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How Quantity Turns Into Quality: Improving Baltimore Through Addition

I’m a big fan of the Polis blog.  I haven’t found any other collaborative blog that touches on so many interesting global planning and development issues. A recent article compared universal social policies with targeted programs.  Should education, health care, and other human development programs go to select groups based on certain criteria, or should all members of the population be eligible?  The author favored the latter approach.  A related UNICEF study which assessed health care and education advances in developing came to a similar conclusion; consistent, dedicated spending on health care and education across demographic groups created enormous benefits for developing countries. Simply increasing GDP or per capita income was not enough to improve education and health outcomes, though. “Trickle down” human development isn’t enough. Concerted efforts need to be made through efficient programs that work.

The UNICEF study makes another interesting but less noticeable point. Sometimes quantity turns into quality; give enough children access to free primary school, and literacy rates go up, birth rates go down, and other good things happen in less than a generation. Give enough people access to primary health care, and preventable diseases decline and quality of life goes up for entire populations. Short term increases in the quantity of positive interactions, programs or infrastructure improvements can have enormous qualitative benefits down the road. I consider this the reverse of Gresham’s Law: Flood a system with enough “good money”, and it diminishes the influence of bad money.

Now that I’ve bored you, you may be wondering what this has to do with Baltimore.  During my four years in the city, I’ve read a lot of articles and heard too many soliloquies about what people think Baltimore needs.  These ideas usually involve big, expensive projects which I believe would have a marginal positive impact on the city.  The amazing thing about Baltimore is that it already has so many assets and people trying to make a difference – but sometimes they’re outweighed by forces of apathy and the status quo. Maybe we don’t need something entirely new. Maybe we just need more of the good things we already have.

During a recent cycling tour of West Baltimore organized Baltimore Heritage, I was reminded that behind almost every neighborhood which is depicted as hopeless on the news is a group of people working to turn things around.  The residents rebuilding entire blocks on Pennsylvania Ave. or creating community gardens near Franklin Square often work without much recognition.  They do a lot, but they can only do so much alone. We need more people like them.  With a critical mass of people involved in grass roots work, perceptions of neighborhoods can change and visible signs of neighborhood neglect can be reduced. This can help attract larger private investment and additional support from outside organizations.

Neighborhood groups who wage daily battles against blight and neglect can only do so much when the influx of new residents has slowed to a crawl. Simply increasing the number of residents who choose to live in the city can have exponential benefits; eyes on the street,  increased tax base, fewer vacant houses/neglected properties/“broken windows”, and improved property values.  While the issue of how to attract new residents is too involved to discuss here, I believe the”Quantity Turns into Quality” concept applies.

A critical mass of bicyclists can also have far reaching benefits for a city. By increasing the mode share of bicyclists and building more bike infrastructure, we increase retail sales in neighborhoods, reduce traffic speeds, reduce auto emissions, and generally make Baltimore a cooler place that people want to move to and invest in.  Research from the Journal of Injury Prevention also shows that simply increasing the number of people walking and biking can have substantial safety benefits:

A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling when there are more people walking or bicycling. Modeling this relationship as a power curve yields the result that at the population level, the number of motorists colliding with people walking or bicycling will increase at roughly 0.4 power of the number of people walking or bicycling. For example, a community doubling its walking can expect a 32% increase in injuries. Taking into account the amount of walking and bicycling, the probability that a motorist will strike an individual person walking or bicycling declines with the roughly ?0.6 power of the number of persons walking or bicycling. An individual’s risk while walking in a community with twice as much walking will reduce to 66%. Accordingly, policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.

While we already have a burgeoning bike network, we need more of it to make a dent in ridership and create a critical mass of users which can lead to these benefits.

And just like health care and education in developing countries, the key is creating programs and infrastructure in Baltimore which are inclusive and have low barriers to entry. Want more people to ride bikes? Create bike infrastructure which is more comfortable for novice riders. Cycle tracks, buffered bike lanes and a comprehensive way finding network is the way to go. Want more investment in neighborhoods? Begin by making neighborhoods more attractive to broader demographic groups and not just people who snub their noses at the suburbs.

Sometimes there’s a single silver bullet that will change everything. But usually, it’s small, incremental acts multiplied a thousand times that have more power and which create the ripple effects that turn the tide.


  • Kate

     Meditative and thoughtful. You should do more like these instead of the sarcastic huckster posts.

  • Old Baltimore

    Had a dinner discussion about bikes here in coral gables. Vast majority of bikers ride the sidewalks. I don’t know if it is legal or not but I got on my high horse about safety because I’m up to three near collisions (been here 6 days) with bikers who enter the intersection from a sidewalk. This lead to me saying that once I get start riding here, I will add to the small mass thereby growing a critical mass of street riders. The rebuttal was “no one rides in the street so it will be too dangerous. Cars don’t expect to see you”. That is certainly true but I’ve always been a pioneer of sorts-SOMEBODY had to start, right? What do you say?

  • Mark B

    Saw the same thing in Miami.  Everyone rides on the sidewalk. The city seemed to be in a rush to add bike lanes and put them on less-than-ideal streets.

    Someone has to start. You’re a pioneer. Be careful, though.