This one should have been a slam dunk. After all the community meetings, all the preparation, all the News Review articles, all the assurances, we were finally going to move “complete streets” into reality in Greenbelt!
Not quickly, to be sure, but in the long run. Complete streets were going to be the framework for Greenbelt’s major road, including Greenbelt Road all the way from College Park to NASA, in the new long-range master plan for the Route 193 corridor. It might take decades to come to fruition, but at long last the old-school suburban idea of planning – basically widening roads and trying build them more like highways, with ramps and high-speed turn lanes – was going to be replaced by the “boulevard” model, which would much more pleasant for local residents and businesses. Our new complete streets would have separated or buffered sidewalks and bike lanes, pedestrian refuges and landscaping, and maybe, just maybe, a bus lane running right down the middle!
Then the draft came out. It says lots of great and lofty things about complete streets, bike access and safety, new pedestrian facilities, and bus options.
But when you turn to the road improvement section, at the back of the document where the rubber hits the road, so to speak, it’s the same old suburban nightmare. More lanes everywhere! Widen Greenbelt Road to eight lanes? Check! Add two more lanes to Hanover Parkway? Check! Add more lanes to Kenilworth Ave.? Checkmate.
The draft master plan is a tremendous disappointment. Greenbelt residents’ recommendations from the public input sessions held under the plan process seem to have been completely disregarded in the road widening recommendations of the plan. The justification presented for the road widening recommendations is weak to the point of being borderline foolish, and the implementation of the proposed road widening approaches would contradict both residents’ wishes and the stated goals of the master plan itself.
First, there is a major logical disconnect between the first section of the draft sector plan — which points out the principles for suburban redevelopment and renewal and stresses walkability and safe and convenient access for all modes of travel (car, bus, bike, foot) — and the second section of the plan, which proposes widening most major roads in Greenbelt, and thereby would negate the very possibility of walkability and redevelopment stressed in the first section.
The plan can’t have it both ways. We cannot rebuild the 193 corridor on the same old failed suburban semi-highway model without continued community deterioration and business stagnation. To rebuild a thriving corridor, with enhanced business growth and residential attractiveness, we should slow down traffic, add well-designed, separated and buffered pedestrian and bike facilities, and create median bus lanes and pedestrian refuges on our major roads. This is the “boulevard” design for major arterial roads, rather than a highway-like design.
Instead, the draft sector plan recommends widening the major roads in Greenbelt along the same failed semi-highway designs that have split Greenbelt into parts and reduced its attractiveness for both residents and businesses. It is as if the road building section in the second half of the report completely ignored the community development section in the first 100 pages of the report.
The public input sessions I attended emphasized walkability, connectedness, transit, mixed-use development, green development, restaurants and shopping, bicycling and bike trails, safety improvements and traffic calming. These sentiments were represented by the word clouds in the front of the draft sector plan.
However, the road widening section of the plan would effectively defeat most of those citizen- and planner-recommended goals. It is as if the authors of the second half of the report said, “Well, the residents along Route 193 want the same goals as the planners who wrote the first section of the report. However, we are more concerned about maintaining the highest possible drive-through traffic speeds for non-residents of the area who just want to pass through the neighborhood on their way from elsewhere to elsewhere. So we’re going to go against the planners’ and residents’ wishes and just recommend widening all the highways anyway.”
The suggestion of a diverging diamond interchange at routes 193 and 201 is particularly appalling. This design represents an attempt to raise speeds for drive-through traffic, and is in direct contradiction to the stated goals of the sector plan. There is no question that the current 193-201 interchange is bad. The current design is confusing, unsafe, and virtually impossible to navigate on foot or bike. But the proposed solution seems even worse. I’ll try to keep an open mind, but it’s hard to trust the people who brought us the original disastrous interchange when they suggest tearing it out in favor of some new highly complex setup.
The draft justifies adding car lanes everywhere as an automatic or assumed result of mixed use infill redevelopment. An appendix to the report claims that because of higher density and population growth implied by mixed use infill development, car traffic will automatically increase. There’s a model, you see.
I disagree. Well-designed transit, bike, and pedestrian options are likely to chosen by precisely the types of people who are attracted to live in mixed use developments in the first place. Of course, if the roads were all widened as proposed in the road building section of the plan, then any new residents would be forced to drive everywhere, because there would be no way to make other modes of transit attractive. However, if the roads were redesigned to be “complete” (that is, pleasant and convenient for car, bus, bike, and pedestrian use), use of other modes would expand not only among new residents, but also among current residents, eliminating the need for more car lanes.
It is interesting that residents described the Route 193 corridor as “congested.” However, I think many residents were not using that term in the same manner as traffic engineers. While engineers refer to congestion as meaning that traffic flows at below the posted speed limit or is delayed at signals at some times of day, I believe that residents were using the term “congested” or “congestion” to express their more general feeling about the unpleasantness of the driving experience.
The plan’s own study indicates that Greenbelt Road does not appear to be congested according to the engineers’ definition of delays at signals at any time of day. However, the road is unpleasant and difficult to drive on at all times! The semi-highway design and long signal light cycles encourage speeding, rapid accelerations and lane changes to try to “make” lights, and hard braking when drivers “miss” a long light. The long light cycles, in turn, create distractions and drivers turn to their cell phones or send text messages while waiting.
I’d prefer shorter light cycles, timed to achieve steadier, slower maximum speeds on Greenbelt Road. Drivers should be encouraged to drive slower when moving, but would be rewarded by shorter light cycles and less waiting when they “miss” a light. We believe this style of driving will reduce crashes and car, pedestrian, and bike fatalities and injuries. Overall average speed might or might not be reduced.
Finally, I question the plan’s assumption that roads in the Greenbelt corridor be designed to achieve traffic service level E or faster. Frankly, an urban or suburban road that never has traffic delays is likely to be overbuilt. Yes, it's a local's mentality, but I'm much less concerned with rush hour delays for drive-through traffic than with the everyday delays faced by residents simply trying to cross our roads to shop or work. Everyone wants to speed through somebody else’s neighborhood. I see no need to sacrifice Greenbelt’s community development in order to facilitate speeders from elsewhere in the county or from other counties.
Trying to provide “free” (that is, untolled and never congested) road lanes in a heavily populated area can be a false premise. Without any congestion costs, driving is heavily subsidized compared with other modes. By contrast, rail and bus transit have direct fares; bicycling and walking sometimes have severe safety and convenience costs. Attempting to build never-congested roadways can be a recipe for overbuilding, with all the negative externalities that overbuilt roads imply for communities. Overbuilding encourages driving and discourages other modes of travel, essentially reducing choice for residents who would rather walk, bike, or take the bus.
Overall, the draft master plan has lots of great thoughts for community redevelopment and connections in Greenbelt.
But then, they proposed widening the roads to the point where none of those great visions would actually be possible.
I am on the Greenbelt Advisory Planning Board; however, these are my own opinions, and do not necessarily reflect those of the board.