June 29, 2007

President Street


Many people in Baltimore are in love with the idea of creating wide boulevards, such as has been proposed for Pratt Street in the Inner Harbor. But let's look at what happened when the City did that to President Street on the east side of the Inner Harbor along the Jones Falls. This is also instructive because many people want to extend this boulevard northward toward the prison complexes to create an attractive interaction between the river and pedestrians, bikes and cars.

The photo above shows a bicyclist stranded in the President Street median strip waiting for traffic to clear from the vast ribbons of concrete which surround him. This also shows the conditions for pedestrians along President Street, because the cyclist has ascertained that he is better off behaving like a pedestrian than out in the traffic lanes as cyclists are supposed to be. Conditions are bad for pedestrians but even worse for cyclists.

Conditions are not terribly attractive beside the boulevard either. Here is the waterfront "promenade" sandwiched between President Street Boulevard and the Jones Falls, north of Lombard Street. It's not a gold coast - it's a quintessential dead zone.

Well, how about a place farther away from traffic where there is room for a healthy interaction between development, pedestrians and the water? The problem in the photograph above is that the City made the mistake of making the promenade between Lombard and Pratt wide enough so that parked cars just took over. It seems that cars in Baltimore will eventually take over every spot of any use to them at all if no one is around to either tow, steal or vandalize them.

Another problem with waterfront development in Baltimore is that every development needs its own monster parking garage, so that there is likely to be a monster parking garage along any given waterfront promenade, such as this one along the Jones Falls at Columbus Center. The result is yet another dead zone.

On the other side of the Jones Falls from Columbus Center, we see a dumpster from Scarlett Place that has invaded the promenade. We also see a service vehicle in the background. Service vehicles seem to have special privileges to park anywhere in Baltimore. Somebody recognized this as a problem because they put up a sign, which is as much of a response as we could hope for.

Well, how about the locations for transit oriented development? The Shot Tower Subway Station is adjacent to the Jones Falls promenade, the escalator entrance to which is shown above as the white canvas-topped pavilion under the sign for "Power Plant Live". The plaza in front of the subway entrance has become - you guessed it - an impromptu parking lot and dumpster dive.

So in sum, the President Street Boulevard and adjacent Jones Falls Promenade are bad for pedestrians and cyclists and a dead zone for development. Parked cars, trucks, garages, and dumpsters have inevitably filled the dead zone like a vacuum. President Street is also a hell hole for traffic.

And people want to do the same thing elsewhere?

June 13, 2007

Streetcars - Part 0


The photo simulation above shows the streetcar line proposed by the Charles Street Development Corporation ( www.charlesstreet.org/trolley ) on the Light Street connector to Calvert and Pratt Street adjacent to the Inner Harbor. This photo does an excellent job of demonstrating why streetcars can be such a great element of an urban streetscape. This is hardly a great urban street - cars are domineering and pedestrians are intimidated. Harborplace and all the other Inner Harbor activities turn their backs to this roadway. Essentially, this is just an urban obstacle.

And yet in spite of all this, the streetcar is able to "cut through" the suffocating auto domination to be a strong "presence" on the streetscape. Streetcars have the uncanny ability to be noticed, but they also thrive on other activity rather than taking anything away from it. Streetcars contribute to a great urban street in a way that regional light rail cannot because of its demands for capacity and speed.

Light Street adjacent to the Inner Harbor is in desperate need of a makeover. The photo of above certainly speaks for itself - Light Street has ten (count 'em, ten) freakin' lanes, not even including the left turn lanes or the fortress median strip. The two lanes into and two lanes out of Conway Street are certainly well used and need to remain in some form, but ten continuous lanes from Pratt to Key Highway is major overkill.

Yes, Pratt Street doesn't work very well adjacent to the Inner Harbor either, but this segment of Light Street is a far greater plague on the City. In addition, it provides the extravagant luxury of space - plenty of space to accommodate every need, especially including streetcar tracks.

The Light Street re-make should be the City's first priority, before Pratt Street, or at least at the same time. The Light Street redesign should also point the way to demonstrate what will work on Pratt Street. The current plan for Pratt Street would make it more like what Light Street looks like now, which is the worst thing the City could do, not only for streetcars but for everyone else. The Pratt Street plan is totally "over the top" indulgent grandiosity.

Streetcars thrive on balance. Planning for streetcars is a great way to ensure this balance between the many functions that make for successful commercial urban streets. If a street truly works for streetcars, that is a strong indiaction that it will work for everything else.

Light Street is also a very key link to starting a true inner city streetcar system. This streetcar line could proceed south along the redesigned Light Street from Pratt adjacent to the Inner Harbor to Key Highway at the Maryland Science Center, then continue on the narrower but still ample width of Light Street to Henrietta Street in the Federal Hill Business District.

The streetcar line could then turn westward on Henrietta and proceed past Charles Street to the end of Henrietta at Sharp Street.

At the end of Henrietta shown above, the streetcar line could proceed between the Otterbein pool (which would probably have to be slightly reconfigured) and the adjacent tennis courts.

At his point, the streetcar line would have to be put into a slight cut in order to get sufficient clearance to get underneath Interstate 395 at its overpass structure shown above.

Finally, the streetcar line would join up with the existing light rail line just prior to the Hamburg Street Station adjacent to the Ravens Stadium. MLK Boulevard just off of I-395 is the overpass shown above. Some slight adjustments to the station would be necessary, such as relocating the ramp on to the high block.

Tieing the Light Street streetcar line into the Central Light Rail line at Hamburg Street would be a great way to create an instant streetcar "system". This is probably the most functionally successful segment of the entire light rail line, and would provide a very valuable augmentation to service between the very well used Cherry Hill Station and the key station serving the soon-to-be burgeoning Westport, into the Federal Hill Business District area and then directly into the heart of the Inner Harbor.

It would probably not be practical to run the streetcars all the way to BWI-M Airport and Glen Burnie, but it would provide an easy way for anyone on light rail to transfer to get from these places to the Inner Harbor.

Moreover, it would be a great beginning to a comprehensive inner city streetcar system, connecting everything from the heart of downtown to the Charles Street Corridor to Fells Point and beyond (see previous blog article). No one could complain anymore that the light rail line serves "only" Howard Street.

No one should delude themselves into believing that streetcars alone are a substitute for an effective regional transit system, but as a way of activating and expanding downtown, streetcars are ideal. Streetcars create a strong "presence" for transit that buses cannot match and no one can miss, no matter whether they are watching from a sidewalk or behind a windshield. Light Street may be the best place to start.