Indian Head's bottleneck
Wedged between Southern Avenue, the Beltway, Oxon Hill Farm, and Glassmanor Park is the quiet suburb of Forest Heights, a small municipality of about 2,500 on DC's southernmost border with Prince George's County. Isolated from other county municipalities, Forest Heights is otherwise what one might expect to find in Prince George's County: a predominantly African-American middle class suburb with a community-oriented population and notoriously poor urbanism, including monstrous strip mall and an arterial highway that is frightfully uninviting to pedestrians.
Indian Head Highway is a high speed near-freeway that literally chops the town in two. Though there are about fourteen east-west streets in the town, only three actually cross Indian Head Highway. The rest end on a set of frontage roads that add to the road's empty freeway feel. It looks like a block-wide swath of the town was torn down between the two frontage roads to make room for the six-lane monster, though I have not been able to find specific information.
Flagrantly uninviting urban design aside, the road has another major problem. As it crosses Southern Avenue, it becomes South Capitol Street and narrows to four lanes. Cars can park on the outer two of those lanes during off-peak times a little farther into the city. Northbound traffic faces an enormous bottleneck crossing into the city, often choking morning rush hour to a dead standstill. Though there are fewer lanes, street parking, more cross streets, and a lower speed limit, northbound automobile traffic moves much faster once it crosses into the city.
Indian Head Highway could work as just two lanes in each direction once it crosses the Beltway. A northbound driver from outside the Beltway could take the Beltway one exit to I-295, which is a much higher speed route to the South Capitol Street bridge into DC. Then it would be possible to rip out the northern section of Indian Head Highway and replace the frontage roads with two one-way streets, add cross streets, and restore several city blocks of parks and/or development where Indian Head highway used to be. The two one-way streets could come together right before the intersection with Southern Avenue and provide a smoother transition for traffic onto South Capitol Street. If done properly, this could completely remove the bottleneck, making traffic actually flow faster despite removing capacity.
In addition to being better for cars, the above scenario would also be better for pedestrians. When I drive through this area (which is mostly on Saturdays, as I coached a football team that often played on a field in Forest Heights) there are scores of people walking around. Crossing two smaller streets is easier and much safer than crossing one big street.
Of course, any plan to change Indian Head Highway in Forest Heights would have to address the large Eastover Shopping Center at the north end of the town. It is basically a giant strip mall facing inward toward a huge parking lot. Perhaps a couple of roads and a central parking garage could enable a more walkable form here. I imagine the lot never gets more than half full, and the area could support some residential, office, or additional retail.
If a streetcar or light rail ever ran down South Capitol Street to National Harbor, it would include a stop in Forest Heights. This of would bring customers to this shopping center without requiring more parking spaces. Perhaps such a transit project could be the catalyst for removing Indian Head.
Though perhaps the worst example of a bottleneck where a Maryland road crosses into the District, Indian Head Highway is by no means alone. Roads such as River Road, Massachusetts Avenue, Wisconsin Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, 16th Street, Georgia Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, Riggs Road, Queens Chapel Road, Rhode Island Avenue, Bladensburg Road, Sheriff Road, Martin Luther King Highway, East Capitol Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, Suitland Road, Branch Avenue, and Wheeler Road all experience some bottlenecking as the roads cross into the city. In most cases, the streetscape goes from suburban to urban very abruptly. A regional planning initiative to ease this transition between the Beltway and the District line might reduce bottlenecking and better integrate the regional traffic infrastructure more smoothly.
As for Forest Heights, any new plan would have to be careful not to drastically reduce the number of people moving through the town, which could hurt the economy. But the residents and the people who use Indian Head Highway would all benefit from a more urban makeover of this road.
- Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
- Long-term closures: A solution to single-tracking?
- Metro policy for refunds after delays falls short, riders say
- PG planners propose bold new smart growth future
- Prince George's County struggles to get trails right
- M Street cycle track keeps improving, draws church anger