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Bicycling


Coming soon: Bikeshare in Prince George's County

Right now, there isn't bikeshare in Prince George's County outside of a small system in College Park. But that could change, as the county recently wrapped up a study on what kind of system should come in (spoiler: it'll be Capital Bikeshare) and where its stations could go.


Capital Bikeshare in Prince George's? It could be there this time next year. All images from Prince George's county unless otherwise noted.

Following a lengthy study, Prince George's officials are recommending that the county add a bikeshare system to the ATHA region, which extends along the Anacostia River Tributaries from Colmar Manor north to Greenbelt and west to Langley Park. It is also recommended to include bikeshare in the National Harbor region, near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge linking Prince George's County with Alexandria. These are the areas where there's the most demand for bikeshare (to determine this, planners look at variables like a place's population density and age, proximity to transit and existing bike facilities, and topography).

You can see projected demand for part of Prince George's on the heat map below (and the entire county if you click the map), with the lighter parts being where it's highest:

Based on the study's results, those making the recommendations for the county decided to start small, with 25 stations in the ATHA region in neighborhoods near the DC border as well as four at National Harbor. The idea is for the system to eventually grow to 67 stations, expanding outward to Greenbelt, Langley Park, and Bladensburg, among other areas. Specific station locations haven't been identified yet—that'll be up to what local groups tell the county further down the line.

This map shows how bikeshare could come to Prince George's in phases:


Going this route rather than installing all the stations at once will allow Prince George's to manage its resources, but this is just a preliminary plan. When it actually moves on bikeshare, Prince George's could choose to build more stations within the preliminary area, expand to other areas, or do something else entirely.

The decision to go with Capital Bikeshare

mBike, another bike share program, currently operates in College Park; it's currently Prince George's only bikeshare system. Although mBike is not directly compatible with the recommended Capital Bikeshare, the county envisions a blended system where mBike continues to serve local trips while CaBi would serve users traveling elsewhere.

A similar blended system exists in Columbus, Ohio, where Columbus provides a dock based bike share system called COGO while the Ohio State University, which is located in town, provides its own bike share service utilizing a bike based technology.

Ideally, the Prince George's bikeshare program would begin in the fall of 2017.

Bicycling


College Park recreated Paris's "bus stop of the future" on the cheap

Four years ago, Paris made headlines for its bus stop of the future, a bigger and better bus stop with amenities like bikesharing and a book-sharing library attached. Now College Park has a bus stop with some of the same amenities, but using inexpensive, off-the-shelf pieces.


College Park's bus stop of the future. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Paris' bus stop of the future

In 2012, Paris's transit agency tried out a luxurious new bus stop design. In addition to the normal sign, bench, and shelter, the stop had electric bikes, bookshelves, wifi, and stylish architecture. It looked great and it made waiting for the bus more enjoyable, but it was expensive and took up a lot of space.

Paris' concept was a neat idea, but wasn't ultimately practical for mass production.


Paris's bus stop of the future. Image from RATP.

But some of the ideas from Paris's attempt make sense. Locating a bikeshare station next to a bus stop makes it convenient for more people to use both. And book-sharing can be a nice amenity, if it's easy and inexpensive to manage.

College Park's version

Enter College Park, where rather than design a custom building, the city simply added some of those components to an existing bus stop using their standard off-the-shelf pieces.

They started with a normal bus stop sign and shelter, then added a standard mBike bikeshare station. To help with maintenance, the city chained a bike tire pump to the station sign.

For the library, they staked to the ground a Little Free Library, a pre-fab wood box for people to take and give away free books. There's no librarian and no library cards; it runs on the honor system, and relies on people donating as many books as they take.


A similar Little Free Library in California. Photo by Michael R Perry on Flickr.

The stop is at the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and Muskogee Street, in front of the Hollywood shopping center, just one block south of College Park's first protected bikeway. The stop serves Metrobus lines 81 and 83, which are among the busier lines in Prince George's County.

It's no grand Parisian bus station, but that would be overkill. For a bus stop in a relatively low-density suburban area, it's pretty darn nice.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Bicycling


College Park has its first protected bikeway. But it's only 250 feet long.

Say hello to the Rhode Island Avenue protected bikeway, the first in Prince George's County. It's only 250 feet long and it only covers 1/3 of a block, but it's a start!


College Park's short protected bikeway. Photo by Matt' Johnson.

The protected lane is part of the larger College Park Trolley Trail. For most of its length the Trolley Trail runs either off-street or as normal on-street bike lanes. But for this short segment in front of Hollywood Shopping Center, a concrete barrier makes it a legit, if short, protected bikeway.

As far as I know, it's the first protected bikeway in Prince George's County.

Welcome to the club, Prince George's!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Bicycling


There's bikeshare in College Park now, but it isn't Capital Bikeshare. Here's why.

College Park just debuted its own bike share system, called mBike instead of Capital Bikeshare (CaBi). Some say not going with CaBi was a mistake, but it looks like College Park made a rational decision.


One of College Park's new mBike stations. Image from the University of Maryland.

The mBike system has 14 stations and 125 bikes, including a few two-seater tricycles. The docking stations require a smartphone app to unlock a bike, and the bikes come with their own locks so you can stop and lock up somewhere other than a dock.

Separate systems can make it harder to travel between neighboring places

mBike's provider company is called Zagster, which is different from Motivate, the company that runs CaBi. Some have said that this will be a problem because the mBike network is simply much smaller than the CaBi one, which has over 300 stations.

Another concern is that separate systems in places so close to one another will make each system less useful to potential riders. If someone routinely goes from one town to another and would consider using bikeshare to do it, they don't have that opportunity.

To illustrate this point, imagine if Fairfax or Arlington decided to introduce its own fare card for its bus systems and stopped accepting Metro SmarTrip cards. Many people who primarily use Metrobus or rail would likely hold on to their cards, and the hassle of getting a new card for a specific location might discourage them from using the bus to go there, or from going there in the first place.

Separate systems can lead to artificial barriers between neighboring places. For example, in New Jersey, the cities of Jersey City and Hoboken are currently in a bitter conflict stemming from a decision to not go in together on a bike share system. Jersey City decided to join Citibike, which is the system that New York City uses, while Hoboken went with Hudson Bike Share.

It's gotten ugly, as both cities have taken steps to try and prevent users of one system from riding in the "territory" of the other—there are even laws that say Hudson Bike Share bikes can't be parked near PATH Railway stations in Jersey City.

Locally, Car2Go seems to have recently recognized the pitfalls of walling systems off from one another. It used to be that users couldn't drive the vehicles from Arlington into DC and vice-versa because of various parking rules and the fact that each government had to negotiate separately with the company. Car2Go lifted that rule last week.

College Park had logical reasons to go with its own system

There are, however, reasons to think mBike was the right move. For starters, the system's biggest purpose is to serve people needing to get around the University of Maryland—there likely wouldn't have been a lot of people riding bikeshare between College Park and stations inside DC or other areas.

It's also possible that College Park really didn't even have a choice. When the city began planning for a bikeshare system in 2013, it set out to use Alta (now Motivate), the company that runs Capital Bikeshare. But when one of Alta's main bike suppliers went into bankruptcy, production halted on all of the company's systems, including CaBi. That left College Park in a lurch.

After Alta reorganized and emerged from the supplier squeeze as Motivate, the price for new bikes and docking stations jumped. College Park put its plans to use CaBi on hold, and eventually canceled them. Instead, the city asked other bikeshare companies to enter bids, which eventually led to Zagster.

In the end, Zagster's bid turned out to be cheaper on a bike by bike basis, which allowed College Park to purchase more bikes and docking stations than it had been planning to do with CaBi. Even though mBike is a small system, there are more bikes available in the immediate College Park area than there would have been with CaBi.

Switching between mbike and CaBi could one day be pretty easy

For now, mBike has the summer to get itself established before the next school year. If the system is successful, College Park may choose to expand it around town on the Maryland campus.

Meanwhile, the rest of Prince George's County and its cities are still studying their own bikeshare options. The results of that study may still lead to the county going with CaBi in places like National Harbor or other communities along the Green Line. In places like Hyattsville, which is in between College Park and areas in DC that have CaBi, the dynamics will be a bit more complicated.

Hopefully, the outcome will be that the two systems can co-exist. Options for that might include passes that are interchangeable, docks right next to one another, or something else.

In the interim, both College Park and the governments that work with CaBi should work together to make things easier for members so no one feels like they have to choose one membership over the other. Reciprocity could be granted for members or a discount on certain types of membership. This has also been an idea floated for current CaBi members who may travel to other cities with bikeshare systems operated by Motivate.

And even CaBi members and fans may want to pay close attention to Zagster. The bikes themselves are a little different and maybe future CaBi models could incorporate some design features like a bigger basket. Accessibilty advocates and people interested in different models of cycling may also want to pay attention to how the tricycles are used. If those models prove popular it may behoove CaBi to improve its own accessibility and even possibly introduce its own different types of bikes.

Right now only time will tell if College Park ultimately made the right decision. But what we do know suggests that the city wasn't totally crazy to not wait around for CaBi.

Bicycling


College Park is launching a bikeshare system!

Prince George's County's first bikeshare system, mBike, is launching today in College Park.


The mBike station near the Greenbelt Metro. Photo by Dan Janousek.

mBike has 150 bicycles and 14 stations, located throughout College Park and the University of Maryland campus. Seven stations are spread out evenly within the UMD campus, generally in front of key destinations such as the Stamp Student Union, the Eppley Recreation Center, and one near an entrance to the Paint Branch Trail.

Four of the stations are located along Baltimore Avenue, along the Route 1 corridor, including one station at City Hall, another at a hotel, and a third near Northgate Park and Varsity Apartments. There is one mBike station at the College Park Metro station, which will be helpful for students and visitors to travel from the Metro station to downtown and the UMD campus, an approximate five-to-ten minute bike ride.

The last two stations are placed in the Hollywood neighborhood of College Park, one at the Holllywood Shopping Center near the REI store and the other near the Greenbelt Metro.

The cost of bike share memberships range from a $6 day-membership to a $65 annual membership. Regardless of membership type, the first hour of use is free and then costs $3 per hour. Similar to other bike share systems, riders can have unlimited rides at no additional charge as long as they formally end their trip at a station within one hour.


All images from Zagster unless otherwise noted.

mBike uses smart bike technology, which allows users to access a bicycle with a smart phone or text message. The app or the text message provides the rider with a code which gives them access to a key attached to the bike. The technology is fast evolving and it's possible that future versions will have Bluetooth or wireless locks.

Since the mBike bicycles have their own integrated bike locks, users can stop mid-trip and safely lock their bike share bicycle to any bike rack to run an errand or take a break before returning the bicycle to a mBike station in College Park.

The mBike system isn't compatible with the Capital Bikeshare system; College Park officials reached out to Motivate (formerly Alta), CaBi's operator, during the procurement process, but the company didn't submit a proposal.

Zagster, a bike share operating firm that manages programs in many cities and university campuses including Carmel, Indiana, Medford, Oregon, and the University of Ohio Ohio State University is managing mBike. Zagster also operates a bike share system for BWI airport, allowing travelers and airport employees to ride the BWI Trail.

This system will be an excellent opportunity for College Park, Prince George's County, and anyone interested in bikeshare to experience a system that uses a different type of technology than what has been used in other parts of the region, as well as being a valuable transportation option for people in the area.

In addition to bikeshare for College Park, Prince George's County is currently engaged in a feasibility study to determine the best approach for bringing bikeshare to the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area and National Harbor. Findings from the feasibility study are expected this summer.

There's a kick-off event for the launch today, at 3pm on the University of Maryland campus.

Bicycling


For new bike lanes in College Park, there's good news and bad news

New drawings are out for bike lanes along Route 1 in College Park, between the University of Maryland and Greenbelt Road. The State Highway Administration is now proposing buffered bike lanes on the main street through College Park, but community leaders want a protected bike lane, or at least a bigger buffer.


Photo by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious on Flickr.

The new bike lanes that the Maryland SHA is proposing are about one foot wider than the original design, which was too narrow to be next to heavy traffic. But there still aren't any "vertical" safety features to put a physical barrier between cars and bikes, like curbs, flexible posts, and rumble strips.

When members of the College Park City Council asked whether that would change, SHA said it would not. The issue, apparently, wasn't about cost, but rather maintenance and road space.


Bike lane dimensions for Route 1 in College Park. Image from the State Highway Administration

Route 1 is notorious for its safety problems. It has seen several fatalities—of both people on foot and in cars—along the route in recent years, and in just one weekend last October, turning drivers struck pedestrians in crosswalks two times.

The new bike lane width of six feet is certainly more bike-friendly than the prior design, but it remains one foot short of the seven foot total width that the highway administration's own guidelines recommend for curb-protected bike lanes.

If Route 1 were a bit narrower, there'd be an extra foot for bike lanes.

Wider car lanes vs better bike lanes

The new design for Route 1 in College Park widens the road's main driving lanes to 11 feet, which Maryland Department of Transportation secretary Pete Rahn says will make it easier for large vehicles like trucks and buses to turn.

Wider lanes, however, also encourage drivers to speed and carry with them a greater risk for crashes at corners. 10-foot lanes would calm traffic and leave more space for bike lanes and sidewalks.

It may make sense that high-speed roads in rural areas would prioritize higher speeds and looser turning radii. But College Park is a rapidly urbanizing area, and to make things safe, buses, trucks and cars will need to slow down.

Also, making biking and walking safer and more convenient (as well as continuing to improve transit) will help cut traffic volumes and travel times by taking cars off the road.

The decision whether to prioritize turning convenience for bus and truck drivers vs. pedestrian and bike safety is a question not of engineering, but of politics and values.


Route 1 at Paint Branch Parkway with a relaxed turning radius for higher-speed turns. Image from Google maps.

Fortunately, there is a potential compromise. The Route 1 master plan calls for 11-foot outside lanes and 10-foot inside lanes. A wider 11-foot lane on the right side would give more space for turning trucks and buses, and there could still be a narrower, calmer 10-foot passing lane on the left. That extra foot of road space would allow a wider buffer zone between the bike lanes and traffic. It would also leave space for a protected bike lane to go in later.

Given the history of fatalities and injuries all along the route, College Park needs traffic calming features like protected bike lanes and narrow travel lanes, not features intended to encourage drivers to speed through the area or make higher-speed turns. A complete roadway rebuilding project is a once in a generation opportunity, and there's still time to get this design right.

Public Spaces


What other college towns can teach us about College Park's challenges

Our contributors recently discussed why College Park, Maryland doesn't have the same "college town" feel as the places around similar flagship universities in states like Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, or California. But College Park isn't the only place struggling with these issues. What can we learn from other college towns around the nation?


Morgantown, WV. Photo by Bill Walsh on Flickr.

Geoff Hatchard posed the question:

[What] college towns aren't the commonly-cited ones that may be "somewhat great" and are improving that College Park can look to as inspiration? I'm thinking of places that have or are overcoming obstacles. The first that comes to mind is New Haven, CT. Are there other examples anyone can think of?
Ben Ross said, "Boston University might be an example. When I lived in Boston, that stretch of Commonwealth Avenue was dominated by auto dealerships. It's much more urban now."


Photo by Wendy Brolga on Flickr.

Tracey Johnstone has an example from not too far away:

Old Dominion U. in Norfolk had/has the same problems: It's a metropolitan area with better [or worse] places to go and Hampton Blvd. divides it 1/3-2/3rds. And, to be honest, men vastly outnumber women in the Norfolk area (whereas it's the opposite in the immediate DC area) so, the demographic skews younger and more male than most college towns. In other words, college girls aren't limited to dating college boys. As a lot of first-generation college students attend Old Dominion, the income/class jump from dating college students to sailors isn't that big. And the situation is muddied by all the folks attending Old Dominion while still serving and on the GI Bill after getting out.

All that contributed to no "college" ambiance.

Toronto has a few student-oriented places near the university like the Brunswick House, but on one side is the Ontario Parliament Building and on another Toronto's "Rodeo Drive" with Cartier, Louis Vuitton, etc. Not exactly college fare.

Joe Fox fleshed out the list:
Comparisons that come to mind (for me) to UMD—being near an urban area, but not having an urban campus like GWU or ODU, in a large market—are:
  • University of Miami
  • SMU in Dallas
  • University of Richmond
  • Manhattan College
  • Rutgers
  • Seton Hall
  • UC Berkeley
  • UCLA
  • UC-Irvine
  • Arizona State
  • George Mason U
Of the above, only Tempe and Westwood, to me, have that feel. The rest are similar, or less college-like, than College Park.

San José State. Photo by HarshLight on Flickr.

Geoffrey Hatchard said, "Add SJSU in San José to that list."

SJSU is compact, dense, has 30,000 students, but turns its back on all four sides to the city around it. Parking garages are located on a couple of the corners, and the only place where there has been an active move to make the school and the outside city mix is at the northwest corner where the MLK Library, shared by the school and the city's library system (serving as its HQ), sits.
Gray Kimbrough tried to break down the "college town" challenge into some specific factors, which we quoted in the first part as well. He went on to tie them into general trends nationwide:
UMD has a pretty perfect storm of:
  1. A nearby community that is relatively hostile to the university and its students, as others have already mentioned.
  2. A location near, but not really in, a fairly major city.
  3. A campus that is relatively suburban and spread out, in addition to having little interface with the surrounding community.
  4. Its large size, especially relative to its town.
  5. Its lack of a medical center, which can often provide a built-in need for communication between the university and the community (and all the positive results that flow from that).
Universities with prototypical college towns generally lack #2. The closest thing I can think of to an exception would be Princeton, which is NYC-accessible because of NJT, but not really that close. Also Ann Arbor isn't all that far from Detroit, but it's somehow in a different world.

Universities that have condition #2 but nonetheless have good relations with the community tend to lack or have resolved at least one of the other conditions. Northwestern has the advantage that Evanston is quite a bit larger than College Park, but it also has a much denser campus that isn't completely inward facing. Minnesota isn't exactly in downtown Minneapolis, but it has a dense campus that interfaces with a commercial strip on at least one side. And despite original reluctance, UMN's leaders have come around to the idea that transit has a huge role to play in tying the campus to the broader community. Berkeley might be the closest example here, but I haven't spent enough time there to comment on what they're doing right.


Transit mall at the University of Minnesota. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.
Basically think of any large university that has a decent amount of activity near campus. All of these have at least one side of campus that blends relatively seamlessly with a prime commercial strip. UMD has a pretty effective buffer on its side of campus facing US 1, and basically no part of campus faces outward. NCSU is beyond what could be considered a relatively dense core in Raleigh, yet somehow its main campus is denser than UMD's.

Also, where a university lacks a great relationship with the surrounding community, a medical center can serve as an entry point to a discussion to improve that. I see some schools that have turned their backs on their towns, like Yale and Duke, starting to take advantage of this. UMD has a vet school, but I don't think this has the same effect as a really good hospital. Even GW and Georgetown have built-in positive interactions with DC because of their med schools and hospitals.

College Park can't do much about #2, #4, or #5, but they can work to change #3 in particular, and hopefully work on #1 in the process. There needs to be an acknowledgment that the layout of UMD's campus absolutely plays a factor here. As they build out the campus, perhaps they can work to both build more densely and build connections to the surrounding area.

Jonathan Krall brought it back to walkability and the urban form:
In my experience, most universities have adjacent commercial areas, so long as zoning allows it. The ones with college towns have human-scale street grids in or adjacent to the commercial zone. This is true of UC Boulder, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSB, all of which have large cities nearby. It is not true of UM College Park or UC San Diego. I do not know how those street grids came to be, but they make all the difference. What the college-town part of Boulder (just west of the school) has over College Park isn't better shops and restaurants. It's that people like to walk and bicycle in the college-town part of Boulder (and the rest of Boulder as well, but that's another story).

However, these college towns could be considered anemic (Boulder, UCSB) or over-commercialized (Berkeley, UCLA) compared to a small college town such as Ithaca, NY, home to Ithaca College and Cornell University. The big-city effect is real, but it is the walkable street grid that is essential.


Westwood, CA. Photo by Tony Hoffarth on Flickr.

Owen Chaput pointed out that what makes a good "college town" varies depending on whose eyes you are looking through:

When we ask what makes a good college town, whose perspective are we looking at it from? Undergraduates, graduate students, staff, unaffiliated residents, and random visitors all have very different needs and interests, and what suits one group very well might be uninteresting (or a nuisance) for another group. I suspect that a great college town comes in part from having all groups present on or nearby campus, and relatively dependent on the campus business district(s) to meet their needs.

For towns looking to improve, here are a few possible factors: for undergrads, the challenge is getting them off campus and spending money or living in the surrounding community. With grad students, the challenge is enough cheap housing, beer, and culture nearby the university so the grad students don't go live somewhere more interesting and affordable. Staff (professors, admin, support) and unaffiliated community residents need to be able to live close enough to the college business districts to patronize them year-round, but require diversified housing stock and separation from the weekend rowdiness.

Ithaca, NY is the best I've ever spent time in. Hard to find fault with it, except it is far from a major city and frigid for six months of the year. But it's an easier example since it doesn't fit the UM-College Park suburban-urban rubric, and I think it benefited from natural geography keeping things crowded in two directions. Emory is bad. Surrounded by very expensive, low-density suburban housing, but only three miles from Atlanta! Very little commercial zoning. Awful, awful traffic. It has a huge medical facility and the CDC right next door, but lacks any college town feel. The walkable street grid explanation fits for Emory.

What universities around the nation do you think have lessons for UMD and College Park?

Public Spaces


Why isn't College Park a better college town?

Many major state universities have "college town" areas right near them, with walkable neighborhoods that serve the student population. Charlottesville, Virginia; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Berkeley and LA's Westwood, California are a few well-known examples. College Park, by contrast, doesn't have this feel. Why is that?


Photo by Matt Chan on Flickr.

This isn't a new topic of conversation around the region, but after it came up in a recent comment thread, we asked our contributors to weigh in on this.

Jeff Lemieux pointed out the single most significant factor many people point to: the surrounding roads are far too car-oriented.

A sewer runs through it. University Boulevard bounds the campus to the north as a divided highway with no bike or pedestrian access and no development potential. Route 1 is getting better but is still treated more like a suburban strip arterial then a commercial street. College Park should be a paradise for walking and biking. But it has a ways to go.

Route 1 and Calvert Road near UMD. Image from Google Maps.

Dan Reed thinks location and the number of commuters contributes:

[This is] exacerbated by UMD's history as a commuter school. ... Even kids who live on campus but grow up in the area frequently go back home to visit friends or family, to work, etc.

I do think this is changing as 1) Maryland's national reputation means it draws more students from out of state and 2) more students live on campus, which means you have a bigger base to support shops and restaurants in the area, which in turn gives people more of a reason to stick around, which in turn supports more activity. I don't know if that's enough to support the kind of businesses that we associate with a "college town," like the awesome College Perk coffeehouse which closed many years ago, but it's a start.


Route 1 and Knox Rd. in 2010. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Partap Verma also thinks College Park is improving:

College Park has always been divided into two main areas—the downtown area with restaurants and bars that's not too far from the dorms, and the overall Rt. 1 area. In recent years the downtown has seen some new development with new apartments/retails/restaurants and actually looks pretty decent. And then you have the larger Rt. 1 area that is filled with strip malls and car dealerships that are slowly going away and being replaced by much needed apartments and hotels that serve UMD.
Commenter dcer52, on the thread that started this discussion, pointed out how an often-contentious town-gown relationship has also held back the growth of a college town area:
Here is one famous example that sums it up. When the Green Line station in College Park opened in the 1990s, the University planned to run a shuttle bus from campus to the station. However, the extension of Paint Branch Parkway was not built yet so the bus would have to run through surface streets in the City of College Park. The University offered to allow any College Park resident to ride the bus for free (not just students), but the city refused to allow the shuttle buses to ride on city streets to access the Metro station.

When the College Park Metro station opened, about six blocks from the edge of the University of Maryland campus, the University was prohibited from running a shuttle bus to the station (as was Metro and PG County The Bus). So instead students, faculty, and others had to take a shuttle bus to the Greenbelt station.

When I was a student there in the 90's I tried to take an active role in city issues. I changed my voter registration to College Park only to find that for persons living on campus or in student housing neighborhoods, the assigned polling place was not College Park city hall (downtown and walking distance from everything) but some other building that required a drive (or cab ride) from campus. Some colleges actually have polling places for students on campus, College Park put theirs as far away from campus as possible. Message sent.


College Park Metro. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Gray Kimbrough summed up some of the major reasons for the problem:

UMD has a pretty perfect storm of:
  1. A nearby community that is relatively hostile to the university and its students, as others have already mentioned.
  2. A location near, but not really in, a fairly major city.
  3. A campus that is relatively suburban and spread out, in addition to having little interface with the surrounding community.
  4. Its large size, especially relative to its town.
  5. Its lack of a medical center, which can often provide a built-in need for communication between the university and the community (and all the positive results that flow from that).

A road on the UMD campus. Photo by Matt Chan on Flickr.

Payton Chung added some context and a possible quantitative metric, Floor Area Ratio (FAR):

Some universities have successfully built their own college towns—like UIC, a postwar commuter school. That UMD hasn't is probably a semi-conscious decision, both due to a commuter school mentality on behalf of the administration (and students) and a snobbish suburban mentality on behalf of the town (as dcer52 retells).

As Gray points out, the commuter school mentality results in a campus that isn't all that dense, and is isolated from walkable retail. From the middle of McKeldin Mall to the nearest off-campus restaurant is about 0.4 miles away—an eight-minute walk one way, or too far to manage a roundtrip within a 15-minute break between classes. Contrast that to 0.07 miles from the middle of the Court of North Carolina (at NC State) or 0.2 miles from the middle of Polk Place (at UNC).

Local architects Ayers Saint Gross have a cool "comparing campuses" tool with figure-ground plans and statistics on many academic and medical campuses. Overall, FAR isn't the most useful metric for something as big as an entire campus (which might include athletic fields, research farms, etc.), but UMD's campus has an overall FAR of just 0.22. By contrast, "urban" campuses like UCLA and VCU have FARs in the 0.8-0.9 range. All FARs are not created equal, but it's not for nothing that LEED awards points for FARs above 0.5/0.8. In my experience, few truly walkable places have FARs much below 1.0; there's just not enough other destinations within walking distance.


Route 1 and Knox Rd. in 2010. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Dan Reed discussed the pros and cons of the FAR metric and the issue of just where the downtown area is located relative to campus:

I like Payton's discussion about FAR, which makes a good point about the walkability of a campus itself and its ability to contribute to the surrounding area. But I would note that a golf course takes up like half of the 1200+ acres UMD has, and the part of the campus closest to "downtown" College Park (aka South Campus) is fairly dense, walkable, and somewhat oriented to Route 1 and Knox Road where all of the bars are.

That said, South Campus is predominantly upperclassmen dorms and apartments, which is great for the bars, but sucks for anyone trying to grab students going to and from class. Most of the academic buildings are either in the middle of campus (far from Route 1) or on North Campus (very far from Route 1. When I was in architecture school we drove (!!!) to Route 1 for lunch because otherwise it was a 20 minute walk.

UMD's been talking about East Campus for a decade now and their plans to put retail and housing and a hotel on Route 1 are good. But this discussion makes me wonder if they should also put some academic buildings there instead of cloistering them far away from the rest of town.

College Park clearly faces some obstacles to be a better college town (including disagreement among residents about whether it should be at all). It's not the the only place where some or many of these factors apply. Our contributors also discussed other towns which are grappling with these same issues, and other universities that lack a good physical connection to their surroundings. We'll have more of this contributor discussion, moving beyond College Park, Maryland, in an upcoming article.
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