In Laurel, making streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians

July 28, 2011

John Floyd said he has had several close encounters with speeding cars while walking across the intersection of Fifth and Montgomery streets near his home in Laurel.

“I’ve come very close to being hit,” Floyd said. “Many people don’t even slow down for stop signs.”

In anticipation of population growth — and a subsequent increase in cyclists and pedestrians — Laurel officials have enacted a plan to make city streets safer and more welcoming for both groups.

“Growing the city and having everyone still dependent on driving was nearly impossible” without worsening congestion, city engineer Bryon White said.

Although estimates projected the city’s population at 22,700 residents for this year, the population is 25,000 according to the 2010 Census. That is an about 25 percent increase since 2000, when Laurel’s population was 19,960.

White said plans for new mixed-use residential and commercial development in the area, such as Konterra just outside the city limits and Laurel Town Center within the city limits, are significant in terms of potential future growth.

“You can’t build enough parking spaces and enough roads to grow, so you have to increase capacity in another way,” White said.

The bike and pedestrian changes, which were added to the city’s zoning code late last year and went into effect July 1, include shortening the length of new city blocks from 1,400 to 500 feet, narrowing streets, widening sidewalks, mandating bike parking and requiring developers to conduct bike and pedestrian traffic studies.

White said shortening blocks will increase the number of cross walks and lessen the chance that people will cross the street mid-block, which is unsafe.

In May, a 73-year-old man was struck and killed by a car while crossing Route 198 about 50 feet from the Route 198 intersection with Route 197.

White said creating narrower streets — as well as adding other designs, such as speed bumps and traffic circles, in addition to the city’s six existing portable speed cameras — will also benefit pedestrians by forcing drivers to slow down.

“I think traffic-calming devices are a good idea,” Floyd said. “I like what they’ve done on Fourth Street with the center median and making the road more narrow. It used to be like a racetrack.”

In new developments, sidewalks will be required on both sides of major residential streets and must be at least 6 feet wide in nonresidential areas to give pedestrians more room. New multifamily and commercial developments must also provide parking for bicycles and conduct traffic studies that consider pedestrian and bicyclist needs.

“It’s all part of the process of making sure pedestrian and bike issues are an integral part of the zoning process and not an afterthought,” said Karl Brendle, Laurel’s director of community and business planning.

White said the city also will prohibit cul-de-sacs in new developments to make the city more interconnected and easier for pedestrians to traverse.

White said that open streets would make it easier for pedestrians to reach destination spots, such as Gude Lake, “especially in a relatively small city like Laurel, where a lot of the residential areas back up to commercial areas.”

Brendle expressed confidence that the new changes will not deter future developers.

“This is the classic location,” Brendle said. “We’re probably one of the closest municipalities to a BRAC-affected area, which is Fort Meade.”

Maryland’s Base Realignment and Closure program is expected to create thousands of defense and technology jobs in future years, which Brendle thinks will help fuel continued development in the area.

Jerry Ricciardi, president of real estate development for Rockville-based Patriot Realty, said the additional bike and pedestrian requirements won’t prevent his company from building more multifamily complexes in Laurel. Patriot Realty is the developer of Ashbury Courts Apartment on Route 1 in Laurel.

“We already offer bike parking in our developments,” Ricciardi said. “We do that anyway, so this requirement wouldn’t deter us from building in Laurel. The city of Laurel is a great place to work.”

Connecting newer parts of the city to downtown through safer bike and pedestrian routes will help draw more people to struggling Main Street shops, Brendle said.

“We have a bike plan, and we have a huge network of sidewalks — close to 100 miles, I would say — so these changes tie everything together,” White said.

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