I was recently given the opportunity to speak with University of Maryland President Wallace Loh at an informal meet and greet with around a hundred students. One attendee asked him what he thought his most important work while at UMD was, and his answer surprised me. He said that he thought the most important work he has done has been to advocate and cooperate with authorities to get the purple line built.
The purple line is a 16 mile light rail track currently being built which will serve 21 stations between Bethesda and New Carrollton. Upon completion (scheduled between 2020 and 2022) it will help hundreds of Terrapins who live in the DC suburbs utilize public transportation to get to campus. DC Metros current system is designed like a bicycle wheel with spokes radiating out of a few stops downtown. This system works perfectly for commuters coming from the suburbs into DC, but alienates those who wish to commute within the surrounding areas. Going from the popular Bethesda area to campus in College Park is a mere 13 miles as the crow flies or by car but can take upwards of an hour on Metro because it requires riding downtown to transfer to the appropriate spoke on the bicycle wheel. The purple line will eliminate the need to travel through a hub and will bring commuters directly onto campus.
To commute via metro to UMD now one must take the metro to the College Park station and then take the 104 bus the 1.5 miles to campus. The bus alone can add 10 to 15 minutes to the commute based on traffic on the crowded campus. I know this because I tried commuting to campus via metro myself last semester as I thought it would be a good way to catch up on reading while commuting into class and, at least on paper, the commute should have been similar in length to driving from my home downtown. However constant metro delays, dirty trains and the uncertainty of traffic once I made it to College Park made it not worth the trouble and it regularly took 15-30 minutes longer than driving. The purple line looks to alleviate one of these concerns by stopping in the middle of campus instead of at an off campus location.
One of the most interesting things about President Loh’s conversation about the purple line was his regret that years ago, when the College Park metro station was being built, the University passed on the opportunity to have it run directly to the Student Union in the middle of campus. He considers, as do I, the purple line running directly through campus to be one of the most important parts of its success or failure.
We live in a car based society and if we hope to get commuters off the road and onto mass transit we have to make it more appealing than the cars they are used to. The first step in this will be running directly into campus, and the second will be making sure the trains are reliable and timely. Being late for class because the train runs late could be enough to turn a commuter off of mass transit for life, and if the purple line runs with even half the trouble that famously faces the rest of the DC Metro system it could run from a students bed to their desk and they still wouldn’t utilize it.
I am optimistic on the purple lines ability to make Bethesda, Silver Spring and other Maryland suburbs transit commutable to UMD as long as it is more appealing than the cars that students are already used to.