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complete streets

Bicycle Culture by Design: Mikael Colville-Andersen

Mikael Colville-Anderson, urban mobility expert with Copenhagenize Consulting.

Engineers are brilliant problem solvers. They just need to be told which problems to solve. They are rarely leaders. They are the Can Do team. If we design a city properly, they will make it work. But as it is now, we are living in The Matrix, because traffic engineering goes unchecked and uncriticised. The 85th Percentile, for example, is a joke. An archaic study that doesn’t work. And yet it’s the first thing you learn when studying engineering. Time to change things.

Amplifying and Redefining North Ave. into a Complete Street

One possible design to make North Ave. more community friendly

I’ve been spending a lot of time on North Ave. lately.  Even without mentioning the Station North Arts District, there’s tons of history, great overlooked architecture and quirky things on the corridor which make this part of the city an overlooked gem. I believe I once said North Ave. is Baltimore’s most important street, and I still stand by that statement. The number of community assets either on or near the street is amazing.

But there are problems. Aside from the high vacancy rates, boarded up row homes and the like, the street acts like a highway and a divider when it should act as a connector and community asset. And with so many good things happening in the communities adjacent to North Ave., there is untapped potential to support the hard work community groups are doing by enlivening the street with better multi-modal access, public plazas, and neighborhood-friendly traffic speeds.

For fun I drafted a complete streets concept in Microstation which addresses several major issues on North Ave. between Greenmount and Howard Streets (and including the bridge to UB/MICA territory). While there is potential to apply these design components corridor wide, there seems to be the most neighborhood redevelopment momentum on this segment. What amazed me is how much right of way there is on North Ave. and how much of this space is underutilized. I was also pretty cost conscious in my design and tried to avoid moving sidewalk curb lines except where absolutely necessary.  Let me break it down (you can download a 2 page PDF of the concept here):

  • Firstly, the design is a partial road diet.  No city street needs 6 lanes of through traffic.  4 lanes and dedicated left turn bays are more than sufficient to accommodate traffic volumes which have been flat or declining over the past 10 years throughout the corridor.
  • Sharrows are truly the table scraps of bicycle infrastructure. Bike lanes are a bit better, but to get early adopters and novice cyclists on North Ave., a buffered bike lane increases the perception of safety for new riders.  Having a 3′ buffer between the bike lane and traffic lane may be the difference between “No way am I going out there” and “OK, I’ll try it just once”.
  • Parking. Full time on street parking is truly underrated as a traffic calming and economic development tool.
  • Wider, programmable medians. Even with buffered bike lanes and full time parking, I was able to expand a few medians with the potential to make them true public plazas. Farmers markets, art exhibits, hoola hoop tournaments, live stock shows, etc. The sky is the limit.
  • The viaduct. Have you ever tried walking or biking from Station North to MICA via North Ave.? It’s not pretty. Taking the bridge down to 4 lanes while adding buffered bike lanes will calm traffic and also make the bridge more pedestrian friendly.
  • The intersection of Howard St. and North Ave. Crazy highway-like turning radius lets traffic fly around this corner. I would think Joe Squared would want a more pedestrian friendly intersection with more patio space. I squared off this corner, expanded the sidewalk and reduced the north-south pedestrian crossing distance.

There are things I left out which are implied. More pedestrian lighting, rebuilt sidewalks, excellent way finding, community kiosks and historical markers which explain the history of the street. A place like North Ave. needs a bold statement to let people know things are happening. More complete, community-focused streets can be the catalyst which expands redevelopment momentum across the entire city.

2 Years Car Free: I Have A Car

From riding my tricycle in the rain to this glorious machine.

I’m spending my second car free anniversary in a rented Challenger, speeding (law enforcement officials: figure of speech!) down southern California highways and getting more tan than I ever thought I could. I’m here visiting my father, who moved to Barstow after he retired. Why the middle of the desert? I think he moved here because it’s the place most opposite of where we come from – New Jersey. Have you seen “The Jersey Shore”? It’s sorta like that. I can’t blame him.

My father lived car free in Barstow for a year until his local bus went from 1 hour headways to 3 hours. On weekends the bus only starts at 9am – considering he has never woken up later than 6am in his life, this just won’t cut it. Getting to the nearest shopping center down I 15 is also an ordeal; a couple hours on a meandering route just to get 5 miles.

So, because the buses suck here, my father recently bought a car. This is when I got to finally turn the tables and ask him, “What are you doing with your life?” But it reminded me how important bus service is for small towns, especially those with large retirement communities. For some retirees, having a good transit system can mean the difference between food and medicine, or car expenses. I think he stuck it out as long as he could. And if you decide to live in the middle of the desert, you’ll probably wind up needing a car. Or a camel.

Back to the Challenger, though. Have I told you how fun it is to drive? The head nods I get from the dudes on Main Street who use the word “gnarly” too often and call me “bro” are priceless. This is how Armstrong felt when he came back from the moon. How Genghis Khan felt when he conquered the Khwarezmian Dynasty. After living in car free austerity for two years, exposed to the elements, losing all of my body fat, planning multi-modal trips like someone doing calculations to put a satellite around Neptune, it’s good to just drive. And to drive in a place that was meant for driving.

Maybe you never expected to read those words on this blog. Did I just blow your mind?

But it’s not all aimless drives in the high desert and long walks on Venice Beach.  My father and I visited Lancaster in LA County. I read about a complete streets project they did on Lancaster Blvd which transformed their downtown and became a catalyst for new businesses. Traffic calming, bike lanes, public plazas, farmers markets, etc. I was pretty impressed when I got there. The project totally lived up to my expectations.  If a town in southern California built around cars could do something this progressive, so could a city built around trolley cars.

I’ll probably get in a little bit of trouble if I tried driving the Challenger back to Baltimore, so I’ll be taking Amtrak to New Orleans for the next leg of my trip. I’ve been called a masochist for taking cross continental train trips in the U.S., but the experience is worth it. If all 5 of my readers are on their best behavior, maybe you’ll get an update from New Orleans. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a very busy day scheduled playing frisbee at Venice Beach. Peace.

Lessons From The Transportation Research Board

At TRB‘s annual meeting in DC, I usually try to avoid pure engineering workshops. Sessions like, “New Innovations in Hot Mix Asphalt”, or “Regression models for Synchro” just don’t get my blood moving. The planning/engineering-lite workshops I do find are really good, though. At a context-sensitive design presentation, I was lucky to see John N. LaPlante speak. As the Chief Transportation Planner at T.Y Lin International, I was expecting road-widening rationals, travel demand models and a boring run down of ITE guidelines. Instead, it was like this guy has been reading my blog for the past few months and gave a stinging indictment of unimaginative, auto-oriented roadway designs.  A few notable points he made:

  • Designing for anything “better” than Level of Service D in urban areas is a waste of time and money.
  • Travel time savings of 3 minutes is not reason enough to design roads like airport runways.
  • Vehicle miles traveled has hit a plateau. 1% background growth for x out years is unrealistic and will result in gridlock projections for every model.  Don’t let models dictate design.
  • Tighten curb radii, even if it means trucks have to turn from the outer lanes.
  • On/off ramps connecting freeways to urban areas should not be designed like interstate ramps. Design speeds should drop dramatically to force drivers to slow down.
  • 10′ lane widths should be standard for roads with speed limits under 45mph – anything over 11′ is a waste of money and a danger to pedestrians.
  • Medians, trees, and on-street parking are our friends and serve as natural traffic calming.  Removing on-street parking, even just during peak hours, has deleterious impacts on nearby businesses.
  • Urban arterials (like MLK Jr. Blvd), which typically have the most traffic of any urban street, should not be designed to maximize capacity and speed. Because people live, work, walk and bike on these streets, the same complete street principles should apply.
  • There is nothing in AASHTO and ITE guidelines which prevents these, or other complete street designs from being included in projects. We are only limited by our imagination.

In another session about urban circulators, the Charm City Circulator was used as a case study for downtown shuttle systems. It compared favorably to smaller systems in Austin and Philly which have less reliable funding (grants, MVR, etc), shorter operating hours, or routes which do not serve major tourist attractions. When compared to other cities, I think Baltimore and DC have the best downtown circulator systems in the country right now.