The Impact of Stroads in a Suburban Immigrant Community

Sean Emerson is a Strong Towns member and resident of the Washington, DC suburbs. Today he shares some observations about walkability and transit access in a suburb nearby.

Langley Park, Maryland is a community of garden apartments and houses just a few miles from downtown Washington in suburban Prince George’s County.  The unincorporated area was developed in an auto-oriented pattern starting in the 1940s to provide much-needed housing for returning veterans and the growing regional population.  Langley Park is centered around two major stroads, New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard, which serve as the main business corridors of the community.  Both of the six lane state highways are lined with strip malls and shopping centers, many of which cater to the area's large immigrant population.  Today, over 70% of Langley Park residents are first-generation immigrants, with the vast majority of them from Latin America.  22% of the population lives below the poverty line.    

These stroads were built in the 1950s and 60s when pedestrians were an afterthought.  Initially, this was not so problematic, as the area was largely middle class and most of its residents had cars.  After a couple decades, Langley Park became a major destination for immigrants due to the affordable housing found in the numerous garden apartment complexes.  As the community became more working class, poverty rates began to rise, with many of the recent immigrants unable to afford luxuries like cars.  The community’s major roads, built without pedestrian safety in mind, gradually became busy pedestrian corridors.  

Today, the narrow sidewalks along the stroads of Langley Park are busy with pedestrians at all hours of the day.  Many residents walk to auto-oriented shopping centers, which were built in the same era as the stroads, from nearby apartments for their groceries and daily essentials.  Despite the heavy pedestrian traffic in the area, many shopping centers have fences between their parking lots and the sidewalk to deter pedestrian access.  These inconvenient fences are subtle reminders that auto access was once seen as the only way for patrons to get to the stores, an irony now that a plurality of customers walk or take transit to these now-multicultural shopping areas.     

Unfortunately, the high amount of pedestrian activity along stroads like University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue has had some deadly consequences.  These two stroads have long been notorious for having high numbers of pedestrian fatalities and serious collisions, which has lead the state and county governments to pursue pedestrian safety improvements.

In 2007, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), which controls the stroads in the area, installed median fences around the intersection of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue to discourage jaywalking and improve safety.  Unfortunately, this only treated a symptom of the problem and not the root cause: the incompatibility of high-speed stroads and heavy pedestrian volume.  In Langley Park, like most suburban areas, blocks are large and crosswalks are far apart.  The spacing of intersections leads many people to jaywalk mid-block because it is simply more convenient than waking to the nearest crosswalk at a traffic signal.  This practice, which is a direct result of road design, creates a very unsafe situation for both pedestrians and drivers.  

IMG_9187 copy.jpg

Many Langley Park residents are transit-dependent, and they must cross these dangerous stroads to get to bus stops in the area.  Langley Park is served by multiple frequent bus routes, which are some of the busiest in the D.C. area’s MetroBus network, with two of the routes serving the area seeing over 12,000 riders on an average weekday.  While transit service in Langley Park is decent, it is often inadequate, with buses being crowded at all hours of the day and even on weekends.  Langley Park is served solely by buses at present, since the nearest Metrorail station is a couple miles away.  However, a proposed light rail line called the Purple Line promises to provide a much needed mobility enhancement for the tens of thousands of working class residents in the area.  However, the fate of that project is up in the air due to a recent court decision.

Langley Park is an example of a suburban community that has, and continues to, struggle to adjust to its new reality due to its built form.  Culturally, the area is a great place for recent immigrants to find community and a social support structure.  However, Langley Park’s auto-oriented development pattern imposes unneeded costs and burdens upon those who can least afford them.         

(All photos by Sean Emerson)

Related stories

About the Author

Sean Emerson has been a Strong Towns member since early 2015, when he first learned about Strong Towns after stumbling upon a video of Chuck Marohn's Curbside Chat.  He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he blogs about his community at Around The Corners.  He serves on the board of Action Committee for Transit, a transit advocacy organization in Montgomery County, Maryland.  He strives to make his community a stronger town, taking the "keep doing what you can do build Strong Towns" message to heart.