December 14, 2011

Mount Vernon vs. Jones Falls Bikeway

Desolate Jones Falls Bikeway blows opportunity to create a livable Mount Vernon neighborhood
Bikeway now under construction is wedged between the desolation of the Prison District (left) and the Jones Falls Expressway. (The MTA hasn't bothered to move their bus stop out of the way yet.) 

Trying to make the city safer for cyclists sounds like a laudable goal, but the city has once again shown that it is oblivious to its most important priority - neighborhoods.

 Mount Vernon has been clamoring for decades for relief from traffic. Simply, it cannot become a normal cohesive neighborhood as long as many tens of thousands of cars descend daily upon its tight residential streets. Bicyclists have been among the greatest victims. Bikes should be an ideal transportation mode for the historic high density neighborhood, except that the streets are overwhelmed by cars.

The solution is straightforward: Divert as much traffic as possible into the underutilized Jones Falls corridor just to the east, to free up the local residential streets for humans, bikes, and above all, peace and quiet. But the city has never seen fit to do any of that.

The city's latest solution is to move the bikes out of the community, not the cars. The community will continue to suffer while their potential two-wheeled allies flee. Mount Vernon will continue to be squeezed as monster parking garages increasingly become the primary transportation option, even for so-called "transit-oriented development" serving the University of Baltimore, which ought to be a natural ally for bikes and livability.

Residential St. Paul Street in Mount Vernon is taken over by noisy obnoxious traffic, which is why the city is putting the new bikeway in the "solitude" next to the prison and expressway.

If the Jones Falls corridor was any kind of decent environment for bikes, maybe it would justify pushing them out of the community. But this is the Prison District, in the shadow of the imposing Jones Falls Expressway, not a place with urban charm. And while the traffic volume is low, it also tends to move as fast as possible, taking advantage of the desolation as cars weave on and off the expressway or dodge the other traffic doing so.

And the bikeway now under construction combines the worst aspects of bikes on sidewalks and on exclusive bike lanes. It separates the bikes as much as possible, but not at the inevitable intersection conflict points where there are strong opportunities for cars to hook in front of bikes, and for bikes to intimidate the few pedestrians who must walk in this forbidding environment. This can have tragic results.

Car turning right in conflict with the bikeway at Fallsway/Eager next to the prison. The new cobblestone barrier forces turning vehicles to cross over the bikeway, mostly at excessive speed. 

Conditions will be even worse beyond the exclusive bikeway segments now under construction. One of the reasons this bike route has never been established up until now is that there are some truly horrible intersections as the expressway transitions into downtown. Right now, one can only imagine the bastardized intersection configurations that will emerge as the bike route is completed to the Inner Harbor in the next year or two.

Beyond that, the city has a more "permanent" longer range plan for Pratt Street adjacent to the Inner Harbor which includes a truly dangerous bike lane segregated from traffic except at the driveways and intersections, where it would be a death trap. The worst of these locations is at Pratt and President Streets, where the segregated Pratt Street bike lane is proposed as just dumping unceremoniously into the southwest quadrant of the intersection at the point of the extremely heavy eastbound to southbound right turn movement heading to Harbor East and Fells Point. Here's the plan, including a pretty picture labeled "Pratt & President 'after" which conveniently cuts off the deadly intersection.

It is unlikely that this more extensive long-range Inner Harbor street plan (including Light Street) will be done anytime soon, however, due to its cost, but more importantly due to the city's preoccupation with the struggling Baltimore Grand Prix. Bikes may be higher on the city's current pecking order than people and communities, but 175 mph Grand Prix racers trump all. The race course does not extend this far east, but does include Light Street and its intersection with Pratt just to the west.

Without livable neighborhoods, all the city's other goals fade into insignificance. If urban communities like Mount Vernon are not made attractive as places to live, the city's lofty plans for downtown, the Inner Harbor, and an extensive bikeway system will only isolated elements for hype with little potential for long term growth.

St. Paul Street trafficway in Mount Vernon neighborhood. Penn Station is two blocks away in the background.

The city should concentrate as much heavy traffic as possible into corridors like the Jones Falls - on the expressway as well as next to it. Then the city should focus on creating calm, normal, livable environments in its neighborhoods and "people places" like around the Inner Harbor. This is best for traffic, best for bikes and best for people. If this is not done, all will become increasingly dysfunctional.

Isn't it better to ride a bike through a calm, healthy urban neighborhood than on a bike lane sandwiched between a prison and an expressway?


  1. I just want to note that this is not just a bikeway--it is the Baltimore's contribution to the East Coast Greenway, which is for both bikes and pedestrians.

    While I agree something needs to be done in Mt. Vernon for the traffic, I can't for a minute believe removing parking or a lane on any of those major arterial streets for a bikeway would ever be considered. The community itself would be almost 100% against it and would prefer the cars. Remember that many folks in Mt. Vernon who work downtown or elsewhere in the city DRIVE to work, and are just as much contributing to the problem.

    That being said, there are hopes for a cycletrack on Maryland/Cathedral so perhaps that will aid in moving traffic out of at least a portion of Mt. Vernon.

  2. Of course, Jed. Banning on-street parking is the worst possible strawman option for Mount Vernon, maintaining all of their current hellacious traffic flow to provide that so-called "missing link" 2800th greenway mile. Bad Planning Rules #1 and 2: Always narrow your goals as much as possible and highlight the worst possible option.

  3. Sorry, your concerns are misguided and your design philosophy is outdated. You claim to support making Mt. Vernon itself more bike friendly and pedestrian by hoping to lower auto modal share. While that in itself is commendable, the only way to make it work without creating segregated pathways through Mt. Vernon, which would create the far worse potential right hooking intersections. So what you are essentially proposing is a Vehicular Cycling utopia where bicycles and automobiles continue to live in safe harmony while sharing the same lanes. That is John Forrester Vehicular Cycling philosophy of the 1970s and 1980s. Problem is it doesn't really work and it is impossible to increase bicycle modal share above 1% using the vehicular cycling method. It limits bicycle use to only relatively healthy young and predominately male adults. Few women feel comfortable sharing the road with cars, and female modal share stays under 27%. Few parents feel comfortable allowing their children to share the road with cars without supervision. Few seniors feel comfortable sharing the road with cars. What you are left with is an exclusionary transportation option that is 73% male, 90% of which is between the ages of 18 and 50, and will be considered so dangerous by such a large portion of the population 99% will refuse to even consider it as a transportation option. Therefore, Vehicular Cycling is definitely guaranteed to be unable to transform urban transportation options in any significant way, and unable to reduce automobile modal share in any way. The only way to do that is to create segregated bicycle pathways in places that are highly visible to vehicle traffic, that are ideally not blocked by a line of parked cars, especially near intersections. While it would be wonderful if the city was willing to build such a segregated path straight through the heart of Mt. Vernon, to all intents and purposes, practically impossible, and wholly unrealistic to believe that residents and merchants in Mt. Vernon are going to be willing to abandon the thousands of parking spaces that would make it possible. The Fallsway is the safest and most practical place to build a backbone for the city's future infrastructure that will allow for transportation cycling being a viable and practical option to a sizable share of the population, male and female, rich and poor, and between the ages of 8 years old and 80 years old. You reduce the potential for right hooks by placing the segregated line right next to vehicle traffic, which also makes it possible for police cruisers to drive parallel and patrol the well lit bike lanes along with sidewalks and city streets, which makes it usable for year round communters, in light and in dark, without an unreasonable degree of fear from assault.

    Basically, you don't abandon segregated pathways. You design them in the right way to make them as safe as possible; and the Fallsway track is designed in the right way - which would be far more difficult, if not impossible, to do in Mt. Vernon. Because otherwise, we'll just continue to make the same mistakes that were ubiquitous from the 70's to the 90's that have created such a toxic environment. The answer for making Mt. Vernon more livable is NOT, NOT, NOT trying to increase vehicular traffic on The Fallsway or on Guilford. The answer is to find ways to reduce the demand for vehicles needing to drive downtown, and you do that providing practical and safe options for people to abandon their cars, and segregated bicycle tracks a part of that solution, and there is no better and more realistic place to put one than on the Fallsway.

  4. We need a schweeb! (google it if you're not familiar) -=G=-

  5. Thanks, Dukie - You think you can increase Bmore's bike mode share by 2700% or whatever (under 1% to over 27%) by putting them on the scenic serene Fallsway, but you can't get cars to drive two more blocks to the same place? I'll admit it: My #1 priority is what's best for neighborhoods, and I think bikes can contribute to that.

    By the way, a schweeb is not spam. Thanks, Glue.

  6. I'll admit that I don't even think increasing vehicular modal share on Guilford or the Fallsway would alter Mt. Vernon that much.

    First of all, Mt. Vernon isn't really even all that bad or unlivable. St. Paul, Charles, N. Calvert, Maryland - you stand at a corner, wait, typically less than a minute, and cross when it's green. They're are only two lanes of traffic in each direction, and the roads are not wide. Even senior citizens with walkers have enough time to cross the streets. I know blind Mt. Vernon resident who seem to get along fine. How is that unlivable? Of course, I'm sure it could be improved, but I do not see how not building a single bike lane would help, and definitely do not think the Fallsway is the answer for making Mt. Vernon a walker's paradise.

    Second, how much congestion would increasing traffic on Guilford and the Fallsway divert anyway? Those two routes could only relieve a small portion of the traffic that moves north and south, so it seems to me that nothing would change the fact people prefer to head on the already present arterials, so by increasing the modal share on the Fallsway and the Guilford all that would be accomplished would be increasing all traffic on all roads, and Mt. Vernon would maintain at least 80% of its already present traffic.

    To clarify what I meant with those statistics, 1% of ALL PEOPLE TRAFFIC, which is the most you can hope for with vehicular cycling and no separated routes. Female modal share is 27% of bicycle modal share - as in most women are far too risk averse to share the road with cars. The two percentages were not related, but they are both representative of awful urban transportation policy.

    Scenic serine routes typically don't go anywhere. You need direct routes between residential areas and urban employment centers (you know, like roads) for bicycle routes to be considered transportation infrastructure, as opposed to recreational fun trails. Also, the Fallsway already has separated bicycle path in the "scenic" portion. Unfortunately, most people in Hampden cannot use it to get to work, because it ends at Maryland Ave. and there is no separated route from that point to get to employment areas downtown. Thankfully, the Fallsway segregated bike path will fix that.

  7. Oops: "They're" near the top was supposed to be "there."

  8. What would happen if you converted a bunch of lights in Mt. Vernon to 4-way stops like a lot of downtown Chicago? Just curious. I'm no planner.

    dukie summed up my feelings perfectly in his first post. I was just too lazy to type that much.

  9. Very good !!!!! Now you guys are asking some of the questions that should have been investigated BEFORE the decision was made to install curb separators on the Fallsway.

    In answer to your question, Jed, all-way stop signs can be used to reinforce a traffic diversion, but should not be used to instigate it. They work great in many cities. Of course, traffic signals often work a lot better in other cities too. And then there's diverters and mini-roundabouts.

    In my opinion, compared to most premiere downtown neighborhoods around the country, Mount Vernon's traffic environment is near the bottom. Offhand, I can't even think of one that is worse.

    Thanks for the logical explanation of the 27% too, Dukie. It did sound high but I'm used to hearing hype.

  10. Gerry, what you are asking to change is not just Baltimore's Dept of Transportation or city government, but Baltimoreans themselves. Before you rant about how the city should have radically changed the streets of Mt Vernon instead of building the Jones Falls Trail along the Fallsway, consider the fate of the Monroe Street bike lane.
    As part of the Bike Master Plan, a bikelane was installed on Monroe Street taken from a motor vehicle lane that had no use but to slightly reduce rush hour congestion. The reaction of the neighborhood was immediate; they howled to get rid of it,NOW! Their councilperson, despite her previous vote for (and co-sponsorship of)the City Council's complete streets resolution, howled right along with them, and the bike lane was removed. What the majority of Baltimorons seem to want is to drive everywhere, and as fast as possible. Until you can get yourself annointed King of Baltimore, don't rail at the city government for failing to turn Mt Vernon into Little Amsterdam, or some other major social engineering which, regardless of how desirable you and I may think it to be, would likely have the majority of the citizenry and their elected officials up in arms.
    Meanwhile, the Jones Falls Trail's cycle track along the Fallsway, imperfect as it may be, provides the sort of separated facility which studies have shown to be necessary to increase the mode share of cycling much beyond young males. The intersections need not be deathtraps: proper design maximizes visibility and slows the turning traffic. Likewise the Pratt Street bikepath will not just dump eastbound bikes onto Pratt St at President, subject to right-hook collisions, but will divert bike traffic onto the SouthEast bike network by sending them to Baltimore St via Market Space (JF Trail), or south to Bank or Aliceanna via the Fallsway promenade or the President St bikelanes.
    Finally, the mission of East Coast Greenway is not to improve the livability of neighborhoods, laudible as that is, but to provide an off-road trail from Canada to Key West. The Jones Falls Trail contributes to that, a somewhat more livable Mt Vernon does not.
    Greg Hinchliffe

  11. Thanks, Greg. If you want to blame the sorry state of Baltimore's neighborhoods and transportation on dysfunctional politics, you'll get no argument from me.

  12. I'll note most of NYC's separated bike lanes have a separate signal phase without such I agree the results are not good and disastrous for two way bike traffic. But it does work with a separate signal phase.

    As far as John Forester and Vehicular Cycling (VC). Yes Baltimore used to be a VC paradise with lots of low speed roads and a grid network of roads and no bike lanes. This also gave Baltimore a very low bike commuter rate, I mean dismally low.

    There is nothing about VC that increases those that bike even after decades of trying there is no evidence that VC makes a differences in the grand scheme of things.

    Anyway if you are interested in some back and forth with John Forester and myself (among others)see:

  13. Isn't it better to ride a bike through a calm, healthy urban neighborhood than on a bike lane sandwiched between a prison and an expressway?

    No, it isn't. You will NEVER get the cars out of the city (well, at least until you start making it impossible for people to drive in the city... which I am in favor of but it won't happen in the US in my lifetime), so the next best thing is to keep the bikes away from the cars. This bikeway accomplishes that. No matter what Forester says, bikes and cars will never play nice together, especially in the US. Those intersections don't look any more dangerous than the ones I encounter riding through Mount Vernon (from and to Fallsway) every day, and there will be a lot fewer of them. Needs floodlights and reflective paint though (but I'm sure that will come later).

    And maybe it's just me, but when I'm riding home I don't care what the scenery looks like. I care about getting there as quickly and as safely as possible. I'll take security over "charm," thanks.

  14. Thanks for the straight talk, Erica. Looks like Baltimore's failure to create common ground between neighborhood and bike advocates will continue, just as the big power development interests (pushing the Red Line and Charm City Circulator) have turned away from transit advocates trying to reform the MTA system. The bikers get their Prison District bikeway, but Mount Vernon will lose.

  15. I just moved out of Mt Vernon, and currently live in Bolton Hill, and am a cyclist who commutes daily, rain or snow etc to Harbor East, and once or twice a week (depending on the semester) from Harbor East to Notre Dame. Let me tell you, this bike lane is a blessing. It isn't perfect, but its a northbound route that isn't fucking terrifying. I currently ride on the Fallsway and the drivers are, as you've noted, terrible. They go fast and they really don't pay attention. Segregated lanes are better than nothing there. My other option is to take guilford or charles north, which is insane at 5pm.

    I'm probably not thinking about the larger implications on a neighborhood level, but I also am not generally sure how we fix those problems, so I can't offer much in the way of solutions. All I really know is the most dangerous part of my ride will be a lot safer once this project is complete.

  16. I like the bike lane. I like the way it is separated from the road. Sure, it's ugly scenery, but Baltimore isn't exactly Asheville. I commute this way several days a week. It's always worked well for me, and now I have some protection from buses. I'm into it. I don't need to ride through Mount Vernon and dodge car doors and pedestrians. Sorry.

  17. No, we're not Asheville. We're not Amsterdam. Baltimore is potentially fantastic unique neighborhoods like Mount Vernon... or with the new bikeway, it's resigning ourselves to building the city around places like The Prison District.

  18. I am a supporter of the Fallsway separated bikeway. I think this is necessary to provide the one (the only) separated bike route from Penn Station down to the harbor. While I don't like riding up the street next to the prison, it is the route that takes you from Chesapeake bay water level up to the elevation of Mount Royal Street with a gentle average slope. The same trajectory along Charles St or St Paul St would include more ups and downs, plus several more traffic lights. It took a decade to get this bike facility planned and under construction, on a road that citizens don't care about. While the proposed Maryland Avenue cycletrack would be wonderful if connected all the way to downtown through Mount Vernon, it will take many more years to make this a reality. I think that the ugly Fallsway cycletrack will help show that there are a population of cyclists that desire a north-south separated connection, and this will help with the design and implementation of a through-MtVernon bike route closer to homes and businesses. In other words, the first step may not be the most graceful and desirable, but it leads us to the second, third, and future steps that fit within the vision that you have written about. What I hope is that these future steps happen while you and I are still able-bodied enough to ride our bikes.

  19. Thanks for giving us a bigger picture, Victor. In contrast, my view is that the first step is to push as much auto traffic out of Mount Vernon and into the Jones Falls corridor as possible. Putting bikes in the Jones Falls corridor only enables the city to continue to avoid a pro-neighborhoods strategy and further their ongoing automobile agenda. Its no wonder why it has taken a decade to create this modest bikeway in the first place. It is also why the MTA and the city have wasted many decades tinkering around the edges with Baltimore's failed transit system.