September 13, 2008

Pratt Street


Two-way or one-way? Boulevard grand apres les Champs Elysees or intimate Elfreth's Alley? The City leaders don't seem to know what they want to do with Pratt Street, and their recent pronouncements have run the entire gamut.

The original plan for the Inner Harbor four decades ago called for Pratt Street to be a grand boulevard in the manner of memorable grand boulevards in other world-class cities. But it was never grand enough. The grandest aspect of Pratt Street were the super-wide sidewalks, comfortably separated from the traffic by wide ivy beds. But pedestrians never really liked the super-wide sidewalks. They preferred to walk on the very narrow sidewalks wedged between the ivy beds and the traffic lanes.

It just so happened that back in those days, one-way streets were still in fashion, which was considered just as well because that left more room for the super-wide sidewalks and ivy beds. Traffic volumes were also still sufficiently low in Downtown Baltimore that only four travel lanes were needed in most places, which was also just as well because it was already standard ideology that automotive intrusion was the root of most if not all urban evil. So Pratt was built with essentially the same number of lanes as on most of Charles, St. Paul, Calvert and many of Baltimore's other traditional downtown streets - hardly comparable to the Champs Elysees.

More recently, the City decided to change all that when they chose the firm of Ayers Saint Gross as the winner of a Pratt Street design competition for Pratt Street. When the ASG plan was first unveiled to a room full of architects and urbanists, it received a standing ovation largely on the strength of their proposal to convert Pratt into a grand two-way street at nearly double its current width.

ASG won the design battle, but two-way traffic eventually lost the war. After choosing ASG as winner of the design competition with its much widened two-way street, the City then proceeded to revise the ASG plan to a much narrower one-way street. More drastically, the City then went on to narrow the street right-of-way itself by calling for extensions for many of the buildings flanking Pratt Street, to create more active street-level retail frontage.

So as the plan stands now, the new Pratt Street would not only NOT be widened into a grand boulevard, it will be significantly narrowed from building line to building line. Forget all thoughts of Champs Elysees grandiosity.

Based on my previous pronouncements here in Baltimore InnerSpace, I could now resoundingly say, "I told you so..." Except that making Pratt Street narrower is not the answer any more than making it wider is the answer. More street-level retail is also a nice idea, but there have already been many opportunities to add street level retail, and the market has not responded very much. Harborplace turns its back on Pratt and Light Streets. On most of the rest of the frontage, the building landlords would love to lease their street level space to high-powered world-class retail tenants if they could.

As I have previously stated here, before the City figured it out, two-way flow on Pratt Street would not have worked. Eventually, the City decided not to convert Pratt to two-way flow, overruling ASG after leading them on. Two-way traffic flow would have just been a waste of road concrete, and Inner Harbor real estate is far too valuable to waste.

But the real answer isn't to give up on two-way flow and turn Pratt Street into just another narrow Baltimore street with attempted street level retail. We've already tried plenty of that.


Why do designers and urbanists love two-way traffic so much? And why do fawning urban groupies continue to give standing ovations to two-way plans that won't work?

Why do urban designers in places like the Inner Harbor care so much which direction the traffic is coming from? After all, most of the Inner Harbor through traffic is just trying to cut through the harbor area on their way to somewhere else. Drivers do like to gawk at the tourists and joggers, but the pedestrians prefer to gawk at other pedestrians, not drivers. Everyone knows that having a ton and a half of steel armour behind the steering wheel can turn most drivers into raving lunatics. We should move as many of those lunatic drivers away from the Inner Harbor up to Lombard Street or somewhere else as we can.

But urbanists have a love-hate relationship with traffic. Should we blame it on the musical car horns of George Gershwin's "American in Paris"? Or maybe listening to "the music of the traffic in the city" in Petula Clark's "Downtown"?

You'd think the urbanists could get beyond all that. Please, people, get out and smell the traffic !!!

The answer is that we should promote two-way traffic among the people who are actually using the Inner Harbor - not the crazy teeming motorists who are harassing them.

There was a meager attempt to do that back in the 1980s. A big orange railing (see picture below) was installed separating the southernmost lane of Pratt and Light Streets from the others, and this lane was designated for traffic moving in the opposite direction of the big predominate clockwise one-way flow. Originally, it was designated for use by special shuttle trolleys between the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and other destinations - the same local destinations people have been trying to link seemingly forever with some decent people-oriented mass transit.

Pratt Street is already two-way, if you count the lane on the left separated by that orange railing, which is available to bicyclists and other brave souls willing to expose themselves to the abuse of anyone who wants to invade the space.

The transit vehicles were those tacky fake streetcars with the hard church-pew seats and no air conditioning, and this little transit system was run by the City in a seemingly erratic bureaucratic and unprofessional manner. But some old timers still have warm memories of this valiant attempt at localized mass transit. (Someday I need to write an account of the zillions of downtown-oriented transit systems that have been attempted in Baltimore, but for the sake of my own sanity, I've pushed most of them out of my mind.)

This railed-off contra-flow transit lane has since been used for traveling against the grain of traffic flow by vehicles of all sorts: bicycles, police, delivery vans, those bike-powered rickshaws, and all manner of local traffic. Everyone except that darn raging through traffic. Of course, all of these vehicles conflict with one another and there has never been any effective enforcement. But there has never been a lack of people trying to use this lane - it serves an extremely valuable purpose and example of the type of two-way traffic which could be instrumental in making Inner Harbor circulation actually work.

There are several unique aspects of this railed-off contra-flow lane:

1. It's English. That is, the traffic keeps to the left of the opposing predominate flow, not to the right as we normally do here in red-blooded America. That sets it apart, so that the predominate direction of traffic could be inhibited from using it

2. It's closer to the harbor itself than the predominate traffic flow, so that the local flow is closer to the heart of Inner Harbor activity - the waterfront promenade - than is the raging through traffic.

3. It's away from most of the intersecting downtown streets, so there is less worry about nasty traffic conflicts with turning vehicles.

These three factors are the key to designing a traffic flow plan for Pratt Street that will actually make two-way flow WORK for the traffic that needs it most - the LOCAL traffic, especially including transit and bicycles.


The latest ASG/City plan for Pratt Street includes a single designated lane for buses and bikers. What's with that? Why put the biggest and smallest vehicles together to battle it out in the same space, and then let all the middle sized vehicles like cars and SUVs have the rest of the street.

Bikes and buses don't mix, unless it's a matter of consolidating all the huge and tiny vehicles that collectively show concern for the environment, and then letting the gas hogs run rampant over the rest of the space.

What's more, this proposed designated enviro-conscious lane runs in the same direction as the gas hog lanes, which means it is exposed to all sorts of abuse any time someone feels that their business is more important than yours, such as for Inner Harbor "special events" which seem to be scheduled for an average of about 30 days per month.

Most fatally, it means that bikes and buses traveling in the opposite direction must be banished to the dreaded Lombard Street along with all the other wrong-direction traffic, which is a fate worse than death.

The solution for Pratt Street in the Inner Harbor is to design individual bike and bus lanes traveling in the opposite direction of the predominate traffic flow, to safely separate this flow from the conflicted masses. This can easily be done as long as we are redesigning Pratt Street from the ground up. (It can also be done on Light Street as well, on the west side of the Inner Harbor.) Here's how:

1. The special bike and bus lanes should be contained WITHIN a median strip on Pratt Street that separates the predominate automobile lanes to the north adjacent to the downtown street grid, and the service and access uses to the south adjacent to the Inner Harbor itself - Harborplace, the Aquarium, the Power Plant, etc.

2. This median strip should be continuous - without any breaks - from Light Street to Pier 5 and Market Place, to ensure that there are no traffic conflicts and no ambiguities about who should be using these lanes.

3. There should be direct links at the east end between these special lanes and the connection through Pier 5 to Eastern Avenue, to create continuity around the Inner Harbor to the east. The special lanes should not be carried eastward on Pratt Street to the President Street intersection, because that intersection is just too complex and scary for efficient bicycle and transit access.

Exactly how these special contra-flow lanes should be laid out will have to be figured out by someone who has better maps than I have. Pratt Street will have to be wider than under the latest City/ASG one-way scheme, meaning there will be less room to shrink the street right-of-way to accommodate new development. In some respects, Pratt will retain that "grand boulevard" feel that the most recent City/ASG plan has abandoned. However, much if not most of Pratt Street will be devoted to the bike, bus and service lanes rather than the type of free-wheeling traffic that George Gershwin and Petula Clark spoke of. This means that the street itself can be designed to look and feel much smaller from curb to curb than it really is, although from building to building it will still be very much grander. Optimizing the look and feel of the streetscape is where good design enters in.

There are many open issues, but all of them raise opportunities rather than just constraints. One issue is how to handle the same-direction bike and bus flows. Lanes for these movements can be placed adjacent to the contra-flow lanes, creating small "streets within the street" or they can be kept with the predominate Pratt Street flow. This is in the realm of details to be worked out.

It is also very feasible to place the proposed Red Line in this new Pratt Street median strip, which would be an absolutely ideal way to put the best possible transit in the most convenient, user-oriented and dominating location possible. Burying the Red Line underground (as the City proposes) is merely a way to bury hundreds of millions of dollars. This makes no sense when there are new and exciting opportunities such as this to place transit directly out in the open and in the middle of the action.

Another important question is how to facilitate the increase in street-level retail space. There is no question that Harborplace needs to be redesigned to create much more of a street-level orientation on both Pratt and Light Streets, regardless of the plan that is implemented. In addition, vacuous open spaces such as the huge base of the Legg Mason/USF&G tower need to be activated by street level retail development.

All of the buildings fronting on Pratt Street need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, including the Verizon, IBM, Examiner, Lockwood Place and Candler Buildings. Often, it is simply a matter of tenant selection. The defunct Fuddruckers Restaurant, in the base of the Candler Building at the corner of Pratt and Market, has just been replaced by yet another cell phone store. This would have been an ideal space for the kind of fashionable world-class retail boutiques that planners, urbanists and yuppies drool over.

It all starts with creating the right street environment. Pratt Street needs to be made two-way, not for the teeming thousands of through cars and trucks skirting the harbor, but for the most important groups - the transit riders, the bike riders and for the actual people using the Inner Harbor.