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[Your City] Should Take Traffic Lanes Away From Cars – Part I

The New Times Square. This used to be a traffic lane filled with angry cabbies. Nobody is angry in this picture.

What if WTMD played Rush all day, every day? Sure, I like a few of their songs, but hearing them non-stop would cause my head to explode.  What if there were huge networks of roads crossing entire cities that had one sole purpose?  You’d think it was a waste of real estate, right? And pretty monotonous.  Like, people do so many more things than the one thing this network was designed for. What if this network was also designed for the most deleterious mode of transport? Isn’t it common sense that this network should be re-adapted to include other people who may not want to use these machines?

You get my point. On a trip to NYC over Thanksgiving, I saw again how NYC DOT is pushing the envelope and creating places for people which were previously dominated by cars. Take the Green Light for Midtown project. Several lanes of traffic were closed and cars rerouted to turn Broadway between 42nd and 47th into a pedestrian plaza. This design, once a pilot project, is now permanent. Let me try to convey the magnitude of this change. 50,000+ cars a day, probably the busiest/most congested intersection in the U.S., complex traffic patterns, and a huge number of angry cabbies. And NYC DOT, with the help of tons of stakeholders and the Bloomberg administration, closed entire traffic channels and transformed the space so that people could sit on a lazyboy with their feet up in the middle of the road in Times Square. And it works.

Broadway. A more rational balance.

Some results from NYC DOT’s website:

  • Travel speeds increased through the remaining traffic lanes – more drivers are using parallel streets
  • Injuries to motorists and passengers in the project area fell by 63%
  • 74% of New Yorkers surveyed by the Times Square Alliance agree that Times Square has improved dramatically over the last year.

Columbus Circle, Herald Square and entire stretches of Broadway have also seen similar treatments. Auto capacity reduced, more public plazas, Copenhagen style bike lanes, dedicated transit ways – and gridlock does not ensue. The traffic justification (gridlock!) used to build thousands of miles of interstates through dense urban areas, widen an ungodly number of road miles to accommodate “future traffic volumes”, and destroy hundreds of neighborhoods to accommodate these roads can pretty much be thrown out the window.

A caveat, though. Some parts of Manhattan have a pedestrian volume/capacity ratio higher than 1 , meaning there are more pedestrians than the streets can handle – especially in Times Square. This overflow will naturally spill onto any additional space created. You put out a  bench coated with maple syrup in Times Square, and I bet a few people would be sitting on the thing within a few minutes.

In Baltimore, because we don’t have the pedestrian volumes nor the outdoor cafe culture NYC does, we have to be more selective when we convert traffic lanes into people lanes.  As the new dedicated bike/bus lanes on Pratt and Lombard show, even on our busiest roads, we have excess capacity.  Most of our street network was built out when we had almost a million people. Granted, we have higher car ownership rates now, but the doom and gloom naysayers are off the mark when they use congestion and gridlock fear mongering as a justification for maintaining the status quo.

So where in Baltimore should we take traffic lanes away from cars and give them back to the people? More on this in Part II.

Also see: Streetfilms: Carmaggeddon Averted As Broadway Comes to Life


  • Liam

    North Avenue.

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  • CB

    st paul street at preston gardens

  • Youssef

    How about the ridiculous amount of capacity on Charles Street adjacent to Johns Hopkins? Surely we can do something better with that.

  • Jeff

    As you have mentioned, Baltimore does not have the same critical mass (no pun intended) of pedestrians and cyclists, and therefore I don’t think that NYC’s notions of “plazas” and such translate well to Baltimore. Rather, Baltimore needs to be looking at the attrition of automobile lanes (and width reduction of existing lanes) more in the context of traffic calming, rather than pulling vibrant public spaces out of JSK’s magical ass (god bless that magical ass).

    I visited my parents (Harbor East) over Thanksgiving, and noticed that Baltimore has begun going with a “low-hanging fruit” approach to building bike infrastructure. While I question the value of sharrows on random Fells Point side streets, at least it sends the message, “Dear Citizen: It is, indeed, okay to ride a bicycle. Love, The City.” I understand there aren’t enough cyclists to justify what we have in NYC, but I think Baltimore could do more by selling robust cycling infrastructure–and enhanced pedestrian spaces–as traffic calming.

    Take Central Ave, for example. On what planet does this need to be two lanes of auto traffic in each direction? The excess capacity created by this configuration encourages deadly, anti-social driving, what with the speeding and passing and weaving and whatnot. While a buffered bike lane would see very little cycle traffic, the DOT could come back and say, “Hey, look, pedestrian and motorist injuries have fallen by X percent since we reconfigured this.” This is the centerpiece of JSK’s approach with NYC: Purely data-driven. Do you think we really need that parking-protected bike lane on Broadway? Hell no. In fact, from a cyclist perspective, it’s a pain in the ass (and the scant cycle traffic proves this). But it sure has slowed down traffic, and made Broadway a more pleasant (and safer) place to stroll about!

  • http://bike.baltimorecommutes.com Nate Evans

    Whatever happened to UM’s plan to eradicate one of the city’s coolest little public spaces at Baltimore & Fremont? I sure hope that plan has died…

  • Mark

    Right on. Have you seen historic photos of Central Ave? Daylighted canal where the concrete median is today with trolley tracks and 1 lane of traffic in each direction. I’m sure that canal would be putrid today, so better off that it’s underground, but still, we were so much more laissez fair back in the day when we let our streets run amok with all kinds of activities. Look at historic photos of Pratt and Lombard at Attman’s Deli. Street life galore. We’ve sanitized and mono-moded our streets into lifeless, boring traffic channels which suck the life out of neighborhoods.

  • Greg

    I nominate Wabash Avenue. The are nowhere near enough cars to fill up all the lanes on that road and it’s adjacent to the metro.

  • Mark

    Interesting choice.

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