My commute to work each weekday is fairly simple.
I enter my car in downtown Frederick, and roughly 10 minutes later, arrive at The Frederick News-Post’s building on Ballenger Center Drive. It’s a trip that crosses an interstate and involves an array of turns, including a circular one onto Jefferson Pike, which immediately turns into Ballenger Creek Pike close to my destination.
It’s also one that, using public transit, would take roughly an hour, according to Google Maps.
Frederick has a decent bus network for a city of its size. But when traveling from one specific location to another, trips become lengthier and more complex. Google Maps suggests a multi-bus trip, one that is less than 4 miles by car.
So when reading the following statement in the Livable Frederick Master Plan, outlining Frederick County’s transportation goals for the year 2040, some might be skeptical.
“Our transportation system is MULTI-MODAL and diverse. It moves people, and goods both locally and regionally, in a timely and safe manner, and provides the ability to enjoy and function in life WITHOUT NEEDING A CAR,” it reads, emphasis theirs.
But life in Frederick County without a car doesn’t seem practical, and county officials acknowledged that this past week.
“Some things in the [vision statements] are practical, many things are, maybe, impractical,” said John Dimitriou, a principal planner with the county’s Department of Planning, who helped write Livable Frederick.
The plan is a “vision” that aims to move the entire community toward an “aspirational” future, but that future will, in reality, look different for everyone, he said. Even 2040 is a “horizon” — forever moving into the future — rather than a finish line for achieving the vision it lays out.
What the plan has already done, however, is allow the county to identify its deficits.
Today, Frederick County lacks access to safe and efficient pedestrian and un-motorized transportation, said Denis Superczynski, another principal planner with the county who worked on Livable Frederick.
If the county can plan for a future that addresses its deficits, maybe a family will opt for a one-car household rather than two, Superczynski said. Maybe a resident who commutes to D.C. switches to driving to a park-and-ride to take a commuter bus or MARC train instead of sitting in Interstate 270 traffic. While not truly a car-less solution, these are the behavior changes county planners envision.
County Councilman Michael Blue (R), who represents District 5 — a rural area including Emmitsburg and Thurmont — said cars are still going to be needed in 2040, even if less of them are on the road.
“My district is a perfect example,” Blue said. “If you can’t drive a vehicle, then how are you going to get people from A to B? How are you going to get people moving around from Thurmont and Emmitsburg into the bigger municipalities like Frederick?”
Adding multi-modal transportation to northern Frederick County will be more difficult, the planners acknowledged.
In 2017, the mayors of Thurmont and Emmitsburg advocated for a midday TransIT bus route between the northern municipalities and the city of Frederick. The county agreed to a pilot route in December of that year, but discontinued it in early 2019, due to low ridership.
The inherent problem with offering bus service to the 14-mile stretch between the city of Frederick and Thurmont — and the additional 5 miles beyond it to Emmitsburg — is its high cost for low ridership, Superczynski said. And the only way to build ridership is to offer consistent, reliable service over time, he said.
“Nobody’s going to give up a car for a bus transit line that might disappear in a year,” Superczynski said.
County Councilman Phil Dacey (R) said the plan doesn’t focus enough on increasing road capacity, given how many people drive to get around and Frederick County’s lack of rail and bus alternatives.
“There’s not the transit alternatives that exist in big cities and there’s probably no short-term solution to that,” Dacey said. “The plan is more silent on the fact we need additional road capacity and we need more ability to use cars for mobility.”
Like Dacey, council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) admitted shifting the public’s habits toward mass transit versus driving would be tough.
“The American society is not willing to divorce themselves from their vehicles,” Keegan-Ayer said. “So it’s not that it’s not something we should try and pursue to some level, but totally going without automobiles in Frederick County is [difficult].”
Multi-modal doesn’t necessarily mean “no cars,” but rather the ability to get around and complete some tasks without them.
Think about standing in the parking lot of a commercial shopping center that is next to, but not connected to, another large shopping center, Superczynski said as an example. You can see the store you want to get to next, but there’s no pedestrian connection, so you have to get in your car and drive to the next lot, he said.
Retrofit projects to connect two — previously unconnected — sites are relatively straightforward and reduce the miles traveled by residents.
County Councilman Kai Hagen (D) agreed Livable Frederick doesn’t aim to get every car off the road, but rather give residents more options when it comes to traveling around.
Hagen, who was heavily involved in drafting the plan, said the County Council could reduce parking requirements in certain areas or change the type of land density allowed, such as more mixed-use developments, to implement Livable Frederick.
“You don’t have to sell people on it, if you move into a community which is mixed-use and walkable. ... We’re not trying to tell people not to drive; we’re trying to create a community where people are driving fewer miles and fewer trips, because that is a viable option,” Hagen said.
New residential development in Urbana is an example of an area where walkability is already being implemented. The 600 new homes near Sugarloaf Elementary School are all within one-fifth a mile of the school, and an 8-foot path connects an age-restricted development to the town’s shopping center.
Simply connecting existing sidewalk segments is another way the county plans to improve local transportation options.
Where Frederick County will have a hard time reducing resident miles traveled is among its commuter population. The Maryland Transit Administration’s plans to expand its commuter bus services in Frederick in November and the state plans to widen I-270 to reduce congestion, said Ron Burns, traffic engineer for Frederick County. However, the lack of “reverse service” during the week — to bring workers into Frederick — and weekend service, to bring visitors in, continues to limit Frederick.
As someone who has lived in Frederick for more than eight months, I’ve been able to walk through downtown Frederick and its outskirts easily. But outside of the city, it’s hard to travel between small towns on the fringes of the county, without some sort of vehicular transportation.
Maybe it’d be more accurate if Livable Frederick read, “Our transportation system is MULTI-MODAL ... and provides the ability to enjoy and function in life WITHOUT NEEDING A CAR,” ... sometimes.
Staff writer Samantha Hogan contributed to this column.
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