Thursday, April 19, 2018

A new day for safety on Baltimore's streets?

As Michelle Pourciau, Baltimore's Director of Transportation likes to say, she manages the largest piece of real estate in all of Baltimore City. That is true, Baltimore's Streets and public right of ways may constitute up to 30% of the city land area, that would be 30 square miles of land! This week Pourciau got prime time TV coverage to talk about her streets on all major local channels by announcing to ticket those who block intersections.
New fines bring lots of media attention (Screenshot CBS)
“Motorists who block the box cause traffic congestion, delays and prohibit vehicles from passing through the intersection safely. But also it creates dangerous conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, because they can’t walk safely through crosswalk areas.” (DOT Director Pourciau)
Unfortunately, a lot is not well on her real estate. In large part designed by an infamously car-centric traffic czar of the 1950s, Henry Barnes, it isn't a great exaggeration to say that the streets of Baltimore have become a truly mean place in which it is too easy to get killed or maimed, not only by gunslingers but by speeding drivers who pretty much ignore all the rules without fear of any repercussion. Each year, nearly 20,000 crashes occur on city streets, including 30 percent of all statewide pedestrian crashes and 17 percent of all traffic-related pedestrian injuries. 513 pedestrians were hit by cars in Baltimore City in 2016, 20 fatally. "Leading the State", the Mayor said, certainly not an area where one wants to be in the lead, even though Baltimore continues to be the largest city in the state.
St Paul Street at Fayette Street: A notorious place for blocking the junction
(Fox TV photo)

The City announced action package to do something about safety is good news. (Department of Transportation Launches Comprehensive Safety Campaign Aimed at Reducing Accidents on City Streets). However, the package is rich on slogans (“Don’t Block the Box”, "Don't be that person") and meager on facts, metrics or benchmarks. The media attention was given to the announcement that the City will enforce "blocking the box" with $90 fines and a point for a moving vehicle violation. Blocking intersections is certainly a big nuisance and fining violators worthwhile, it is hardly a logical outflow of a careful analysis of the biggest hazards on Baltimore's Streets.

The lack of data and analysis is especially surprising, given that a safety campaign in light of unacceptable fatalities, crashes and injuries is not a new idea. It really should be a follow up to Mayor Rawlings Blake Baltimore Strategic Transportation Safety Plan of 2015 which set pretty specific targets: It included these goals:
Rawlings Blake's safety plan of 2015: Forgotten?
  • Recalibrate City’s Safety Efforts to Be More Effective 
  • Goal 2: Improve Data Collection, Coordination
  • Goal 3: Reduce Pedestrian-Involved Injuries and Fatalities by 50% 
  • Goal 4: Reduce Bicycle-Involved Injuries and Fatalities by 50% 
  • Goal 5: Reduce Impaired Driving Injuries and Fatalities by 50% 
  • Goal 6: Reduce Injuries and Fatalities in Crashes Involving Older Drivers by 50%
  • Goal 7: Reduce Distracted & Aggressive Driving Injuries and Fatalities by 50% 
  • Goal 8: Reduce Crashes, Injuries, and Fatalities at the Highest Crash Locations in Baltimore City by 50%
Each of these goals was set for an eight year time-frame and was accompanied by a set of specific actions such as this:
The Department of Transportation should quickly analyze the top 10 high-crash locations (intersections and segments) to identify and implement low-cost improvements such as advanced hazard identification warning devices/ dilemma zone guidance, signal re-timing, turn restrictions, additional and upgraded traffic controls (signals, signing, and markings) to immediately improve safety. Conduct “before” and “after” studies to determine the effectiveness of the improvements. 
Establish and train a multi-discipline team of planners, engineers, maintenance personnel, law enforcement, and safety professionals to conduct up to six corridor audits per year to carefully review crash data, field investigate roadway conditions, report on potential road safety issues and identify opportunities for improvements in safety for all road users.
It isn't clear if any of the many actions in the plan were actually undertaken and if the annual data collection has improved since 2015. The announcement this Wednesday made no reference to the 2015 action plan and provided no indication whether crash statistics have been improving or worsening, no baseline data and no targets. (Unfortunately crashes and fatalities have been going up recently in national, state and local data). Similarly, the revival of traffic enforcement cameras for speed in school zones and red light running was also not based on specific crash data or set in relation to the 2015 plan.
Whistles but no tickets: Those officers can't issue citations. (Photo: DOT)

The SRB plan was strong on improving the data base and mapping of crashes. A search on the DOT website with the keyword "crash statistics" yields as the only result the newly announced safety initiative. One can't know if the new Transportation Director read the 2015 plan at all, what she thought of those goals and what her Department has been doing since 2015. 

From a citizen perspective it is disconcerting if each successive head of DOT starts from scratch instead of building on what was done before. Even more troubling would be if the department sat on its hands since 2015. The new emphasis on enforcement and fines is also not all that comforting, especially in the case of the "block the box initiative", since it wasn't announced from where the capacity  to monitor the infractions would come. The whistling DOT traffic officers in their lime vests have no enforcement power and cannot write tickets, especially not those that carry points. So it would take Baltimore Police to do it; we know they are busy elsewhere.

Talking about police: Just as crime can't be eradicated through policing alone, frequent and blatant traffic violations can't be eliminated by enforcement alone either. In both instances one has to address the root causes of the problem. In the case of  Pourciau's real estate, Baltimore's streets, it is all too often the design that contributes to those streets being so hazardous to pedestrians and bicyclists and even to the car drivers themselves.
Inappropriate design causes speeding  

"The Highway to Nowhere", for example, invites people to be used as a 1 mile drag-race course, designed for speeds like an Interstate, people routinely press the pedal to the metal and easily reach 70 miles an hour in the middle of the City. The three available lanes allow the rogue drivers to weave around slower traffic. No reason in the world why this useless stretch of freeway could not be seriously reduced in width for a tamed flow of traffic appropriate for downtown. The extra space could be added for a wider green median.

 Martin Luther King Boulevard, Druid Hill's Lake Park Drive, Key Highway, sections of North Avenue, Northern Parkway and many other arterials are also too wide and designed for speeds that are higher than the posted speed limit.

It is precisely this issue of design which must match the desired (posted) speed limit that is a core topic of Councilman Dorsey's Complete Streets legislation which, if implemented, would go a long way to make City streets safer. The bill is finally moving in the legislative process after it had reportedly been stalled by DOT for nine months. There wasn't a mention of the bill at Wednesday's safety campaign announcement.
Speed kills: From Complete Streets website

For true safety to be achieved on Baltimore's streets, it won't be enough to have flashy campaigns. Instead it takes a systematic analytical approach based on real data. It takes  realistic goals and systematic measures of progress. And it takes collaboration between DOT, City Council, MTA, police and those agencies that want to foster economic development.

Street safety is better where streets are not just "traffic sewers" but are vibrant main streets with open businesses, busy sidewalks, curbside parking, bike lanes and safe crosswalks. These are matters of design first and enforcement second. Vibrant streets are not only safer in terms of traffic but also safer in terms of crime. What could be a better investment for that publicly owned real estate?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

1 comment:

  1. Baltimore let the developer remove a section of sidewalk at the corner of Poppleton Street and Boyd Street. Bushes were planted to make sure it is impassable. This missing section makes the rest of the sidewalk useless as people are forced to walk in the street. Hard to reconcile this reality with public comments.