Mount Rainier faces challenges making streets safer for biking, walking
BY LISA WÖLFL
Mount Rainier resident Matthew Kweskin, 48, was waiting to enter the circle on Rhode Island Avenue from Perry Street on his bike when a car hit him. His bike pedal cut into his leg. Kweskin had to go to the hospital for stitches. He was on his way to work in D.C. when the accident happened in March.
Although the cut has since healed without long-term physical damage, the accident left a mark.
“Even though I’m physically fine to bike, I no longer bike commute,” Kweskin said in an interview. Only on Sundays, when traffic is slow, will he ride his bike on Rhode Island Avenue.
In September, Kweskin and around 65 Mount Rainier residents joined an online community meeting held by the Mount Rainier City Council and Mayor Celina Benitez to discuss measures to make the city more accessible and safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. The City of Mount Rainier tasked the Toole Design Group with conducting a study on how best to accomplish those goals.
Jim Elliott, project manager at Toole Design Group, gave a presentation during the September meeting, identifying some of the city’s problems, including cut-through traffic on neighborhood streets.
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, residents discussed drivers running stop signs or speeding through the city in the Mount Rainier Facebook group. Some called for speed bumps to calm traffic down.
A speed bump on one street could push traffic over to another street, said Mount Rainier Councilmember Luke Chesek (Ward 1) in a phone interview. The city wants to take a holistic approach, he said. Chesek has a vision of modeling Mount Rainier after “the happiest cities in the world.” He gives the Danish city Houten as an example on his website, explaining how its layout — “dense, single-family homes around a small but dense downtown core of shops and apartments next to public transportation” — promotes walking and biking instead of driving.
For now, traffic violations are a major concern in the city. After receiving complaints from the community, the Mount Rainier Police Department has intensified efforts to take action against traffic violations. Citations have increased almost seven-fold, from 1,345 in 2018 to 10,572 in 2020, according to the 2020 annual report.
Between 2015 and 2021, there were 893 car crashes in Mount Rainier. Of those, 146 involved serious injuries or fatalities, according to the Toole Design Group presentation. (Mount Rainier experiences a lower rate of car crashes than Prince George’s County overall, with 10.9 and 12.9 crashes per 100 inhabitants, respectively, according to Maryland’s data portal.)
Regarding two of the most accident-prone streets, however, there is little the city can do directly. Rhode Island Avenue — where a car hit Matthew Kweskin — and Queens Chapel Road are state roads and thus not under city control.
“What resonated with me was how much work the city needs to do to convince the state to take action,” Chesek said. According to him, the city has lobbied the state to fix the safety issues on Rhode Island Avenue.
The city council and the mayor have suggested adding a crosswalk and a stoplight at the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue and 33rd Street near the circle. Chesek said that the state has argued that there aren’t enough pedestrians to make those changes. “For me, it’s a chicken and egg problem,” he said. “There aren’t walkers because it’s not safe.”
Hyattsville’s 2018 transportation study, which was also conducted by Toole Design Group, found similar difficulties in Hyattsville. Their suggestions largely applied to major intersections, mostly on county and state roads not directly under city control.
At least for Mount Rainier’s streets, in January 2023, Toole Design Group will present their project recommendations to the mayor and the city council. Chesek said that the city would apply for funding through the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill.