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livability

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.

On Being a City Planner In a Room Full of Engineers

A few words of encouragement if you’ve ever been the only non-traffic engineer in a room full of traffic engineers.

  1. It’s OK to question Level of Service and traffic volume projections. They’ve often been wrong before. They will be wrong again.
  2. It’s OK to advocate for narrower lanes.
  3. It’s OK to use the phrases “fast”, “anti-urban” and “does not meet livability goals” when describing one way couplets.
  4. Protected bike lanes are no longer radical ideas, even if they mean taking traffic lanes away from automobiles.
  5. Your intuition is correct. Sharrows on high volume streets are dangerous and should not be used just to placate cyclists.
  6. Full time on-street parking is not an impediment to traffic flow, even on urban arterials. It’s a retail-booster and a revenue generating traffic calming device.
  7. It’s OK to talk about big picture things when the conversation focuses on minutia.
  8. It’s OK to expect something exceptional and transformational from a project.
  9. It’s OK to suggest that the project engineers actually walk or bike on the street they are designing.
  10. It’s OK to question neighborhood design speeds in excess of 20mph, the 85% percentile rule, intersection geometrics and clear zones, even if you’re not an engineer.
  11. Aesthetics are just as important as function. Signal poles, bus stops, sidewalks, and the entire streetscape are as much a part of urban design as buildings and parks.

…learning how to make cities rich and fecund and great places to be so we’re comfortable and healthy and happy is the biggest problem we face. The only way we’ll not go crazy is to build beautiful, rich, life-enhancing cities….The majority of open spaces in cities are streets. That means the street system is too important to leave solely to transportation engineers. They’re way too important to leave to just moving traffic. So I’m interested in cities because they are the design problem for a habitable planet. – Laurie Olin

Keep on going.