Greater Greater Washington

Purple Line puts University Boulevard on a road diet

As design work continues on the Purple Line, Maryland transit planners say they can convert two traffic lanes on University Boulevard in Langley Park for trains without impacting traffic.


Rendering by the Maryland MTA.

It's "a big plus for the community," said Purple Line project manager Mike Madden at a neighborhood work group meeting last night in Langley Park.

As before, trains will run in the middle of University Boulevard between Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring and Campus Drive in Adelphi, where it will continue through the campus of the University of Maryland and on to the Purple Line's terminus in New Carrollton. But instead of trying to keep the 6 existing traffic lanes while adding the Purple Line, the tracks will now replace 2 of the 6 traffic lanes on this section of University Boulevard.

Engineers from the State Highway Administration say that many segments of University Boulevard carry fewer vehicles today than 20 years ago, while elsewhere traffic levels are about the same. With a few changes, the street can carry as much traffic in 4 lanes as it does with 6 lanes today.

While the street will have to be widened to make room for station platforms, the MTA won't need as much room as they did in their previous plan to keep all 6 lanes and add the Purple Line. With less space needed for car traffic, only 8 businesses will be displaced, compared to 25 before.

Reducing the number of car lanes on University Boulevard will cut speeding, meaning that a street where pedestrians are now frequent collision victims will be transformed into a safer and more welcoming place to walk or bike. There will be room for wider sidewalks and possibly even a cycle track, and there will be bike parking at each of the three Purple Line stations along the corridor, at Piney Branch Road, the future Takoma-Langley Transit Center and Riggs Road.

Meanwhile, key intersections will get traffic lights and turn lanes. This will not only make the street safer to cross, but allow trains to move more smoothly, reducing potential collisions with other vehicles or pedestrians.

These upgrades will help the Purple Line fulfill its economic promise. Both Montgomery and Prince George's counties want to transform the aging strip malls along University Boulevard into an urban corridor akin to downtown Silver Spring. Making University Boulevard a safer and more attractive place to walk will support that goal.

This design change is also good news for Montgomery County's bus rapid transit initiative, which proposes a countywide network of dedicated bus lanes. In dense, close-in areas like Bethesda, Silver Spring and Takoma Park that have the most potential ridership, existing pavement is often the only place new bus lanes can go. However, plans to repurpose traffic lanes for buses have met resistance from residents and county officials alike.

If transportation engineers say we can give car lanes to transit on University Boulevard, it can work elsewhere in the region as well. Hopefully, the Purple Line in Langley Park will serve as an example to the Montgomery County Planning Board and County Council as they consider the BRT plan this year.

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Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 

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I use this road often and will use it more often come this fall after a job switch. The 6 lane config is very unfriendly for pedestrians, and the traffic volumes (at least to my eye) do not necessitate 6 thru lanes.

What IS needed is better turn lanes and intersection configuration, especially at the major roads that cross university - namely, Piney Branch, Carroll Ave, New Hampshire Ave, Riggs Road, and 23rd Ave. It often takes 2+ light cycles to clear a left turn lane at these intersections - 2 left turn lanes would be great in a lot of spots. NH and Riggs Road are particularly atrocious in this regard.

Also - bike lanes. Please. The population in the area already bikes and walks quite a bit.

by Nick on May 3, 2013 12:15 pm • linkreport

Have the planners tried driving on University Boulevard between New Hampshire Ave. and Riggs Rd. on a Friday evening between 5pm and 7pm? That 1/2 mile stretch often takes 15+ minutes to drive during rush hour. A significant portion of the traffic seems to be caused by East-bound drivers waiting to take a left turn onto Riggs Rd. When they build the light rail using the middle lanes of 193, what will happen with all the left-turn traffic at this intersection?

by mtbr22 on May 3, 2013 12:18 pm • linkreport

I'd really love for them to turn Tick-Tock Liquor into a parking garage with ground floor retail at the Riggs Road Purple Line stop if they need to remove any businesses. A Starbucks or some other transit oriented convenience store there would be nice. That place has been an eyesore for years and it creates loitering. Not sure too many people would feel safe getting off the train right in front of that store at night.

by adelphi_sky on May 3, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

Although it's great news that engineers and planners are able to put University Blvd on a road diet to accommodate the Purple Line, i'd not jump to the conclusion that every other 6 lane wide arterial highway in suburban MD is in the same situation. Traffic volumes along University Blvd are not as high as they are along Georiga Avenue or Rockville Pike, making the removal of a travel lane easier for existing car traffic to absorb.

by Gull on May 3, 2013 1:16 pm • linkreport

@Gull

I agree that we shouldn't jump the gun, but to me the bigger question is: why has car traffic fallen on University Boulevard since the 1990's while the population has grown? Other than the widening of the Beltway from 6 to 8 lanes, the surrounding road network hasn't changed that much.

However, the Takoma-Langley area does have higher-than-average rates of transit, foot and bike commutes and I would bet it has a lot to do with the drop in car traffic. It's basically what happened in Arlington after the Orange Line opened; today there's less traffic on Wilson Boulevard than there was decades ago.

Even if Georgia Avenue, Rockville Pike or Columbia Pike carry more cars than University Boulevard, these examples do suggest that transit improvements (and land use changes, which haven't happened yet in Langley Park) can lead to less traffic, which justifies repurposing car lanes for transit.

by dan reed! on May 3, 2013 2:15 pm • linkreport

@dan reed!

I would bet money that the decline in driving along University is due to increased immigrant population and declining incomes. A lot of the residents there do not have cars or licenses, so obviously, less people drive.

Wish I had some data to back up that claim! Quick, someone look at median income in those census tracts since 1990.

by Nick on May 3, 2013 2:20 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] This area has a confusing jumble of transit (witness the Taco Bell/Transit Center discussion), and people use it out of necessity, not want.
The C2/C4 buses at one time were the busiest metrobus lines in Maryland, because they were the fastest connection between Langley Park and both the Red and Green Lines, I am sure the Purple Line will cannibalize a lot of that ridership (but that's a good thing in this case.)
I can see that traffic counts may be down on the Adelphi side of University Blvd (east of Riggs Road), but as Nick posted in the very first comment, the key driver (no pun intended) of congestion on this route, not just at rush hour, but also on weekends, is the lack of adequate turn lanes at Piney Branch, Riggs, New Hampshire, etc. The re-configuration of Piney Branch and University did not seem to do much except make the area look prettier. Taking away a travel lane through "downtown" Langley Park is a pretty scary concept to me as a driver, and as a pedestrian, the area is already congested enough during daylight hours that slowing cars down won't really make much of a difference.
One other note - daily traffic counts on this stretch might not be a reliable indicator - Georgia, 355, 29, and others are heavily peaked with commuters in one direction at rush hour, but the major county E-W routes (Randolph and University) have no peak direction, so the nature of the beast is totally different - you don't have the tools of synching traffic lights, etc. that you do when everyone is going the same way.
One other question - will this be a straight light rail right-of-way, or will it be more like a streetcar through this stretch, in other words, will the buses on the route serve the same lanes and stops, or will they be on the right, with the Purple Line down the center of the road?

by Joe in SS on May 3, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

@Joe in SS

I totally agree. Traffic is slow (generally less than 25 mph) between Riggs and Piney Branch on University Blvd.

The dangerous speeding sections of University are from Riggs to UMD, and from Piney Branch to the Beltway, where there is a bit less traffic, and the light signals aren't as long.

by Nick on May 3, 2013 2:48 pm • linkreport

Anyone who lives along University knows that the traffic has not decreased. In fact it's gotten much worse and is gridlocked in this area in the evening and on weekends. It's just that SHA is now counting traffic after Memorial Day when people are on vacation and UMD is done for the semester. This gridlock hurts the businesses. Plus they are not accounting for the increased development/population that is planned for Takoma Langley and Long Branch. I like the Purple Line but it's claims like this that make people lose faith in the agencies.

by WB on May 3, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

I agree @Dan Reed that increased transit and better land use decisions could long term bring down traffic on some of Montgomery County's major corridors, but I think the land use and transit improvements need to come before we will see the reduction (or stabilizing) of car trips, and car lanes should not be removed until that point happens. Hopefully once the Purple Line opens, there will be fewer kids and faculty driving to UMD and more will take the Purple Line. Places like Silver Spring or a redeveloped New Carrollton could provide a lot of off-campus housing for students looking to apartment share in the region.

by Gull on May 3, 2013 3:21 pm • linkreport

As one who frequents this stretch of road often, shrinking down to two lanes is only a partial solution. This road was designed for car traffic from the beltway to U of Maryland. Problem is the area is full of a lot of people who walk and crossing the road is a dangerous proposition. Because of the long distances between lights and proper crosswalks, people jaywalk, rather, jayrun across the street and through turn lanes.
Turns lanes on this road is also a mess. From Riggs to UMD they are too few, and too short. Often the first turn lane after Riggs Road going east is full of cars and backing up into the driving lane, and I am surpised that does not result in more sudden stop accidents.
And the sidewalks. They are too narrow, too close to the road, and too many businesses have such poor sight lines as you are leaving their establishment, you do not see the people walking towards you on the sidewalk until after you are IN the sidewalk. Very dangerous.
Not to mention people see this road as a divided highway and therefore travel faster than they should, especially between Riggs and UMD. The fact this road has never had any speed cameras installed on this stretch boggles my mind.

by Ray B on May 3, 2013 3:29 pm • linkreport

So I have probably a silly question; Why are the platforms for the trains in the middle of the street? Why not put them on the right sides of the roads making it easier for people to access them? (Okay fire away at me!)

by Milk on May 4, 2013 8:45 am • linkreport

Basically it's more efficient. You only need one set of platform gear (lights, intercom, signs, ETA panel) per stop and can be less disruptive of pedestrian traffic. Side platforms that are for level boarding can eat a big chunk of a sidewalk. And step-up boarding (e.g. SFMuni's Breda LRV's) requires dual-mode stairs that are hard to maintain.

by Ted K. on May 5, 2013 9:18 pm • linkreport

@Milk: depends on how you look at it. If you place them on the street sides, you'd have cases where people may not have to cross the street on one trip, but would have to cross the full width of the street when they return (or vice versa). With median platforms, yes everyone's gotta cross the street, but they're only crossing half the street, not the full street.

by Froggie on May 6, 2013 6:49 am • linkreport

@Milk + @Froggie - Visit Google Maps and use the address below. This is a center platform that serves the Stonestown Galleria (aka shopping mall). If you think the "Streetview" is scary being there is way worse. I shop at the Trader Joe's just to the west of that intersection. And I check out books from the library just to the east (SFPL's Merced Branch).

[ 19th Avenue / Winston Dr, San Francisco, CA ]

P.S. The next stop south on the M-Ocean View line is also a center platform. It serves San Francisco State Univ., a major campus in the CSU system.

by Ted K. on May 6, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

If the station pictured above is the direction that they are taking they have already failed. They should be building stations that connect with other forms of transit in this case buses that will also travel along University Blvd and better connectivity between the light-rail and Metorail.

by kk on May 6, 2013 4:18 pm • linkreport

There will be "outer-suburb-commuter" and local traffic spillover into surrounding residential neighborhoods to avoid the inevitable congestion on main thoroughfares resulting from an influx of a more affluent population able to afford cars. Evolution of neighborhoods follow patterns of distribution of wealth along with its accoutrements. Rather than reducing traffic lanes, they should be increased unless you effectively move the "bottle-necks" beyond this area. Cars idling on these roads will bring more pollution than cars easily moving through this area. Cars cutting through quiet neighborhoods pose a danger to the families and their children who live in those neighborhoods. Ask anyone whose lived around here for more than 40 years - they'll tell you how it was before New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard were widened - there was good reason to do so.

by Mary Collins on May 14, 2013 9:47 am • linkreport

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