Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Road to Complete Streets in Baltimore and Beyond

If you haven’t heard by now, a remarkable thing has just happened in Baltimore. If it stands, it will long be remembered as a turning point in local transportation history: Baltimore City transportation officials have selected a “Complete Streets” configuration for Boston Street in conjunction with the planned Red Line light rail line.
Birds eye view of Boston Street  (source:
What this means is that the current configuration of Boston Street - which became a fast moving 4-lane, suburban-style arterial roadway about twenty years ago - will eventually be transformed into a 2-lane urban waterfront street with exclusive space for the light rail, bike lanes, and enhanced pedestrian facilities and landscaping. The new configuration will calm traffic along Boston Street by discouraging speeding, while encouraging more walking, biking, outdoor lingering, café dining, and transit use along the corridor.

A  New Day

Selecting the Boston Street Completes Street option is a testament to the courage and leadership of the Baltimore Department of Transportation (BDOT), which, in recent years, has been willing to take some chances on progressive initiatives aimed at making the city more livable and less traffic-dominated.

The idea of “Complete Streets” is simple: streets should serve multiple modes of travel equitably, not just facilitate vehicle traffic at the expense of everything else. A Complete Streets movement has emerged nationally and is helping communities become safer, more attractive, and more economically viable over the long term. Locally, the Baltimore City Council, like a growing number of municipalities across the country, recently adopted a Complete Streets Resolution.

BDOT’s commitment to Complete Streets principals has been evident with recent initiatives that include creation of downtown bike/bus-only lanes, green bike lanes, installation of shared bike lane symbols or sharrows, a contra-flow bikes lane on Lanvale and Fawn Streets, a “bicycle boulevard” (the first on the East Coast!)currently under construction along Guilford Avenue, and plans for an expanded network of bicycle lanes and cycle tracks throughout the city. BDOT is even developing a Complete Streets Guide to help formalize these progressive policy and design practices.

Baltimore’s willingness to break free from the status quo by implementing innovative Complete Streets policies that promote transit, bicycling, and walkability should be nurtured and celebrated, as it can unlock Baltimore’s potential as a national leader in sustainable urban living.

Emerging Advocacy amid Stumbling Blocks

A key factor that has fostered BDOT’s ability to take a more progressive approach is the increasing support among the general public for complete streets and sustainable transportation infrastructure, particularly for things like bike lanes and attractive surface transit that become an integral and visible part of the public realm. New advocacy groups like RedLine Now, The Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, and a newly formed Baltimore cycling advocacy organization, are all prime examples of the growing interest in urban living that relies less on driving and creates more hospitable environments for walking, cycling, and transit.

A growing trend: Grassroots support for sustainable transportation options (source:

Despite its good efforts and intentions, BDOT can’t implement these innovative projects without broad public support. This was starkly illustrated last year when BDOT installed a bike lane on Monroe Street in West Baltimore by removing one of the travel lanes. Despite the street having a relatively low volume of car traffic, the bike lane was met with vocal community opposition and the lane was subsequently removed.

Then, just last month, BDOT developed plans for a Complete Streets makeover for Midtown Baltimore through the Cultural Arts District. The plan included reducing vehicle travel lanes on Mt. Royal Avenue from 4 to 2 so that bike lanes could be added. The intention was to calm traffic and improve safety, while promoting more cycling, walkability, and create a better environment along the two urban college campuses which Mt. Royal Avenue bisects: the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and University of Baltimore (UB). Careful technical analysis was done in advance to ensure that these changes could be accommodated by the roadway system.
Mt. Royal Ave. birds eye view  (source:
However, the plans initially ran into resistance from the two universities administrations who, despite the technical analysis, expressed concern about what effect the plan might have on traffic congestion. After a widely reported outcry from local cycling advocates, who lobbied the administrations to change their stance and allow the plan go forward, BDOT is now working with MICA and UB university officials to develop a solution which will be acceptable to all. Stay tuned.

A Reflection of National Politics

The lingering resistance to changing our transportation system in ways that create a more equitable balance for all users and travel modes is really a microcosm of what is happening on the national stage right now. Congress is working on the long overdue transportation reauthorization bill. Earlier this month, the GOP controlled House was able to push through elements of their version of the bill that completely eliminate funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects as well as dedicated funding for public transit.

At the same time, the bill is full of provisions that will expand highways and oil drilling - a sure recipe for maintaining status quo car dependence and an unsustainable energy and transportation future.

On the other side, the US DOT under visionary transportation secretary Ray LaHood (himself a Republican) along with the Obama Administration, have their own version of the bill with far reaching provisions for sustainable transportation at all levels – from high speed rail to bicycle infrastructure.

Fortunately, like the rising clamor for sustainable transportation options along Boston Street and in Midtown Baltimore, so has there been an outcry for common sense to prevail and revise the transportation bill on Capitol Hill to restore dedicated transit funding and bicycle/pedestrian projects.

By most accounts, $5/gallon gas is right around the corner. Perhaps that is what will finally compel skeptics who have not yet come to terms with economic realities to support transportation policy reform even if it means that car-first attitudes and policies will no longer dominate as they have for more than half a century.

Still, it’s hard to predict how it will play out in the short term. Despite the delays, progress is being made.Getting to Complete Streets in Baltimore, and ultimately a sustainable transportation policy framework for America is all but inevitable, if for no other reason out of necessity. The real question is, “How long will it take for us to get from here to there?”
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...