Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Druid Park Lake Drive: Baltimore's struggle to implement a new transportation paradigm

Across America transportation and public works departments are trying to wean themselves from decades of following a single paradigm: Make car traffic flow as freely as possible. Baltimore's BCDOT was a leader in making this happen. 
Car centric design: Lots of space for cars, little for pedestrians. 
(Image from TAP, 

Shaped for half a century by the likes of Henry Barnes, an influential traffic engineer who as traffic commissioner shaped the streets of Denver, Baltimore and New York with innovations such as the "green wave" of synchronized traffic lights and the world's first big main frame computer installed in Baltimore to control the signals from a central location. He also invented the "Barnes Dance", a special signal sequence to deal with the pesky pedestrians that tended to cross streets at all times.

Since then, the computer obsolete, and new technologies apparently hard to make work, Baltimore's drivers would wish the lights still had a "green wave". But otherwise the legacy of post-war traffic engineering is still in place, the one way streets (which are a precondition for synchronizing lights), the multi lane arteries with left turn bays, the fragments of freeways channeling suburbanites to their offices downtown and back home.
Druid Hill Park: An asset chocked off by roadway barriers

At Druid Lake Park Drive two elements of Baltimore's rich history collide. The 740 acre  beautiful Druid Hill Park designed by Howard Daniels and opened in 1860 and the 100 year later Henry Barnes inspired Johns Falls Expressway with its complicated multilevel ramps and tendrils choking the park on three sides with in the shape of fast multi-lane feeder arteries arteries. This reduced park access points from 18 to just 5. The matter has become ever more deplorable, the more Baltimore's surrounding neighborhoods fell into disrepair. In 2017 Baltimore architect Davin Hong summarized the problem in a SUN editorial:

Baltimore's Druid Hill Park ranks with distinction among a very short list of large historic urban parks in America. With a pastoral landscape, picturesque reservoir and even the Maryland Zoo, it is a popular destination for not only Baltimore residents but also for visitors from the surrounding region. Yet somehow, its bordering neighborhoods have not benefited from being next to such a landmark amenity. They have not thrived as sought-after communities and are instead deserts to recreation, greenery and quality of life.
Certainly, there are many complex factors that shape the health of communities and that make their success so elusive. But there is one very obvious reason why Druid Hill Park does not contribute to its surrounding neighborhoods: It is bordered by very wide, fast streets that act as physical barriers, separating the park from its surrounding communities as a green island among a sea of asphalt arteries.
Shortly afterwards, Daniel Hindman a community member and physician, added the equity and health angles in another SUN editorial
This photo of the construction of the JFX shows the extent of impact
urban freeways had

While many know of the racism of the park’s past — the segregated swimming pools, tennis courts and playgrounds — many do not know the politics and history behind the construction of the Druid Hill Expressway. The story of the expressway’s construction is a narrative of racism and corruption, that, like an arrow shot from the past, inflicts damage on our most vulnerable populations today. ...The impact of this history is evidenced today in the 2017 Neighborhood Health Profiles, which demonstrate that Reservoir Hill and Penn North, communities that border one of the largest urban parks in the country, have some of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the city. 
Back then those editorials and other activities finally initiated action. However, now with lots of ARPA and federal infrastructure bill money in reach and a much more progressive DOT leadership in place, Baltimore is in danger of missing a critical opportunity. 

Let's recap what happened: The current DOT Director Steve Sharkey is attacking the old ways of car centric thinking on several fronts. 
As Director, his top priority is to focus BCDOT's efforts on initiatives that better serve all users of the transportation system to improve walking, biking, transit and driving in Baltimore (DOT website)
The new paradigm isn't entirely by Sharkey's own making, it also is local law after the City Council  finally approved "complete streets" legislation in 2018 after years of deliberation. The new set of rules gave former DOT Director Pourciau headaches, but they also initiated the Druid Park connectivity project when DOT installed an experiment dubbed "the Big Jump". The experiment was funded by a grant. The complete streets legislation was in its final round.  Then local councilman Leon Pinkett had  organized stakeholders and residents with the goal of leveraging Druid Park for revitalization and provide better access and more equity for those who aren't drivers. The resulting TAP coalition describes itself this way.
Overpass over the JFX at 28th Street before the "Big Jump":
Little room for pedestrians, fast moving traffic

TAP Druid Hill is a coalition of residents, city officials, and community partners working together to increase access to Druid Hill Park for people on foot, wheelchair, transit, and bicycle / escooter. (website)
The Big Jump which opened with a party in 2018 and is still in place, consists of  temporary “pop up” mixed-use trail along Druid Park Lake Drive protected by water filled plastic barriers. The trail proceeds west from Madison Street, across the 28th Street Bridge, and along 28th Street to Atkinson Street.  Additionally, over in Remington, a flex post delineated bike lane was created on Sisson Street from 28th Street to Wyman Park Drive; In part the Big Jump project was making up for the loss of a loop trail around the Druid Lake reservoir which was the result of a giant $140 million DPW project going on inside Druid Hill Park: With 52 million gallons the world's largest underground drinking water reservoir under progress at the park's lake.
Overpass after the Big Jump installation (DOT)

Pop ups like the Big Jump provide an immediate benefit and allow engineers and stakeholders to obverse the effects of an intervention in a real world simulation that is cheaper than lengthy studies, easy to modify, or, if necessary, to abandon. An evaluation of the Big Jump performed by Toole Design, a consultant to DOT showed, that the resulting single lane of traffic in each direction did not lead to a noticeable increase in travel times on the roadway and did not push traffic into other areas either. 87% of folks who expressed an opinion wanted the "Big Jump" solution become permanent.

BC-DOT's new attention to other road users than car drivers puts the department at the forefront of the many current US culture wars from education, LGTB rights, and guns, to bikes and electric scooters. Thus DOT is at odds with the perceived right of driving unimpeded through American cities. In Baltimore, Sharkey's predecessor Pourciau wavered on several early bike lane installations and lost a major battle in the prosperous Roland Park corridor. There were lessons to be learned for the Druid Park project, and indeed, it was much better prepared with much more outreach.

Sharkey's refocused DOT defines the Druid Lake problem in much the way road critics had described it:
While the Druid Park Lake Drive corridor borders the United States’ third-oldest public park and beautiful historic neighborhoods, the roadway is designed with the characteristics of a highway, rather than a neighborhood-scale roadway. Originally a two-lane residential street, the current alignment of Druid Park Lake Drive is now a 4-to-9-lane arterial road that carries high-speed vehicle traffic, lacks safe pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure and effectively creates a barrier between neighboring communities and Druid Hill Park.

 That the streets are also seen as a battlefield for equity and social justice just heightens the tensions. DOT's Druid Lake Park Drive report  ("The Report") says:

Councilman Pinkett (speaking), Mayor Pugh in 2018
at the Big Jump opening party (Philipsen)

The neighborhoods bordering Druid Park Lake Drive are predominantly Black and have experienced generations of disinvestment, racial discrimination, poor public health and decreased quality of life [....]

Equity is a driving factor for the redesign of Druid Park Lake Drive, and ensuring access for all modes, ages and abilities is a key component in creating an equitable corridor. Demographic data for the area within a half-mile and quarter-mile radius of the corridor illustrate what equity means in the context of Druid Park Lake Drive. Of the 88,000 people living within a half mile of Druid Park Lake Drive, 30 percent live below the poverty line, 22 percent live with a disability and 93 percent are people of color.1 Nearly half of households living in the neighborhoods around the Druid Park Lake Drive do not have access to a car. These community members get around by walking, cycling, using wheelchairs, riding scooters and catching transit. Building infrastructure to allow these residents to safely use Druid Park Lake Drive is key in advancing equity. 

After several initial community participation meetings DOT developed a vision:

We envision a reimagined Druid Park Lake Drive that is safe, built for the human scale and accessible for all ages, abilities, and modes of transportation. This future corridor will closely align with the City’s Complete Streets principles, while creating a functional, vibrant, and aesthetically pleasing roadway that reclaims roadway space to re-establish safe multimodal connections between surrounding communities and the park and embraces the area’s natural beauty and historic significance. Through the redesign of this corridor, we aim to  elevate health equity, allow communities to support aging in place, and support expanded transit service to Druid Hill Park.
The community based approach, the outreach, the grant funding, the problem definition, the experiment and its evaluation were all great moves. But where are we now? 
One Lane option and bike/ walkways: 779 votes  (DOT)

Some 5 or so years after inception and 4 years after installing the pilot, the project should be well in the implementation phase. Instead: analysis, paralysis. No money is in the budget for construction, an avoidable condition..

In late 2020, BCDOT retained the services of  WSP, a transportation planning firm. The engineers developed three alternatives for right-sizing Druid Park Lake Drive corridor, more similar to what it was before the expansion after I-83 was built. All three design versions share a 12-foot sidewalk adjacent to residences, three 8-foot “green buffers,” and a 15-foot shared use path adjacent to Druid Hill Park. One of them left like the Big Jump just one travel lane for cars per direction. Another moment for the community to chime in: Which option to build?

The new paradigm and the prospect of a "road diet" predictably drew the ire of ardent promotors of unfettered automobility. A small but vocal and prolific "Save our Streets Coalition" operated under a motto that would make Barnes proud:
Two lane option: 170 votes (DOT)

We are citizens dedicated to fighting efforts to alter city streets in ways that promote traffic congestion (Facebook page)

The group has blanketed the neighborhoods with yard signs and dubious messages against bike lanes on Gwynns Fall Parkway (part of an envisioned big bike-ped loop around Baltimore) and on Druid Lake Park Drive. 

The bike lobby Bikemore and the car lobby Save our Streets called upon their followers to weigh in on the three design options which were polled early this year on DOTs website. Neighbors, of course, voted, too. The results are very clear: 779 votes opted for Option 1 which proposed only a single lane of cars in each direction, 170 voted for option 2, with two lanes of traffic in each direction. Only 15 votes for a hybrid option with 2 driving lanes in one and 1 in the other direction.

Save Our Streets coalition poster: Free to drive

In this culture war reason was winning. Luckily the future design isn't really decided via open polling. Ex-councilman Pinkett's foresight of organizing local stakeholders and putting them in the "driver's seat" (or into the "Big Jump") pretty much ensures that nearby residents will have a voice when it comes to what gets implemented when. . The engineering evaluation showed no downside to the preferred single lane solution, neither in modeling nor in the real world application. So what stands in the way of implementation? Why is the project not  funded for construction, in spite of all the extra federal funding for infrastructure and Covid recovery? The current capital improvement program (CIP) shows no money for the project which is estimated to cost around $30 million in all. It isn't too late to amend the CIP. It is not too late to comment on the DOT report . The comment period for the ends this week Friday. 

Bikemore director Jed Weeks observes that the drawings for the three options are not yet the 30% design level that usually justifies the first tranche of implementation funds. Even when funded, it will take long enough to build the project. William Ethridge, the DOT planner for the project, estimates that it would take 5-7 years to get the project completed, once money is set aside, that is.  

Now is the time to "jump" into implementation. Maybe it takes a decision of the Mayor to finally implement this project and signal that once and for all, Baltimore's transportation paradigm has shifted. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related on this Blog: What is the Big Jump all about?

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