September 24, 2015

Three Pilot Projects to Start Fixing Traffic/Transit

Better signal timing - new circulator bus lines - fixing traffic flow

Baltimore needs to learn to walk before it can run. Here's a simple step-by-step guide to getting started - one project each in north, south/west and east Baltimore, each located where it can most readily demonstrate the greatest improvements.

Instead of flailing from one overwrought, overhyped, chronically delayed transportation project to another, this city needs to start with the basics and then build from there. Each of these could be a step to fixing the entire city transportation network.

Step 1 - North Baltimore: Fix the traffic signal timing

The corridor from Mount Vernon to Charles Village is the best place for a pilot project to fix the timing of the traffic signal system because it is dominated by one-way streets, which are easier to time correctly than the two-way streets.

It's quite simple. Reduce the signal cycle time (combined red, green and yellow time) as much as possible, so that traffic does cannot see a long simultaneous swath of green lights proceeding from intersection to intersection that invite cars to try to race through as many as possible. This will also allow the time interval between when the lights change at adjacent intersections (called the offset) to be set to the optimum speed for the traffic. If two adjacent traffic signals turn green simultaneously, the signals are mathematically set for a speed of infinity, which is just what some motorists will attempt to do!

Cycle times of 60 seconds or less work in Philadelphia and Portland. They can work here too.

If two intersections are 370 feet apart, then to set the signal timing for 25 mph, the offset between when their signals turn to green and red should be set to 10 seconds - 37 feet per second or 25 miles per hour.

Minimizing cycle lengths also reduces delays, giving motorists less incentive to run the red lights and block intersections. It also reduces queueing. If a cycle is half as long, only half as many cars will stack up after the signal turns red.

Long signal times are often rationalized as being better for pedestrians. This is mostly wrong. Yes, flashing "Don't Walk" intervals should be a certain length in order to provide enough time to cross the street to avoid getting caught in the middle. But the law is that any pedestrian already caught in a crosswalk has the right-of-way regardless of the signal.

Moreover, it is the "Walk" signal time that varies depending on the cycle length, not the flashing "Don't Walk" time. Pedestrians don't need long "Walk" signal times. "Walk" is just the indication to get off the curb and start walking. Once you start walking, the "Walk" signal has done its job.

Much worse is a lengthy solid "Don't Walk" while the traffic and pedestrians on the conflicting street have the right of way. Lengthy solid "Don't Walk" signals are just an incentive for jaywalking.

In Philadelphia, they've actually been able to get rid of many pedestrian signals altogether because the traffic signal turning green/red is the only cue that pedestrians actually need. Yes, some streets in Philly are pretty narrow which makes pedestrian crossing easier. That can be duplicated by installing curb bump-outs, which would come after Step One.

Shorter signal cycles and slower traffic actually increase traffic capacity because they reduce intersection blockages and allow shorter safe distances between moving vehicles (fast traffic needs to spread out). Slow traffic is better for everyone, at least down to about 25 mph.

Instead of continually messing around with long-promised but never delivered two-way streets or complex "cycle tracks", Mount Vernon and Charles Village should first undergo a complete traffic signal system re-timing. That may change the entire outlook on traffic of motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and residents alike.

The #1 bus line is currently just another route segment among many between Mondawmin and Downtown.
It would be far more effective reinvented and optimized as a "Circulator".

Step 2 - South/West Baltimore: Split the #1 MTA bus line into circulators

The Maryland Transit Administration's #1 bus line starts at Sinai Hospital in northwest Baltimore, proceeds southward to the Mondawmin Metro transit hub, then meanders around West Baltimore into Downtown, then continues southward to Fort McHenry.

Nobody should actually want to take a trip like that. If you want to travel from Mondawmin to Downtown, you should take the Metro subway, which takes 7 minutes to Lexington Market. The #1 bus line takes about 25 minutes for the same trip (according to the schedule). Sure, there are some folks who have extra time and would prefer not to get off their bus and transfer to the Metro (or another bus). But vehicle operating time is critical to organizing a rational efficient transit system, and that's the whole purpose of the Mondawmin Metro hub. Time is money for the MTA.

Meanwhile, the city government decided to get into the transit business to run its own "circulators" because the MTA bus system just doesn't do a very good job of serving shorter trips.

The big basic problem is that the longer the route, the more opportunities there are for something to go wrong. And longer routes ought to be optimized for higher speed, relative to shorter trips. For example, a 100% difference between a 5 versus a 10 minute trip is not that big a deal, but the same proportional difference between a 30 and 60 minute trip is a much bigger deal - both for the rider and for the MTA.

Shorter bus lines can thus not only be more reliable, but also closer to the people. This can be used to cultivate local community pride and identity. Meanwhile, longer routes can be made faster by avoiding every stop, zig, zag, nook and cranny within local communities.

The #1 bus line is the perfect prototype for the MTA to begin optimizing its system for shorter and longer routes. It inefficiently meanders around, but it connects to the Mondawmin Metro hub, the system's best connection point, and it terminates at the end of a peninsula at Fort McHenry, so any possible further extension is not an issue.

Meanwhile, the cash-strapped city has been forced to cut back its "Banner Line" Circulator which serves Fort McHenry, putting the line into what former MTA head planner Henry Kay characterized as a "death spiral" - less frequent service means less riders which then calls for even more cutbacks which means even less riders and on and on.

Here's the solution: Split the MTA #1 bus line into three separate routes: (1) Sinai Hospital to Mondawmin, (2) Mondawmin to Downtown, and (3) Downtown to Fort McHenry.

The Fort McHenry leg would replace the "Banner Line" Circulator. The west leg would become a new circulator serving such neighborhoods as Franklin Square, Harlem Park and Sandtown. The Sinai leg would be a shuttle to and from the Metro. Each would be optimized and "branded" to serve the specific needs and identity of each community.

Each would also create opportunities for creative funding and operating agreements. The "Banner Line" had a special subsidy from the federal government to serve the Fort McHenry National Monument. Hospitals commonly fund and run their own shuttles, so Sinai could be invited to do the same. Transit lines run by outside private-sector contractors are a common arrangement, both for the MTA (on so-called "commuter" routes) and the city's Charm City Circulator.

Splitting the #1 line can be the prototype for restructuring the entire transit system to optimize routes by trip lengths, eliminate redundancies and better assign responsibilities for transit run by the MTA and other institutions such as the city, hospitals and colleges.

Step 3 - East Baltimore: Decide between one and two-way streets

Political perception and historical happenstance have mostly decided whether streets in Baltimore are one or two-way, not rational competent traffic analysis. Most people still complains about traffic.

North Baltimore has mostly one-ways. That provides the best opportunity to rationalize traffic signal timing, which should proceed first before any decisions are made to change traffic flow, which is a much more arduous process.

East Baltimore has mostly two-ways, some of which work fairly well because of ample use of left-turn and parking restrictions (Orleans and Fayette Street) and because Pratt and Lombard end at Patterson Park (they were converted between Broadway and the park a few years ago).

South Baltimore is similar in that Charles and Light Streets end abruptly to the south, although Light Street becomes so narrow that two-way flow causes problems.

West Baltimore is a very odd mixture, even on couplets. Pratt is one-way eastbound while its couplet Lombard is two-way. Fayette is one-way westbound while it couplet Baltimore Street is two-way. Washington Blvd. becomes one-way between MLK Boulevard and Russell Street.

The big focus should be on the east-west streets through Fells Point, which have the biggest traffic problems. but not until people are confident about the capabilities of traffic signal timing to meet their needs.

That is why the Step One pilot project (above) should be conducted first to optimize the traffic signal timing in the north corridor through Mount Vernon and Charles Village, before anything major is done in the southeast.

There are actually numerous real opportunities for improvement in Fells Point, despite feelings of helplessness and despite the city's lack of action on traffic as they have approved a huge amount of new traffic generating development.

The easiest measures to implement are left-turn prohibitions and short length parking restrictions at specific problem locations, to create "daylight" at intersections to accommodate various maneuvers related to turns.

This is what the city recently did in restricting parking along a short length of Aliceanna Street just west of Boston Street to accommodate a minor left-turn movement into a small parking lot. Whether it was worth the trouble is debatable, but it simply indicates it can be done.

Unfortunately after that, the city created mass confusion and disgust by secretly planning to remove the rest of the peak period parking along all of Aliceanna Street through Fells Point with no substantial justification. Councilman Kraft then said it was OK to keep it a secret because the city wasn't going to change its mind anyway, but after the secret came out, the city did just that.

Aliceanna Street traffic has been tamed through Harbor East (the highest density area in southeast Baltimore) by a traffic circle at its intersection with President Street. That encourages traffic to divert to Central Avenue and Fleet Street.

Much flexibility in resolving the question of one-way versus two-way flow is afforded by the fact that there are three successive east-west through streets - Aliceanna, Fleet and Eastern Avenue. Potentially, two of them could be converted to a one-way couplet and the third "downgraded" to a more localized orientation.

As per the precedent in Harbor East, it would seem that Aliceanna Street would be the best candidate for traffic de-emphasis. Moreover, Aliceanna ends at Boston Street, while Eastern and Fleet continue eastward.

Thus an Eastern-Fleet one-way pair could transition eastward (perhaps at Boston/Chester Street) into the current two-way pair, with unbalanced flow as has worked well on Pratt and Lombard near Patterson Park. A first small step toward this has already been done at the intersection of Eastern Avenue and Haven Street in Highlandtown, where the city installed left and right turn lanes to promote some diversion onto surrounding streets which has successfully reduced congestion.


Better signal timing is the most important factor and should be first. Many people have rightly resisted traffic changes because they don't have faith that the city can pull them off. But other high density cities have signal timing and one-way streets which work well, so Baltimore can too.

So a series of limited manageable pilot projects is the best course. First, optimize signal timing in north Baltimore. Work with the MTA to optimize the bus route structure in west and south Baltimore. Then fix the traffic flow in east Baltimore.


  1. Wouldn't making portions of Fleet and Aliceanna one way better reflect traffic patterns? Both are basically acting as extensions of Boston Street in connecting Canton/I-95 with President Street/downtown. Eastern Avenue doesn't connect with Boston Street, and diverting traffic to Boston via Chester Street wouldn't work due to capacity, and taking Eastern Avenue out to I-95 through Highlandtown and Greektown is a tough slog out.

  2. It would need to be studied. I think a chicane could be made to work at Chester Street, in front of Burger King and RoFo, but I certainly could be wrong and Aliceanna could be better anyway, as you say. Yes, the city has studied southeast traffic to death ever since the expressway war and has mostly ignored their own results except when they can blame community resistance (which of course has been justified). That's why I put it at Step 3.

  3. What an inspired post. I also believe that there should be a better one-way network on more of the streets of Baltimore. I know that most urbanists are opposed to one way conversions because they believe that it will increase speeding, but with the proper signal timing that won't be the case. One-way couplets are the best way to move the traffic that exists now, without having to do any property takings.

    For Eastern Baltimore, I can see all the e-w streets being alternating one-ways from Lombard to Aliceanna, from President to Patterson Park (extened to Haven for Eastern and Fleet and Aliceanna a one-way westbound from Boston).

    A 2-laned one-way will definitlely distribute traffic over a wide range of streets.

    For Gough and Bank, they don't have the traffic to merit two traffic lanes, but by going one-way there would be space for protected bike lanes.