Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A breakthrough on Roland Avenue?

Bicycling, even more than transit, is a mode of transportation for which users are far fewer than those with strong opinions. Thus improvements for bicycles are caught in a vicious cycle, namely that people with a different interest dominate the discussion wondering aloud what all the fuss is about. As soon as a bicycle facility threatens to take up some of the precious road space, those critics like to observe how few bicyclists are out there and that Baltimore isn't Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Which is kind of like saying Baltimore is not Munich and asking everybody to drink Coors Light even though it surely has been demonstrated how micro-brews, coffee-shops and bakeries can shake up common assumptions on how an American city has to be. And sometimes the solution of the future is something that Baltimore had plentiful in its past, such as breweries, bakeries and, yes: bicycles.
Even the Wall Street Journal reported: Existing bike lanes on
Roland Ave (WSJ photo

Naturally, to observe those who swim across a river to determine the need for a bridge is defeatist: No facilities, no bicyclists. Bad facilities, are good as fig-leaves but they don't really promote bicycling either. At times they are worse than none because they provide fodder for epic conflicts that don't serve a more holistic approach to transportation either.

Roland Avenue is a case in point. It boasted the first protected bike lane in Baltimore ("protected bike lanes" are those which are physically separated from moving traffic, in this case by parked cars), but slapped together too quickly in response to tragedy, it didn't work well as a result. Neither the bicyclists nor the residents who drive cars or park cars were happy.  And, unlike in politics, a compromise usually not a useful solution in transportation. To prove the point, the Roland Park Civic League even hired a bicycle facility consultant to look into the matter.  Alta Planning and Design issued a memorandum in which they accurately described the issue this way:
Current Bikelanes weave at intersections
While Alta was not involved in the decision making process, we assume the implementation of a cycle track was in response to existing challenges along the corridor: non-compliance with the speed limit, a wide travelway promoting
speeding, vehicular dominance, and speed affecting pedestrian safety and experience. Implementing a cycle track can remedy these challenges. In addition, this corridor has recently been identified as an important connection within the City’s bicycle network in the recent 2017 Low Stress Addendum to the Bicycle Master Plan. When the corridor was slotted for resurfacing, it created an opportunity to fast-track bicycle facility implementation in late 2015. While this
presented an exciting opportunity to incorporate complete streets design tactics, the community feels there was not sufficient involvement in vetting the actual engineered design solution. 
Alta Section: One travel lane and a bike-lane behind parked cars
resembles BC-DOT's preferred option
As a result of skimping on standards, drivers on the right lane of Roland Avenue felt squeezed between the cars on the left lane and those parked in a tight parking lane. The too narrow parking lane put sloppy parkers either into the bike-lane to the right or into the travel lane to the left. There was no margin of error for opening doors on either side. Area residents reported damaged cars, clipped mirrors and bicyclists reported that vehicles were blocking the protected lane way too often. Many residents wanted the earlier curbside parking back with a striped bikelane alongside two travel lanes, the condition that was in place when a intoxicated and texting driver ran into a bicyclist in that lane and killed him. It was that crash which demonstrated in a tragic way that simple paint lines provide no protection to bicyclists, no matter that cities around the country had opted for this cheap and easy way of demonstrating bike friendliness. After the crash the bikelane was moved to the curb so that the parked cars would provide a barrier.

While the rest of America discusses the inequity issues related to bicycling and bike sharing (Bikeshare still has a Race Problem) Baltimore focused on how to rebuild this bikelane in an affluent area for a second time. That seems like a colossal waste to some, but it shows that the idea of making streets work for more people than just drivers isn't as easy at it appears.
BC-DOT Option 1: One lane of traffic, wider parking

After years of bickering, stereotyping, and a lot of foot dragging from the responsible department, Baltimore City DOT, to its credit, has now emerged with a set of carefully considered options  which will be up for comment until June 28. To boot, the "preferred option" appears to be not only a wise solution, but Director Pourciau also took a clear stand for it (Option 1). It gives all modes a safer space and maintains the major standards for road design.   It resembles one of the options Alta had developed in its memorandum. In total, DOT worked out five options, all but one take away the second travel lane. The only solution with two travel lanes remaining returns the status quo ante, i.e. a non-protected lane, clearly not equally valuable. Removal of a protected bikelane shown in masterplanning and already constructed opens up potential liability for the City, Jed Weeks of Bikemore explains.
Option 1 is supposed to cost less than $250,000. It includes some curbside loading near schools as well.
Option 2 (the original state, unprotected lane)

The department studied speeds, traffic volumes and delays. The analysis shows that two travel lanes are not needed for handling the traffic volumes on Roland Avenue. However, they are useful for throughput at signals, the capacity choke points in any road. A one lane road creates some longer queues and delays at signals. According to DOT this increases the trip time in the 2.5 mile segment from 5 minutes to an estimated 6-7 minutes and drops the "level of service" on some intersections by one grade. The intersection with Cold Spring Lane already operates at level F in the "pm peak" and will remain so since there is no lower grade available.
"We find there is an amount of delay during the peak times which is usually the opening and closing times of the school. But we know that once people slow down and respect each other that we can tolerate the level of congestion on this road." DOT Director Pourciau on Fox 45 TV
Option  3 (buffered bikelane, cars at curb)
Some local residents still like to get the familiar curbside parking back, as the June 14 public meeting showed. However, there is also a petition of residents with children who ride bicycle underway, petitioning DOT to stick with the new preferred option.

Together with the recent resolution for a pair of protected east-west bike-lanes on Centre and Monument Streets, and the temporary pop-up installations of the "Big Jump", which connect Remington and Reservoir Hill, one can get the impression that after the protracted battles on Potomac Street and Roland Avenue BC-DOT has regained its footing when it comes to bicycles. To remove the still present threat of the Baltimore Fire Department of nixing any single lane traffic solution under 20' width,  Councilman Dorsey introduced this week a Baltimore City fire code amendment which removes the excessive fire-lane requirements for public streets.

Baltimore has a long way to go to become a city that really respects walking, transit, bicycles and cars, but recent steps are going in the right direction. With about 30% of the city's overall footprint, the design of public streets really matters. Just like accessibility laws made facilities more usable for a whole lot of people, complete streets will make a better city for all.

Option 4 (two way bike lane on the left)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wall Street Journal: Creating Bike Lanes Isn’t Easy. Just Ask Baltimore. 

Option 5 (one way bike lane on the left)


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