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Here over at Housing Complex, we don’t usually report on the affairs of the University of Maryland, College Park. There’s not much need, as the university exists in its own world. Though downtown DC is only nine miles away, the campus metro stop is a mile and a half down Campus Drive from the center of campus, best accessed by bus. This particular arrangement* of transit alone has kept the campus farther away than it could be from one of the most prominent cities in the world.
Now, the UMD administration is attempting to draw the university even farther into itself by proposing to close Campus Drive to all traffic but pedestrians, bikers, and select university-condoned vehicles this summer. The administration has proven similarly resistant to intelligent transit decisions in the past, favoring not the MTA-, WMATA-, and community-approved Campus Drive alignment for the forthcoming Purple Line light rail stop, but instead one that will require a $23 million tunnel. Their plan to restrict cars and public transit on that same road as a pilot project to test the possibility of a future, permanent closure came out of left field and was formulated without student input.
A UMD Student Government Association press release dated April 29 announced the association’s sponsorship of an open forum to be held on May 4 to address student concerns about the pilot, which would begin June 19. Tuesday saw the Margaret Brent Room in Stamp Student Union, located across from the current main bus stop on campus, standing-room-only with students. For over an hour, Facilities Management Vice President Frank Brewer and Department of Transportation Services Director David Allen fielded questions from the incensed, well-informed crowd that unanimously supported a no-car Campus Drive, but not a no-bus Campus Drive. Though Brewer insisted that closure of major thoroughfares to both personally-operated as well as public transit vehicles was a “very common campus planning approach,” he was unable to cite any specific examples. And more than once, he and Allen stated that the pilot was supported by the principles of the Campus Master Plan. However, as many students pointed out, shutting buses out of Campus Drive actually contradicts that plan, which states in its planning principles the intent to:
“Increase the Access and Appeal of the Campus for Pedestrians: Campus planning will encourage and invite pedestrians to move freely and safely across campus through appropriate design in and between campus areas and careful control of vehicular access.
Encourage and Facilitate Use of Transportation other than Personal Vehicles: Plans for development will reduce present of automobiles on campus and encourage and facilitate all modes of transportation—shuttle buses, bicycles, new light rails or metro lines—that will minimize vehicular congestion, consistent with design and environmental stewardship priorities.”
Allen and Brewer insisted that this pilot project, run in the summer, would provide accurate results with which to consider a permanent closing of Campus Drive in future fall and spring semesters. Their blithe confidence in the validity of the pilot was perhaps more concerning than their inability to correctly cite the principles of the Campus Master Plan—Rethink College Park’s David Daddio tells us that only a third of the 750 buses that run through UMD during the fall and spring semesters are in use in the summer. Allen admitted that no transportation planners work for the university currently or were consulted in the formulation of this pilot. (Daddio and others have speculated that the pilot might be a part of the university’s opposition toward the Campus Drive alignment for the Purple Line light rail. To this, Brewer stated, “Obviously, if the Purple Line goes down Campus Drive it will affect the plan to make Campus Drive a pedestrian center…but I am not aware of any connection between this test and the Purple Line.”)
Once you manage to get to the campus, the administration’s vision for transit throughout UMD is based on several “hubs” on various locations around it (none of which are Campus Drive), where public transit vehicles like Metrobus would deposit passengers. To navigate the approximately 1500-acre campus from there, they could board, in Allen’s words, a “robust intercampus connecter” bus system, which will cost approximately $3 million. This system of “hubs,” which would likely require riders to transfer from Metrobus to the intercampus connector to arrive at walking distance from their final destination, hardly eases the already-time consuming process of getting to, from, and around UMD.
Ralph Bennet, Professor Emeritus in UMD’s College of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, shared the students’ frustration. “The “two most disappointing factors of this process were that the university did not hire any transit planners and that the SGA called [Tuesday’s] meeting, not the administration,” he said. he encouraged the administration to “embrace the [Stamp Student] Union as the campus’s center of transit,” rather than spreading transit throughout the “hubs.”
* Georgetown student and my fellow intern Chris Heller weighed in on the journey to UMD’s campus from Washington, DC: “Ugh, taking the metro to College Park takes so long, and then you have to, like, wait for that bus, and, like…yeah, it sucks.” If a Georgetown student can say that about College Park, the latter might be doing it wrong.