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Baltimore should close some streets for walking, biking during pandemic | COMMENTARY

Some groups want Baltimore to close some of its busiest streets for biking, walking and other recreational activity during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some groups want Baltimore to close some of its busiest streets for biking, walking and other recreational activity during the coronavirus pandemic. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Stay-at-home orders for the COVID-19 pandemic mean fewer drivers on Baltimore’s streets — but more dangerous speeding by the drivers who are left.

Cities from Oakland, California to Washington, D.C., are slowing down traffic and closing streets to make them safe for residents to walk and bike, reduce the risk of crash and relieve dangerous crowding on parks and sidewalks. Baltimore should do the same.

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Are speeding drivers a real problem? It may be hard to believe when so many people are following stay-at-home orders. Traffic in cities across the country has declined by 40% to 60% over the past month. Crashes have declined too, but not by much — and the cars that remain are moving faster. In Baltimore, drivers received 25% more speed camera citations during the two weeks between city schools closing in mid-March and early April than they had during the same two weeks last year, according to an analysis we did of Open Baltimore data. Speeding makes crashes both more likely for drivers and more deadly for any person they might hit.

Who needs slow streets for walking and biking? Everyone! About one in three Baltimore residents doesn’t have a car; they rely on walking and biking for essential errands. Four in 10 Baltimore transit commuters work in essential sectors like health care. These workers shouldn’t need to risk their lives walking across the street to catch the bus.

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Slow streets are also essential for residents of all ages who are following the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and taking walks to stay happy, physically active and healthy during this stressful time. But it is hard to adhere to social distancing guidelines and stay 6 feet away from your neighbors if a crowded path in Druid Hill or Patterson parks is the only safe place near your home.

What can we do about this problem? Los Angeles is changing the timing of traffic signals to discourage speeding. Cleveland is closing roads in parks to make more room for people to safely walk and bike. Oakland, California, just announced a plan to temporarily close or limit through traffic on 10% of the city’s streets. These are some of at least 30 U.S. cities taking steps to slow cars and relieve overcrowding in parks by making more space for people.

So far Baltimore has closed a small segment of the road around Lake Montebello, but this is not enough. Fortunately, the 2018 Complete Street Ordinance offers the Baltimore City Department of Transportation a powerful tool to guide the city’s next steps. The policy authorizes the transportation department to use the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide.

This manual includes a set of “interim design strategies” that are fast and easy to roll out. The policy also demands attention to equity. Neighborhoods where residents have the least access to cars, the highest exposure to automotive emissions and the most dangerous streets should be the city’s top priority for investments in safer, slower streets.

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We urgently need Mayor Jack Young to direct city agencies to designate specific slow streets where high-speed through traffic is prohibited and to close streets in major parks. We’re not alone in asking for the mayor to act on this issue. Del. Robbyn Lewis of Baltimore, community groups like the New Auchentoroly Terrace Association and local bike advocates at Bikemore have all asked the mayor to take steps to make Baltimore’s streets and parks safe and healthy for everyone.

Also, on April 22, 10 members of the Baltimore City Council signed a letter urging Mayor Young to repurpose travel lanes for walking, accessing transit, biking and using a mobility device “as soon as reasonably possible.” We hope the mayor listens.

Staying home is important for your health — but so is taking a walk, riding a bike and playing outside — and not getting hit by a car.

Eli Pousson (eli.pousson@jhu.edu) is a graduate student in the Master of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a Bloomberg Fellow with Baltimore Heritage. Keshia M. Pollack Porter (kpollac1@jhu.edu) is the associate dean for faculty and a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The views expressed by the authors and their own and are not the views of the Johns Hopkins University.

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