Baltimore's traffic congestion is awful, causing adverse quality of life and economic consequences. Add to that the effect on air quality and cost of health-related problems caused by vehicle pollution.
The city's traffic issues are not unique, however, and we can learn from the efforts of others. Many cities deal with similar issues and have acted decisively. Los Angeles engaged the RAND Corporation to examine its clogged arteries and recommend solutions for this country's most congested city. Rome, London and Florence also have traffic strategies, many of which are workable in Baltimore.
The cause of congestion is simple: There are too many vehicles demanding access to too little roadway. Inartful management of roads and traffic exacerbates the problem. Parking is allowed on both sides of city streets and is only sometimes restricted during traditional rush-hour. On South Patterson Park Avenue, for example, a major rush-hour artery, curbside parking is allowed on the east and west sides, making it a single lane in each direction.
To recover the streets for their intended purpose — transit of vehicles — the city must acquire property and build many public parking garages within walking distance of residences and congested routes. Developers allowed to build multi-family housing units and mixed-use structures in densely populated areas should be required to substantially expand their garage capabilities and rent space at reduced rates to local residents. Roads must not remain parking lots.
With no room to build additional roads in the city, demand for use of existing roads must be dampened, even as development booms in Harbor East and Canton. Vehicles should be required to have a paid permit to drive in the most congested zones in the city as in Rome, London and Florence. Charges for use would affect the imbalance of supply and demand for road space. Permits would be expensive; their purpose being to reduce use of the roads in congested zones, not raise revenue. Pairing one-way street conversions can increase travel speed and decrease travel time, according to RAND. This city's traffic grid is laid out so that many major routes are parallel to each other and only one or two blocks apart and therefore would be susceptible to this conversion.
The city and the Maryland Mass Transit Administration must work with employers to develop programs that will allow participating employees to enjoy subsidized, deeply discounted or free fares, and the public transportation must be reliable, clean, comfortable and safe, or it will be ignored.
The ultimate remedy will be comprised of a series of actions: synchronized traffic lights on major east-west and north-south traffic arteries; new methods of removing artery clogging accidents and illegal parkers; and repaired and maintained roads, many of which now resemble third-world goat paths.
Steps taken must permanently reduce demand for road space by increasing the cost of driving and discourage the use of vehicles in certain zones.
Vancouver has the second largest electric trolley fleet in North America and uses it to great advantage. Trolleys might be fun and could serve to brand the city as trolleys have done for San Francisco. An added benefit is clean emissions. There are also alternative fuel buses available; the American Public Transportation Association reports that as of 2011, 35 percent of U.S. public transportation buses used alternative fuels.
The opinion of public transportation in Baltimore is experience dependent. Riders have experiences to support good and bad views, but the free Baltimore Circulator gets strong marks from frequent users. Rather than cut the Circulator routes, we should expand the model aggressively along longer routes, while at the same time "encouraging" use through the imposition of fees, fines and taxes on those who drive their vehicles.
The Red Line was never the solution to city-wide congestion. Many garages could be built, sufficient buses or trolleys bought, traffic lights synchronized, people hired, and road surfaces repaired for its nearly $3 billion price tag. So many more people would benefit from those steps than from a Red Line that would merely move people along an east-west axis through the city, and whose construction would be lengthy, disruptive, filthy and over budget.
The city's roads are broken, and it is no pleasure to be behind the wheel of a car at almost any time in the downtown area and its contiguous neighborhoods. Such congestion needs a quick, reliable and long-term fix.
James B. Astrachan is a resident of Canton and has worked in the central business district since 1975. His email is email@example.com.