November 19, 2010

Druid Hill Park Traffic Diversion Plan (from The Brew)


Druid Hill Park: huge, beautiful and sadly isolated from the neighborhood

But re-routing traffic could reconnect the park with the people
Above: There’s a river of traffic between these gracious Auchentoroly Terrace homes and one of Baltimore’s premier green spaces, Druid Hill Park.

Druid Hill Park’s recent 150th anniversary celebration reminded us of what a great, big, wonderful place it is, with fountains, gazebos, tennis courts, swimming pool and a disc golf course, not to mention a zoo. But while it is clearly Baltimore’s premiere park, it strangely adds little value to the surrounding neighborhoods.
Walled off by a stream of rushing traffic, Druid Hill Park is unable to cast its friendly glow on nearby residential streets, the way Patterson Park does in East Baltimore or Central Park in New York City. If only park and neighborhood could feed each others’ identity we could have our own version of New York’s Upper East Side, our own “Sex and the City” scene, perhaps with our own Jada Pinkett replacing aging “gal” Carrie Bradshaw.
Druid Hill Park is a perfect example of how Baltimore’s housing and economic problems are so often traceable to the failure of our institutions to add value to our communities.
How can the relationship between the park and neighborhoods be re-arranged to maximize all the positive energy? Here are two ways to consider: reinvent Swann Drive and reinvent the Zoo.
A road cage, not road rage
Right now, major highways wrap around the park on three sides: the Jones Falls Expressway to the east, Druid Park Lake Drive to the south and Swann Drive to the west. These three prevent the adjacent Hampden, Reservoir Hill and Mondawmin neighborhoods from taking full advantage of the park.
The northern part of Druid Hill Park has always been “the outback,” a heavily wooded no-man’s land that once marked the transition between urban and rural Baltimore and later just dropped out of sight. One does not even think of Hampden as being next to Druid Hill Park.
Then there is the Zoo, right in the middle of the park, but surrounded by fences so that one can enter only through the main gate, submerged from street level, after paying the steep $14 admission (or making other arrangements). This ensures that visitors will treat it as a destination of its own rather than a natural extension of the park’s other recreational attractions. If you’re playing on the adjacent Disc Golf course, you’d better not throw an errant Frisbee over the zoo fence or it’ll be gone forever.
The past glory, and great potential, of Druid Hill Park is best reflected in Auchentoroly Terrace, the street overlooking the park, which was once among the city’s most prestigious addresses. Residents have tried valiantly to keep these huge magnificent houses up, but the expense of maintaining such gorgeous high-end architecture has often not been deemed worth it. The lack of investment has spread inland from there throughout northwest Baltimore.
The positive energy should flow as freely as possible in every direction. Positive people of all incomes like to associate with the best to capture their own distinct niche.

Auchentoroly/Gwynns Falls intersection with recently burnt-out house on the corner. The traffic could be shifted to the other side of the wide median which then could be converted to a linear park and continued all the way through the intersection to replace the vast pavement expanse.
The stage was set for trouble when Swann Drive was carved out of the west edge of the park to create the first major highway into northwest Baltimore in the pre-Jones Falls Expressway era.
Auchentoroly Terrace, once a gracious residential street lined with 19th-century homes, was turned into a busy southbound-only route into the city. The lovely houses are still there but the whizzing commuters dominate. Driving outbound to the north of the city, commuters have turned Swann Drive into their own speedway, plowing through the park. There’s a metaphorical goldmine here. One road. Two names. Good street. Bad street. We’d need schizoid Sybil to play our Carrie Bradshaw role.
And hence the key to its reinvention. Properly engineered, there is enough room on Swann Drive alone (the street closer to the park) to accommodate all the heavy through-traffic in both directions. Auchentoroly Terrace could then be given back to the people who live there, to create an address befitting the magnificent houses at the front door of a magnificent park and proudly announcing the presence of the entire Mondawmin communituy.
This would be a similar arrangement to what the city did in the 1980s on Mount Royal Avenue in Bolton Hill. The heavy through traffic was shifted away from the gorgeous houses on the west side of the street, and a green buffer and “people place” was designed between the quiet residential street and the heavy traffic street. This has been quite successful.

Southbound Mount Royal Avenue in Bolton Hill. This was a major southbound traffic-way and a median strip, but in the 1980s, the heavy traffic was shifted westward, out of the picture.
Operationally, this will be more difficult to do on Auchentoroly than Mount Royal because of conflicts at three busy intersections, at Fulton Avenue, Gwynns Falls Parkway and Liberty Heights Avenue. But it can be done. The result would be a proper spatial relationship between the community and Druid Hill Park, with a green linear park buffering the community from the heavy traffic which would have its own two-direction parkway.
How to divorce Auchentoroly from Swann
One method of sorting the traffic conflicts is by building roundabouts, which are uniquely capable of handling heavy traffic from more than four directions. The city has already proposed to reinstall the old roundabout at what is still called Park Circle, at the intersection of Reisterstown, Park Heights and Druid Park Drive at the northwest corner of the park. Park Circle was eliminated back in the bad old 1950s, before traffic engineers had figured out how to make roundabouts work.
Another positive aspect of roundabouts is that they draw negative attention away from streets that feed them. This is heightened if something memorable like a great statue is placed inside the circle. It is particularly fortunate if the street itself is obnoxious, as heavy traffic streets usually are. The roundabout then gets blamed for the traffic, and like most great icons, its stature should be sufficient to graciously absorb the blame. Nobody blames the Champs Elysees for the traffic messes created by all those crazy French drivers who use it. Instead, they contentedly point to the Arc de Triomphe. C’est la vie.Roundabouts also accommodate U-turns well, which would help on Swann Drive because it has no median breaks except at the major intersections. Every life needs a U-turn now and then.
But building roundabouts at each of the three major intersections (four if you count the city’s Park Circle plan) would be a bit much, even for ardent roundabout aficionados.
The best location for a roundabout is probably the south end of Swann Drive, where it intersects Fulton Avenue and turns into Druid Park Lake Drive, Druid Hill Avenue and McCulloh Street. This is currently a truly hideous intersection of nearly 500 feet in length. Such a roundabout would nicely define the southwest corner of Druid Hill Park and increase the green space, thus providing symmetry with the proposed restoration of the Park Circle at the park’s northwest corner. And like that one, it even looks like it could have been a roundabout in a former life. The accompanying illustration probably shows it bigger than it should be, just to emphasize the point.

Proposed Roundabout at Swann, Fulton, McCulloh, Druid Hill Avenue and Druid Park Lake Drive to replace a huge convoluted intersection.
Midway between the Fulton intersection and Liberty Heights Avenue, Swann has another major intersection with Gwynns Falls Parkway. Here the city has recently completed a sort of faux roundabout extending into the park, as if to celebrate the intersection of these two major parkways in a symbolic but non-functional way. This could be the first step to the creation of a real roundabout.
But that may be one too many roundabouts. A cleaner and greener solution (pardon the Sheila Dixon-ism) would be to simply disconnect Auchentoroly from Swann at this point. Auchentoroly (as a newly converted two-way residential street) would connect to Gwynns Falls Parkway, while Swann would connect to the street inside the park. This would be ideal for pedestrians both entering Druid Hill Park and along Auchentoroly’s new buffer parkland, which would become conflict-free.
Everything should come together at Liberty Heights
Finally, there’s the major intersection with Liberty Heights Avenue. This location is particularly important because it is the primary connection point between Mondawmin and the zoo, and in that regard, it fails miserably because the zoo is virtually invisible down in a hidden gully. The City recently even tried a little band-aid solution to this problem by shifting the east curb a bit, and building a new sidewalk, a stairway down into the zoo and a small low ornamental stone wall.
But the physical problems here call for a far bigger solution. North of this point, Swann Drive is grotesquely over-wide, retaining an effective width of eight lanes (striped for seven) despite the fact that a huge amount of its traffic diverts into Liberty Heights and Greenspring Avenue. Swann’s merge into Reisterstown Road to the north can’t absorb all those eight lanes anyway.
There is plenty of room for a roundabout at Swann, Auchentoroly, Liberty Heights and Greenspring. However, a much better solution would be to shift Swann Drive into a new small overpass over Liberty Heights that would take full advantage of what is now a liability – the gully just to the north that leads down into the zoo. Swann Drive could then be drastically narrowed because an overpass could accommodate all the traffic in fewer lanes.

Looking upward from the zoo property to the intersection of Swann and Liberty Heights. This gully makes the zoo invisible from street level, but an underpass could tie everything together. The Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue is seen in the background.
The land now occupied by the huge unnecessary eight lane Swann Drive north of Liberty Heights could then be regraded into a grand entrance plaza between the zoo and the community, and a linkage between the main park and the underutilized huge triangular park parcel that sits between it and Mondawmin Mall.

Proposed Swann Drive overpass shown in red. Proposed one mile linear park along Auchentoroly Terrace shown in shaded green.
A great pedestrian promenade could be constructed from the zoo, through the new underpass and the park to the mall and the community, integrating them all into a seamless whole. The promenade would be as attractive to zoo patrons and joggers as to Carrie Bradshaw wannabes, coming from the mall in their new six-inch Jimmy Choos.

Proposed promenade from the zoo to Mondawmin Mall shown in dark blue. Adjacent Liberty Heights Avenue underpass, extension to the zoo and ramps to Swann Drive shown in light blue.
Free the zoo
The current isolation between the zoo, the park and the community reinforces the notion that the zoo is merely a destination of its own, rather than a community attraction or central anchor to the park’s recreational opportunities. In addition to its physical siting problems down in the hidden gully across the highway, the zoo’s $14 admission also positions it precariously. It must somehow compete with the free National Zoo in Washington. In fact, the Maryland Zoo at Baltimore more closely competes for our entertainment dollars with the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor, and even the region’s theme parks such as Six Flags and King’s Dominion. That is tough competition.
Much as the National Aquarium’s allure comes from its perfect fit as a focal point to spending a day in the Inner Harbor, the key to the zoo is to reorient it both physically and economically into Druid Hill Park. Physically, a broad, attractive promenade which is unencumbered by traffic conflicts between the zoo and the Mondawmin Mall and Metro Station would become the front door to all of Druid Hill Park. The zoo would become the prominent anchor instead of being buried in the middle of the park.
To reinforce this major physical reorientation, the zoo may also want to reconsider its business model. The Baltimore Museum of Art and Walters Museum decided to go to free admission to reach out to the community and thus became one of Baltimore’s regular recreational options, as well as becoming more attractive for sponsorships. The Maryland Zoo may want to do the same. Maymont Park in Richmond, Virginia may be an instructive example. It is a “park within a park” in the same way that the Maryland Zoo resides within Druid Hill Park. But it is admission free and barrier free. It has a zoo, but its emphasis is less on expensive exhibits and more on recreation.
Druid Hill Park, the Maryland Zoo and the surrounding community all need to be part of the same experience, and should be reinvented together. Each needs the other to succeed.
Left to right: Park with conservatory in background, Swann Drive (currently northbound), median strip which could become a linear park, Auchentoroly Terrace (now southbound) and neighborhood. Photo by Gerald Neilyto right: Park with conservatory in background, Swann Drive (currently northbound), median strip which could become a linear park, Auchentoroly Terrace (now southbound) and neighborhood.

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    I like the ideas for Auchentoroly Terrace found here, but I wonder if an overpass crossing Liberty Heights would even be necessary. It's pointed out that a lot of traffic is diverted onto Liberty Heights and Greenspring, and that Reisterstown Rd can't absorb the eight lanes of traffic from Auchentoroly Terrace anyway. All things that I agree with. So why not just have Swan and Auchentoroly Terrace end at Liberty Heights? The, now, two northbound lanes of Swan Dr would simply become turn lanes. One right (as well as left turn lane proceeding onto Liberty Heights) going onto Greenspring, and a left turn only lane turning onto Liberty Heights Ave. Traffic could then join Reisterstown Rd just a few blocks away at Reisterstown and Liberty Heights. The triangle of land between Reisterstown Rd, Liberty Heights Ave, and Auchentoroly Terrace/ Swan Dr could then be used to expand the park, and directly connect the new Parks and People building to Druid Hill Park. This would also probably help with making the houses on Auchentoroly Terrace livable again. I'd also extend the median on Reisterstown Rd from Liberty Heights all the way to Druid Park Dr, as it now cuts off for the turn lane onto Auchentoroly Terrace/ Swan Dr.

October 8, 2010

High speed rail

What the cancellation of New Jersey's $8.7 billion rail tunnel to New York should mean for Maryland and everyone in between

New Jersey is on the same train as Maryland. New Jersey was willing to spend many billions on new commuter rail service, but not enough to pay for their ambitious plan. Their proposed $8.7 billion new tunnel under the Hudson River and a new commuter terminal next to Amtrak's Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan was cancelled yesterday because of fears of many more billions in cost overruns. Cost overruns are nothing to scoff at. Just ask about Boston's big dig.

This clearly points out the interrelatedness of local, state and national rail service needs and ambitions in the Northeast Corridor.

June 8, 2010

How to Build a Heavy Rail Red Line


A potential Metro/MARC/Bus Transit Terminal along the Amtrak tracks at Edison Highway belies the MTA's contention that heavy rail is more expensive than light rail (Bayview is in background)

A Sun editorial of May 3rd repeats the oft-told falsehood about the MTA's Red Line opposition. That is, the Sun states that heavy rail would be "pricier" than light rail. So it must be repeated again: The Sun is absolutely wrong. A heavy rail plan would actually be far less expensive than the MTA's $1.8 billion light rail plan, in addition to being far more rational.



I just completed a trip on Amtrak's "all the rail you can stand for fifteen days" plan. Pretty hardcore - All the way from Baltimore to the San Fransisco Bay Area, down to LA and back. Six nights attempting to sleep in a coach seat. Nearly 7000 miles. About 160 scheduled train hours plus overtime. All for only $389 plus a small contribution from the American taxpayers payable in annual billion dollar chunks.

Riding Amtrak couldn't possibly be any more different from air travel. You must suspend all notions of time. There's no visible security whatsoever. Super spacious seats, but still quite cramped when you realize that this seat comprises your entire home for the interminable duration. It is an otherworldly experience just witnessing how people improvise with their seat to try to get some sleep. Some end up with their heads on the floor and feet in the air. Other contortions are even more indescribable. People elbowing and head-butting total strangers. John and Yoko's "sleep-ins" were never like this.

You could really wreak some privacy havoc by publishing pictures of these folks online. And to think I slept with all of them. Well, I didn't really sleep. I use that word loosely away from its carnal application. Come to think of it, I didn't sleep at all for six nights, but Amtrak is such an extra-dimensional experience of suspended animation that the whole concept of sleep eventually loses all meaning anyway.

But the big thing is the views of America. Though your domicile is but a single coach seat, your front yard is the entire country. You soon rediscover what a huge wonderful wondrous country this is. Purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain indeed. Unlike through the windshield of a car, your view has no visible means of support. You don't see ribbons of highway. You can't even see the rails. There are no signs or billboards beckoning for you to do this or that. There is nothing between you and America. You're usually going slow enough to fixate on the smallest detail if you so wish - a single house or yard or crop or weed or riverbank or whatnot. Except that it all just floats by. You can't stop and interact. It's all just out there.


Amtrak has benefited greatly from the niche-ification of America. Airlines have become America's mass transit between places more than a couple hundred miles apart, where the human cattle queue-up at airport security gates and strap-in and do what they're told. But the lunatic fringe who don't care about actually getting from Point A to B in just a few hours is now large enough that Amtrak is setting ridership records even though it is as irrelevant as ever to moving the masses.

Yes, from a transportation system standpoint, Amtrak is mostly irrelevant. Amtrak is too labor intensive to enjoy any significant economies of scale, except in the dense northeast and perhaps a few other places. Amtrak's long-term wish list is essentially no more ambitious than to replace their aging fleet and fix some track bottlenecks that will allow it to go incrementally faster and have fewer conflicts with freight trains, and perhaps reinstate some marginal routes.

It is not Amtrak, but freight rail which has the big potential for growth as the world attempts to transition to efficient energy use. One of the few things that rouse Amtrak passengers is when their train is waylaid by an even slower 150 car freight train, but that freight train saves a whole lot more energy than Amtrak ever could. Amtrak only gets in the way.


It dawned on me that I was an eco-tourist, another product of the niche-ification of America. No, I'm not in the class of the world's #1 eco-tourist, Al Gore (sorry, Bono), who gallivants the globe collecting awards, racking frequent flier miles, holding big rock concerts and rousing the populace. But I did get that same kind of sanctimonious high from knowing that I traveled 7000 miles without a car or a plane ride, whatever the point.

So when I finally stopped over in various hotels in Chicago, San Fransisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Albuquerque to get an actual night's sleep in an actual bed, and I read the hotel placards that said the fate of the world was in my hands, and that I had a choice to either re-use the towels and save the planet or cause its doom by using them only once, my eco-conscience was unmoved. In order to stay on my 15 day Amtrak regimen, I stayed in each hotel only one night, so my dirty linen was washed to the max, and the world will thus go to hell in a laundry cart because of me. But I slept well.

To each his own. The Baltimore Sun reported a month ago that the resort town of Ocean City, Maryland has suspended its recycling program to save money, which the Sun said will cause thousands of ecologically minded tourists to burn more gas driving hundred of miles farther to other resorts so they can spend their eco-dollars feeling good when they throw away their bottles and paper. Ocean City is not a last resort.


So now I've finally ridden on most of every long-distance route Amtrak offers. I understand viscerally why people love railroads and want to build rail mass transit even though it often makes little sense as a structural element of an actual transportation system. I hope I've demonstrated over the years in my blog how it actually could make sense, with a truly integrated hierarchical system instead of overhyped projects ranging from the overweight underpowered Amtrak Acela to the proposed streetcar-on-steroids Baltimore Red Line.

There is something about the rails that alters our perceptions of reality. But realizing our human condition is the first step toward a treatment and cure. The same kind of railroad mind blowing takes place when contemplating a short meandering 45 minute trip on the proposed Red Line from one side of Baltimore to the other. The Baltimore Red Line is just the quick-fix rail gateway drug toward the 7000 mile coast-to-coast Amtrak overdose.



New York to Miami - The boring east coast, using antiquated single-level equipment because the Superliners wouldn't fit through the Baltimore tunnels and because it would be a waste to use them on these runs anyway.

New York to New Orleans - It skirts the mountains so it's not much better than the east coast trains.

New York/Boston via Buffalo to Chicago - Very nice east and south of Albany through the Hudson Valley and Berkshires, but that's about it.

Los Angeles via San Antonio to New Orleans/Chicago - Some nice desert and double decker Superliners. Takes even more forevers than most Amtrak runs.

Chicago to New Orleans - Amtrak didn't rename it thus until after the Steve Goodman/Arlo Guthrie song about the Illinois Central train that preceded it. The Mississippi bayou is nice.

Chicago to Seattle/Portland - Overrated in my estimation. Ratio of scenery to distance is low. Hits Glacier Park in the dark too often, and misses the best part anyway.

Chicago to Washington DC - The great Pittsburgh skyline and lots of great river valleys from the Ohio to the Mon to the Youk to the Potomac, and as much of Lake Erie as you need to see, and it uses Superliners too.

Chicago via Cincinnati to New York - Extreeeeemely slow, even by Amtrak standards. Lovely trip over the Appalachians and the USA's most impressive view under a bridge through the New River Gorge. The Ohio River is the best river to see at night with chemical plants and bridges all lit up and Cincinnati has the best skyline view for a city of its size. When the route was extended from DC to New York, the Superliners were given to the Capitol Limited, which had just had a huge train wreck near Rockville.

#3 - CHIEF
Los Angeles via Kansas City to Chicago - Amtrak's fastest long distance train, but still slow. The highlight is the mountains north of Albuquerque to Trinidad, Colorado.

Los Angeles to Seattle - The super-highlight is hovering right over the Pacific coast north of Santa Barbara on land preserved au naturel by the U.S. Air Force, and then climbing inland to San Luis Obispo, so you can get the same thrills from the local Surfliner trains. It hits NoCal's spectacular Mount Shasta at night, unfortunately. Try to schedule for a full moon.

Chicago via Denver to SF Bay Area - This is the one you must see before you die, at least between Denver and Glenwood Springs, although once you get there, I defy you to leave the train. The climb and descent west of Denver could probably be rivaled by the Space Shuttle experienced only in slo-mo. And then west of the continental divide, it follows the Colorado River nearly from its source, including many miles where the canyon is only wide enough for the river and you. I think I left my jaw back on the track. From there into California, the deserts and high Sierras would be fantastic enough even without what came before.

February 2, 2010

Comprehensive Rail Solution


Freight, intercity high speed rail, and regional transit such as the Red Line - It all needs to be envisioned together, along with the role of Baltimore in the world economy, and between the inner city, our neighboring cities and the suburbs.

Mark Reutter's latest article in the Baltimore Brew is a great starting point for thinking out loud about the chaotic state of comprehensive rail planning in the Baltimore region. The Maryland Department of Transportation's recent award of a $70 million down-payment from the Feds to begin work on the replacement of the Amtrak tunnel in West Baltimore is but a tiny droplet compared to the multi-billion dollar "needs" which have been defined by MDOT and all concerned.