Requiring new subdivisions to build transportation infrastructure can push development to sparsely populated areas where it is easier to widen roads and intersections than it is to address traffic congestion in urban areas.  Image by the author.

When there’s a new subdivision planned, the new homes and other buildings come with a corresponding amount of additional vehicle trips. The local planning department and road agencies study the impact these likely new trips will have on the existing roads, and if the network can’t handle the expected traffic, the developer is required to build whatever transportation projects are necessary to accommodate them.

Unfortunately, developers in Prince George's County are being asked to invest in the wrong kinds of road infrastructure.

What exactly the developer is required to build is governed by an Adequate Public Facility (APF) Ordinance. An APF is a small part of a subdivision ordinance, but it plays a big role in shaping the built environment. In Prince George’s, the APF policy is embedded in its subdivision regulations (Sec. 24-122.01):

“The Planning Board may not approve a preliminary plan of subdivision if it finds that adequate public facilities do not exist or are not programmed for the area within which the proposed subdivision is located… The Planning Board shall require adequate public facilities…”

On its face, there’s a logic and fairness to this policy. New subdivisions are required to contribute to the public services that their future residents will eventually consume. These public facilities include water and sewerage, police, fire and rescue, schools, parks, and transportation. In regards to transportation, the APF generally refers to the roadway infrastructure. The types of projects vary, but can include adding signals to intersections, adding left-turn lanes and right-turn slip lanes, widening roads, and other things.

While it’s nice to have the developer make that first investment and build a roadway project, in effect it often ends up prioritizing cars over people. The repercussions from this policy continue well after the subdivision is built.

These road projects have hidden costs

More roads can’t solve traffic. Motorists tend to be like water: they fill up whatever space is available.

In this case, the new subdivision is directly supplying new motorists to fill those road expansions. When there is additional roadway capacity, motorists from the next neighborhood over will also use that road. APF improvements may help accommodate traffic along the roads near the new subdivision, but along the entire roadway, traffic congestion will increase.

Transportation APF projects tend to improve the ability of a motorist to drive through and past an area, but do very little to help people walk, bike, or use transit within that neighborhood.

When roadways are modified to carry more vehicles, it become less safe to ride a bicycle on that street and less comfortable to wait for a bus. Wider roadways and intersections mean people walking have a longer distance to cross, making the area inherently less inviting. These types of projects further separate destinations from each other, making it harder to get around by bicycle or foot and thereby increasing automobile dependence.

These roadway projects are also deceptively expensive. It’s unlikely that a developer will eat the costs of the roadway project, so those expenses are passed on to future residents and businesses in the form of higher housing costs and rents. Even though it seems beneficial to have a developer pay for a roadway project, it actually makes the subdivision more expensive and adds to the long-term financial responsibilities of the jurisdiction.

After the project is constructed, it becomes the local government’s responsibility to maintain the road. That means re-paving, clearing the snow, installing lighting, etc. all become permanent costs to the jurisdiction. Sometimes costly roadway projects are postponed or cancelled outright because they aren’t financially feasible.

Ritchie Marlboro Rd is being widened to accommodate new residential development on either side. Road widenings are much easier to do in formerly undeveleoped green fields than in dense urban neighborhoods.  Image by the author.

Road “improvement” requirements encourage sprawl

Meeting transportation requirements usually means developers must somehow increase the roadway capacity so that the new trips don’t overwhelm the road. A new subdivision built in a far-flung suburb or rural area won’t have difficulty achieving this. There are few trips in those areas to begin with, and if the development has highway access, that’s large enough to accommodate the new trips.

However, a development built in an urban area will have difficulty meeting this threshold because its roadways are already at or near capacity. Any new development will likely require extensive intervention. It’s easier to meet transportation APF requirements far away from built-up neighborhoods.

This changes how development can happen. Sometimes developable property will have to be dedicated to widening a road, or other times developers will reduce the size of a project so it generates fewer trips.

It is very easy for infill and urban development, even near transit, to become too expensive and complicated to build. At that point, developers turn to green space further away from downtown, which directly contributes to sprawling development. Even though the transportation APF was designed to reduce traffic congestion, its side effects encourage driving from further away, which actually increases traffic congestion.

What can be done in Prince George's?

Prince George’s County Council is currently considering a brand new zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations. While the transportation APF policies between the current and proposed subdivision regulations are not substantially different, the new policy includes an exemption for developments proposed in transit-oriented zones.

This exception would support the county’s 2035 General Plan, which guides its future development, by encouraging investment and development in neighborhoods that already have transit access. It would help those areas better leverage their transit facilities and encourage more walking, bicycling, and transit use by not having to focus energy and money on expanding roads and catering to motorists at the expense of other modes. (Although infrastructure like bicycle lanes are good for drivers too!)

In lieu of the transportation APF, new developments will be required to implement a Transportation Demand Management program to help further reduce single-occupancy motor vehicle trips. These developments will still be subject to the county’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Adequacy Policy, which requires improvements to pedestrian, bicycling, and transit facilities both on the development site and in the surrounding area.

Prince George’s County Council is currently reviewing the proposed draft for new zoning and subdivision ordinances. More information about the proposal can be found on the Council’s webpage, as well as contact information for any questions or comments.

Bryan Barnett-Woods is a transportation planner in Prince George’s County with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. In addition to bicycling and rowing, Bryan likes nothing more than a good walk in the city. He lives in Barney Circle with his wife and young son. The opinions expressed in this post represent Bryan’s opinions only and do not represent the opinions of his employer.