November 28, 2006


The deterioration of Gay Street between North Avenue and Preston Street is a sad urban tale that has been told many times, not just there but in Baltimore as a whole and indeed throughout America, with many lessons learned and not learned. But the story has seldom been told through traffic regulations. Even so, the lessons may be familiar.

No one could argue with the fact that the City has large swaths of real estate that are simply urban failures. While it is the boarded up housing and vacant lots that are the most apparent manifestations, illogical traffic and parking regulations are also part of the scene.

Gay Street between North Avenue and Preston Street is one of the clearest examples of such failure. And while the boarded up housing and vacant lots may be the result of some complex pathological urban process, the traffic regulations are simply the result of blatant neglect and incompetence.

This is Gay Street looking southward from North Avenue. There are three lanes, curb to curb, next to the very narrow sidewalks which are next to mostly blighted housing and vacant lots. Parking is never allowed on the northbound curb, where the bus is in the picture above. Parking is allowed except between 7 to 9 AM and 4 to 6 PM on the southbound curb. The center lane is designated for reversible traffic flow. The southbound sign says, "Curb Lane Only 4 PM to 6 PM", which means that the southbound traffic must use only the curb lane between 4 and 6PM, because the center lane is given over to the northbound traffic (leaving downtown) during the evening peak period.

The most obvious problem created by the parking regulations is having fast-moving through traffic and buses mere feet away from the houses, 24 hours a day. How could a residential community possibly endure under such conditions? The answer is that it cannot and has not.

But there is an even larger traffic problem. Until 4 PM each day, parking is legal along the southbound curb. Then at exactly 4 PM, parking on the southbound curb becomes illegal and at exactly that same moment, the southbound curb lane becomes the only lane available for southbound traffic. At 3:59 and 59 seconds, the center lane is designated for southbound traffic and exactly one second later, that lane becomes designated for northbound traffic.

Furthermore, there are no electronic signals to choreograph this split-second transition from southbound to northbound traffic in the center lane, or from parking to no parking along the southbound curb. There is nothing to synchronize the watches of the motorists making this transition, or to inform the motorists who have no watches or are not looking at their watches.

In other places with reversible lanes (the Bay Bridge for example), there is a time period when the reversible lanes are not used in either direction. The reversible lanes are swept clean of traffic so that a transition can be achieved for use by traffic in the opposite direction. This is not done on Gay Street because at the split second before the transition occurs, it is totally legal for a car to be parked in what becomes the only southbound traffic lane one second later. There is no time to ticket or to tow these cars, which in the Baltimore City government are two separate time-consuming processes.

But what the signs say is not what actually occurs on Gay Street. What actually occurs daily in the center lane of Gay Street is a good analogy for life in general in this forlorn neighborhood.

First of all, the public laws are rendered meaningless. It is a common occurrence to see traffic traveling in both directions in the center lane simultaneously. One driver or the other has the legal right to be there based on who is adhering most accurately to the clock. Of course, what it really amounts to is a case of the drivers staring each other down and one of them baling out. It may be the one who is in the right, or it may be the one who is in the wrong, or it may be the one who is least strong-willed (i.e. has the least balls) or it may be the one who is more able to pull to the right and manage to avoid the traffic or parkers in that lane.

Secondly, the true law that governs local behavior is the law of the street. Sane drivers avoid the center lane. Of course, if the curb lane is blocked, legally or otherwise, one cannot avoid the center lane. So the most sane drivers avoid Gay Street altogether, which is the chief reason why Gay carries less traffic here than north of North Avenue where it is called Belair Road. Slightly less sane people will drive on Gay Street but try to avoid the center lane. Still farther down on the sanity scale will be the drivers who seek out the center lane and "dare" opposing drivers to do likewise. Still further down the sanity scale will be those who dare to park their cars on Gay Street near the 4 PM bewitching hour. Finally, there are the most crazed and desperate - those who live on Gay Street. There are not very many of those people anymore.

It is not difficult to image how the "law of the street" regarding traffic regulations might fit into the local etiquette regarding other endeavors of neighborhood commerce and social life. It takes a lot of nerve to survive on Gay Street.

But what is truly astonishing is that the posted traffic regulations on Gay Street are the exact same as they have been for decades. Once upon a time, Gay Street was a nice neighborhood. It was certainly a much nicer neighborhood when the current traffic and parking regulations were put into effect (the 1960s? the 1970s?) than they are now.

This illustrates the slow quiet cancerous effect of bad traffic and parking regulations and urban problems in general. Not many people are going to just get up and leave town when the City puts some up some traffic sign in front of their house that they don't like. You may not even have a car so you may not even give it much thought. Many City people didn't own cars back then and many still don't. The City's attitude has always been to deal with parking problems where there are a lot of parkers. After all, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.

The biggest event on Gay Street in recent history was the riot of 1968. That was south of this area, and that portion of Gay Street was then closed completely and turned into a pedestrian mall. That has generally been regarded as a failure too, but it is interesting that it was exactly the opposite kind of failure that Gay Street has experienced between North Avenue and Preston Street. It was a failure of no traffic, as opposed to a failure of traffic. At least it was not a failure of neglect.

The larger lesson is this: An urban neighborhood must be nurtured as a neighborhood, not as traffic moving on a street to be manipulated by signs and regulations that are far less powerful than the innate laws of urban survival, growth, life or death.

November 17, 2006


The City has given us another example of how NOT to design a roundabout, or maybe a non-roundabout. Who knows what they were thinking when they designed the thing at East Lombard and Albemarle Streets in the New Jonestown housing development?

Previously, we discussed the failed roundabout at Wilkens and Mount Street, but at least that was a real roundabout. This one is basically just a traffic obstacle, and not a very good one.

Lombard is a two lane one-way westbound street when it approaches the non-roundabout. One lane is striped to go to the left of the obstacle and one lane to the right. As you can see from the picture above, the orange barrel that denotes the place where traffic is not supposed to go (straight ahead) has been knocked over by someone who indeed drove straight ahead. The barrel replaced a sign that was previously supposed to inform drivers not to drive straight ahead, but which was also knocked over by someone who drove straight ahead.

Things are actually even more confusing beyond the non-roundabout where the street comes back together. The lane to the left of the roundabout re-emerges beyond Albemarle as a lane where parking is allowed at night. There is nothing, not even a barrel, to inform drivers that the one and only lane between the curbs to the left of the non-roundabout becomes a parking lane. Either the driver will crash into the parked car that occupies its lane, or try to swerve to the right into the lane that may be occupied by a driver swerving from the right and who legally has the right-of-way.

In sum, the one left lane often becomes zero, while the one right lane becomes two. This is really stupid.

So what was the reasoning behind this non-roundabout? It looks like an extremely lame attempt to create a Savannah-style neighborhood park to add interest to the setting of the new houses. EXTREEEEEMELY LAME, I'd say. You'll notice from the photograph above that there are no benches or street furniture in the space. There are no trees. There is no art or sculpture. There is nothing except an orange barrel, that replaced a sign, both of which have been knocked over.

But it's even worse than that. You'll notice from the photograph that there is absolutely no parking allowed in the block that contains the non-roundabout, even though the total width in this block is about twice what it is in the blocks before and after, both of which allow parking at least during off-peak hours.

This is a major deficiency throughout the New Jonestown neighborhood. There are many block faces where parking is not allowed. On-street parking is a very important element of urban neighborhoods in places like Baltimore. No matter how good a house's rear access might be, there are times when you might want to park in the front to bring something in the front door.

Moreover, streets without on-street parking have a desolate quality which allows the through traffic to dominate. A comparison to adjacent Little Italy is revealing. Much more on-street parking could have been provided in New Jonestown with just a bit more attention to traffic patterns and curb locations. Without parking, nothing stands between moving traffic and pedestrians. Except maybe an orange barrel.

Then again, sometimes the City actually does things right. Above is the new median strip that was recently completed in South Broadway between Baltimore and Fleet Streets in Fells Point. It replaces a meager four foot wide concrete strip. Broadway still has four lanes - two in each direction - and approximately the same number of parking spaces. But previously, the parking spaces were head-in at an angle, so the entire street looked like a big parking lot. Now it looks like a street in the best sense - not just a place for cars, but also for people. The amount of pavement has been reduced, while the functionality has increased as four rows of parallel parking has replaced two rows of angle parking.

Some might argue that there is too much loitering on Broadway. But even loiterers try to find the best place to do their thing, so what are you going to do? Make a place unattractive just so loiterers will stay away? That defeatist attitude is just what is often used to design places, to strive for mediocrity.

Instead, we should strive for high-quality loitering. Loitering should be very public. It should not be allowed to slip into semi-private recesses where it appears mysterious and potentially threatening. In the public realm, activity should be public, while private places should be clearly private.

There should be no room for ambiguity. Questionable police actions and arrests are the result of such ambiguity. A public space that is obviously public helps make human actions explicit, especially among loiterers. Ambiguity is thereby eliminated, and both the police and the citizens will know where we stand.

The most public urban places are in the middle of median strips, clearly separate from anyone's private property or space. The City needs to have median strips that are hospitable, attractive and well-designed. Benches, trees, landscaping, and on-street parking can all be used to contribute to this.

These lessons can be applied all over Baltimore, most notably to Pratt Street in the Inner Harbor, where loitering is now allowed to hide and fester behind large earth berms. This portion of Pratt Street would be an ideal place for a highly visible median strip that separates through traffic from the service drive for Harborplace, the World Trade Center and the Aquarium. This median could efficiently and unambiguously serve a bikeway, a transitway, and yes, loiterers. It could be done even better on Pratt than many other streets because this section of Pratt has no cross traffic.

South Broadway is an outstanding example of how this can be done right. West Lombard at Albemarle is an outstanding example of how this can be done wrong.