Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Committed to ugliness: I-95 widening

In the beginning of their history highways and freeways were not only designed to be fast, efficient and safe but also to be pleasing for the eye. Gentle curves were added to roadways to avoid driver fatigue or to allow the road to follow contour lines of the landscape instead of plowing right through hills with deep trenches, cuts and retaining walls.
New York Parkway: Gently curving along the contour lines

Bridges and overpasses were designed where the terrain made it easiest to cross and clad in local materials. Interstates were moved a distance away from towns and villages to reduce noise impacts and to ensure a pleasant green buffer alongside the travel route. In those days travel was not only about the destination but also about the journey.

We still benefit from the thoughtfulness of these early route alignments and design principles, some parts of I-95 are still beautiful, especially at the Susquehanna crossing. New York parkways are famous for their aesthetics designed in part by Frederick Law Olmsted (1866, Eastern Parkway Brooklyn) and then later by Robert Moses who has since fallen into disgrace for his authoritarian style, his anti transit posture and his racism.
One of the most distinctive visual features of Long Island’s parkways is the extensive uses of ashlar granite, used to construct overpasses, gas stations and ancillary structures. Many of the parkway overpasses were landscaped with Dogwood, Azalea, and English Ivy. The influence of Moses’s Oxford experience and the English countryside was evident in the design of the gas stations, police and maintenance buildings that were located along the parkways. The majestic trees of the Long Island environment were echoed in the design of the wooden lamp posts that aligned the parkways. (Building the Roads to Greatness. in Joann P Krieg. Robert Moses: Single-Minded Genius). 
This isn't about glorifying the "good old days" (they weren't so good) nor an attempt of romanticizing travel in the age of congestion. But it is a warning about what we lose if we continue on the current path of blind highway widening obliterating any past sensibility for design and aesthetics.
New Jersey Turnpike: a nightmare of concrete and aspahlt

For decades more tepid drivers approaching NYC or LA have  become jittery from the endless numbers of lanes, toll lanes, truck lanes, local lanes, express lanes and complicated exit ramps winding this way and that. Do we really want to replicate this experience for the gateways to Baltimore, DC and Frederick, places that were until recently comparably quaint?

But boy, has that already changed! Entering the DC region on I-95 from the south can instill terror in the hearts of all but the most intrepid automobilists. The interchange between I-95 and the beltway can take it up with California's largest roadway spaghetti bowls. Is that progress? I am specifically not talking about how ineffective these billion dollar monsters are in terms of transportation policy or how destructive they are environmentally (for those points see my articles here). I am simply pointing to their hideous ugliness.
On certain levels of the American race, indeed, there seems to be a positive libido for the ugly, as on other and less Christian levels there is a libido for the beautiful.  Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth. ... There must be causes behind it; ..... What, precisely, are the terms of those laws? And why do they run stronger in America than elsewhere? (H.L. Mencken, the Libido for the Ugly, 1927)
Am I a hopeless romantic? If you think so and simply accept the recent pavement orgies as a the price of "progress" then consider that urban renewal and the mass bulldozing of city neighborhoods to adapt the city for the car was seen as progress as well. The single-purpose arteries cut through our downtowns, displacing residents and maiming whole neighborhoods in the name of progress, was a practice which is now considered a tragic mistake. Ironically, the urban atrocities occurred at the same time when parkways were guided by aesthetics and environmental concerns. In fact, that was the cynicism of people like Moses.  Today cities are where the younger generations want to be, complete streets, place-making and a quality public roam are seen as valuable. What virtue is there in applying the destructive misguided ideas of progress of the past now to the landscapes in the outskirts of metropolises to mold them to fit the car?

MDOT "rendering" of the ETL lanes in the center
I suggest that placemaking and streetscaping should be applied everywhere, not only in cities, towns and villages but also at metropolitan gateways and approach corridors. Not every place has to look like the New Jersey Turnpike or the infamous I-5 into LA.

All this comes to Baltimoreans with heightened urgency because of our pave-over-the-world governor who has never seen a road he doesn't want to build or widen. One of the Rahn-Hogan highway team projects are the I-95 Express Toll Lanes (ETL), a quarter billion dollars to cover the last blade of grass to extend those darn Lexus Lanes beyond MD 43 where they currently end all the way to Belair in Harford County.
Graphic from MDOT website

Anybody who has traveled I-95 northbound after all green medians and buffer strips have been sacrificed north of where I-895 merges so that an entirely new additional Interstate can be jammed in between the northbound and southbound lanes, can only be horrified by the expanse of concrete, Jersey barriers and overhead sign bridges. In its totality the result is such an assault on the eye that the ugliness alone can increase the Cortisol level of a driver. Not only I am concerned about the visual and environmental impact. The Harford Aegis editorialized:
Walls, Jersey barriers as pavement: Not a blade of green left on I-95
The ETL extension will be approximately eight miles, but the project will encompass a whole lot more than just adding one northbound express lane in the middle of the highway, which already has four travel lanes in each direction.
According to the MDTA, “The proposed improvements will increase the quality of life for numerous communities with the addition of four new noise walls and will replace or rehabilitate five bridges that are more than 50 years old.”
The express toll lanes extension is expected to be open to traffic in December 2022, and while MDTA might have been optimistic in saying work could begin this summer, think about the disruption and likely congestion and confusion that will be caused with the removal and replacement of overpasses at Bradshaw and Old Joppa Roads.
Do such changes to the landscape and temporary construction inconvenience justify the so-called permanent “improvement?” That may well indeed be a dubious claim. (
Editorial from The Aegis 2/26/18)
Nightmare on "the 5" in California: Is that what we are aiming for?
The benefit is even more dubious if one considers that car companies expect to have autonomous vehicles up and running in the next 3-10 years, i.e. potentially before this roadway widening may even be complete. Whatever the impacts of self driving cars will be, it is clear that AVs will run more efficiently and will, therefore, need less space.
Certainly people in those cars will spend more time checking out the environment. To ruin it now seems really foolish.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The many ways to destroy history

Historic preservation has come a long way in America since the days when the glorious Penn Station in New York was turned to rubble. Some say, too far and call a Historic society and hysterical society or call preservationists deragatorily building huggers or worth. But some go much further, flaunt the law and even their permits and set about creating a blank slate through demolition. Preferably on Saturday when building officials have the day off, sometimes even like real criminals at night. As with other misdeeds, they are more likely to be perpetrated in a poor and disinvested community.
Thorough destruction of a historic resource (Photo: M. Pitrelli)

The Baltimore Upton community which is proud of its historic and cultural heritage (Thurgood Marshall went to school here) has experienced the loss of its historic buildings in many dramatic ways, including arson, accidental fire, willful demolition in broad daylight and neglect. Sometimes even a 911 call cannot stop the crime as in the case of the  32,400-square-foot former St. Vincent's Infant Asylum at 1401-1411 Division Street in Upton which was turned into a pile of rubble even though Marti Pitrelli, the CHAP representative of the Marble Hill Historic District had called the police on the contractor and Councilman Costello had shown up as well. They had achieved a late Saturday "Stop Work Order" issued by the Code Enforcement unit under Baltimore Housing, which was posted when the all exterior walls had been pushed over.
The building before demolition but after the 2015 fire (Baltimore Heritage)

To be clear, the building was adjacent but not inside the local Marble Hill Historic District and was "only" listed in the National Register of Historic Places, a listing that has no "stick" of enforcement associated with it.
The building suffered a devastating fire while under renovation about 2 years ago. It was then purchased by a group from NYC for around $880k with high hopes of a grand rehabilitation . There are alot of encouraging renovations and stabilizations underway in this area. It's a historically important area, and is both a National and borders a local historic district. For good reason. (Marti Pitrelli)
Nevertheless, it appears clear that the contractor, the Culler Group/TCG Development, acted unlawfully by performing work far beyond the permit which, according to sources, was limited to the demolition of interior walls and some modification to the rear wall.
What kind of black professioinals would go into a historic black neighborhood and demolish one of the African American community's architectural gems that was to be gloriously renovated after a devastating fire, without PROPER DEMOLITION PERMITS on a WEEKEND. It is a national and local historic district and undergoing a marvelous transformation. Now one of the largest landmarks is lost forever because of idiots like you. What a mess you made. What a way to end Black History Month. (Marti Pitrelli on the contractor's Facebook page)
The contractor obviously enjoyed what he was doing, as this Facebook entry of his company shows: "We're bringing this baby DOWN!! Tear the roof off the MothaSucka!'

The history of the mothasucka is described by Baltimore Heritage this way:
The former St. Vincent’s Infant Asylum/Carver Hall Apartments buildings  a complex of structures built between 1860 and the 1910s to provide housing and medical services to dependent children and women, along with housing for the nuns who operated the facility. After years of declining use, the Infant Asylum left the facility around 1934 for a new location on Reisterstown Road. Around 1941, the building was converted to use as Carver Hall Apartments offering a range of rental units to a largely African American group of tenants from the up through 2013. Since the 1970s, the management of the property has posed significant challenges for residents in the building with a major fire in 1978, a lawsuit in 1993 and issues with drug traffic and violence at the building in the 1900s. In January 2015, the building caught on fire destroying the roof and gutting much of the interior. It now stands vacant.

The chair of Baltimore's historic district commission (CHAP) comments:

Quite a tragedy.  The building had been poorly maintained with some really wretched renovations over the years, but there was still a lot of really interesting history there.

Culler, the demolition contractor says he works as a subcontractor and rejected to name his client when asked by the BBJ. He said "Our contract was to knock down the entire building"The owner of the property is listed as  as 1411 Division LLC as owner; that LLC is associated with Shokrollah Afrah, according to sources.
the PS 103 fire in 2016 (Photo: Philipsen)

Upton suffered demolition from arson or negligent squatters in April of 2016 when the former Elementary School PS 103, dating back to 1877, went up in flames. The school's most famous pupil was Thurgood Marshall (1914-21). The school is such a prominent structure that around 2008 the Mayor had appointed its own 103 Commission to oversee the preparation of a long-range plan for PS103 with assistance from the Baltimore National Heritage Area. Thanks to insurance the school was once again restored and mothballed, a final use is still uncertain, though.

Also in the area, Bethel A. M. E. Church demolished the Freedom House at 1734 Druid Hill Avenue, a longtime meeting place for people involved in local and national civil rights efforts.  The church also has applied to the city to tear down the “sister building” to the Freedom House at 1732 Druid Hill Avenue.
Bethel AME Church demolished 1234 Druid Hill Avenue, a rowhouse located just outside Upton’s Marble Hill historic district with strong connections to Baltimore’s Civil Rights movement. The demolition came as a shock to neighborhood activists who had urged city officials to investigate and protect the property when Bethel AME began work on the building in late September. (Baltimore Heritage)
Demolition of old buildings has been in overdrive since the Governor boosted funding for project CORE, a program touted as reinvestment in West Baltimore. Sometimes even the guardians of the historic heritage themselves vote for demolition such as in the case of the old Eddie's in Mount Vernon. (See my article "Misunderstanding historic preservation").
Stop work order: Too late by hours (Photo: M. Pitrelli)

In whatever form the destruction of history appears, there are few serious consequences. Culler and his TCG Group were probably quite aware of what they were doing and calculated the fine into their cost. In the pro-forma of a development project a fine for working without a permit is only peanuts; unless Code Enforcement ramps up the consequences of willful destruction beyond existing permits. For example by taking down the contractor's licence. As in drunk driving, without draconian penalties, the demolition of  historic structures will continue. Once a 150 year old structure has been taken down, there is no good way to get it back. 

Can there be such a thing as "too much historic preservation"? Not if one asks the National Park Service. According to a NPS study which includes Baltimore, all other things being equal, chances of an economic rebound increase dramatically where the historic fabric of a community has been kept. Baltimore can ill afford to ignore this lesson.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ article about the demolition

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Electric cars don't make Hogan's transportation policies green

The Maryland Conservation Voters wrote an op-ed recently in which they fawned over the Governor's "clean transportation" in such a manner that one should call them Maryland Conservative Voters instead
The good news is that we can do something about all that traffic and smog by modernizing our transportation system, with the help of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (Ramon Palencia-Calvo, director of Chispa Maryland, a program of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters Education Fund.
Misleading title: Transformation through what? 
What got the environmental group gush over Hogan's pavement-over-transit policy which transportation experts across the nation have considered anachronistic at best?  Based on the op-ed piece in which there is talk about cap and trade, powerplants and all kinds of other stuff, what made them so happy was simply that Hogan's plans include a boost for electric charging stations. Electric cars are generally considered clean or even "zero emissions" because pure electric cars have no tail pipes (while plug-in hybrids only have the potential of being used in a no emission mode).

Even if one sets aside all the problems which electric cars still have, from the carbon footprint of electric power generation to the environmental and social impact of the lithium-ion batteries to the to date unanswered question how the power demand of a large number of electric vehicles could be covered, a single focus on electric cars misses the biggest point: Land use. The Maryland Conservation Voters have thrown themselves way into the deep end of the transportation waters without understanding the basic dependencies between land use and transportation, admittedly a somewhat esoteric field which Maryland's Governor also likes to ignore. But it is the biggest environmental detriment, far outpacing tailpipe emissions.

Simply put: Roads bring sprawl. The post-war priority of individual cars over everything else has produced the dispersed land use pattern that is so characteristic for the US and which  functions only if everybody drives a car. The low density sprawl pattern has not only killed streetcars, railroads and even bus companies because transit depends on clustering people around reasonable service routes but is destroying and degrading the environment moree than anything else,  bankrupting communities, states and the entire country in the process.

Just witness all the lamentations about the state of our infrastructure. The problem isn't so much that our bridges and roads are all falling apart (they are not) but the insight that from year to year it becomes more impossible to finance the necessary upkeep. Why? Chiefly, because we have so much of it and we keep building more (exactly what Hogan proposes: billions of dollars in Maryland alone for additional road lanes and new and bigger bridges, even another span over the Chesapeake Bay. Every expert that has studied transportation and its demand and supply has concluded that we can't build our way out of congestion. Why? Because every time we build a new or quicker road connection we induce more sprawl land use and thus increased demand.
"Relief Plan": More questions than answers

This demand that comes from inefficient land use has already led to the curious result that Americans have to drive twice as many miles as Europeans to conduct their everyday lives. Make no mistake, Europeans don't drive less because they have a lower standard of living or because Americans just love their cars more. Both is false. Nor is the cause that America is a big country. The size of America may cause more people to fly more often, but very few drive for distances bigger than 300 miles or so, just like in Europe. Instead, Americans simply have to drive much longer distances to get to work or to the grocery store or school or just about anything else while Europeans live in denser cities, towns and villages surrounded by largely unspoiled green spaces.

Many trips in Europe (or Japan) are not only shorter, they are not being undertaken by car at all because the origin and the destination are close to transit or in such proximity that one can walk or bike there. That in turn requires more Americans to own cars, more cars need to fit on wider roads, need be parked at home, at the stores and at work, which in turn, contributes to pushing everything even further apart. This vicious cycle has long been decried not only as inefficient but also as environmentally disastrous because it not only paves over fields, farms and forests but also ruins streams, creates heat islands and fouls the air. All of which should be of extreme concern to an environmentalist. The electric car changes only one thing in this spiral of destruction, it makes the air better. Everything else remains exactly as bad as before because the electric car, well, it is still a car!

The MD Conservation Voters, or at least their spokesperson Ramon Palencia-Calvo, doesn't get this very simple land use transportation nexus. How else can one explain this introductory sentence of the op-ed:
One of the most congested parts of the United States is the greater Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area. Traffic and population density is so intense in some parts of this vast metropolitan area that it is known as one of the half dozen or so major “megalopolis” areas in the nation. Pollution — including climate-altering carbon emissions — can be every bit as intense here at times as it is in Los Angeles or Dallas or Chicago.
Notice the word "density" in there as the culprit for congestion? Notice how the sentence throws LA, Dallas and Chicago all into one pot, places that are dense (Chicago) and totally dispersed such as LA and Dallas? Places which have only recently begun to build transit (Dallas and LA) with Chicago, which has a vast system of effective rail system? The Conservation voters use the same populist tactic that Governor Hogan also likes to use, namely to equate many people with much traffic, as in cities are bad and the country side is good, the very bias that promoted the suburbs for ages. This view is negating that congestion increases with sprawl and decreases with density if a comparison is based on the same number of people just spread over a larger area.

It seems counter-intuitive on first blush to say that the lack of density causes traffic until one recalls the connection between sprawl type land use patterns (low density) and transportation demand. Sprawl patterns not only force everybody to use a car, it also forces everybody to driver longer: Voila: Congestion.

The Streetsblog response to the foolish Conservation Voters op-ed calls the inability of some environmentalists to look beyond the edge of their home plate their "blind-spot".
The Maryland League of Conversation Voters is hardly the only environmental group that meekly accepts the climate damage caused by car-centric sprawl while putting all of its “clean transportation” eggs in the electric vehicle basket. (Streetsblog)
Conservation Voters and the 1000 Friends of Maryland, an anti sprawl group, and other environmental groups, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, have had many fruitful alliances to fight bad environmental policies. It is therefore especially disappointing to see the Conservation Voters give the Governor what looks like a free pass on one of his most disastrous policies: His approach to transportation.
Hogan has unilaterally killed Baltimore’s much-needed Red Line light rail and a major mixed-use, transit-oriented development project in the city, while diverting transportation funds to highways and proposing a massive suburban toll road expansion. Under his watch, Baltimore’s sole metro line reached such a state of decrepitude that it had to be closed for a month of emergency repairs. (Streetsblog)
A few new electric charging stations are nice, but they certainly can't make up for the Rahn/Hogan policies in which they use the funds from the Transportation Trust Fund (which had been clearly earmarked to fund more and better transit in Maryland) to pave more roads.

Instead of decrying the misuse of those funds in favor of a transportation policy that takes us back to the fifties, and instead of demanding that Metro, Light Rail and MARC not only be improved and maintained but expanded, the Conservation voters tell the readers of the SUN that:
Implementing a modernized clean transportation system is vital for Maryland. Sure, it’s an enormous challenge, but our state has already rolled up its sleeves and done the hard work on innovative policies to reduce emissions while improving the economy.
If the Conservation Voters thought they could successfully graze in conservative fields to gain new supporters for the organization, they failed: Even a reader of the op-ed who  likes to build roads instead of transit and who similarly doesn't understand the folly of increased road construction didn't find the Conservation Voters op-ed plausible or illuminating.
And the last good news of this long piece is answering the problem with everybody purchasing electric cars and more name dropping — BGE, Delmarva Power & Light, Pepco, Natural Resources Defense Council and, naturally, the EV-charging companies, Greenlots and ChargePoint. Really? You have got to be kidding me. (SUN letter writer)
Indeed, who are the Conservation voters trying to kid?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

League of Conservation Voters op-ed
Streetsblog about the limited transportation view of some environmental organisations: The blindspot

Related articles on this blog:

Hogan's transportation: Full steam backwards

Friday, February 23, 2018

Move the Lexington Market to HarborPlace?

HarborPlace and Lexington Market have one thing in common: Sagging customer numbers and empty stalls, two factors which have caused agonizing by those who are responsible for operating the venues, possibly with a profit, certainly in a manner that covers cost. It isn't overly surprising, then, that one day somebody would propose to merge the tow places such as in taking the Lexington Market and put them into the ailing HarborPlace pavilions. This idea was floated in an op-ed piece in the Baltimore Business journal on Thursday of this week by Owen Rouse, Senior Vice President, Director, Capital Markets at Manekin.
The pavilions at Harborplace: Once "Festival Markets"
As the city ponders re-rendering Lexington Market’s existing space (at a substantial cost) and worries about food deserts, why not move the market to the authenticity-starved Harborplace and create a world class market? That would make it capable of achieving status that attracts locals, feeds tourists and enlivens bloggers to spread the word about another rebirth on Baltimore’s harbor. (Owen Rouse)
On first blush it seems to make sense to use those pavilions that already there, instead of building a brand-new facility south of  Lexington Street as the most recent Lexington proposal would have it.  Instead of trying to try luring tourists up Eutaw Street, catch them where they already are. HarborPlace was initially conceived by James Rouse and his company as a "Festival Marketplace", as many Baltimoreans recall, those pavilions had many characteristics of a market, including market stalls selling fish. Mr Owen Rouse list of other successful markets in the US omits Pikes Place in Seattle, a waterfront Market that draws tourists and locals alike.  What's not to like about this idea?Two birds with one stone etc. I can see many heads nodding.   Mr. Rouse point that incremental thinking doesn't always work  is certainly shared by many, given Baltimore's current condition.
There comes a time in many endeavors that incremental thinking will no longer work. I think many of us can see where this is particularly relevant in our city at this time. Let’s think bigger and reach higher. And start back where the renaissance began. (Owen Rouse)
On second thought, though, this blogger isn't "spreading the word about another rebirth on Baltimore's Inner Harbor". There are many reasons why this particular idea is a really bad one and I don't mean those which Mr. Owen Rouse suspects himself to be the counter arguments to his suggestion: historic preservation or small mindedness.
Lexington Market: What role plays race?

First, the idea makes little economic sense: The history of mergers shows that combining two ailing concepts rarely breeds success, since in economics, unlike in math, two negatives don't make a positive. Furthermore, Lexington Market is urgently needed as a cornerstone and anchor for the revitalization of the Westside which is still in need of a shot in the arm.

The other set of objections touches on Baltimore's most sensitive subject: Race, social justice and inequity. The suggestion of moving the market to the Inner Harbor is racially tone deaf, even if unintentionally.
Move the market to where it can be a central draw for all: The white collar lunch crowd, city residents, millennial apartment dwellers, visitors, family, friends and shoppers.(Owen Rouse)
The new downtown residents  as well as the white collar workers mentioned in the op-ed can easily go the Lexington Market if they were so inclined. However, the thousands of residents in the food deserts of West Baltimore (wich the op-ed doesn't mention) rely on the existing market as a source for fresh food with easy access. Metro, light rail and a bus hub all sit within a block of its main entrance. A market at Harborplace would be at least 4-5 blocks away from rail transit. Unfortunately the heavy use by less privileged people of color is also one of the obstacles that people cite as a reason for not visiting the market more often. It isn't hip enough.
A well known attraction at Lexington Market

This is not to say that the current pavilions or the current Lexington Market would not both have its set of problems for which to date no breakthrough ideas were generated.

Bringing some of the same market functions which Jim Rouse had originally installed back into the pavilions is a great idea. Food halls with food market type stalls  are popular across the nation and may well work here as well. Ashkenazi is currently fixing up the pavilions without municipal aid, one has to see how well it will work.

The prospects for the Lexington Market are less clear. The last version of ideas which Stephanie Rawlings Blake promoted in her last days as Mayor has found hardly any love among those who care about the market's future. In the words of the current Market CEO, "nobody likes it", it being the proposed generic glass box on the south parking lot next to the current arcade with all existing market structures being demolished. The new hall can't accommodate all merchants, it has terrible access from Eutaw Street, and the estimated $30-40m cost to build it is not covered, even though the State  provided $7.5 million in bond funds over a five-year period for the Lexington Market project. Just this week the City to set aside $250,000 towards further design of the concept, although there was some dispute for what the money really was designated.
Proposed new Lexington Market: Generic and access challenged

Most observers agree that for Baltimore has focused too much on its waterfront for investment and development. Waterfront locations have garnered pretty much all the attention and TIFs. In Baltimore's current condition a broader approach is urgently needed, one that improves services and facilities where they are needed and one that improves equity.

Lexington Market represents a perfect opportunity for demonstrating that a truly integrated diverse market doesn't have to mean  gentrification, displacement or even cutting off the service altogether. As for the $250,000 set aside this week, its time to ask stakeholders and users of the market how to spend those dollars. For Broadway Market the redesign started in a broad based community meeting without a pre-conceived notion. At Lexington Market public participation was limited and the expensive glass box was certainly not the result of what the community wants to see. Online questionnaires rather pointed towards fixing up the infrastructure of the current markets and maket and make it more presentable. $7.25 million could do a lot of incremental good in the old market, for sure.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

City approves $250K for planning of new Lexington Market

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Railings at Harborplace?

It took exactly four years for the same request to be made by a grieving parent who had lost a son in the waters of the Inner Harbor after falling accidentally off the promenade. Nothing had happened in the interim.
David Thomas, whose 29-year-old son Evan Curbeam was found in November near Fells Point, said the city is not doing enough to protect people from falling in. He says railings and increased lighting are necessary. (SUN 2/28/2014)
“We’re here to advocate for some railings or guard rails around the harbor to make people aware of how dangerous it is,” Jim Schroeder said. “He fell into a trap that no human could have gotten out of without help. It's ridiculous that so many people have gone into those waters and lost their lives, and the city is sitting blindly by and not doing anything about it” (SUN 2/16/2018)
It is hard to see how the anguish of these parents could be once again completely ignored. But there are certainly also voices which say waterfront cities have had open water edges for millennia and which question that we really need railings at quay walls, piers and wharves. Not even the International Building Code requires guard rails at quaysides.
Unprotected quayside: Few ladders and life savers
(Photo: Philipsen)

A view underground may be instructive: For a hundred plus years subways have zipped into underground stations on tracks that are a good three feet below the platform and have a killer electric rail to boot. Those platforms are notoriously crowded, and sure enough, once in a while people go over the edge, sometimes with horrific consequences, often accompanied by heroic acts of people who lift the fallen back to safety. Have subways installed railings?

The answer is: Kind of. Indeed, most recent modern subways have completely walled off platforms with doors opening right where the train doors are at exactly the right location. No fall is possible. In Tokyo some old stations were even retrofitted.

Everyone has seen the glass walls in use at airport shuttles, but few know that many regular new subways have those doors as well, from New Delhi to Copenhagen and from Tokyo to Rome. In other words, one can't take for granted that was has worked for many decades will remain unchanged. An ever more protective society can easily get to a point where it doesn't find the traditional practice and standards acceptable any longer.

The challenge at the water's edge is of a different quality, though. Few will go to a train platform to experience the rush of trains entering a station but many people come to the waters edge to enjoy the open view and seeing the water without obstruction. Even more complicated than the complex psychology of man and the sea is the fact that the edge is frequently also the point of access to boats and ships of all types, sizes quite unlike the standard spacing of subway carriage doors. That is definitely the case at HarborPlace.
Unobtrusive railing at Tampa River Walk (Photo: Philipsen)

Still, there has been plenty of change which the Baltimore waterfront has undertaken in the last 50 or so years. What was once a working harbor has become a place of recreation, shopping and partying where people aren't only going during the daytime but also at night. Seafarers haven't always been sober but they were usually pretty healthy adults, used to the presence of the open water and its risks, a condition which is not always the case with the general public now crowding the Inner Harbor. Anyone who has ever walked HarborPlace with little children knows how hard it is to keep them safe and away from the dangerous edge and possible plunge into water that is not only freezing cold at times but also so unhealthy that a few gulps can bring about serious illness.

What can be done? An easy fix that has no downside, except a minimal cost, is the installation of additional ladders, more lifesaver rings and better lighting. Maybe there should be a tactile warning edge for the visually impaired. When it comes to railings, however, they would be limited to areas where no boats need to be boarded, the majority of the currently unprotected 5 mile waterfront promenade.
Protected subway platforms Tokyo

The railings of the HarborPlace pavilions were designed with nautical theme, their pipes and cables allow a pretty open view. They comply with the building code for guardrails. A similar design could also be used for the promenade wherever there are no ship landings and docking places.

A look around the world quickly reveals that waterfront railings are much more common than one would think and that the installation of  railings on certain segments of Baltimore's premier tourist attraction would be much less disruptive than some may think.  A task force convened by the Baltimore Waterfront Partnership could come up with a practical package of improvements that could save lives without detracting from what makes Baltimore's waterfront such a draw.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

SUN 2/16/18: Parents of man who died after falling into Baltimore's Inner Harbor want railings, other safety measures added
SUN 2/16/2014: Body found in Inner Harbor is ninth in recent months

Protected Spree river walk Berlin (Photo: Philipsen)

Protected riverfront Berlin (Photo: Philipsen)

Unprotected riverfront Berlin Government Quarters (Photo: Philipsen)

Protected river walk: Parc de Seine Paris

Protected river walk: Embankment London
Unprotected Promenade Baltimore (Photo: Philipsen)

Protected river walk Newcastle, England: 
Unprotected piers at Baltimore Harbor (Photo: Philipsen)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Do protected bike-lanes really kill fire access?

Although both cities sit at the shore of a famous bay, Baltimore and San Francisco rarely take their hints from each other, too much they play in different leagues. But since early last year a drama is playing out for which Baltimore copied its playbook entirely from the Golden Gate City with just a couple of months of lag-time. I am talking about a drama that seems to have taken on momentum across North America in a typical case of old school thinking binary versus a dynamic multi-polar view of safety. The old school approach goes like this "Either you are either for bike safety or you are for fire-safety", the dynamic view sees the multiple connections between fire department service and road safety. The players are fire departments, municipal departments of transportation, bike activists, unions and code officials. The issue is whether protected bike lanes and the resulting narrower road lanes safe lives of bicyclists but endanger residents because fire equipment can't get to them or can't fight fire from those narrow lanes.

A San Francisco official describes the old school dilemma this way:
“No one wants to be the person that made a change that made it hard for the Fire Department to respond to a situation. [then talking about protected bike lanes] "No one wants to be the person that didn’t make a change that could save a life.”
In San Francisco fire apparatus was moved into position against bike lanes in March 2017:  San Francisco fire officials block critical safety upgrades on city streets.
On Upper Market, the SFMTA [San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) Board was set to consider and approve parking-protected bike lanes between Octavia and Duboce on March 7. But SFMTA staff yanked the proposals at the last minute from the agenda of a City Hall engineering hearing — the final step before board approval — because of delayed feedback from the Fire Department.
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, alarmed over that action, sent a letter last week demanding that SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin put them back on the table.
Baltimore followed in May with a battle about bikelanes on Potomac Street. in which local residents may well have taken the San Francisco case to make an argument against the protected bike lane proposed on their street. Advocates mobilized, the Mayor threatened to yank the bike facility until the matter almost wound up in court. Potomac Street ended in a compromise where bicyclists lost the bikelane protection in part of the corridor and the fire department agreed to give up 1' from the required lane width of 20', which is easy because the lane is open towards the sidewalk allowing expansion of operations there. In spite of this victory of reason in Baltimore, the bike versus fire truck battles continue here and in San Francisco. with the fire department effectively holding up the bike masterplan implementation. In both cities a number of critical bike network improvements are put on ice presumambly to work "fire lane" width issues out.
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition  lost an appeal during last summer.  In December 2017 they staged a demonstration in which yellow vested protesters created the barrier between drive lanes and bike-lanes that parked vehicles are supposed to form if the plan would be implemented:
The Board of Supervisors also rejected an appeal of the project in July. Installation of initial improvements was set for earlier this year, but that has yet to happen.
"No action has been taken," San Francisco Bicycle Coalition executive director Brian Wiedenmeier said Monday evening. "I think these folks are out here calling for more urgency and for city leaders to work on whatever obstacles remain."
In Baltimore similar headlines popped up early February of this year: "Baltimore Bike lane construction delayed again amid fire code concerns".
The delay infuriated Bikemore, the city’s bicycling advocacy group, which called the city’s request for a time extension a “total failure in leadership” on the part of city officials. (Baltimore SUN)
Protest in San Francisco about missing bike lane separation
At the root of the conflict are city ordinances which in Baltimore are based on an adaptation of the  International Fire Prevention Code (IFC) and in San Francisco on the California Fire Code, both codes call for unobstructed 20' fire access lanes which which is generally interpreted to include public streets. In fact, the IFC in Appendix D requires even 26' wide access roads where hydrants are located and allows the "fire code official" to modify the provisions for one way streets and other circumstances.

Fire codes have for a long influenced the shape of how we build subdivisions with super wide roads and extremely large cul de sac turn-arounds.  Andres Duany and the New Urbanists went to bat with code officials in favor of road diets and a less car centric more traditional neighborhood design with nationwide success. It is quite ironic that these codes demanding roads that are too wide even for a decent suburb are now used to block Complete Streets and multi-modal accommodations in historic cities.
San Francisco protected one way bike lane (SFMTrA)

Many urban streets never provided those 20' clear fire-lanes, the lack of width owed to historically narrow streets or with parking, nothing to do with bicycle lanes. Narrow streets just barely wide enough for the trash truck can be found all over Baltimore. The recently introduced angled parking, especially in Canton, made even more streets narrower than 20'. As Bikemore Policy Director Jed Weeks points out, even newly constructed roadways at Preston Gardens are designed with lanes that are not 20' wide. But its the bike lanes which have attracted the fire department's attention.
“If it’s a genuine problem to have streets narrower than 26 feet, then the fact that they haven’t insisted on keeping all streets clear is negligent, which seems to me that they’re making it a bigger safety problem than it appears to be” (SF bike activist)
Bicycle advocates make the same argument in San Francisco and in Baltimore, combined with reasoning aboput the character of emergency responses as such:  The vast majority of emergency calls to the fire department pertain to traffic crashes and medical emergencies and not fires. Safer streets would address those emergencies more effectively than wider fire lanes.
“This resistance is confusing. Shouldn’t our first responders put as much emphasis on preventing crashes as they do on preventing fires?” (SF bike activist)
If less than 20 feet of clearance is truly a safety threat, the city should be applying the code to all projects, not just those with bike lanes. hey’re not applying this interpretation of the fire code equitably for streets across the city, If it is, in fact, a safety issue, it is a safety issue on all streets.” Bikemore executive director Liz Cornish 
Vision Zero Firetruck, in San Francisc:  a bit smaller and more nimble
In San Francisco the fire department doesn't want to appear like a bully. The department recently bought five new "vision zero"fire trucks which are a bit shorter and narrower to better navigate tight streets. Reportedly it is in negotiations about new ladder trucks with outriggers that can be reduced from 16' to 14'. To which one reader wrote in the comment section:
"Yes! 95% of the calls that currently have gigantic fire trucks blaring down residential streets could be handled by a paramedic on a scooter." (SF commenter on bike lane battle)
In Baltimore it is less clear how the conflict with the fire department can be overcome. Jed Weeks thinks that it is time for a mayoral decision as the chief arbiter between DOT and the fire department.  As Weeks points out, most cities in the US have come to the conclusion that lanes of 12-14' wide can serve fire apparatus well and proceeded with protected bike lanes on that base. The national organization NACTO has published detailed design standards that are used all across the country. Bikemore has given the city white papers and connected the traffic engineers with teh NACTO advisory board, yet the matter keeps festering. Affected by the delays at this point are mostly the east-west bike network pair of Madiosn and Monument Streets and a segment of Centre Street.
“It’s disappointing to us that this project, which has already been subject to one extension, is already a year behind, and is now potentially behind for another year because of the fire clearance issue,” Jed Weeks, policy director for local cycling nonprofit Bikemore. 
On these delayed bike routes the fire officials have not signaled agreement yet, not here and not in SF. Which is regrettable, because the 20' lane width is mostly a red herring. A firetruck is about 8'-6" wide and even with those ladder truck outriggers fully extended, they are no wider than 17'-9". Fighting a house fire requires the ladder or bucket to be extended to only one side, reducing the required width to 12-6". Furthermore, low rowhouses may not need a full extension of the ladder or boom and therefore also not a fully extended support outrigger. Besides, those support arms can easily be extended between parked cars as well. Some ladder trucks are short jacked.
fire truck outriggers can reach between parked cars

In short, the absolute mandate of fire safety first which seems to make so much sense, dwindles if one looks at the actual conditions and details of fire fighting. The bikelane can, in fact, be useful as a space to run hoses from the nearest hydrant or to move responders to and from an emergency.

The many ways to adapt to urban conditions is precisely why the issue of narrow streets has never come up as a Baltimore or San Francisco life safety issue until streets were narrowed for bikeways. Meanwhile deadly bicycle and pedestrian crashes are an all too frequent occurrence.
Nationally, traffic fatalities outnumber fire-related fatalities 5:1. Traffic injuries outnumber fire related injuries 167:1  Baltimore City experiences an average of 20,000 crashes involving motor vehicles, pedestrians,and bicyclists each year. 45 of those crashes result in the death of a motorist, and 60% of those crashes result in serious injuries. 12 of those crashes annually result in the death of a pedestrian, and 78% of crashes result in serious injuries to the pedestrian. Baltimore City has the highest number of pedestrian-involved crashes in the state. (Bikemore white paper).
It is time that not only common sense prevails but that the antagonistic binary thinking of false either-or conflicts get buried for good. A livable city is too complicated and complex for resolving problems in a one dimensional manner.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore Bike lane construction delayed again. Baltimore Sun