What happens when people without cars move to neighborhoods built for cars? In Langley Park in Prince George’s County, an increasing number of people want to walk to jobs and retail— even though doing so isn’t all that safe (yet).
The number of people who walk along University Boulevard in Langley Park is on the rise, but the area is still most accommodating to cars. Image from Google Maps.
Langley Park is on the county’s northwestern border with Montgomery County. It used to be a farm, but after World War II it was sold to developers who built small bungalows and garden apartments for newly returned GIs and their new families.
In the early years most residents were white, but during the 1970s African American families began moving to the neighborhood. In the 1980s immigrants began trickling in as well. They hailed from diverse places— El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Vietnam to name just a few. Immigrants continue to live in Langley Park, but today Hispanics are the largest racial/ethnic group, comprising 76.6% of the area’s 2010 population.
We usually think about walkability in the context of young professionals who want to walk to bars and restaurants and get to work via bike lanes or public transportation, but in Langley Park, walkability is about immigrant families who need to walk bus stops and shops for everyday errands.
Lots of people want to walk around Langley Park
Langley Park has two main thoroughfares: University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue. Both are state highways with concrete median strips. Based on what I see on Google Earth, I’d estimate that cross streets in Langley Park are usually at least 2/10ths of a mile apart. The area’s retail is concentrated on University Boulevard in small- and medium-sized strip malls with parking lots out front.
As the distance between cross streets and the abundance of parking lots on University Boulevard demonstrate, Langley Park’s developers assumed the area’s residents would drive to local retail establishments. There are still plenty of cars in Langley Park— traffic jams are common during rush hour— but now there are also lots and lots of pedestrians. And, there are many businesses for them to walk to.
In fact, retail in the corridor is thriving. Strip mall vacancies are rare, and most businesses target local residents instead of commuters driving through the area. There are only a few fast food chains on University Boulevard, for example, and the most visually prominent one— Pollo Campero— originated in El Salvador and tends to cater to Central Americans missing the tastes of home.
Other shops include nail salons, pharmacies, international groceries, and Salvadoran and Mexican restaurants. The area also has a variety of clothing stores, including an African fabric store, a Sari shop, and a Ropa Colombiana. Value Village also has a store in the area, and serves as a sort of second hand department store, selling clothes, toys, furniture, and small appliances.
All of this adds up to the streetscape in Langley Park being more vibrant than your typical suburban area. People aren’t just going to and from their cars; they’re walking, hanging out in front of stores, or sitting on retaining walls and shooting the breeze. One strip mall even has a semi-regular street preacher. Armed with a megaphone and boundless conviction, he exhorts and cajoles passersby in equal measure.
Most importantly, there are lots and lots of kids— in strollers, holding their parents’ hands, and carrying a backpack on the way to or from school. Except for the built landscape, this could be in any kid-friendly area in DC— think the Palisades or Chevy Chase.
Pedestrian safety is a big concern here, and quick fixes aren’t long-term solutions
That built landscape is a big deal, though. Getting from home to shop and back again isn’t easy when you have to cross six lanes of traffic. And unlike the Palisades or Chevy Chase, the distance between cross streets in Langley Park is substantially longer.
As a result, pedestrians often cross between crosswalks, which can be dangerous given the volume and speed of traffic in the area. Crashes involving cars and pedestrians have been a consistent problem in the area for more than a decade. The latest pedestrian fatality happened last July when a police officer struck and killed a man as he was crossing the street in between walk signals.
To try to address this problem, the county installed new medians along University Boulevard last year, along with six foot metal fences to prevent pedestrian crossings between signals.
While these may make the street safer in the short term, they come at the cost of increasing the root problem, which is that there aren’t enough crosswalks to handle all the demand. The fences prioritize making sure cars can move through the area without worrying about people on foot, making the road even more like a highway. That’s actually the opposite of how you build a street to be genuinely safe and useful for pedestrians.
Fortunately, signal timing and crosswalks in some places have recently been improved to give people sufficient time to cross. And the new Takoma-Langley Crossroads Transit Center, set to open in late 2016, will also be a good step since it will consolidate stops for 11 bus routes that currently carry 12,000 passengers a day. That means transfers will be much easier and safer.
Also, when the Purple Line is built, the transit center (a planned stop on the line) will further concentrate transportation options, making getting to or from public transportation easier.
Langley Park is certainly making progress when it comes to being safer for people on foot. But there’s also a long way to go in order to truly retrofit the area to be safe, easy, and enjoyable to walk around.
More crosswalks would be a great start, and traffic calming to slow cars down would likely go a long way. A pedestrian bridge over University would be the dream, and planting trees and foliage would also help reduce noise and air pollution while also providing a more attractive thoroughfare.
Whatever the specifics, I hope resources go into making the area safer and easier to walk around. Langley Park deserves it.