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Ways We Can Make Baltimore More Livable Right Now

Bellingham, WA. Small changes, big impact.

While we wait for the Super Block, a new arena, and a handful of other big projects which promise to change the face of Baltimore, here are a few smaller things we can do right now to make people say, “Hey, this place is alright”.

Low Cost Transit Improvements

Eric Hatch’s ideas are gold, so I don’t need to repeat them here. I especially liked his points about extending transit operating hours to 3am, adding light rail infill stations, and inter-neighborhood shuttle bugs. Having lived in Hampden for a few months now, I can say the neighborhood is a transit desert and needs better connections to Johns Hopkins and downtown. Baltimore has been car-focused for so long that we have to make transit twice as good to attract more choice riders. Small improvements which show MTA cares about quality are a first step. Also, may it’s time to rethink the entire bus network like Portland did in 1982.

20 MPH Neighborhood Zones

Drivers in this town love 2 things: Speed, and messing with their cell phones while driving. Neighborhoods and speeding/distracted drivers don’t mix. NYC has had huge success with their 20 mph zones, and for good reason. This often cited pedestrian fatality chart, Dan Burden’s case studies, Donald Appleyard’s research, and a plethora of other projects show the huge benefits which accrue when traffic is tamed to reasonable levels. Fewer and less severe auto accidents, fewer pedestrian injuries and fatalities, more opportunities for positive street life, and less traffic noise. It’s literally all upside and no downside. 20 MPH zones mean reducing posted speed limits and targeted enforcement, but also include…

Complete Streets

This includes everything from building out our bike network, adding pedestrian lighting so our streets look less post-apocalyptic at night, road diets/traffic calming, street trees, and everything else I’m forgetting to mention. Most of these things don’t even require full reconstruction – they can be done in strategic ways at minimal cost.

Small Public Plazas

Have you been to Pittsburgh? I talk about this place a lot. I guess you could say I have a crush on the town. They’ve mastered the art of small public plazas. Where vacuums between buildings used to exist, now there’s interactive art, educational kiosks, people eating their noodle salad, real children and overgrown children playing hopscotch, and lots of green space. Baltimore has to get over its fear of creating comfortable, fun public spaces. By making plazas attractive for all people, you create a critical mass of positive activity, and the “feel” of the street shifts from something abandoned and dangerous to something inviting and full of life. This all ties into an overarching goal, which is:

Positive Street Life

Everything I’ve said up to this point supports this final thing. Getting off the train from DC into downtown Baltimore is disheartening and a buzz kill.  Aside from the sorry state of Penn Station, most of this has to do with how abandoned our streets are, even during lunch and dinner hours. Streets are people’s first impression of a city, and when they’re filled solely with cars rushing by on wide one way streets at 45mph, it says something negative about our city. Go to NYC. Go to Philly. Go to DC or even parts of Pittsburgh and see how their streets are also outdoor performance theaters, playgrounds, cultural conduits, window shopping opportunities, and bicycle skyways. A quality street does more than one thing well. A street that does many things well becomes magical.

Street Art

And finally, more of this.

One City – Eight Artists – Seven Days: Baltimore from XXIST on Vimeo.


  • Scott Adams

    Went to Bellingham, WA this past summer – great downtown and waterfront! As for bigger places like Baltimore (and Charlotte, where I am), smaller, incremental improvements are more meaningful and impact the average citizen more than stadiums, convention centers and other “big deals”. This recent article hits upon the idea of doing things in smaller, yet impacting ways. “…if we are going to plan, we need to listen when people say “We don’t have any money” and figure out a way to make a difference for much less.”

    http://helmofthepublicrealm.com/2013/01/27/the-new-new-urbanism/

  • RealGMan

    Man, if Hampden is a transit desert (shuttle bug, Light Rail, 22 Bus, 27 Bus), places like Ten Hills, Dickeyville and Hamilton must be the freaking Sahara.

  • Mark

    Light rail is on the far edge of the neighborhood and a long, dark walk to where people actually live in Hampden. Shuttle bug connects to it but runs, what, every 45 min? #27 is infrequent and often late, #22 is a zig zagging mess and goes through like 25 neighborhoods and completely misses downtown. Yes, Hampden has transit but most of it sucks. I expect more.

  • 1spresident30

    NYC initiated its SLO ZONES only last year. The initial pilot has only been open for a full-year. Has there been an evaluation yet?
    Perhaps you’re confusing it with London?

  • Rev. Elgaroo Brenza

    the anti-street performer regulations enacted some years ago have pretty completely eradicated that once commonplace element of street life, except for the giant cheesy hired tourist shows at the harbor. really quite sad…

  • Kate

    Do you have more information about this? How can we get these regulations lifted? Maybe a start could be meeting with city council members.

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisRHamilton Chris Hamilton

    As a many time visitor to charm city I like the direction you are going in your recommendations. I love Baltimore, but despite its better housing prices and cool neighborhoods I won’t move here from DC because Baltimore is too car centric. It is not bike friendly. It needs a bikesharing. It needs a network of bike lanes. It needs local transit that connects neighborhoods. Better yet some street cars connecting up all the neighborhoods in the city. Don’t worry about running stuff out to the burbs. Those folks are going to drive anyway. There are way too many parking garages and downtown seems like its made to accommodate cars and parking. Whatever happened to complete streets? Until one can easily live car-free here, Baltimore will continue to lose out on attracting the creative class of people who can make the city thrive. Making Baltimore easy to get around without a car is good economic development. Cities that do these things from Boulder to Portland to Austin to DC/Arlington, Chicago and more will lose out. The upcoming generations want walkable livability. They aren’t inclined to cars. Baltimore needs to get with the times. And fast.

  • http://twitter.com/wallywhat Wally Pinkard

    I live in Fells Point and find the city very walkable and bikable. I would agree that Hamden is somewhat on an island, but the rest of the city is not. I bike to work downtown everyday. I also bike to Ravens games across town. Another guy I work with bikes from Charles Village and another coworker takes the light rail in. I will agree that we still have a long way to go, and that the streets could use some more life, but the city is pretty easy to get around in the residential neighborhoods. The only areas that are not really good for biking is the central business district and Mt. Vernon.

  • Mark

    Exactly. Nobody moves to a neighborhood because of speeding auto traffic. They do move, however, because of quality transportation alternatives and a sense of place and safety that comes from positive streetlife, On the flip side, cities have to stop making it so easy and cheap to park, especially downtown.