The Opportunity to Improve the Bike & Pedestrian Connectivity of Downtown Columbia

Columbia, MD is built for cars. With wide multi-lane highways/parkways and enormous surface parking lots, people overwhelmingly utilize their own vehicle to get wherever they need to go. More than 95% of Columbia households own at least one automobile. I often use the phrases "walkable" or "people-oriented" when describing the Downtown Columbia plan, but I also recognize that even at full build-out, many people, for better or worse, will end up experiencing Downtown Columbia as "drive-to urbanism" - where they travel to Downtown Columbia using a personal automobile, park their car in a garage, and then get out and walk around. And certainly, the building of massive parking garages throughout the new downtown development and the potential future construction of a new interchange off Route 29 and/or Broken Land Parkway directly into Downtown Columbia will only help to facilitate the use of automobiles as the prime method people use to travel to our new urban center. Yet, there is enormous opportunity to provide important and critical pedestrian/bicycling connections, sidewalks, and intersections that can make walking and biking an alternative and potentially superior method for accessing Downtown Columbia.


Columbia is quite condensed. 9 of Columbia's 10 village centers (all except River Hill) are located, as the crow flies, 2 miles or less from Downtown. The population of residents who live within these neighborhoods is ~95,000 people. Jim Rouse has rightfully been cited as a pioneer for smart growth given Columbia's founding goals of racial integration, environmental protection, and orderly economic development. But, he has also been criticized by urbanists for the spaghetti-like tangle of crooked parkways and cul-de-sacs and failing to deliver the transit system that was promised. Our winding roadways often necessitate driving a circuitous route to get to a nearby destination, making it seem that the distances between two places are further apart than they actually are.


Additionally, the 94 miles of existing Columbia Association pathways led everywhere and nowhere. Designed decades ago primarily for recreation and to connect our serpentine residential streets and-de-sacs, our CA paths are great for exercise and getting around within a single neighborhood, but they (mostly) fail to provide connections from neighborhoods to employment, retail, or cultural centers.


But, these two realities (our tangled web of streets and our existing intra-neighborhood pathway system) provide an enormous opportunity through the continued investment in pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure to fill in the missing connections in order to create new shorter more-direct pedestrian and cycling connections that make it easier, safer, and perhaps even quicker to travel by bike or foot than it is to travel by car.


A good example of an already existing connection that provides a pedestrian/cycling route that is significantly shorter than traveling by car is the Oakland Mills - Downtown Columbia connection. The distance between the Oakland Mills Village Center and the Lakefront Promenade is just 0.5 miles as the crow flies. And because of the new and improved Bridge Columbia over Route 29, there is an enjoyable and direct pedestrian/cyclist connection between these points that takes 13 minutes on foot or 4 minutes by bike. If you want to travel from Oakland Mills to Downtown Columbia by car, it's over 3 miles and requires traveling either north to 175 / Little Patuxent or south to Broken Land Parkway and waiting through traffic lights at multiple intersections.

The existing Pedestrian Access from Oakland Mills to the Lakefront (dotted purple) v the driving route. Google Maps.

The Downtown Columbia Master Plan includes an entire chapter dedicated to creating a multi-modal transit system that allows residents to move throughout and into Columbia's Center without depending on automobiles. Ensuring this planned commitment to alternative transit is realized will be an essential part of ensuring the development of Downtown Columbia lives up to its lofty aspirations.


Howard County's Bike Howard Bicycling Master Plan and Walk Howard Pedestrian Master Plan have created maps that show all the projects they have been identified that will fill in missing gaps by adding accessible shared-used pathways, sidewalks, improved intersections, bike lanes, and bridges/tunnels. If built, these connections will create safer, faster, less stressful, easier, and more enjoyable connections throughout all of Howard County, including Downtown. A few of these projects have been completed (like the shared-used paths alongside Little Patuxent Parkway connecting HCGH to Downtown and the shared-use path alongside Twin River Roads connecting the Wilde Lake Village Center to the Mall that were completed by Howard Hughes Corporation as part Community Enhancement and Public amenities project requirements under the Downtown Plan), but the majority remain in the planning or design phase.


There are many more opportunities to create more direct pathways connecting surrounding villages directly to Downtown Columbia, and the Bike Howard has identified, designed, and planned for many of these connections. The South Entrance Trail (an overview of this route is pictured below, but you can find all the detailed engineering plans on the linked website) would provide a direct pedestrian path between Downtown Columbia and Steven Forests Road (and onwards to Owen Brown) by routing a shared-used path under existing bridges that go under Route 29 and Broken Land Parkway.

Similarly, the Hickory Ridge Bike Corridor project (image below) would create a continuous bike route connecting River Hill (and points west) through the Village of Hickory Ridge and onto Downtown Columbia through a combination of shared-use paths, bike lanes, and intersection improvements. There is also a new shared used-path planned for Oakland Mills Road. Note that while I am highlighting these projects due to their proximity to Downtown Columbia; there are numerous additional projects elsewhere in the county that have been planned, but not yet constructed as part of Howard County's plans to improve pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.

One of the biggest challenges is that Downtown Columbia is surrounded by several twisting and turning major multilane parkways - Broken Land Parkway, Little Patuxent Parkway, and Governor Warfield Parkway - in addition to Route 29. These roadways create intimidating and dangerous physical barriers for pedestrians and cyclists that separate Downtown Columbia from the surrounding neighborhoods (as well as separate the triangle of Downtown areas from each other. It would be fantastic, as funding allows, to build a few pedestrian tunnels or bridges at strategic locations over or under our busy parkways to provide better pedestrian access into and within Downtown Columbia. Many Columbia Association pathways already incorporate pedestrian underpasses, like the one shown in the picture below under Route 175 near the Long Reach Village Center. Absent building expensive new tunnels or bridges, significantly improving intersections with more crosswalks, islands, and pedestrian improvements would be a marked improvement over existing conditions.

Path going under Route 175 near Long Reach Village Center. Photo by me.

There are significant opportunities, like the ones described in this article, to create better, easier, and safer connections between and within Downtown Columbia, nearby neighborhoods, and Columbia's extensive off-road path and trail system. Doing so will improve public health, keep cars off roads, and reduce carbon emissions. And when coupled with a more interesting and active downtown, walking and bicycling can become a key part of movement and connection of people in Columbia.. but only if we build missing connections.


And to do so, these projects need to be funded.


Last year, funding for key pedestrian and cycling projects was cut from the FY21 Howard County Capital Budget. As Howard County begins planning for next year's budget, funding is necessary to ensure that our neighborhoods get the needed sidewalks, bike lanes, and pathways that have been planned. Howard County's Streets for All Collation has already begun their advocacy efforts to ensure this funding is provided in next year's budget to ensure that our streets, sidewalks, paths, and crosswalks are safe and accessible for everybody. The organization has set up a petition to make our streets and sidewalks safer for children and families in Howard County, asking:

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball is planning next year's budget, which will determine whether our neighborhoods get needed sidewalks, bike lanes and pathways.
Without enough funds in the budget, children won't be able to play safely or walk or bike to school. People with disabilities and older adults won't be able to get around easily and independently. We have too many missing sidewalks and unsafe intersections. We have too few safe bike lanes and pathways. We need your help to FIX our streets and sidewalks.
Our streets, sidewalks, paths and crosswalks should be safe and accessible for everyone. In the past year, we've made progress, but we need your urgent help to continue making our neighborhoods better. Sign our petition today - let's get the funds in the budget to FIX our streets and sidewalks!

If you agree that we need to invest to make our neighborhood connections better, I encourage you to join me in signing their petition.

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