Photo by Editor B on Flickr.

Can Prince George’s County make its streets, safe to walk and bicycle? At a recent forum, county officials agreed that they face many challenges to do so, but this must be a top priority today.

Prince George’s CountyStat Manager Adam Ortiz said, “Streets are not just places for cars to get from point A to point B, they are public spaces, and as public spaces, should belong to us, not just cars.”

Greg Slater, Director of Planning and Preliminary Engineering for the Maryland State Highway Administration, agreed. “The road cannot be the centerpiece of what we are doing. Community truly needs to be the centerpiece of what we are doing,” he said. “This is a community; the roadway is a piece of the community.”

The forum, on April 11, was sponsored by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Envision Prince George’s Community Action Team for Transit-Oriented Development, and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

The county’s decisions about its streets affect the financial and physical health of its residents. A large portion of Prince George’s residents outside the Beltway pay over 45% of their income for housing and transportation costs. These communities also have a Walk Score less than 50%, said Yolanda Takesian from Kittelson and Associates.

Blue areas show where housing plus transportation expenses exceed 45% of income. Image from Center for Neighborhood Technology. Click for interactive version.

RJ Eldridge, a planner with Toole design and councilmember in the Town of Cheverly, pointed out that about 67% of county adults are obese or overweight, as are 33% of children ages 2-11.

Ortiz said that County Executive Rushern L. Baker has committed $17 million to a “Green Streets” fund. This will pay for sustainable streets that accommodate all uses, including walking and biking.

The county is no stranger to environmentally sustainable streets. Ortiz said that the county’s Department of Environmental Resources pioneered bioretention, where streets include planted areas to absorb stormwater, around 1990. Their bioretention on Route 202 was the first in the nation. Bioretention has now become an accepted practice in stormwater management.

Incorporating walking and bicycling with green streets is a natural next step. Andre Issayans, Deputy Director of the Prince George’s Department of Public Works and Transportation, listed several projects that will be the next “complete and green streets,” including Oxon Hill Road, Harriet Truman Drive, and Ager Road. Construction will start on Oxon Hill Road in late summer or early fall.

Council Member Eric Olson discussed a bill he and Councilmember Mel Franklin have proposed that would allow the Planning Board to require developers to construct adequate pedestrian and bicycle facilities on new development. The Board would have to determine the infrastructure necessary to access destinations within ½ mile such as a public school, parks, shopping center or transit.

Developing a network for walking and biking goes beyond just transportation planning, but must include land use decisions as well, Eldridge elaborated. He said that that development codes must complement capital improvements from transportation. Infrastructure investment should serve many purposes beyond just moving cars.

The Countywide Master Plan of Transportation already outlines a Complete Streets policy. Eldridge recommends the next step is for the county to develop a design manual that brings Complete Streets principles to actual projects.

While the County representatives agree with complete and green streets, the forum ended on a note of reality. Many of the county’s best intentions depend on funding. Planned projects may stay on the list far longer than anyone would like.

Residents also called attention to the fact that a walkable community is not only about infrastructure but about personal safety as well. Coalition for Smarter Growth Policy Director Cheryl Cort questioned the need for a new 4-lane highway to Branch Avenue Metro station when the county should be focusing on building a walkable community.

Slater said the project will include bicycle and pedestrian facilities, but that doesn’t satisfy many residents concerned that the county still overbuilds auto infrastructure. It’s great to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists on roadways, but a high-speed highway with token sidewalks and bike lanes still doesn’t create a livable place.

Prince George’s has taken some significant steps, but county officials and supporters of better communities alike should continue to work together to address the challenges they face as a community.

Christine Green is the policy manager for the Greater Washington region Safe Routes to School network. She has a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Ohio State University and has worked on neighborhood and transportation issues since 2003. She walks and bikes from her home and office on Capitol Hill. Views and opinions are her own.