July 26, 2017

Get rid of wide Light Street from a past that never was

Baltimore prides itself for having never built highways that cut the city off from the waterfront. But in a way, we did. And that's one of the primary reasons the city keeps having to renew the Inner Harbor even though it's supposed to be the city's strength. Baltimore is like a vain old codger who keeps insisting on more facelifts when the rest of his body is bleeding from open wounds.

The current ten-lane Light Street on the west shore of the Inner Harbor was initially designed in the late 1960s to be the downtown gateway for Interstate 95 back when it was proposed to be a tall bridge from the front of Federal Hill to Fells Point. That disastrous plan for Interstate 95 was killed, but Light Street was built as planned anyway and never connected to anything. It's the Inner Harbor version of the Interstate 70 "Highway to Nowhere" which has plagued West Baltimore since the 1970s.

A half century later, the city still insists on keeping both of these overbuilt roadways for no good reason. It's time to finally cut Light Street down to size.
Urban designer Michael Costa's vision for narrowing Light Street northward from Key Highway
(in the foreground) to create a linear greenway park. The Science Center and Inner Harbor are to the right.

In many ways, the west shore's super-wide Light Street sets the tone for the entire Inner Harbor. Light Street sets the Inner Harbor apart so that it functions more like a separate tourist area and less like part of the city. Activity doesn't flow naturally from the rest of the city into the Inner Harbor. It requires a well-orchestrated visit.

Cities are built on interaction, tradition and ritual, whereas many if not most tourist areas must always keep reselling themselves based on what's trendy. This accounts for the perceived pressure to remake Rash Field into a "wow" attraction like Chicago's Millennium Park instead of just a place to hang out and play volleyball. Similarly, Harborplace failed as the local marketplace that James Rouse envisioned, and so instead has seen a procession of national merchants and tenants like "Ripley's Believe It or Not", and now a major gut-job to reinvent it once again. The city felt compelled to demolish McKeldin Fountain at great cost because it didn't appeal to someone's assessment of the  lowest common denominator. It wasn't enough that many people loved it.

Meanwhile, while the city keeps fiddling to find and refine the magic formula for the Inner Harbor, it has taking needed attention away from the rest of Baltimore. This harbor obsession needs to be wound down.

Entrenched traffic patterns

The design of Light Street isn't even a matter of choosing cars versus people. Both cars and people would be better off with a narrower Light Street, to reduce endless traffic weaving between lanes and the excessive clearance times to get through the giant intersections. Even the current adjacent bike lanes add to the Light Street pavement orgy.

The optimum width of Light Street should be established by reducing traffic conflicts to the minimum possible level, and then matching flow capacities throughout the adjacent street network. Key Highway has two through lanes in each direction, so the same two lanes are likely the ideal width where it flows into Light Street. Some additional traffic filters through South Baltimore and ultimately links to Light Street, but not enough to justify changing the usable street width. Port Covington and other new South Baltimore developments are continually adding to the overall traffic demand, but virtually all of it runs into other bottlenecks that regulate flow before it ever gets to Light Street, such as on Key Highway and Hanover Street at or near McComas Street.

The principal nearby traffic bottleneck is on Light Street to the north between Conway and Pratt Streets, which gets a huge traffic infusion to and from Conway and Interstate 395. The worst bottleneck is where northbound Light splits off into Calvert Street, and then the majority of the traffic must jockey and squeeze into the two right turn lanes into Pratt.

The city's proposed long-term solution would make this worse, and the city probably even knows that because they haven't ever released the traffic study they promised a decade ago. That plan is to eliminate the direct Light to Calvert connection and concentrating all traffic in both directions into a single intersection at Pratt Street on what is now the northbound-only segment of Light Street. This would require more widening of Light Street, and create an even more imposing traffic barrier between the Inner Harbor and downtown. My far simpler solution was presented here.

But none of this changes the far lower volume traffic condition on Light Street south of Conway Street. There simply is no justification for Light Street to be as wide south of Conway Street as it is north of Conway to Pratt. So it's time to narrow Light Street down and make it work for everyone!

Optimum redesign of Light St. intersection with Key Highway - to create one continuous curve,
with two lanes in each direction and a fifth lane in the Light St. (top) portion
for a northbound left turn lane into Lee St. (upper left) and a southbound right turn lane into Light St. (bottom).
There would also be a temporary transition area for southbound thru traffic at the Lee St. intersection (not shown).

The right design for Light and Key Highway

Light Street basically flows into Key Highway so conflicts are minimized by simply making into the same street that flows into each other. This minimizes pavement and maximizes green space to reduce pedestrian conflicts and enhance the environment.

Here's the design solution that accomplishes this (shown above): Maximize the radius of curvature between Light Street to the north and Key Highway to the east so that the flow between them is as unobtrusive as possible. This will shift their intersection farther north, minimizing pavement and maximizing overall green space. Pedestrian crossing distances will be minimized. And a key advantage is that the distance on Light Street between Key Highway and Montgomery Street to the south will be maximized, greatly improving traffic flow and reducing vehicles blocking these signalized intersections.

Light Street can also be bent slightly south of Key Highway so that looking northward, it focuses directly upon the Maryland Science Center, giving it a prominent urban rather than suburban setting for the first time in its life. When the Science Center was built in the mid 1970s, it was mistakenly oriented so that Light Street was its front door, and it therefore turned its back on the waterfront. (This is a too-common malady in a city which is proud of its waterfront, repeated more recently in the Port Covington WalMart and Horseshoe Casino.) When the Science Center was finally expanded and reoriented to the water later, Light Street became its rear end, from which it has never quite recovered. This is the opportunity to make the Science Center's rear end work for the many people who see it from the south.

Light St. looking north from South Baltimore (bottom) would be oriented directly toward the rear of the Science Center
(formerly the front). The bikeway would be relocated to the large new greenway on the west and south sides.

A major new Light Street greenway

Perhaps most importantly, this solution creates a large continuous new greenway along the west side of Light Street, northward from Key Highway. This greenway would be an ideal transition zone between the hub-bub of the Inner Harbor, the peacefulness of the surrounding neighborhoods and the purposefulness of downtown.

This is where the bikeway should be - where it can be surrounded by greenery while maintaining enough space to separate it from most pedestrians. The current Light Street / Inner Harbor bikeway is essentially a glorified sidewalk, and often it gets tangled with pedestrians whose own space is  sometimes well defined but mostly isn't. The total amount of pavement devoted to bikes and pedestrians is highly inconsistent - sometimes not enough but sometimes too much, such as in front of the Science Center where it simply adds to the excessive pavement of Light Street.

The ultimate extent of this new Light Street greenway should be given its own study. It could easily be extended southeastward to Federal Hill and northward to McKeldin Park, which sorely needs more activity now that the city has demolished the fountain (see my blog article). With intelligent planning and design, this greenway could even be extended all the way northward through downtown to Preston Gardens and even to Mount Vernon Place, both of which are historic urban greenways in their own right. More locally, there's currently a green space right in the southeast quadrant of the intersection of Light and Key Highway that was poorly designed from the start and had to be shut off from the public to keep it from being vandalized. The adjacent new greenway would provide the opportunity to redo it, if whoever rescued and adopted it so desires.

The entire plan could be done in phases, which is important since money is seldom available all at once. Each phase of the greenway construction will provide lessons for further refining the plans. The first phase could simply include the single block of Light Street northward to Lee Street, and the single block of Key Highway eastward to William Street. Since the quantity of pavement would be minimized, the cost would probably be comparable to whatever short-sighted design the city is now contemplating. The initial landscaping cost can also be controlled, similarly to the way the city went cheap on the landscaping and hardscaping for the new McKeldin Park after demolishing the fountain. They've promised more grandiosity later, as they usually do.

The city's original plan for the intersection of Light and Key Highway was for a roundabout, which would have been very costly, and the worst of just about every possible aspect. At that time, I proposed a far more modest plan that would function far better, with the stipulation that it should be only temporary until a good permanent solution was devised that included narrowing Light Street.

The good news is that the city then dumped its dumb roundabout plan. But the bad news is that they then proposed a permanent design that is roughly similar to my temporary plan. Can they ever do it right?

It has been about 45 years since the last time Light Street was reconstructed in the Inner Harbor in the early 1970s. Let's not do it wrong now and be forced to wait another 45 more years to get it right. Let's narrow Light Street down to size right now.

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