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.

1 comment:

  1. There are so many things wrong with that new neighborhood at Jonestown-it drives me crazy because it could have been an opportunity to create something really nice. One major deficit is the total lack of outdoor community space-playground or otherwise. I'm sure they were avoiding the creation of the dangerous spaces that plague public housing projects but to plan a neighborhood of that size with no park or playground space is absurd. The kids in the neighborhood have nowhere to play. There is a community center building on central avenue, but I'm not sure what it's used for (if anything) and nothing outside. There's talk of fixing up Central Ave. like Broadway which would be a huge improvement if it ever happens. The new streetscape there does wonders for that neighborhood I think.