Living in Baltimore's 'burbs is no drive in the country

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DOUG CARROLL, third-generation resident of a farm near the busy Greenspring Valley-Falls Road intersection, is the man who painted the sign and finally, after four tries, nailed it high enough on a tree so that no resentful developer or contractor could tear it down. It's probably one of the longest-surviving handmade signs in the region, seen by hundreds of thousands of commuters by now.

I sat in my car on Greenspring Valley Road during rush hour Friday evening, wondering why the traffic was so bad and looking for an accident that might have caused it. Seeing none, I concluded that congestion on this two-lane "country road" must be the daily occurrence I've heard so much about - about 40,000 vehicles a day, the State Highway Administration estimated a few years ago - and caused by something bigger than any single accident. "Hate The Traffic? Stop The Building," Carroll's sign says.

Not much has changed in the five years since Carroll nailed his protest in a secure spot.

In fact, things have probably gotten worse. I finally made the turn to go north on Greenspring Avenue, but ran into more traffic, with rush-hour commuters clogged at intersections where I had never seen clogging before. One of the backups was in an area where a sign advertised three more luxury homes sites.

Glassy-eyed veterans of the suburban commuter wars will probably sneer at my observations, the way combat-hardened troops do when new recruits arrive in a hot zone. I admit to being a rush-hour interloper, a city resident who can take a bus to work or walk to my favorite corner bar.

But, for a variety of reasons, I've been running the roads of Baltimore and Carroll counties for 25 years, at all hours of all days, and I've seen not only a significant increase in the numbers of drivers but more speed and aggressiveness in the way they drive - not to avoid traffic but to get to it.

A lot of people have purchased the grand homes of their dreams an hour, even more, from where they work, and those choices create pressures to reduce drive time. Drivers know the routines, they know what's ahead, and they hit the gas to get there. They hit highway-like speeds on roads that have become more densely populated and used by more commuters.

I'm happy for the people who live along Leppo Road, off Old Hanover Road in northern Carroll County. Theirs was a nuisance of a gravel road until this summer. They took up a petition drive to get pavement and a double yellow line.

So, good for the Leppovians; they got what they wanted. Now, among other benefits, the new pavement will allow faster driving - and a more expeditious run to Hanover Pike, one of the most congested roads in Carroll County. (Ironic interlude: In my city neighborhood, they're trying to get speed humps to slow the traffic, and no one complains much about our in-need-of-paving streets because it keeps the cut-through traffic in check.)

Two weeks ago, I was driving southbound on Falls Road. ("It used to be an entertainment to drive Falls Road," an acquaintance named David Bacca, once of Harford, once of the city, and now of Arundel, said the other day.) I had just remarked to my family on how returning to Baltimore by Falls had turned out to be a pleasant choice.

Then the late-model green Mustang appeared, at a bend in the road. The 'Stang was going close to 60 mph and the driver let the car slip a good eight inches over the double yellow line. Midst screams inside my vehicle, I made a sharp move to the right, toward the slender shoulder. The Mustang rumbled hard against my driver's side. We avoided a head-on collision by inches. (I stopped, turned my damaged vehicle around and looked for the Mustang, but it had disappeared up Falls Road.)

A few days later, traveling Falls Road during rush hour, I noticed other speeding vehicles crossing Falls Road's double-yellow. I was impressed at the speed. Remote-controlled speed cameras, hidden in the trees, would be a good thing.

I'm not saying drivers didn't always open it up on Falls Road when they had the chance. The problem today is the road is busier, and getting even busier. (There are another bunch of homes going into the area of Padonia and Falls.)

Life is in fifth gear. Our population continues to grow. We continue to allow the development of land where the roads aren't adequate for the new traffic.

The long-term answer is summarized in Doug Carroll's sign: "Hate The Traffic? Stop The Building." And I keep coming back to the city - literally and figuratively: Make Baltimore more appealing to middle-class families, court new businesses and create new jobs, keep fixing the schools, rip away old rowhouses and dead zones for suburban-style redevelopment, invest in mass transit. Rebuild Baltimore, build less in the 'burbs, preserve rural lands, and our kids won't be racing down country roads, risking their lives to sit in traffic jams.

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