The recent analysis found many roads within a half-mile radius of the county’s 10 Purple Line stations have narrow or no sidewalks and no buffer between pedestrians and vehicles streaming past at 30 mph to 40 mph. In other areas, pedestrians must dash across busy streets with no marked crossings or medians.
“I don’t think the Purple Line will be as successful as it could be without improving these pedestrian connections,” said Eli Glazier, manager of the county’s pedestrian plan project.
In the short term, planners said, speed limits should be lowered to 25 mph on roads within a half-mile of stations, and crosswalks should be made more visible. Longer-term, they said, many roads need new or wider sidewalks and separated bike lanes, along with landscaping or bollards to provide a buffer from traffic.
The study dovetails with Montgomery’s efforts to make walking and cycling safer in suburbs where the car has long dominated. Like other suburban jurisdictions, Montgomery and Prince George’s County, where the Purple Line will also run, are focusing growth around transit lines. The goal is to limit traffic congestion, attract economic development and better serve lower-income residents who rely on public transportation.
The Purple Line is believed to be the first U.S. rail line to connect suburban neighborhoods and job centers without first passing through a city.
But the walkability of those stations is key to attracting passengers, experts say. For example, ridership on Metro’s Silver Line fell well below estimates in its first year after opening in Fairfax County because areas such as Tysons lacked sidewalks and bike lanes near stations, according to an internal Metro report obtained by WAMU in 2015.
Prince George’s planners also have been eyeing pedestrian and bicycle access to the county’s 11 Purple Line stations. A 2011 study found nearby roads with no sidewalks or those that didn’t comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Future station sites with the worst pedestrian access were at Riggs Road, Riverdale Park and Beacon Heights, the study found.
Gerrit Knaap, director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland, said taking such a granular look at walkability is “pretty cutting-edge work.” A group affiliated with the center, the Purple Line Corridor Coalition, contributed to the Montgomery research and plans to work with Prince George’s planners on an additional study.
Knaap said the Purple Line was designed without parking as a way to expand public transportation without adding to traffic. Its route through a densely developed 16-mile east-west corridor between New Carrollton and Bethesda also was intended to serve many residents who can’t afford to drive, he said.
If the people for whom the Purple Line is being built don’t feel comfortable reaching stations without a car, he said, ridership will suffer.
“A mistake that’s been made in some places is that everyone likes to be near transit,” Knaap said. “But if you only have high-income people with their cars near transit, then you don’t get the ridership.”
The 21 Purple Line stations, most at street level, will be much smaller than Metro stations and look more like outdoor platforms with canopies.
Maryland officials have said the line will open in two segments, starting in Prince George’s in late 2022 and in Montgomery in mid-2023.
However, that schedule does not account for significant delays recently cited by the construction contractor. Negotiations over those delays and related cost overruns are continuing as the Maryland Transit Administration tries to prevent a 36-year public-private partnership on the project from dissolving.
Montgomery’s stations in central business districts, such as in downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring, are relatively pedestrian-friendly, the study found.
However, others, such as on University Boulevard, would require pedestrians to navigate six-lane roads with speed limits up to 40 mph. Slower vehicle speeds greatly improve pedestrians’ and cyclists’ chances of survival if hit.
The planners recommend prioritizing improvements in communities with lower household incomes and more minority residents because they have some of the most dangerous walking conditions and have been underserved historically. Those areas include the Woodside and Piney Branch Road areas of Silver Spring, as well as the Takoma-Langley community near the Prince George’s border.
Ralph Bennett, president of the board of the advocacy group Purple Line Now, said he’s glad planners are focusing on walkability. However, he said, the Maryland Transit Administration should clearly mark the station sites in communities to help residents — and potential Purple Line passengers — begin to consider how they will reach them.
“If you ask people ‘Can you get to the station?’ people will say “What station?’ or ‘Where?’ ” Bennett said. “People can’t make decisions about whether they’ll be accessible until they know where they are.”