Smart Growth America’s latest edition of Dangerous by Design, a frequent report that examines how street design impacts road safety, looks at the astonishing 62% increase in the deaths of people struck and killed while walking since 2009. Rather than just walking through the report’s findings, as a fellow area resident (and former photojournalist), I wanted to tell the story of one particularly deadly corridor in our area through photos.
A one-mile stretch of University Boulevard in Langley Park, Maryland, is the embodiment of “dangerous by design,” where the top priority of moving as many vehicles as possible as fast as possible trumps the safety of all people. The result has been decades of preventable injuries and deaths.
A look at University Boulevard in Langley Park, Maryland
Langley Park is a rich and vibrant place. About 83% of the residents are people of Hispanic origin, a large number of whom are recent immigrants (including others from non-Spanish speaking countries as well.) It’s home to more than 20,000 people living in all types of homes, tons of foot traffic, a bustling bus station, street preachers and produce sellers posted up on corners, and an incredible range of small businesses. But this thriving community does so in spite of the hostility, division, and danger created by this road.
According to the federal data in our map—roughly between the intersections of New Hampshire Avenue on the west and W. Park Dr. on the east in Adelphi—there have been at least 11 people killed while walking since 2008, with countless more collisions and injuries. The danger and discomfort are not hard to see—and feel.
With six travel lanes and signalized crossings located far apart, the State of Maryland’s priorities for this road are clear: it exists first to move as many cars as fast as possible. Other considerations, such as the safety and convenience of people walking, improving access and connectivity, creating a livable, valuable place, or serving the local economy, are secondary concerns.
The right-of-way is truly immense, but it’s hard to appreciate the scale until you try to rush across 6-8 lanes on foot within a 30-second crosswalk signal—which is tough with older legs or two kids alongside.
There’s also been a major amount of construction related to the much-delayed Purple Line, which will eventually run down the middle of University. While this is slated to bring some long-term improvements (including a reduction from three travel lanes each way down to two), it’s also resulted in terrible conditions for pedestrians. It’s certainly miserable to drive through here (bump-bump-bump-bump) but the people who walk have been completely forgotten, with patchy uneven pavement, trench cuts, crosswalks that were never repainted, and unexpected blockages from equipment or barrels.
On one of the days I was here, the southern sidewalk across Riggs was “closed” for some type of work in the middle of the street, though most people (logically) ignored the sign and crossed anyway instead of spending at least five minutes crossing three times to reach the same point.
This 2017 piece by Capitol News Service remains one of the best in-depth examinations of the tension between the needs of the people in Langley Park and a road designed to move vehicles fast. One interesting detail in that piece is this older but relevant map (see image below) of deaths, injuries and pedestrians struck here, which clearly shows that the intersections are in fact the most dangerous locations.
One factor is certainly the right-turn “slip lanes,” including four at New Hampshire Avenue and two at Riggs Road.
These extra gentle right-turn lanes exist to prioritize speed over safety by removing turning cars from the flow of traffic and allowing them to make turns without slowing down. This puts pedestrians—who have the right of way at the same moment cars are being encouraged to take a turn without slowing down—in incredible danger. Drivers should protest when slip lanes exist in places like these, because the design sets them up to fail.
I watched dozens of people get stuck on those little islands between the crosswalks, unable to finish crossing, even though they had the right of way. I saw others tentatively step off with vehicles approaching, sometimes waving their hands, hoping the drivers would see them and stop. And I saw other drivers just ignore people and fly through the crosswalks at speeds of 35 mph—or more.
Thankfully, it looks like some of these slip lanes are due to be removed as part of the Purple Line changes. But why wait? The world didn’t end when the SW Riggs Road slip lane was closed for construction.
As I spent a few days traversing the street and meeting people, I got to thinking:
How would University look if everyone responsible said “No more! We’re going to do whatever it takes to eliminate these deaths and injuries.” How different would daily life be for the tens of thousands of people who live nearby if new signalized crossings were added, the slip lanes were eliminated, and perhaps curb lanes were removed in favor of massively expanded sidewalks with shade trees planted in the “clear zone” close to the road?
Could travel times get worse? Definitely. Would safety (for everyone, including drivers!) be improved? Absolutely. Would the street serve everyone better? Of course.
Ask yourself: Do you think the Maryland or Prince George’s County transportation officials responsible for proposing and implementing ambitious changes that eliminated deaths but worsened travel times would be celebrated, or shown the door? With the number of people killed while walking continuing to reach historic highs each year—even as state or local DOTs profess that safety is their top priority—it’s possible to find out where their values truly lie.
Just take a walk.