July 10, 2017

"Green Network" Part 2: Revival of "Bike Boulevards"

While most the attention on the city Office of Sustainability's "Green Network" Vision Plan map is focused on green "nodes" and corridors (discussed as Part One of this article), much of the city's map is also comprised of specific streets. This makes sense, because streets are the main way almost all of us see the city.

The streets in the plan resemble a bike route map. That also makes sense, because bicyclists should ideally travel on a network of green streets. That brings up the idea of "bike boulevards", which was a trendy idea in Baltimore about a decade ago but has since gotten lost in the shuffle amid the recent bike route controversies.
One street in the "Green Network" plan is a practically perfect candidate for a "bike boulevard" that would avoid all that: MOUNT STREET in West Baltimore.

GUILFORD AVENUE - the city's prototype "bike boulevard" - here seen south of 25th Street.
A sign indicates that a "mini-roundabout" is ahead, but the roundabout is almost invisible
 and needs to be colored-in like the downtown bus lanes.


 Green streets: "Bike Boulevards" vs. "Complete Streets"

Green Network streets are actually pretty much the same concept as "Bike Boulevards", as far as local neighborhood streets go. The city's prototype "Bike Boulevard" was Guilford Avenue between 20th and 33rd Street. Basically, the idea was to take all the available traffic engineering and design tools that can optimize a street for neighborhood and bicycle use, and install those that work best for that particular street and neighborhood. This includes speed humps, all-way Stop Signs, mini-roundabouts, traffic diverters, bulb outs and chokers.

The major difference between "bike boulevards" and "complete streets" is that the latter attempts to accommodate all of the various different vehicular demands, not just for residents and bikes, but also for thru traffic and transit and perhaps trucks and commercial users as well. Thus, "complete streets" may be better able to better serve heavy traffic flows and buses and support diverse urban land use mixes than "bike boulevards". However, there is no point in overemphasizing conflicts. Plans can very often be optimized to work well for both residents and bicyclists. Each specific situation should be examined on its own.

While the Guilford Avenue "bike boulevard" was instituted with the usual city fanfare about a decade ago, the most recent bike planning efforts have instead focused on the "complete street" concepts. Roland Avenue and Maryland Avenue/Cathedral Street have both had to be planned to accommodate relatively heavy traffic and some transit buses in addition to bikes. Much of the bus traffic has been removed from Maryland Avenue, but not all.

While Maryland and Cathedral are part of a tight inner city grid and traffic can therefore readily divert between various parallel streets, this flexibility is limited by the fact that Maryland Avenue is fed by a Jones Falls Expressway ramp. Moreover, the closest parallel southbound street, St. Paul, has had its own concurrent lobbying group trying to reduce and "calm" traffic. The St. Paul interests wanted it converted from one-way to two-way flow. So the Maryland Avenue bike plan would tend to push traffic over to St.Paul Street, while the St. Paul two-way scheme would have tended to push traffic the other way.

Maryland Avenue and the bikers won that skirmish and had their plan implemented while the St. Paul folks didn't. But the city probably hasn't heard the last from the St. Paul folks, since they've been complaining about heavy traffic for many decades.

That controversy has actually simmered relatively quietly compared with the most recent bike project on Potomac Street in Canton, which ended up as a court battle between cyclists and community, then an injunction to prevent the City from dismantling it, and then a tentative compromise agreement.

POTOMAC STREET bikeway (as of yesterday) still dominated by "flexi-posts"
to define the bike lanes and push the parking out into the center of the street.
Doesn't Guilford Avenue (top photo) look much nicer?

The initial plan implemented on Potomac Street resembled the Maryland Avenue plan, with exclusive bike lanes delineated by "flexi-posts" next to a parking lane that was pushed out into the street. It's ironic that such a similar design was chosen when Potomac Street, unlike Maryland Avenue, has no bus traffic and very little auto traffic. Maryland Avenue needed to follow a process for "complete streets" whereas Potomac Street did not.

"People Corridors" in the Green Network" Vision Plan

The term used for the full range of all these streets in the "Green Network" vision plan is "People Corridors", and the whole range of street conditions is represented, from narrow to wide, very low to very high traffic volume, and from major transit streets to no transit at all. Calling them "People Corridors" doesn't convey very much, good or bad. Perhaps that was the intent. Everybody should want to live and travel in a "people corridor", unless they're not people.

The wide variety of these streets makes it very difficult to set priorities. Therefore, prioritization is likely to be set by competing local interests between one street and another, just as the Maryland Avenue advocates competed with the St. Paul advocates and won. Everyone should want their street to be a "people corridor", with whatever benefits that creates.

The big advantage of "bike boulevards" as priority streets is that the concept aligns the interests of bicycle advocates with residents instead of pitting them against each other, so controversies are avoided.

Top Priority: Mount Street would make a GREAT bike boulevard

Of all the "people corridors" prioritized in the "Green Network" plan, the one that can ake the biggest difference is Mount Street in West Baltimore. Mount Street has the exact requisites to make a great "bike boulevard" for the benefit of all. It is predominately residential, it has a very low traffic volume and has no buses. But best of all, it offers a sorely needed direct connection into Carroll Park, a magnificent major park that it is almost scandalously underutilized by West Baltimore.

Mount Street can follow the Guilford Avenue model as a "bike boulevard" rather than a "complete street". It comes on the heels of the community's rejection of bike lanes Monroe Street, a parallel major high volume arterial street just two blocks away to the west.

Mount Street also suffers from another problem that faced Guilford Avenue when the "bike boulevard" was first implemented - a high perception of crime. It was felt at the time that the auto traffic volume was actually too low on Guilford Avenue, which eliminated a sense of surveillance protection from passing motorists.

But a better solution has been emerging on Guilford Avenue than intentionally increasing traffic conflicts to provide surveillance. Guilford Avenue has simply gotten nicer inn the past decade. The attention the street has gotten from the "bike boulevard" has probably been a factor in this, but there has also been a larger effort involving the surrounding neighborhoods - Old Goucher, Station North, Barclay and Charles Village - to make everything better. (There is a disturbing tendency in this city to sometimes take clearly good things like less traffic conflicts and renovating housing, and somehow twist them so they sound like disadvantages instead of advantages. Complaining about an invasion of spandex clad bike nuts could also be put in this category.)

The key to giving Mount Street the larger kind of attention it needs to be a great "bike boulevard" is to make it a gateway to Carroll Park. Mount Street happens to be located so that it is oriented directly to the north on the park's Mount Clare Mansion, the meticulously restored oldest free-standing house in Baltimore. However, there is a fenced-off unused railyard "no man's land" between Mount Street and the park that serves only as a dumping ground for trash and a breeding ground for crime.

...but at the end of Mount Street now, a wall of debris cuts the park off from the neighborhood. (Photo by Gerald Neily)
MOUNT STREET "BEFORE" - The fence between the end of the street and Carroll Park provides no security and merely prevents healthy use of the park from the neighborhood while serving as a trash magnet.

MOUNT STREET "AFTER" - Proposed Mount Street extension into Carroll Park,
 as conceived by Marc Szarkowski in 2014, with the historic Mount Clare Mansion as the street's focal point
 and streetcar and/or light rail vehicles running on the B&O Railroad Museum "First Mile" tracks.

So the first step in making Mount Street a "bike boulevard" and a "People Corridor" in the "Green Network" vision is to create a connection from the community into the park. And as with Guilford Avenue, this step should be coordinated with a larger comprehensive effort to upgrade all the surrounding areas as well. This north periphery of Carroll Park also should be a priority among the "Green Network" corridor areas as well (see Part One). It has tremendous potential.

So the Mount Street "People Corridor" should be promoted to to be among the four priority green corridors cited in Part One. That makes for a total of five priorities. Is that too many? If so, Mount Street, the "Highway to Nowhere"corridor which intersects Mount Street, and the "First Mile" B&O Railroad corridor which coincides with the north edge of Carroll Park, can all be combined into a single mega-priority for West Baltimore. Everything is connected to everything else.

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