Case Study 1: The University of Maryland, College Park

“The barriers formed…may indeed keep out extraneous people with sufficient effectiveness. If so, the price will be hostility from the surrounding city and an ever more beleaguered feeling within the fort.”
—Jane Jacobs, describing the University of Chicago, in 
The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 10.38.19 AMIn many ways, the University of Maryland (UMCP) functions as a city in its own right, rather than simply a part of the City of College Park. From a transit perspective, it runs one of the most extensive bus networks in northern Prince George’s County, hosts events that can disrupt traffic on state, federal, and interstate highways, and occupies a crucial place near the intersection of several major commuter bike routes. Within the limits of the main university campus, the Department of Transportation Services (DOTS) manages infrastructure for private autos (and their parking), bus and shuttle networks, pedestrians, and cyclists.

In other ways, of course, the University can never be separated from the City, County, District, or State. While not the commuter campus of yesteryear, many UMCP students, staff, and faculty live in surrounding communities, and have to get there and back again somehow. The University regularly hosts community, cultural, and sporting events, all of which (especially football games!) strain local infrastructure and cause tension with local residents. While College Park residents can use the UMD Shuttle, this program is not widely known. The campus also fundamentally shapes major roads and transit routes, effectively isolating neighborhoods on its north side from the rest of the City and creating a division between College Park and working-class Adelphi and Langley Park. The decisions of the City planning staff and council affect the University, and what comes from the Main Administration Building has effects in the City.

Resources: The University has a lot to help it in developing appropriate cycling infrastructure. Recognized programs in urban planning and sustainability, and excellent library and journal collections to support them. Programs, staff, and funding devoted to encouraging cycling, both as transit and as recreation, including a campus bike shop, low-cost locks and helmets, bike rental, and an excellent outreach, education, and advocacy program. The promise of a citywide bikeshare network, even if it’s unlikely to be compatible with Washington’s CaBi system. Political capitol and respect that comes with being the local region’s largest employer. An excellent network of cycling paths and infrastructure in the surrounding communities, especially College Park and Hyattsville. A local government in College Park that is committed to expanding cycling and pedestrian transit. The promise of a new regional megaproject, the Purple Line, that is supposed to include a multi-use trail in its right-of-way. A network of mostly calm, if sometimes congested, streets in the heart of campus. Dense, multi-use development and close distances, approaching semi-urban densities. A significant population who, either through necessity or choice, is committed to getting around without a car. A really great stretch in the artificial canyon between the DOTS offices and the botany department that’s always about ten degrees cooler in the summertime than anywhere else on your ride. The resources exist to make the University a model community for cycling transportation.

Challenges: Here beginnith the litany.

Car-centered design dominates the campus. While budgets (for transit, universities, or university transit) were never unlimited, it’s unlikely they’ll be increased in the foreseeable future—and given Maryland’s current car-and-highway-friendly governor and transportation secretary, it’s less likely that more money will be allocated to bike transit, or that the promised Purple Line trail will actually materialize after the latest round of budget cuts. While City Hall and the Council may be looking to encourage walking, biking, and public transit, many residents of College Park are not happy about the city’s increasing urbanization, preferring the former streetcar suburb to remain essentially suburban and car-centered in character, much like the communities to the north beyond the Beltway. Formal infrastructure, like cycletracks or bike lanes, barely exits beyond the Paint Branch Trail (no, sharrows do not, and should not, count). Acres of the campus are devoted to parking, especially on the west side, where open, unshaded and unsheltered empty tarmac dominates. Roads near the edges of campus have few safe crossings and are wide, straight, and unimpeded, leading to high speeds. Streets, most notably in the central campus, rarely take a low-stress way around the natural geography of the campus, especially the north-south ridge that divides it, and often run for too long without connections. Many major buildings in the heart of campus have limited or very poor bike access, given that (contrary to what Google Maps will tell you) cyclists are not allowed to ride on sidewalks in the University—especially McKeldon Library, whose main entrance (and bike parking complex!) is not accessible to someone riding a bike.

In other news, signs are few and far between, especially given how many people visit the University for sporting events, research, and conferences. Good bike parking can be hard to find; while there’s almost always a staple rack somewhere nearby, racks are often full and, near major buildings like the libraries and student union, rarely covered. Connectivity between the trails that surround campus is poor; while it would make sense to at least signpost a low-stress way between the Northeast Branch, Trolly, Paint Branch, and Northwest Branch Trails—all of which run either directly through or nearly immediately adjacent to the campus—no such wayfinding aid or connection exists. Major roads, especially MD-193/University Boulevard (which, contrary to what the SHA will tell you, is in no way, shape, or form an appropriate bike route!) and Route 1 isolate the University from its surrounding context.

When Jane Jacobs wrote about universities being the prime example of Turf, UMCP could be the exemplar’s exemplar.

Solutions? Open the University up to the community and transit network. Integrate it. Trying to keep “undesirable elements” out of our Turf is why the UMD Metro stop was built a mile away from UMD. Transit decisions can’t be made around trying to keep people out. Rather, we must engage with the community, recognizing that we are a part of it.

Build, or at the absolute very least signpost, connections between campus and the nearby trails and routes in College Park Woods, Hyattsville, Adelphi, and University Park. An off-street or protected cycle path running roughly along Route 1 from the southern end of the Paint Branch Trail at Campus Drive/Paint Branch Parkway to at least College Avenue would improve north/south connectivity, acting as a sort of bike arterial road uniting the University, downtown College Park, and the residential north of town. From there, a few short connecter paths could be used to access the University Park street network and a route to Hyattsville and Washington.

Looking east and west, connecting with the Northwest Branch Trail and routes to Silver Spring and Takoma are the main challenges. In theory, these problems should be addressed with the construction of the Purple Line bike path. If (but hopefully when) this trail is finished, it will give cyclists a low-stress route from College Park to Silver Spring, Bethesda, Langley Park, and New Carrolton. Furthermore, having easy transit access on campus would reduce the need for parking and driving, allowing the east-west roads and large parking lots near the edge of campus to be developed for University use (as is already being planned) and infrastructure improvements to be made. Of course, this all assumes that the bike/ped provisions don’t get cut, as all too often happens when the new governor prioritizes highways and cars…

If the Purple Line Trail is cut, or if we need an intermediate solution until at least 2021, it’s back to signs, stripes, and routing. Point out every turn, mark NACTO-compliant bike lanes in green on Campus Drive, and signpost the routes through Lane Manor Park and nearby neighborhoods to the Sligo Creek Trail and Silver Spring. Sadly, in part due to the promise of the Purple Line, intermediate solutions in the neighborhoods west of campus have been neglected, despite the number of students and staff who live in Takoma Park and Silver Spring. Even proper wayfinding guides, improving conditions when crossing SHA highways, and adding stop signs to some north-south thoroughfares should help make a desperately bad situation a little bit better.

Looking within, the two large issues are route finding and parking. Yes, better lane markings would be appreciated, especially at the north and south ends of campus where cars typically move faster, but trying to find a good way between the libraries or somewhere out of the weather to park a bike for dorm residents or people working on campus sometimes feels like a bit of a lost cause.

A good wayfinding system on a university campus is something every student who’s ever been accosted by a lost visitor could tell you the value of…especially when said lost visitor is looking for a building or library you’ve never been to, or the best directions use campus landmarks your visitor isn’t going to know about. Even “it’s near the library” doesn’t mean much when you don’t know which library, or whether “near” means “across the street,” “at the other end of the mall,” or “in the same six level building complex that takes up three city blocks.” Good wayfinding signs should give directions towards major landmarks, but also point the way to nearby points of interest; every sign should route you to the Union, but only a few need directions to the architecture & planning library.

Wayfinding networks should also make it clear who is allowed to take which routes. If cyclists are not allowed to ride on the sidewalks, a sign giving directions towards a library that is accessible primarily by sidewalks should note this. If a route requires stairs, or is extremely steep in parts, ditto. Furthermore, by clearly giving directions applicable mainly to cyclists and pedestrians in ways that are mostly useful to them, wayfinding signs send the message that a place is designed around the needs of people, rather than cars. Like the Dutch fietsstraten, in which cars are guests, university streets should accommodate the needs of people on foot and bike first, cars only as genuinely needed. By making an effort to obviously accommodate and cater to people who walk and ride to the exclusion of drivers, the message that the crowds of walking students and vulnerable cyclists are to be given first consideration can be reinforced.

IMG_2564

I’m not sure if it says more that the best bike lane on campus is underneath a building next to a set of staple racks, or that the absentminded academics who use it have to be told to dismount at the end.

As for parking…is there ever enough for anyone? Staff parking allocation is something of a classic trope of petty faculty senate acrimony, and just because the vehicle changes doesn’t mean the turf war’s going away. We hold this truth to be self-evident: not all bike racks are created equal. For every spot under the math department (it even has a bike lane!) or in a parking garage, there’s fifteen out in the open, exposed to the rain and sun, next to dorms, cafeterias, performance spaces, classrooms, libraries, the Stamp, administrative offices…

Putting a basic awning or roof over larger sets of staple racks would be a great start. So would putting signs at the entrances of garages (and on wayfinding signs) to let cyclists know that there are places for them inside. More racks, of course, is mo’ betta. Good, strong staple racks, like those already on campus, perhaps augmented with steel cables for the wheels in places like dorm parking where bikes will be left overnight.

Other things? Education and encouragement—not just how to ride bikes, but how to navigate, where to go, all the little secrets and strategies that make riding work. What is the best way to bike to the grocery store, or good coffee, or Washington? What resources are there to help people who want to learn more? What can we do to make sure people don’t think they have to ride on US Route 1 or University Boulevard—both good bike routes only in the minds of fools, idiots, and the SHA—to get where they want to go? How do we prevent the infamous “I wish I had known about this earlier!” syndrome when people find out about the resources (like this one) that were there for them all along?

Enforcement—no, not just making sure drivers don’t blow stop signs or speed through crosswalks, but also taking active measures against bike theft (cf. that parking rant above)—will help people be more confident when riding, and more certain that their safe, efficient, and rideable bike will still be around when they unlock it. In a way, making a visibly safer environment where bikes are secured encourages people to bike by minimizing the very real threats to safety and property that discourage people from riding.

Many, if not most, of these solutions will require working with nearby jurisdictions. That’s the nature of transit. It breaks down boundaries, moves people, goods, and ideas from one place to another, and is utterly opposed to the notion of Turf.

*While this is less of a problem for people on foot when buildings are open and a pedestrian can cut through, it’s a significant issue for people on bikes, people who don’t know their way through multi-level labyrinthine buildings (which, let’s face it, are usually designed for purposes other than pedestrian transit and for people who spend a significant amount of time inside of them), or for times like evenings, weekends, holidays, or summers when many entrances or buildings are closed.
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