for the highest possible speeds and “throughput” makes traffic light cycles far too long, which, in turn, makes drivers more impatient and further encourages speeding and whiplash driving: hitting the gas and weaving through traffic to “make” the next light and slamming on the brakes (or not!) when it turns red. The irony is that all the road widening and highway-ization have not only divided our community, discouraged biking, walking and transit, and hurt business, but it’s also more frustrating than ever to drive around in Greenbelt! It’s as if the road builders’ goal was to make everybody as angry, disconnected, and antisocial as possible. Highways are great for driving long distances, but they make terrible neighborhood streets or commercial boulevards. They reduce property values and hurt local business development prospects.

What Can We Do About This?

Let’s ask the state to rebuild Route 193 (Greenbelt Road) between Route 1 in College Park and the BW Parkway as a complete, green street, with nice landscaping, bus lanes and pullouts, pedestrian havens, bike paths, and other traffic calming features.

More than a decade ago, the State Highway Administration developed a Greenbelt Road Boulevard Plan (OK, maybe “boulevard” is an overstatement, but still…). However, these plans were essentially lost from view until October 2013, when an intrepid SHA engineer dug them out of archive at my request. The plans call essentially for minor, but very helpful, landscape and streetscape improvements along 193 from Route 1 to Soil Conservation Service Road. The concept plans are hard to read, but I think they envisioned trees, median features, and bike lanes! The bike lanes appear to be non-protected 6-foot lanes on the sides, which may not be ideal on roads designed for speeds up to 50 mph!

However, the old plans are a starting place, and they could be updated for the latest bike and pedestrian safety standards. There are plenty of places where lane-narrowing or lane diets could be added (the road is vastly overbuilt in most places) to accommodate protected bike lanes instead of painted side lanes.

SHA is said to have this project on their long-term list, although it’s unclear whether funding was ever put in place. Moreover, the City of Greenbelt has essentially sidelined this prSONY DSCoject in favor of advocating for a new beltway interchange for the Greenbelt Metro potential development (FBI?) site.  However, it’s time to dust off the old plans, get them updated for modern standards, and get them on the state’s high priority funding list.

SHA plans from 2003:
PG3282184 – 2003-0127 – MD 193 Greenbelt – RKnK Concept Plans ID 199-8965 di01cn_DGN – 5 of 9 – 11×17
PG3282184 – 2003-0127 – MD 193 Greenbelt – RKnK Concept Plans ID 199-8965 di01cn_DGN – 4 of 9 – 11×17
PG3282184 – 2003-0127 – MD 193 Greenbelt – RKnK Concept Plans ID 199-8965 di01cn_DGN – 3 of 9 – 11×17
PG3282184 – 2003-0127 – MD 193 Greenbelt – RKnK Concept Plans ID 199-8965 di01cn_DGN – 1 of 9 – 11×17
PG3282184 – 2003-0127 – MD 193 Greenbelt – RKnK Concept Plans ID 199-8965 di01cn_DGN – 2 of 9 – 11×17
Consultant’s Memo:
PG3282184 – 2003-0127 – MD 193 Greenbelt – RKnK Proj Summary On-Hold memorandum – 199-89-6_05

 

Complete Streets are an Economic Development Strategy

When I’ve approached the city about improving bike paths in and around Greenbelt, I often hear the concern that “we don’t have the money” to make improvements. The city’s Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan (caution, very large PDF file) languished in committee for years mainly because the city couldn’t afford to implement much of it any anyway.

However, building complete streets is more than an improvement for walkers, bikers, and bus riders. Complete streets have sparked billions in new economic development in parts of Washington, DC and Arlington. Streets have been given a complete facelift once they are made nice for people and not just for drive-through car traffic.  All of a sudden, it doesn’t make economic sense to have a vast parking lot fronting a nice, complete street – developers begin to fill in empty parking lots with new apartments and shops, which is just what Greenbelt needs in many of our commercial strips. And converting parking lots into shops, restaurants and apartments brings in new tax revenue.  (Here’s more about complete streets.)

Besides, if we play our cards right, the state will pay to rebuild Greenbelt Road.  SHA funds are being used to fix up Route 1 in College Park and Route 201 in Edmonston.  We just need to make our priorities clear!

Jeff Lemieux 300dpi (1) Jeff Lemieux has been a Greenbelt resident for 26 years or so, living in GHI and Old Greenbelt.  He’s a bike commuter to DC, and his first foray into community activism (after avoiding it for years!) has been as a member of Greenbelt’s Advisory Planning Board.  Jeff’s wife Laurie owns a bike shop in College Park, and they often lead weekend bike rides toward Beltsville and Bowie or Hyattsville and DC.
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Comments (13)

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  1. Jacob says:

    While we’re at it, why not swap the location of the parking lanes and the bike lanes on each side of the street and add a small (3′) door-zone buffer between the two. This would create protected bike lanes (aka cycle tracks), which attract far more riders than an unprotected, door zone bike lanes.

    • Jeff says:

      @Jacob — agreed. Sidewalk, bike lane, parking lane can be a much better order than Sidewalk, parking lane, bike lane. They have parking lane buffered two-way cycletracks in Montreal and they work great. You do have to yield to pedestrians exiting their cars or crossing to the bus stop.

  2. John says:

    Great idea! I saw the 2003 plans when I moved to Greenbelt several years ago, and have been disappointed to see no action. And if I am not mistaken, the sector plan that was developed last year does little to change the current configuration of Greenbelt Rd.

    I think complete streets should be implemented all the way to Goddard. How can citizens support this idea – will the planning board be discussing it with the city council?

  3. B says:

    The speed limit on 193 from Rt 1 up to BWP should not be 50mph. That’s fix number one. It should be a 35 zone. The only issue with this streetscape I see is that I don’t understand stopping at Rt 1. I would keep it going at least to Metzerott (sp?) Rd. This should effectively link UMD’s southwest corner more effectively to Greenbelt and vica versa.

    • John says:

      Of course now my earlier comment appears! B, the speed limit by Beltway Plaza is currently 40mph I believe. Along the stretch between Kenilworth and BW Parkway it’s 45mph. I agree that it should be more like 35, but I don’t know why you think it’s currently 50.

      I also agree with extending the complete streets treatment to Mezergott, and also would push for east as far as Goddard or route 564.

  4. John says:

    The internet seems to have swallowed my earlier comment, but I think this is a great idea. What can other residents do in order to push for this? Will the advisory board be speaking with the city council? With state officials?

  5. Fred says:

    By “complete” do you mean “completely gridlocked”? It is patently ridiculous to pretend that so many people will bike, walk, and ride the (nonexistent, overpriced) transit that you can go from 6 traffic lanes down to two. If this were to be built, all it would do is drive businesses to other areas where their customers could actually get to them.

    • DAK4Blizzard says:

      I recommend reading the latest Greenbelt sector plan, published in 2012, which may give you a more comprehensive view of what’s being proposed. You can find it here in pdf form: http://www.pgplanning.org/Resources/Publications/Greenbelt_193.htm

      Keep in mind that this is for the medium to long term, meaning such a transformation of MD 193 is not anticipated to occur in this decade, and perhaps as late as the 2030s. To me, this is a realistic time-frame, as such a large transformation requires many years worth of funding and would occur in an area that has been very slow to redevelop.

      For Greenbelt Road, I’d refer to Chapter 3: pages 49-52 (which covers existing conditions) and Chapter 5: pages 129-139 (which covers transit and roadways).

      Chapter 5: pages 81-107 discuss the surrounding infrastructure that would complement the transformation of Greenbelt Road. This is important because the area around MD 193 would also need to transform large lots and improve adjacent bikeways/pathways to address your concerns. So while this would give MD 193 a real chance for sustainable improvement, it comes with the added cost/time of redevelopment of the greater area.

  6. Jeff says:

    @John, there are several ways to help. The City Council is a good starting point — I think they get the message about complete streets, but not sure they see the economic development urgency. But the City Planning staff are also key — they can choose to be leaders on trying to work out plans and push for improvements with SHA and the county, or be passive. Passive generally means nothing changes. Council sets direction, but the city staff are the ones that can either push hard or just talk the talk. Send letter and emails with your ideas!

    However, the really important audience is the state of Maryland. The visioning sessions and the Route 193 sector planning sessions did a great job of showing residents’ general interest in better landscaping, better transit, better bike and walking accessibility. However, the SHA is still a torn organization. More and more of the official guidelines require complete streets when roads are rebuilt in built up areas, but lots and lots of traffic engineers and road planners don’t have much experience with anything but highways. It is the “Highway” administration, after all, even though so many Maryland “highways” are actually local commercial roads like 193. Write the governor!

    Finally, Rushern Baker is very, very interested in economic development in Prince George’s. We need to emphasize that rebuilding our arterial roads for people, and making them nice — not just traffic sewers — is very important for luring big organizations like the FBI or other large (and small) employers. We need to implement the master plans, not just sit on them. The county planners are moving the right direction, but they need approval from the county exec and council. Again, more letters!

    @John, believe me SHA would NEVER go for a radically redesigned street like that pie-in-the-sky illustration! The sector plan makes Greenbelt road 8-10 lanes wide in some places, which is absurd. However, traffic is actually down in Greenbelt and throughout the U.S. More people are working and home and taking transit to get around, and younger people are driving much less than a decade ago, living closer to transit etc. However, the state still projects that highway usage is going up 2 percent a year (actually it is falling or at least leveling off, depending on which stats you look at, even since the recession ended).

    There’s plenty of real estate on 193 in Greenbelt to make lots of landscape and complete street improvements without creating traffic jams. For better or worse, we have to start somewhere — fix the street and encourage new development close to transit. That’s the best way to reduce traffic jams. We have plenty of asphalt to work with.

    -Jeff

  7. Jeff says:

    Oops, those last points directed to @Fred

  8. Mara says:

    Love the idea of re-landscaping 193, all the way from NASA to Metzerott Road. Also agree that it would be safer to put the bike lane closer to the pedestrian sidewalk than after the parking area. In Germany, in non-downtown areas (e.g. suburbs), they would even have one big paved land, painted into two parallel zones – one for pedestrians and one for bikers. This ped/bike lane was treated as a sidewalk, with a drop-off before hitting the road – thereby keeping bikers and walkers completely out of competition from cars for the road space. Beautiful.

    If the mall areas were re-visioned, would also love to see enough paver space in front of stores and cafes that folks could sit or mingle on the pavement outside. That would encourage moseying, which in turn encourages store visits and purchases, not to mention a nicer social atmosphere.

    Thanks, Jeff, for raising these very good ideas to the broader public!

  9. Kristin E. says:

    Jeff-

    THANK YOU for bringing this back to the forefront! Here’s the thing–with the mixed use development underway for Greenbelt Metro- FBI coming or not– now is the perfect time to re-envision what Greenbelt can be and get the conversation going. Adam Ortiz, the director of PG Department of Environment, led a “green street” project for Edmonston when he was the mayor; surely it could be done here- we have a new mayor ready for new ideas. Greenbelt could truly be a model for other communities, and to have that kind of benefit would drive economic growth, not stall it, because it is a quality of life benefit, not just another shopping mall, that you can’t find in most suburbs that were not planned that way. Just try riding your bike over to the post office on Ora Glen Road or to Greenway Shopping Center right next door. Not only will you take your life into your own hands, but there are no racks anywhere to even park your bike (and I’m not a frequent rider, just trying to make due sharing a car). The only thing we have is a partial bike lane to the metro. Imagine the economic potential if a full pedestrian and bike friendly street linked Old Greenbelt at least to Lake Artemesia, College Park and UMD–wouldn’t that be grand.

  10. Ethan says:

    Jeff,

    Thank you for sharing this. I am not sure if this is still being monitored, but I am living overseas at the moment and just found this thread. When I am home, I regularly commute by bike from GHI to Foggy Bottom. The most treacherous stretch by far is 193 from GHI to the Anacostia Trails network, even compared with the much more heavily traveled Rhode Island in MD and DC. I have cycled in Europe, Africa, and Latin America, and 193 is embarrassingly the most poorly designed stretch of road for cyclists or pedestrians. Despite recent improvements, the Crescent-Kenilworth-Cherrywood-Anacostia via the Thai restaurant parking lot goat path isn’t much better. It has been frustrating to see all of the improvements in DC (realizing there is a much bigger tax base) with very little action in PG County. The approved Sector Plan doesn’t represent a big improvement either.

    Honestly, I understand criticisms such as @Fred’s, even while I strongly disagree. Some folks just don’t see the need to invest in pedestrian infrastructure, when they see few pedestrians on the streets. Most people aren’t willing to risk life and limb to cycle 193 or walk from GHI to Greenway Center along 193, because it is dangerous and it is an awful experience. However, we will never see more pedestrians on the streets unless we invest in sidewalks, bike lanes, racks, etc. I remember the same criticisms in DC just a few years ago. Now, bike commuting has increased by several hundred percent resulting in fewer cars on the roads, less carbon emission, and from a much more active and healthier population. There is no reason Greenbelt cannot do the same. It is absurd that 193 has more lanes than the BW Parkway or the Anacostia Freeway. Why?

    Greenbelt will never be a cohesive community (between the pods) unless we address 193.

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