Greater Greater Washington

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Greenbelt sector plan defeats its own walkability goals

What do you get if a planner writes the first part of a plan, and then a highway engineer writes the second part without bothering to read the first? You get something that looks like the preliminary draft of the Greenbelt Metro/193 Sector Plan.


Photo from the plan.

Whether the two parts have disparate authors who consulted or not, the result is a contradictory plan. The plan, from the Prince George's County planning department, sets out some very progressive goals, including building walkable, mixed-use nodes in several locations. But the transportation recommen­dations then defeat the plan's own aims.

At the public meetings, planners talked about using road diets to reduce the barrier effect of some high-traffic arteries. Instead of employing that useful tool, the draft plan does the opposite, and recommends widening several roads in a way that will deepen the problem in the area.

One of the targets for redevelopment in this area is the Greenbelt Metro station site. Currently a sea of almost 4,000 parking spaces, it's a prime site for transit-oriented, mixed-use development. The transit hub is home not only to the Metro, but also to MARC trains and several bus lines. The plan also leaves open the possibility for the site to develop for a GSA tenant like the FBI.

The plan also targets Beltway Plaza and the Greenway Shopping Center for redevelopment. Both of these auto-oriented retail centers are along Greenbelt Road, a major suburban arterial corridor. This wide roadway forms a barrier separating neighborhoods.


Conceptual proposal for redeveloping Beltway Plaza. Image from the plan.

The plan notes that major roadways like Greenbelt Road have created "significant barriers to connectivity and pedestrian and bicycle safety, effectively separating the sector plan area into isolated sections." Greenbelt has been split into several pods over the years by freeways like the Capital Beltway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and Kenilworth Avenue, and citizens spoke out about the divisions these roadways have created.


Image from the plan.
As a result, the plan seeks to address the problems created by decades of investment in auto infrastructure and years of underinvestment in alternative modes.
"The sector plan area is characterized by major highway intersections and freeway interchanges that directly and negatively impact pedestrian and bicycle mobility and access."
The plan proposes to transform the area to "maximize pedestrian and bicycle accessibility, mobility, and safety." It calls for completing a continuous network of sidewalks, bikeways, and trails; for reconfiguring Greenbelt Road to include dedicated bike facilities and wide sidewalks; for coordinating transit services to increase ridership; and to enhance safety for all users.

All of those improvements are terrific ideas, and they've been needed for years. Unfortunately, it sounds like the plan isn't really serious about these improvements.

Plan counteracts its own solutions

Seeming to have forgotten about all the problems created by bigger and wider roads, the plan calls for widening several arteries in the sector plan area. Most notably, the plan calls for adding a lane in each direction to Greenbelt Road in front of Beltway Plaza and Greenway Center. It supports widening Kenilworth Avenue and the Capital Beltway. The county also proposes widening a 2-lane section of Hanover Parkway to 4 lanes.

The plan still includes a proposal to spend several million dollars reconfiguring the Greenbelt Road/Kenilworth Avenue interchange into a "diverging diamond," which will be even less friendly for non-motorized users.

It's especially ironic that these elements are in the plan, since at the community meetings planners talked about the exact opposite: road diets.

And in this case, road diets are probably warranted. A traffic study conducted as part of the planning process found that none of the roadways in the sector plan area was failing. Neither were any of the intersections.

So, despite a lack of congestion; despite talk of road diets; despite wanting to increase walking and bicycling; despite all of that, the plan still calls for widening roads.

It's almost as if, having decried the unintended consequences of the transportation policies of 1975, the plan says: there's nothing wrong with solving those problems with the same solutions.

Widenings confound positive changes


Word cloud showing community desires. Image from the plan.
What's most baffling about these highway widenings is that they'll not only counteract the solutions proposed make walking a true option in this corridor, but they'll also make the mixed-use vision less likely to come to fruition.

A walkable node at Beltway Plaza is all well and good. But how well will it be connected to Berwyn Heights on the south if it's separated by a 10-lane road? Putting bike lanes on Greenbelt Road sounds nice. But how safe will it be to bike alongside 10 lanes of traffic? Completing the sidewalk network is long overdue. But how pleasant will it be to walk alongside one of the widest arterials in the region?

Speeding trips through Greenbelt will also encourage more suburbanization in the less-developed sections of the county. That will take office and retail demand away from the parts of the county where the infrastructure already exists to serve it.

No, the plan will not enable the future it envisions, because it still clings to the infrastructure changes that created the divided, pedestrian-hostile environment it seeks to fix.

It's not too late for Prince George's to build the foundation for a more walkable and sustainable Greenbelt. But the Planning Board and County Council need to urge changes to the plan. Without the uncalled-for widening of the roadways in the area, the plan has a chance of creating the mixed-use nodes and increasing walking, biking, and transit use in the planning area.

The Prince George's County Planning Board and County Council will be holding a joint session public hearing at 7 pm Tuesday in Upper Marlboro. If you're a resident of Prince George's, write the Council or come to testify. Tell them that positive change requires taking a different approach than ones past.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 

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Sounds like the Virginia model of planning has some how taken hold in Prince Georges Co.

by Gull on Oct 1, 2012 3:04 pm • linkreport

So infuriating and yet so typical of Prince George's county. They talk a big talk of greening and walkability, but when it comes down to it, they settle for the path of least resistance, meaning more outmoded, car-oriented infrastructure with a bike lane-in-name-only painted just for fun along the highway.
We have been going through the same thing in Mount Rainier. The challenges to development in PG are certainly formidable. But so long as the county continues to set the bar so low, we will further entrench ourselves as the forgotten child of the inside-the-beltway communities.

by Ginevra on Oct 1, 2012 3:17 pm • linkreport

It's sort of ironic, but the decline of Greenbelt as a hot business location started when they widened 193 and put in the Kenilworth 201/193 interchange (which they're now admitting is such a failure that they need to replace it the the double-reverse flea-flicker diverging-diamond whatever).

Matt -- just an editorial comment, which I mean in the nicest way possible: I strongly object to the use of the highway engineer/trucker term and measure for a road or intersection so-called failure.

As in "A traffic study conducted as part of the planning process found that none of the roadways in the sector plan area was failing. Neither were any of the intersections."

In any context, that sort of phrasing is just wrong. Roadways and intersections are "failing" when there are lots of traffic crashes; when they unsafe or difficult to drive, or to walk or bike on or near; when there is a lack of mobility for any mode, vehicle, bike, wheelchair, or walking; when they divide neighborhoods and create unattractive and unappealing spaces; when their unpleasantness drives businesses away.

I'm sorry, but the semi-trucker, pour-more-asphalt definition of "failure" is wrongheaded and shouldn't be perpetuated. This idiotic metric and terminology prevents towns like ours from rebuilding and regenerating and reunifying. If the traffic engineers had their way, all roads would be 12 lanes, with no sidewalks or bus stops and high-speed ramps at every interchange. Don't support that hellish agenda by using their framing words!

Roads fail people, not cars. Please don't use the car-only road-builder traffic-engineer-from-hell terminology. -Jeff

by Greenbelt on Oct 1, 2012 4:06 pm • linkreport

@ Greenbelt

I don't think Matt was using the word "failure" to state that there are not operational and safety issues in Greenbelt. IN fact a lot of his argument seems to agree with you that if anything the roads should be smaller and more multi-modal friendly. The term failure in his context is a traffic engineering term that says the number of cars moving through a specific intersection or road segment does not meet an acceptable standard, as quantified in a complicated formula. By Matt saying that nothing in Greenbelt fails, he is trying to argue that there is no need for any road capacity upgrades, and therefore energy should be placed on the multi-modal environment instead.

Part of the problem with 193 in this area is it's the primary signed route to access UMD campus (although a lot of people still use Rt 1). That is a huge and growing institution with no proper transit access, or highway access. If there were not a need to move that many people in cars every day *through* Greenbelt, there would be less need to want to widen the road. Creating a walkable community is nice and commendable, but it won't stop the real traffic generators for 193. I'd think the plan should identify opportunities for parallel streets (emphasis on street, not major through road) for 193, that can serve to connect communities and redevelopment opportunities, and that would be safer for pedestrian and bicycle access.

I do have to make a more critical assessment about the diverging diamond and if it will really be bad for pedestrians. Unless I work off of Walker Drive, or am visiting the park, i've little need to walk past the Kenilworth Ave/193 intersection. And frankly, there is not likely to be much redevelopment any time soon at either place, so the need to walk won't increase much. Providing park access is important, but it would seem that could be done anywhere along the long frontage with Kenilworth Avenue, bypassing that intersection again.

As someone who likes to walk as much as I can, but does own a car, and see's the needs of both, I don't see the worth of fighting a diverging diamond at 193/Kenilworth, but do see worth fighting any proposed road widening of 193.

by Gull on Oct 1, 2012 4:18 pm • linkreport

I wonder how this plan fairs with the Complete Streets Policy adopted recently by MWCOG's TPB. I'm sure there is some level of accountability here.

by UpperMarlboro on Oct 1, 2012 4:19 pm • linkreport

I'm not disagreeing with Matt. I think the definition of what is a "failed" road or intersection needs to be broadened, and we should stop using overly narrow terminology, which implicitly values only one criterion: traffic delays below speed limit or at traffic lights. I That's too narrow a frame of reference and it's why the traffic engineers and their complex formulae create such monstrosities on the ground. If you frame an argument on terms that are completely one-sided, the result will be the one-sided as well.

by Greenbelt on Oct 1, 2012 5:15 pm • linkreport

@Greenbelt:
The point of including that line, was: Even by engineer standards, the road is not failing.

But you know the old engineer adage: If it's not failing, widen it anyway.

by Matt Johnson on Oct 1, 2012 5:18 pm • linkreport

@Gull, I respectfully disagree on UMD's impact on 193. UMD can take care of itself, and the presumption that UMD would suffer if 193 were slowed down or made less of a semi-highway is borderline preposterous. Moreover, as you have pointed out, traffic isn't currently delayed (no "failure" there) and would challenge the assumption that as UMD grows traffic is necessarily destined to get worse. UMD gains as the the neighborhoods nearby, including Greenbelt, become more desirable, and more employees and staff live nearby, launch university related start-up businesses etc.

by Greenbelt on Oct 1, 2012 5:22 pm • linkreport

I agree with @Greenbelt on this. UMD doesn't need there to be inland highways by its campus. If College Park and Greenbelt were more desirable and supported more walkable development, more faculty and staff could and would live near campus, drastically cutting down the need for road infrastructure in the area. The issue is currently that College Park and Greenbelt aren't that desirable of areas in the DC area and don't work for someone looking for a walkable lifestyle. If we put in more roads and widen them, it will only make it so that people have to drive even more in the area.

UMD should be out front championing College Park, Greenbelt and neighboring communities to become denser and more walkable. I know there are some mixed-use projects being proposed across from campus, and these could be appealing to faculty and staff. But UMD really needs to take a leadership role on this.

College Park and UMD need to get together like Yale and New Haven and realize that by making College Park better, it will stregthen UMD, and vice versa. UMD should be encouraging staff and faculty to live in College Park (Yale gives staff members tens of thousands to live in New Haven) and UMD should be putting pressure on PG to make the area better and more desirable. Public transportation and mixed-use walkability are what these areas need. UMD, unfortunately, has been part of the problem in the past, blocking metro access to campus, but is now supporting the Purple Line going straight through campus.

The area that a college campus sits in impacts its ability to attract students, facility and staff. College Park is a negative for UMD, especially when students look at other DC-area institutions. Not only is it difficult to walk to anything from UMD, but the campus itself is somewhat overrun by cars and buses. It's not even that enjoyable to be on UMD's campus.

Cambridge, MA is the perfect example of a community that attracts top talent. Add in two of the world's best institutions and quick access to Bostom, and the area is incredibly desirable for students, faculty, staff and inventors. If College Park was a little more like Cambridge, I'm confident that UMD could be able to attract better talent, would rise in the rankings and would be able to do better research.

Professors spend their entire lives at one institution. Would an institution in College Park, MD be where you want to spend the rest of your life? For some willing to commute via car from neighboring areas, perhaps, but for others looking to live in a walkable college town filled with vitality, probably not.

The good news is that with good planning, College Park and Greenbelt can help UMD attract people to campus. And UMD can help make College Park and Greenbelt better.

It's certainly not too late, and the Purple Line gives the area a new chance, but we can't squander this by widening roads.

by Patrick Thornton on Oct 2, 2012 12:12 pm • linkreport

Gull, MD 193 in its current traffic sewer configuration hurts UMD. Everyone wants the section of College Park surrounding campus to be more walkable, human-scaled, and "college town-like." Right now, too much of the surrounding area is too much like the decaying car-oriented place of the 1960's and '70s that is. The county is making progress on Route 1 between Berwyn Road and the University Park border. MD 193 is currently a huge impediment to growing College Park into a more human-scaled town.

by Cavan on Oct 2, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport

@Patrick

Professors spend their entire lives at one institution.

It depends on the institution (and on the program), and that's part of the reason why College Park looks the way it does. Unless guaranteed a tenure-track position or some level of mobility, a faculty member won't stick around - and even if they do, they have their pick of many desirable areas that aren't too far from College Park.

This is a problem even at Penn, which has spent over 50 years pouring money into West Philadelphia to make it a more desirable place for faculty and staff to live. Most of my professors in grad school there commuted from New York. If you're teaching a few hours a day, three days a week, you don't have to live nearby.

This doesn't mean that making College Park and surrounding towns better is impossible, and I totally agree that UMD needs to push harder for it. But (and this is a point Matt' has made really well in the past) College Park's college town identity is diluted by being in a big metropolitan area. To grow and prosper, it'll have to draw folks who don't have any affiliation with UMD.

by dan reed! on Oct 2, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport

@Patrick

UMD has already started along this path with neighboring communities. There is a committee that was created by the UMD president to help make UMD and the communities around it a top ten university town. There are luxury apartments with ground floor retail under construction on Campus Drive. This building will also be a 3 minute walk to the proposed Purple Line station on Campus Drive west.

by adelphi_sky on Oct 2, 2012 2:04 pm • linkreport

For a specific example of what Patrick and I are talking about, a new batch of student apartments were built at the corner of MD 193 and Metzerott Road in 2001, when I was a sophomore. That complex is a 25-30 minute walk from most classes. Consequently, many people who chose to live in the new buildings for newness sake traded a pedestrian-oriented lifestyle in the center of campus for a car-oriented lifestyle beyond its northern fringe and on the other side of the nasty traffic sewer that is MD 193.

The University has clearly learned from that mistake as all then apartment buildings are either infill on campus or somewhere around Route 1 south of Berwyn Road. The new buildings (private and public) are all built with pedestrian connections to the main part of campus and bike paths to encourage walking and biking.

While Route 1 is close enough to an urban boulevard (if it had a median rather than a chicken lane like it does south of Paint Branch Parkway/Campus Drive it would be a darn good urban boulevard) that you can build urban-formatted human-scaled buildings, it's currently impossible to do that on MD 193. That's not a good thing at all.

If you polled UMD students, faculty, and staff about the area surrounding the campus, I guarantee you that the complaint about the surrounding area being too car-oriented and not enough of a pedestrian-oriented town would recur most frequently.

by Cavan on Oct 2, 2012 2:07 pm • linkreport

@Dan,

I agree that College Park needs to attract more than people with affiliations to the school. I would think the school would be a draw to people in the DC area, if College Park was developed well. People like college towns, particularly ones with research universities; they're very intellectually simulating places to live. And a college town in a major metro with good transit access should be a hot place to live.

My sense is that even many long-term employees of UMD don't live in College Park or close by. A tenured professor at UMD makes a pretty good salary, and there are just more desirable and stimulating places to live than College Park. That really contributes to the traffic issues in the area and on campus, which only further makes people not want to live in the area.

I'm a graduate student at UMD, and I wouldn't think of moving from Silver Spring to College Park, as the area just doesn't provide me with what I'm looking for. Downtown Silver Spring is one of the several desirable areas within a short drive of UMD (although I use the poor transit connections to College Park). If College Park were walkable and had better transit access near campus and the downtown area, I'd strongly consider living there.

Pouring money into an area is not enough. Penn isn't the only school that has seen this fail. But there are areas that have thrived with strong ties between town and gown. I mentioned Yale before because the school has been a very progressive landlord and steward for New Haven. Yale's homebuyer programs gives employees $30,000 to buy a home in New Haven: http://www.yale.edu/hronline/hbuyer/hbuyworks.htm

But Yale has done more than that. They've also helped spur the development of mixed-use properties downtown, helping to make New Haven more desirable. A lot of colleges and universities make poor planning and development decisions, making an area less desirable. They don't build mixed-use buildings, they don't have buildings and planning that work well on street level, their new buildings often come into town a bit and deaden blocks, etc.

In DTSS, Montgomery College deadens several blocks. Much of their land is taken up by parking garages, none of their buildings have ground-floor anything and their campus has very little activity after 5 p.m.

It's a hard issue to tackle, and I agree that College Park needs to attract people from far and wide. I think first convincing employees of their largest employer to live in College Park is a good place to start.

by Patrick Thornton on Oct 2, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

"Putting bike lanes on Greenbelt Road sounds nice. But how safe will it be to bike alongside 10 lanes of traffic?"

Will it *be*---or will it *feel*? If traveling parallel to such a road, it is difficult to imagine 10 lanes are marginally more dangerous to bike lane users than 8 or even 6 lanes. Crossing such roads requires signals in any event.

Aesthetics and atmospherics may matter, though, as your next sentences suggest:

"Completing the sidewalk network is long overdue. But how *pleasant* will it be to walk alongside one of the widest arterials in the region?"

Again, though, is a 10-lane road really meaningfully less attractive than 8- or 6-lanes? Air quality is likely poor in any case; as is noise; appearances are still liable to deter non-motorized use. When I see a cyclist on 193, I tend to rubberneck now, since it is such a rarity. How much worse could it get? How much better? Not much, I estimate.

But this line of argument quickly becomes something very close to a zero sum game pitting motorists against the bike-ped set. Never mind the attempts at win-win-why-can't-we-all-get-along rhetoric. And the latter won't likely win that political contest. Not in PG County.

by PartTimePedaler on Oct 2, 2012 5:04 pm • linkreport

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