Friday, April 27, 2018

No, "complete streets" are not mostly about bikes!

It is a funny thing how the residents of Roland Park and those of West Baltimore can agree when it comes to beating on bicyclists who occupy valuable street space with their bike-lanes so they can "ride their expensive Italian racing bikes through our streets". The Roland Park residents are incensed by an editorial of Bikemore's CEO Liz Cornish and vent it on the editorial page of the SUN, the West Baltimore residents testified Wednesday against Ryan Dorsey's "Complete Streets" Council bill which finally got its first hearing after having been stalled for about nine months.
Fatalities are rising in Baltimore (Dorsey presentation)

The thing is, "Complete Streets" is neither a planning tool nor a design principle for just bicycles. It isn't a program to build a lot of new and costly things as an opposing African American resident suspected in her testimony when she claimed that the bill is about expenditure when one should talk about where the taxes come from and what would increase resources. She correctly observed that investments have been made very unevenly and that the neighborhoods where most of the taxpayers live have seen the least of them. Opposing the bill on the grounds of existing inequity is ironic though, because equity is a big  part of Dorsey's bill.

That the bill won accolades and an award from Smart Growth America may be suspicious to some for the same reasons as the bicyclists, the ""latte sipping millennials" (there is always demographic segment on which derision is heaped, recall the called yuppies?) and all those who want Baltimore more attractive to the educated, upwardly mobile and more affluent class until recently dubbed "the creatives".
Ryan Dorsey at the hearing (3rd from right)
(Photo: Philipsen)

If white activists promote something that the millennials also want, but link the issue to equity, suspicion can grow into anger, even if the matter is approached with the best intentions. "If you are so concerned about safety", a woman testified at the Complete Street bill hearing, "you have to look elsewhere, not bicycling". An obvious reference to the high rate in which young black men get killed on Baltimore's Streets, by guns, not car or bicycle crashes.

There are a ton of arguments to be made why city streets to be designed to be more than "sewers for cars" would, indeed, increase equity; but in light of a 20 year discrepancy in life expectancy between Druid Heights and Roland Park, in light of the cities 300 plus homicides a year, in light of the food deserts, and failing inner city schools, Complete Streets seem trivial to many.

Not to suggest that the Complete Streets bill would still be in trouble. Ryan Dorsey along with supporters used the last year to iron out many kinks and get the support from the Council President and most heads of city departments, including, reluctantly, from DOT Director Pourciau and the Mayor, with whom Dorsey has frequently been on the war path. That is important, since an eight member coordinating council will consist of the agency heads, a nod to the need for interdisciplinary coordination required to truly make the new equity approach stick. 1000 support letters were counted in Dorsey's office and a slide with the logos of an impressive array of prominent supporting organizations was on display during the hearing. Not only Smart Growth America pays attention to the bill but the national online publication reported about the hearing as well.
 “When we spend money on Complete Streets instead of less equitable projects, we improve more communities and create more jobs than we would otherwise” (Ryan Dorsey)
A resident testifies against the bill
Public debate about how to design the future of Baltimore is shaped by history more than elsewhere. Understandably so. Yet, being so deeply mired in historic and current injustices should not mean to stand still or not to touch anything until those big injustices are overcome.

Attention to the murder rate should not mean that nothing else can get done. Addressing the affordable housing crisis, the persistent problems of vacant houses, failing schools, or the continued problem of getting good services into disinvested communities, should not mean that city agencies can't pay attention how the around 30 square miles of public property which our streets and alleys represent could be made safer and more pleasant than they are. That is especially true in areas where the vast majority of households doesn't own a car and predominantly uses the street to walk, wait for the bus or as an outdoor space while sitting on a stoop to get some fresh air. Well, and yes, to ride a bike. It is a myth that only young white people in spandex outfits and goofy helmets use bicycles. Anyone who ever actually spends some time in the inner city neighborhoods will see kids on bicycles popping wheelies, people running errands on bikes and adults riding on sidewalks or against traffic because there are no safe and convenient ways to get around on a bike.

Testimony at the Complete Streets hearing was coming from many sides, old and young, resident and business, individuals and organizations. The vast majority said it is about time that Baltimore makes its streets better so the city can catch up with cities across the country and elsewhere in the world which, in some instances,  have been at least since the 1970s on a path to undo some of the damage the undue fixation on the automobile has done to cities around the globe.
 "Streets should be planned, designed and built to accommodate all uses safely, equitably and efficiently.[...] The success of our network will be determined by the people we safely move and the quality of their experience.”  Michelle Pourciau
For all the contentious talk about bicycling, that is the smallest piece of a complete street policy which is really about one of the cheapest ways to generate economic development. Just consider that
  •  it is impossible to have healthy, main street style retail along streets that are just traffic sewers, it is impossible to retain home value next to a steady stream of fast moving cars and trucks riding hard along the curbs, neither buffered by parked cars or trees, 
  • and yes, it is very inconvenient for those who own a car about to live on a street where the parked cars have to be moved every morning at 7am or every afternoon at 4pm to make room for the onslaught of surbanites coming in or leaving town. So, yes, Complete Streets is also about, gasp!, parking. 
  • It is difficult to raise children where the sidewalks are too unsafe for them to be because they are tiny or have no safe crossings.
  • is difficult to be old and frail if the sidewalks are broken up, have holes, no handicapped ramps or are blocked by parked cars, where the pedestrian signal time is only made for those who can sprint, whether one simply uses a cane, a walker or moves around in a wheelchair. 
  • Streets without trees get a lot hotter and create a lot more dust than those who have a continuous tree canopy, that is especially hard on those who have no AC or can't afford to run it.
  • the single user car is a very unsustainable and inefficient way to get around that many individuals and society can ill afford
  • many streets are designed for much higher speeds than what the posted limit allows, essentially creating what lawyers call an "attractive nuisance", i.e. something that invites to break the law.
  • transit needs to have designated spaces to improve its effectiveness and comfort
In short, the street is the calling card of a neighborhood and the sum of streets is the calling card of a city.  A street's shape, design and accessories tell more about equity than the houses themselves. A well kept beautiful house on badly designed street full of cars racing through it is worth less than one on a well designed street. None of this has anything to do with spandex or Italian racing bikes, none of this caters only to latte sipping "creatives" and none of this displaces anyone or should be called gentrification. (continued below the image)
Households without access to a car in Baltimore

Baltimore's unjust past practices should not block residents from a look around the world. Looking beyond our own belly button one can see that the age of the automobile as the sovereign of cities is coming to an end; not because some nefarious shenanigans of a small elite but because cities have become so large and congested that better ways had to be found. Some of these better ways come from technology, but some, like the Complete Streets policy, harp back to the simple insight that putting things closer together works better, that quality matters and that many trips can be made without sitting behind a steering wheel. Simply common sense.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Ryan Dorsey Presentation on Complete Streets


  1. We compliment ourselves on our growth and vitality but don't have the skills to do this kind of program correctly. Witness the multiple years that it took for a ribbon-cutting at Roland Ave. where the lanes very soon lead a cyclist to unprotected shared car/bike lanes. Then the neighborhood was flooded by one strong rainfall that reminded people that the "improvements" had not been supervised, leaving to top of newly poured curbs level with the new street asphalt and costing a fortune to revise without killing the tress that had finally taken root. People are not going to give up their parking on residential streets so that bikes can zoom by. A study of proper design would give citizens a little confidence, but then the work needs to be done correctly, not just as thedream would dictate.

  2. Correct, these try and error designs in Roland Ave and Potomac Street are the result of lack of experience and a lack of design guidelines. This is one of the things the Complete Streets bill seeks to remedy. Thinking through all the issues is more complex than quickly spraying some lines on the road. Agreed.