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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.


[Your City] Should Take Traffic Lanes Away From Cars – Part II (No Lane Is Sacred)

Ludicrously Wide.

Jane Jacobs, Anthony Downs, and Ian Lockwood do a pretty good job of describing the fallacies of using congestion, gridlock, and level of service arguments as discussion-ending rationales for either maintaining excess auto lanes, adding new lanes, or refusing to give up lanes for other modes. Entire highways have been torn down and replaced by at-grade, multi-modal boulevards, or in some cases streams and trails, and neither gridlock, cannibalism, nor communism ensued. Temporary highway lane closures show similar effects – traffic does not act like water. It acts like people – adaptable to changing environments.

Without going on a rant about traffic engineering concepts, I will say that basing design decisions on efficiency (moving as many cars as quickly as possible) lessens the importance of other variables, such as:

  • Land use (see excessively wide roads around Druid Hill Park)
  • Neighborhood circulation patterns (see how Seton Hill was turned into an on-ramp for MLK Jr. Blvd)
  • Quality of life (talk to someone who lives on St. Paul St.  in Charles Village)
  • Access (see 6 unnecessary traffic lanes around Preston Gardens)

Drivers will speed if they’re on a road designed to maximize throughput for cars. This is basic human psychology – design a road that feels safe at 40 mph, and drivers will travel that speed despite the speed limit. Complete streets, road-diets, or even just the presence of bike lanes can slow traffic and reduces fatalities. By reducing the number of unneeded traffic lanes, we’re also giving people travel options instead of maintaining a decades old status quo created when congestion reduction was thought of as the primary goal of good street design.

My Hit List:

  • The 695 Belt Way – Not in the city, but my blog knows no bounds. It’s crazy there isn’t a bus route that connects major suburban centers on the beltway. Perfect place for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) dedicated lanes. Having sleek new hybrid buses zoom by stopped beltway traffic at 5pm will do more to market transit than all the Facebook “friends” in the world. See the BRT system in Curitiba, Brazil. While some systems have not met expectations in the U.S., this can be partly attributed to some jurisdictions lacking the political will to convert traffic lanes into bus-only lanes.
  • Wabash Ave. – I didn’t think of this one until Greg brought it up in Part I.  6 lanes? Really? For when you really need to get from Cold Spring Lane to Northern Parkway at the speed of sound. Take a lane and it could be a separated walking/biking path for the neighborhoods in NW Baltimore.  The path would also connect to two metro stations.
  • Swann Drive on the south side of Druid Hill Park – Way too wide and way too fast. An impediment to the revitalization of Reservoir Hill. Who the hell wants to cross 8 lanes of traffic with their kid trying to get to a park?
  • Major streets: Boston St. and Charles St. – Well, not take lanes really, but eliminate peak hour parking restrictions to make the streets more neighborhood and people friendly. See my peak hour parking restriction rant here. Pratt east of President St. could also stand to lose the peak hour parking restrictions.
  • Local streets: Lanvale in Greenmount West and Oldham St. in Greektown – way too wide for what they’re used for. Both  should be narrowed with bumpouts, widened sidewalks, planting strips, outdoor seating areas, and bike lanes.
  • Preston Gardens – 4 lanes on St. Paul turn into 6 adjacent to the park, making it more of a traffic median instead of a public space. A lane on both upper and lower St. Paul should be taken adjacent to Preston Gardens in order to widen the park, improve pedestrian access from Mt. Vernon and Mercy Hospital, and slow traffic down.
  • Hanover St. Bridge – A major connection between South Baltimore and Middle Branch neighborhoods, the middle reversible lane is not needed and is often empty during peak hours.  Remove the middle lane and put in two bike lanes.  Maybe widen the sidewalks. The views from the bridge would be better from outside a car.
  • Thames Street in Fells Point – A gap in the waterfront promenade. The sidewalk width should be doubled and a separated bike lane added.

Traffic lanes are not sacred nor are they static. They should be assessed regularly to see if they could be put to better use, taking into account a neighborhood’s vision and changing land uses.  An interesting analysis of the safety implications of livable streetscape treatments and wide roads can be found in Eric Dumbaugh’s thesis from Georgia Tech, subsequently published in the Journal of the American Planning Association.

At the most fundamental level, the major tension in the design of urban roadways does not appear to be a matter of balancing safety and livability objectives. There is little evidence to support the claim that “livable” streetscape treatments are less safe than their more conventional counterparts, and the weight of the evidence suggests that they can possibly enhance a roadway’s safety performance. Instead, the more basic problem appears to be that safety and livability objectives are often in direct conflict with the overarching objective of mobility, and its proxy—speed. (Dumbaugh, 2005).

The spaces between the buildings are just as important as the buildings themselves.  What good is a lifeless street filled with rushing traffic?

Revisiting Donald Appleyard’s Livable Streets from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Why Rush Hour Parking Restrictions Don’t Work

For the love of God just let the people park.

While walking  from the Canton Promenade to Starbucks, it took me 5 minutes to cross Boston Street.  My bad – I was jaywalking. And sure, I could have walked half a mile to the nearest crosswalk at O’donnell or Hudson, but my pride got in the way.  Also, when you’re at the Canton Starbucks, those crosswalks look really really far away (they’re actually about 1600 feet apart).  I’ve seen 80 year old men with canes cross mid-block on Boston, so I thought, if they could do it, so can I.  There are two issues here.

  1. Boston Street probably needs a mid block crosswalk somewhere between O’donnell and Hudson Street. With all that retail, a grocery store, and a Starbucks (my sweet sweet love), there are plenty of people who live in the condos on the other side of Boston, or who exit the Promenade, and say “Damn, those crosswalks are far. I’ll make a run for it.”
  2. I was trying to cross at 5pm. This means eastbound traffic flies because two lanes are open instead of one due to peak hour parking restrictions.

Opening that one lane of traffic maybe saves 1 or 2 minutes of travel time if you’re in a car.  So awesome.  What peak hour parking restrictions also do is encourage highway-like speeds on neighborhood streets, discourage business patronage, and make life a pain in the ass for nearby residents who don’t have sufficient parking. Not to mention the fact that all it takes is one illegally parked vehicle to throw the whole scheme into chaos. I’ll also throw in the kitchen sink and say it makes biking during peak hours more difficult.  I’d rather get doored than get hit from the back by a speeding car. And finally, let’s throw in the bathtub and say that peak hour restrictions preclude the installation of bump outs, the fashionable street adornment which make pedestrian crossings safer and streets greener.

“But Mark” you say, “you’re supposed to discourage driving. We should make parking more difficult.”.  In certain situations, I disagree. I am against engineering decisions that provide benefits to vehicular traffic at the expense of other modes and neighborhood livability, and this is a great example. And especially in this economy, businesses need all the customers they can get, even if they arrive by Hummer.  Though Howard Street wasn’t hurt by light rail, it wasn’t helped by a lack of auto access. I would be remiss if I didn’t state my opinion that peak hour parking restrictions hurt businesses on Charles Street as well.

And just like one way streets, peak hour parking restrictions seem to be for the benefit of drivers who want to get the hell out of Baltimore as fast as possible after they get out of work. Why should we sacrifice livable streets, commercial vitality and quality of life for our residents just for the sake of shaving a couple minutes off  someones exodus to the suburbs? What’s the hurry, drivers?  Park your car and stay awhile.

Greater Greater Washington has an excellent article describing Chicago’s effort to eliminate peak hour parking restrictions on 225 of their busiest blocks.

**Update: Check out a run down of research done on the benefits of on-street parking at Planetizen.

Jane Jacobs Part II

1946 traffic jam on Mission, near 5th St (Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

When I started this site a few weeks ago, one of the major decisions which had to be made was if this was going to be a local, eyes-on-the-ground nuts and bolts commentary on transportation in Baltimore, or a more theoretical discussion that would touch on the disciplines which make up urban planning. I’ve decided to take both routes and see how it goes.

The last book Jane Jacobs completed before she died was Dark Age Ahead.  It’s meandering, pessimistic, and lacks the Eureka moments of Death and Life.  It’s a rant against the evils (real and imagined) that she felt were crippling society.  One of the more memorable parts of the book is her diatribe against traffic engineers and traffic modeling. Her argument: Traffic isn’t constant. Close a road, and instead of an equal number of cars re-routed, total traffic volumes will be reduced instead. The tried and true theories of fluid dynamics cannot be applied to traffic models since cars are driven by people, and predicting human behavior is more complex than predicting how water flows down a water slide at Wally’s Water World of Fun.

This is similar to Anthony Downs’ Triple Convergence theory; expanding roadway capacity will eventually lead to more drivers using the improved roads, negating whatever capacity improvements have been built. This new traffic comes from:

  1. Drivers who formerly used alternative routes during peak hours switch to the improved expressway (spatial convergence)
  2. Drivers who formerly traveled just before or after the peak hours start traveling during those hours (time convergence)
  3. Some commuters who used to take public transportation during peak hours now switch to driving, since it has become faster (modal convergence). (Stuck in Traffic, 1992)

Two sides of a coin from two very different authors; Closing roads reduces traffic, widening roads increases traffic. The “solution” (road building/widening) creating the symptoms (traffic) which are used to further justify more road building. This never ending cycle has been going on for decades, especially on suburban arterials and commerical strips.

These sacrilegious ideas are being put to use in NYC.  The Madison Square Pedestrian Project, the Broadway Blvd Midtown Improvements, and the 34th St. Midtown Pedestrian Mall show that eliminating full traffic lanes on busy streets in order to create outdoor living rooms, cafe space and transit/bike lanes is not only technically possible, but has enormous quality of life benefits.  Baltimore has also removed a full lane of traffic on Pratt St. (one of the busiest streets in the city) with little impact on congestion and replaced it with a dedicated bike/bus lane for the Charm City Circulator.

While traffic modeling is a useful tool, we should keep an eye on the big picture.