The reactions triggered by the Board of Estimates' recent approval of a study of the feasibility of converting St. Paul and Calvert streets back to two-way traffic have demonstrated that this city is at a crossroads. Policies are changing and new ideas are emerging, yet there is still a significant obstacle ahead of us: challenging outdated mentalities. Forty years of car-centric urban planning have turned Baltimore into one of the most congested areas in the country, but some still argue that solutions lie in rush-hour parking restrictions and signal optimization.
If we are serious about adding 10,000 new families to the city, then it is time to recognize that there is a lot between the suburbs and downtown. A lot of residents, a lot of houses, a lot of businesses — a whole lot of potential. High-speed through traffic damages this potential. It devalues the neighborhood as a destination, a place we go to and from, a place where bicyclists do not fear for their lives and engines do not roar so loud you can't have a conversation on your stoop.
When Henry A. Barnes decided in 1954 that these streets should be one-way, his only concern was to make sure that members of the middle class moving out of the inner-city could still access it easily. But why should the neighborhoods of Charles Village, Barclay, Old Goucher, Charles North, Greenmount West and Mount Vernon still pay the price for decisions made at a time when TVs were black and white and cars were considered the ultimate marker of social progress? Sixty years later, it's about time we change our approach to transportation planning.
The momentum such policies have gained in many cities across the country leaves no doubt: Two-way streets calm traffic. They are safer for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. They limit noise pollution and positively impact property values. They eventually reduce travel distance while bringing attention to local businesses. Finally, they go hand in hand with the fantastic movement of revitalization that many urban neighborhoods are currently witnessing after decades of disinvestment.
Of course, a change in traffic directions will not do it all by itself. It will take across-the-board commitment from every stakeholder, anchor institution and city department to strengthen our neighborhoods. This is what the Homewood Community Partners Initiative — launched by the Johns Hopkins University in 2011 and engaging all the communities between Penn Station and University Parkway — is trying to achieve. Coupling housing and commercial development with public realm infrastructure is the proven way to leverage resources and improve quality of life in the long run. Our City Council is also tackling this issue and formally adopted in 2009 a Complete Streets agenda for transportation improvement projects. Slowly but surely, new policies and initiatives are making room for all modes of transportation to equally share the right-of-way.
Consequently, by the end of the year, the Charm City Circulator will connect Charles Village to downtown in twenty minutes, offering additional transit options to a corridor already well covered by MTA buses. The Maryland Avenue cycle track, scheduled for next year, will supplement the Guilford Bike Boulevard and provide our fellow cyclists (whose community is growing by the day) with the north-south infrastructure they deserve. But it's not only about the big investments. Streetscaping, repaving, tree planting, pedestrian lighting, traffic calming — all of these instruments are part of a larger effort to create the conditions for people to want to live in the city and participate in its fantastic renaissance.
At the end of the day, this particular project shows Baltimore is headed in the right direction. By making these great streets pedestrian-friendly and appealing, the city will show its communities they matter at least as much as commuters. Properties will develop, businesses thrive and tax dollars increase. Seriously, who said it couldn't work both ways?
Charlie Duff is president, Jubilee Baltimore, Inc. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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