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road diets

[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.