Monday, June 26, 2017

Traffic enforcement as a way of restoring civility in Baltimore

With all the demands and unresolved issues that are pushing in on the new Mayor, the matter of speed cameras wouldn't be expected to make the top of the list, but alas, today the first radar traps are installed and active. Record speed for the standards of City government, ironically in the interest of slowing down.
New mobile version of speed cameras starting operation
June 26, 2017
The red light camera program in Baltimore launched June 26, using 20 speed limit cameras (10 in fixed positions, 10 portable), 10 red light cameras, and as many as six cameras that will enforce commercial truck regulations. The initial installation includes only the 10 portable cameras, additional locations will occur later this summer. The last time speed and red light cameras were active in Baltimore was in 2013 when the program was ended because of irregularities how speed was measured and cameras were calibrated. 
During the first 30 days of the new 2017 program, drivers will receive warnings. $40 fines will be assigned after that time. Baltimore’s Department of Transportation will employ an ombudsman to help drivers appeal citations so that they can avoid court appearances. The Mayor's approved budget includes $5 million revenue form cameras. The cameras will be installed and operated by two different vendors. There will be a third, independent vendor to monitor the program.
 While many may think that slowing down traffic shouldn't be a high priority in a City where nearly one person a day gets murdered and the opioid epidemic kills two additional people a day and where 19 people died in Baltimore fires this year alone, there are many good reasons to pay attention to the increased crash rates on Maryland's and Baltimore's roadways.
Driving as if there is no other person in the world

Traffic behavior can be seen as a proxy to the state of lawlessness that is acceptable in any given geographic area. Everybody has experiences of particular places where pedestrians never walk against the red light, where drivers never run through lights after they change to red, where drivers stop for pedestrians in crosswalks and where speed limits in residential areas are so low, that even a kid running into the street unexpectedly would have a chance to survive. Some of these places exist in the US.
"I have no problems with a speed camera program. I have constituents on some roads who are dying for them to come back," City Councilman Brandon Scott
Of course, people who walk, ride bike, drive or operate a bus in Baltimore would never name their own city as such a safe and considerate place, it is common practice to think that behavior is particularly bad in one's own burg. But the numbers for Baltimore bear out that traffic safety here is really bad. In an Allstate study about crash claims in America's cities published by Forbes in 2016 Baltimore is the third worst city in the entire country after Worcester and Boston, both in Massachusetts. In another study which ranked also cost and congestion, Baltimore ranked #95 on a 100 city list of where it is best to drive.

Crash statistics for the City are hard to come by (much easier to see for Washington, DC, for example) and most date back to 2015. The numbers indicate that Baltimore City is one of the unsafest environments for pedestrians and bicyclists in the State but that the death rate from traffic accidents is lower than that of fires, another unfortunate Baltimore statistic.
spectacular crash next to City Hall

Even if one doesn't want to trust those lists, daily experience provides stunning experiences regarding what pedestrians, drivers and bicyclists experience on our streets on a daily basis: from dirt-bikes with masked riders zooming by rush hour traffic on busy streets, to cars passing on the right to then blatantly go through a light that has already been red for a while, to droves of car failing to stop for people that line up at a marked but un-signalized crosswalk.

Of course there are the bicyclists zipping down sidewalks, the pedestrians that run into the street anywhere and anytime, no matter what. But no doubt, the infractions are most dangerous when they are committed by drivers who often sit in oversized or overpowered vehicles to instill fear in their fellow citizens on purpose. There are the speeders that go 55 miles an hour on Martin Luther King Boulevard, Orleans Street or Edmondson as if those streets were freeways. Those who honk and yell at bicyclists or clip them within inches to make them fear for their lives. There are those who on a rainy day, without mercy or consideration, rush down those rush-hour lanes, wheels hard against the curb and gutter, throwing entire walls of water against pedestrians waiting at a bus stop . Those who rev up their engines to the redline RPM between speed humps and even those who push your car over like in bumper cars in order to change a lane and gain a second, apparently not minding that their sides get scratched in the process, they just take off their licence plate invisible behind a grey plastic sheet and their faces unrecognizable behind darkly tinted glass. The really rogue drivers run over police officers who want to stop them and outrace pursuing cruisers only to end in spectacular crashes mowing down innocent bystanders.
Speed camera location 2017

In short, lawlessness on Baltimore Streets is high and it cements a sense that civility isn't a virtue in Baltimore. In fact, behavior is contagious. A single speeder can entice a whole platoon of drivers to go faster.

It isn't really a stretch to see a connection between lawlessness in traffic and lawlessness in general. It is like in the much maligned broken window theory: If you can get away day after day with taken your SUV as a weapon to terrorize your fellow citizen, it may well instill in you the notion that you can also get away with shooting a motorist in the course of road rage or brandishing a gun anytime something doesn't go your way. It isn't unreasonable to see the street as a place where people are being socialized either in courteous and considerate behavior or in the "me first" view that knows no consideration for others. If the latter goes unpunished for too long, it becomes the norm.

Facebook Posting
On Facebook some have decried the program as racist  based on the initial locations of enforcement published by the City. Others consider it an additional tax in an already high- tax-city and question that the program is about anything but money.

A look across the country or even around the world shows that other cities are well ahead of Baltimore when it comes to increasing pedestrian and bicycle safety. Many European cities have 30 as a speed limit in all their neighborhoods 30km/h, not 30mph, that is under 20mph! All other urban roadways are usually limited to 50 km/h which is 30mph. Enforcement there is strict and includes ticketing pedestrians that walk on red.
Mayhem on the streets: Crash rates are increasing

Therefore, it is a good thing that this administration is paying attention to traffic safety on Baltimore's streets. Whether it is the dirt bike task force that is confiscating illegal bikes, or that the Mayor decided to put radar traps and speed cameras near schools and areas where children are to be expected.

It is high time that police pay attention to those who flaunt all laws. Recreating civility and consideration on the road is an important step towards making an entire city more livable and wrestle daily life back from those who think they can terrorize everybody. Certainly traffic enforcement is no substitute for addressing the City's many social pathologies and inequities.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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