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[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.

[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