Howard narrows view on roads Policy to shrink width of streets aims to slow traffic, reduce danger


Not long after Joe Abate's commute home takes him from the six lanes of Interstate 70 and eight lanes of the Beltway, he turns onto the narrow streets of Rodgers Forge in Baltimore County.

On the car-lined, 18-foot-wide Murdock Road, Abate eases up on the accelerator, grabs the wheel with both hands and keeps his right foot hovering over the brake.

"You have to do it," says Abate, a psychology professor who has lived on Murdock for 16 years. "Otherwise, you'll sideswipe mirrors and stuff like that."

Roads like the ones in Rodgers Forge -- and reactions like Abate's -- should soon be showing up in Howard County's newest neighborhoods. Officials there started telling developers this year to drastically shave the width of new roads -- the latest move to slow drivers without resorting to speed bumps and other "traffic-calming devices."

Howard's campaign, being watched closely around Maryland, mirrors those in Oregon, Florida, even Australia as communities battle speeders.

"The developer isn't even out of the neighborhood before residents are calling us to put in speed bumps," says Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of Howard's Department of Planning and Zoning.

In Howard, some new roads can be as narrow as 14 feet. That's about 10 feet less than the county average and well below the 40-foot-wide roads that have been built in many new subdivisions.

As Abate's drive in 60-year-old Rodgers Forge attests, narrow streets are nothing new. They get mixed reviews and don't guarantee that speeding will vanish. Officials in other localities in Maryland say they'll wait to see the impact in Howard, which adopted the regulation in February, before considering similar measures in their development regulations.

Playing 'chicken'

In Baltimore's century-old Roland Park area, homeowner Andrea Cohen says the tightness of the avenues in her community means that one-way-width streets carry two-way traffic. "Everyone plays 'chicken' to see who will pull over," she says. "People go slower, but they take more risks."

Rodgers Forge residents report that a driver stopping to parallel park can cause a tension-filled traffic tie-up.

In one of the newer neighborhoods to try the narrow approach -- Glenelg Manor Estates, an exclusive suburb in western Howard County -- resident Jeff Mercy says the 16-foot-wide streets have not forced motorists to slow.

"Stop signs don't slow people down, and no one wants speed bumps because they can wreck your car," he says. "I don't think having smaller roads is going to do anything."

Some evidence shows that's the case in Rodgers Forge. A Baltimore County police spokesman said officers issued 240 speeding tickets there last year.

The problem is that dangers increase when people speed on such narrow streets.

"With both sides parked with cars and if a kid chases a ball into the middle of the street, that kid is right in front of you," Abate says. "If you're doing 25 [mph], you're basically saying to the kid, 'You have to be smart enough not to jump out in front of me.' "

The cramped spaces also make it difficult for large vehicles such as school buses to maneuver, says one Howard school official.

"We recognize that there is a significant problem with speed in the neighborhoods, but I'm not sure that solving one problem won't create another," says Glenn Johnson, director of transportation. "This has the potential to have a big impact on our abilities" to serve the community.

Some avenues are so tight that incidents of sideswiping occur almost daily. But one Rodgers Forge resident says he doesn't mind the minor scrapes as long as the accidents -- and the streets -- serve their purpose.

"You have to watch the shoulders, the front yards, what's in front of you," says Marshall Landis, who has lived on narrow Hopkins Road for 26 years.

Jerry Trout III, who heads the traffic committee for the Roland Park Civic League, agrees.

"Psychologically, it's a calming effect to have the road smaller and look more residential," says Trout. "People say, 'This is smaller road. I need to go slower.' "

And Rodgers Forge homeowners are not shy about scolding violators, Abate says.

"If we see a Domino's car trying to zip in and out within that 30-minute time limit, we're going to look for the numbers and report the driver to the company," the Howard Community College professor says. "We are constantly vigilant on everything."

To be successful, Howard officials say they need community support and police enforcement of speed limits on the narrow roads.

The regulations, which consume 80 pages, allow developers to either build the roads to follow the natural topography of the land -- making them winding or steep -- or install one of seven traffic-calming devices to disrupt the driver's comfort zone.

The policy also permits developers to build roads with 10 homes or fewer to be 14 feet wide -- 10 feet less than the current average in the county.

Streets with 20 or fewer homes can be 18 to 20 feet wide -- the latter figure if the road has curbs -- and avenues with 25 units or fewer can be 22 feet wide. Roads with more than 25 homes revert to the 24-foot average.

About 50 sketch plans with the revised standards have been approved, Rutter estimates.

'Not a panacea'

Some national experts say it will probably take more than narrow roads to slow drivers.

"Cars are being built with bigger engines, and they're more powerful and faster," says Mark Kulewicz, a traffic engineer with the Automobile Club of New York, a car-safety advocacy group. "Those things probably don't help."

David S. Thaler, a Baltimore engineer and town planner and a leader in the "New Urbanism" movement, warns against putting too much faith in the narrow lanes. "This is not a panacea," he says. "If human nature is to drive 40 [mph], you're going to have a difficult time enforcing 25."

Thaler says the culprit is the methodology of most developers. He says when it comes to building neighborhoods, architects are taught to design the roads first, which makes cars the first priority.

"That's backwards," says Thaler, president of his own planning company in Baltimore.

Whether the narrow-roads policy is successful will be answered in time, Rutter says.

"When you're doing something as innovative as this," he says, "the only way to test it is in the real world."

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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