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one way streets

How To Build A Campus At Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Streets First

Almost all the major streets through the medical campus are one way and fast, designed for through traffic.

While cycling through Johns Hopkins Medical Center in East Baltimore the other day, I noticed the area seemed less like a campus and more like a collection of buildings.  Nobody really hangs out outside. Most medical staff briskly walk between buildings as fast as they can. Visitors do the same. I’m also willing to bet most of the traffic on the streets is through traffic, using the streets as the quickest route between two places.

East Baltimore Development Initiative has plans to create a mixed use biotechnology park just north of the main medical campus, with several buildings already constructed. While their goals are lofty, a more practical problem exists of how to create a sense of place and campus atmosphere within the existing medical center. With new residents and building expansions adding more people on the streets,  maybe consistent streetscaping and street level plazas could help.  But these all cover up the fundamental problem;   almost every major street through the campus is one way. You say, “big deal”. OK, imagine Johns Hopkins University on the other side of town, say the Wyman quad, divided up by streets carrying through traffic.  If you wanted to rebuild the campus and the social atmosphere of the quad, the streets would be the first thing you would have to deal with. My premise is that the best hospital in the country should have the best campus environment as well. Right now, it doesn’t.

One way streets in red which divide the campus and EBDI project area. These one ways extend beyond the campus into adjacent neighborhoods.

One of my most read blog posts is an indictment of one way streets.  While I won’t repeat all my arguments here,  a growing body of planners, engineers, and public policy leaders have recognized that two way streets reduce speeds, improve livability and support commercial centers and main streets. Converting all of the internal campus streets to two way while adding other streetscaping and traffic calming elements can be a first step in creating a more inviting campus for faculty and patients.

If this were the suburbs, the hospital would probably be on an island of curvilinear streets without much through traffic – like Bayview. All of the streets within the East Baltimore Johns Hopkins campus, however, extend for miles and miles throughout the city.  Converting all of these streets in their entirety wouldn’t be practical, so maybe a two way island in an ocean of one ways is possible.

Blue streets for local traffic, red streets for through traffic.

In an ideal world, the medical campus would be closed to through traffic accept for a few access points – just like the university. Because the medical center exists within a grid network of streets and lies between major traffic generators, a more plausible solution is to create a sense of place through environmental psychology.  Change the “feel” of the street through two way traffic and other visual cues, and the transition between the outside and inside of the medical campus will be clear. Drivers will act accordingly.

Converting all the one ways within the campus to two way would achieve three things; traffic calming, easier navigation for thousands of out of town patients and visitors, and a net reduction in campus traffic due to diverted through traffic.  Because Fayette, Orleans and Broadway probably have capacity to spare, these streets should be signed for through traffic while everything else should be local.

And who knows, maybe we can get even crazier and add bike lanes or cycletracks through the medical center.  Public health, you know?  If you’re talking the talk, you should be walking the walk.

The Problem(s) With One Way Streets

Rivers were meant to run in one direction. People are not rivers.

Alan Ehrenhalt makes an interesting case for two-way streets.  There’s evidence that one way streets increase operating speeds, reduce neighborhood accessibility and can sometimes hurt commercial districts. The UK has already implemented broad design guidelines which call for phasing out one ways in residential areas. In designing streets based on future level of service calculations, we may be sacrificing neighborhood livability.

I know of several residential streets in Baltimore which are currently one way and operate at speeds well above the posted limit. Some of these streets are also excessively wide and could easily handle 2 lanes of bi-direction traffic and full bike lanes. While there are situations where one way streets are needed, these are extreme cases and fall within a limited context.

This post comes from a death-defying attempt to bike west from the Inner Harbor to Hollins Market.  While the future bus/bike lane on Lombard should help, the speeding traffic on the one way pairs on every single east-west downtown street up to Saratoga creates mini-highways which are uncomfortable to walk on and dangerous to bike on. (A quick aside: Eutaw and Saratoga Streets, two of the handful of two-way downtown streets, have much more active retail and street life than most other streets in the CBD).

Another example of a questionable one way pair is Pratt and Lombard east of President St. Pratt bisects Little Italy and Albemarle Square – both of which are small, walkable neighborhoods made up of narrow (more so in the case of Little Italy) local streets.  Pratt as a one way divides these neighborhoods, encourages speeding, and creates a dangerous situation for cars and pedestrians traveling north-south that are trying to cross Pratt/Lombard. In an effort to get as many cars out of downtown as fast as possible, east bound Pratt St. traffic is not required to stop between High St. and Central Ave. This doesn’t seem like a big deal when you’re looking at a map, but when you’re on the ground walking or on a bike, and you combine the one way traffic with a lack of traffic control, it’s obvious this road was designed as a quick exit to Central Ave. and not as a neighborhood street.

View Larger Map

Sure, if Pratt were converted to two way, we’d lose a parking lane with peak hour restrictions. But really, how useful is peak hour restricted parking to residential neighborhoods?

These one-way streets were created with efficiency in mind. So, to my colleagues around the country designing urban streets, I ask; what’s the rush? Who cares if it takes 3.5 minutes or 4 minutes to get to the nearest highway? What good is saving a minute of travel time when you sacrifice walking/biking/retail/comfort/livable streets in an effort to maximize technocratic efficiency? It’s like zooming around Yellowstone Park and claiming you had a great trip because your visit only lasted an hour.

Update: Richmond, VA is planning to convert a plethora of downtown streets to two way to improve navigation, pedestrian accessibilty and spur economic development.

References: TRB Circular E-C019: Urban Street Symposium