Friday, May 26, 2017

Why downtown traffic is such a mess

Sometimes all of downtown seems to be locked up and it is no go in all directions. What's the matter Baltimore? Griping about traffic is a common urban past-time, not only in Baltimore. But if the city wants to grow it has to do better. The solutions are often the opposite of what people think.

I observe gridlock mostly from my bike having given up to do any shorter trips by car because of the impossibility of gauging how long they would take and because driving downtown should be an exception anyway. Some days the mess is just indescribable and it doesn't even have to be a game day. The mess is frustrating not just for drivers.
Downtown gridlock has been around for a long time

The main cause is, of course, too many cars, which in part is a transportation planning problem resulting from too many parking garages, too little transit, unattractive or disconnected sidewalks, too few bike lanes, and chaotic disorganized deliveries.

The other part is poor traffic management. Increasing capacity for cars is not the answer, better management, can be, offering other options than driving certainly is.

Bad management starts with a complete lack of parking guidance. No indication where the garages are, let alone where open spaces are. Guiding drivers to available parking can reduce traffic volume by 30%. Lack of guidance also requires to provide more spaces to meet the haphazard demand, an added inefficiency.
Dynamic parking guide systems have
been around in Europe for decades

Incentives to park at the periphery of downtown with information how to catch a Circulator ride from there are sorely needed. Nowhere is there any such information. Instead everybody is guided from I-95 straight to the destinations where parking can't be always had. The worst chaos ensues when suburbanites afraid of downtown driving come to a popular Arena event and received absolutely no guidance where to park or even how to get there. No stranger can know that going up MLK and park in one of the garages on the Westside could alleviate the nerve-wrecking trip down Pratt Street to get to the waterfront garage on Pier Six or to Harbor East. Pratt Street and Lombard Streets have become choked most hours of the day, providing unattractive barriers for visitors who wouldn't expect anything attractive north of that pair of streets.

Much downtown traffic is for parking
Then there are the signals. For the most part they work fine but once in a while they jump out of sync or sometimes they creep out of the "green wave" because they follow individual timers, I hear. Most of them have very long cycles in order to increase intersection capacity. But the long cycles also motivate drivers to go through on an early red or drive into a crosswalk or intersection when they can clear it. The frantically whistling downtown traffic helpers in their green vests dispatched by City DOT usually make things only worse. They are not empowered to write tickets to those blow-heads who always block the intersection or crosswalk or speed through red lights. Their constant whistling raises everybody's blood pressure without helping much at all. DOT should give these folks enforcement powers including moving violations.
Bus caught because of a blocked inter
section (Photo: Philipsen)

When taking the evening bus from work I can observe how terribly those intersection blockers affect the transit schedule. Creeping up Paca Street towards the intersection with Saratoga, some buses sit in the queue for more than three light cycles before they can pull up to the busy stop just north of the intersection. Apparently east-west traffic gets priority even in the evening rush-hour when northbound traffic on Paca is very strong. But there is never one of these traffic whistlers in sight where transit needs it, nor is MTA police available to aid the buses to get moving.

In spite of all the hurry to get nowhere fast, those phone wielding motorists who can never get enough screen time, miss precious seconds when they finally get green because they are not paying any attention to their surroundings. This significantly reduces the capacity of how many vehicles one green phase can clear. Then there are the morons who turn from the center-lanes instead of using the curb-lanes and this way cut off others. Those also tend to think that pedestrians have to yield to them and not the other way round. Although talking about police enforcement these days when the murder rate is sky-high seems frivolous, the total absence of obedience of traffic laws must have an overall impact adding to a general sense of lawlessness.

Did I mention that bicycling through the mess isn't the fun one would think it is if there are no bike lanes on most streets and the motorists (including bus operators) continue to think that blowing the horn is the best way to make their presence known behind a bicyclist, apparently blissfully unaware how startling and dangerous that can be. And then there are the equally disrespectful drivers who squeeze by in the same lane assuming that the three foot passing rule doesn't apply to them, or with their eyes on their phone, not even noticing the bicyclist at all.
Biking without protections remains typical in Baltimore

Sometimes the remedy to endless back-ups would be technical. For example, on southbound Eutaw Street traffic often backs up several blocks north of the Lexington Market because everyone wants to park on that small surface lot next to the market and waits in front of the closed gate until someone leaves and it opens again for one car. Meanwhile these cars block the single traffic lane and all the buses going south. To avoid this, the lot entrance on Eutaw should be closed and made an exit only with the entry from Paca Street.

But more often the solution has to do with policy. More bike and bus-lanes and more respect for pedestrians go counter to knee-jerk solutions to gridlock which always think of added capacity. But one cannot advocate for luring more cars to drive around downtown. To the contrary. DC's improvements in transit, bike-lanes and walk safety as well as tons of live-near-your-work development has resulted in a rapidly growing city with hardly increasing car traffic (Vehicle miles traveled or VMT).

Some solutions like shorter signal phases seem counter-intuitive but may be effective if they lead to better behavior. Allowing parking along most streets even during rush hour would reduce road speeds and protect pedestrians while helping retail to stay alive. Additional bus and bike lanes allow other and faster options for downtown travel. Maybe taxis with passengers should be allowed in the bus lanes as well.
Give these folks enforcement powers

As a city, Baltimore can't prosper if mobility is severely restricted for all modes of transport being stuck. That isn't fair, it is economically suicidal,  isn't good for transit, not good for deliveries, visitors and it can be life threatening when emergency vehicles are caught in the mess.

The Mayor is expected to announce a new DOT Director shortly. It is time that DOT gives mobility in downtown a new direction. Dusting off those speed and red-light cameras is a good start, but much more remains needed.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The book, Baltimore: Reinventing an Industrial Legacy City is my take on the post industrial American city and Baltimore after the unrest. 
The book is now for sale and can currently be ordered online directly from the publisher with free shipping. 

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