Monday, April 4, 2016

Baltimore traffic management - frozen in time

When Henry Barnes was Baltimore's traffic czar from 1953 to 1962, the city still had streetcars, long distance travel meant to board scheduled ships at piers 2-5 at the Inner Harbor instead of planes and gates A-D at BWI, there was blatant red-lining, lunch counters served only whites, there were separate water fountains for "colored" people and inner urban freeways were still only blueprints.
Ancient traffic signals as museum pieces above
Baltimore Streets: McCulloh and Presstman
(photo: ArchPlan)

And yet, whatever else has changed since, Barnes' legacy is still around in so many ways. He had invented the "green wave" of a flow of timed traffic signals, he perfected the system of one-way street couplets, he helped finish off streetcars, as he had done during his stint as a Denver traffic engineer before he came to Charm City, and he had given Baltimore the world's first and largest traffic computer.

What was innovation then is dragging Baltimore down 55 years later and it is time for some updates.
Barnes waged war day and night. He battled with the Baltimore Transit Co. over its tardy buses, slowness in converting streetcar lines and poor public relations. He aroused the ire of the Women's Civic League when he suggested that the annual Flower Mart be moved from Mount Vernon Place to a less congested street. They refused; he gave in. (Baltimore SUN 1997)
Going through Baltimore one can see so many traffic and street design vestiges from the fifties and sixties in this city, that one would think streets had been declared museums or put under historic preservation. There are those dangling traffic signals over the middle of intersections that still show their heads into directions that have been one-way the other way for 50 years. There are the big accommodations and signs for US 1 through West Baltimore as if it were still the travel route of choice from DC to New York. The green waves still exist to facilitate urban flight and as for the computer, it is said to have been updated recently. Signal timess still are not set by GPS though, when the individual timers fall out of sync ever so slightly, not only the "green wave" collapses, the signals make no sense at all.

I will try to address some of the more aggravating aspects of the Barnes legacy in this blog, with the focus less on Henry Barnes but the era and ideas he stood for; when mobility was a value in itself, speedy travel more important than access, and lack of congestion more important than quality of life.
Artful suspensions: The historic signals are at more elegant
than SHA's bulky new standards (photo: ArchPlan)

The impacts were deep, urban design less important than social justice.
Still, one of my peeves with fully car-centric street organization will be urban design, for example, Preston Gardens and the mess that was made of it because of traffic engineering. As I learned in a recent lecture, Preston Gardens was once conceived as a beautiful concept creating a green north-south axis which were to connect Washington Square with the old downtown around the Courthouse Square.

Other items to address would be the one-way streets in general which made a mockery of the Battle Monument (Lady Baltimore) at the Court House Square and also of the oldest Washington Monument in the country at Mount Vernon, but also disadvantage residents over commuters.

Or the silly counter-flow access road that leads all the way from Pratt to Fayette Street along what was once Liberty Street. the traffic chaos south and west of magnificent Druid Park and the later equally devastating designs of Key Highway, Light and Pratt Streets.
One way streets and rush hour parking restrictions
penalize residents and favor commuters
(photo: ArchPlan)

Further out, the intersection at Caton and Hilton Avenues with a left turn that anticipated what traffic engineers these days call a "diverging diamond intersection" may have been visionary but should have no room inside a city. Or the free merge at the St Paul Street exit of the JFX. There appears to be a gazillion of obsolete but still active traffic signals all across the city, signals with- out pedestrian heads or traffic, all part of the vestige policies and the treasured inventions of getting suburbanites out of the city as fast is possible. While the rest of America does "complete streets", we are stuck in the Barnes age of traffic engineering.

Concurrent I will investigate in my more in-depth weekly blog how those traffic policies not only strike us as wrong-headed today from a more progressive transportation perspective, but how they had deep social implications and were just as wrong as the separate water fountains.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN article about Barnes (1997)

For a taste what the problems at Preston Gardens are check this:
Gerald Neily, (Baltimore Inner Space): Preston Gardens