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?