“Traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves.”
— Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities)
This is my second week of doing almost all of my traveling by bus, light rail, or bike. I thought this would be a harder lifestyle change to adapt to, but I hardly ever think about the Prius I sold. This is also the date when my car payment was usually due. It’s like a weight off my shoulders not having to pay it.
I biked from Penn Station to Swann Park today. On paper, it seems like a hike, but I think it took about 15 minutes and wasn’t difficult at all. Bicycling in traffic makes you hyper aware of your surroundings. Not only of cars, but buildings, people – everything around you. You’re an active participant in the trip and each mile is more deliberate. Traveling at a slower rate of speed - a speed urban areas are designed for. Reaching the destination seems like an accomplishment, but maybe because this is still pretty new to me.
What also struck me today was the lack of street life on what should be active neighborhood blocks. People on the street are not only good for business, they’re good for the health of neighborhoods. The first book I read when I decided to study urban planning was The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Modern Library Series) by Jane Jacobs. A lot of her ideas seem like common sense, but they are concepts which have been forgotten by planners and engineers during the past 50 years. One of Jacobs’ fundamental concepts is “eyes on the street”"
“Police are not the primary keepers of the peace on city streets and sidewalks. It would take thousands upon thousands of police officers to supplant the network of self-policing citizens.”
Active streets not only make people feel safer, but actually make them safer. As social ills and urban decay overtook some Baltimore neighborhoods, residents felt less safe going to the park, walking to the store, or just hanging out on the steps. This wide-spread abandonment of the street (which also coincided with an increase in vacant structures) created an even worse situation where criminals acted without witness, thereby perpetuating the cycle of neighborhood decline. This Environmental design theories which tried to follow Jacobs’ concepts left out crucial elements – a mix of land uses and a focus on public spaces.
This is to say nothing of the fundamental cultural and political changes in the U.S. between 1920 and 1970 which overwhelming favored the automobile and its related infrastructure.
But Baltimore already has the density, street network, and mix of uses to support better street life. There needs to be a coordinated effort to bring people back outside. And not in cars. This means complete streets, well designed public spaces and parks, outdoor seating, and aggressive programming for under-utilized or new spaces. This is especially important for Swann Park which just re-opened after a 2 year environmental remediation; there should be positive buzz about this place. Not only for the obvious reasons, but Swann Park will also be a lot of people’s introduction to the Middle Branch.
Kevin Lynch, a contemporary of Jacobs, also has some theories on street life I’ll discuss in a future post.