Active travel: The park that became an island

Like many US inner cities, West Baltimore has been blighted by car-centric planning and historic disinvestment. Now, its transportation planners want to right past wrongs by turning an eight-lane expressway into a ‘Complete Street’

January 2022

Words by Katie Puckett Photos by Zhee Chatmon

Walking and cycling are often presented as a magic bullet for many of today’s urban woes, from congestion and air pollution to obesity and poor mental health. But they’re a hard sell for municipalities seeking to win over their citizens, amounting not only to a significant lifestyle change but a completely different approach to city planning.

Making space for active travel usually means taking it away from cars, taxis and commercial vehicles — overturning decades of motor-centric policies and inevitably provoking loud objections. It’s one thing to widen pavements or install cycle lanes; it’s another to persuade people to use them. Supporters of active travel believe there is a silent majority who are receptive and willing to adopt new habits, but how to engage with them?

The Possible spoke to transport planners in two very different, very car-centric cities, to find out what they’d learned about tackling one of the hottest potatoes in local politics.


Part 2: The overnight cycle city

Road closures and pop-up cycle lanes were a common aspect of the Covid-19 response across the UK. But few cities were as well placed as Exeter to act quickly, for the long term — and without upsetting too many local residents. Read the story


 

Part 1: Druid Hill Park, Baltimore

Auchentoroly Terrace in West Baltimore should be one of the city’s healthiest, most sought-after streets. It is just 143 feet from Druid Hill Park, 745 acres of lush green oasis that ranks alongside New York’s Central Park. From their doorsteps, the residents of Auchentoroly Terrace can admire its lawns, rolling hills and forest, and listen to live music from the weekly farmers market. But what they can’t do, easily or safely, is actually walk to the park itself — because crossing those 143 feet means stepping out into eight lanes of fast-moving traffic. 

The Druid Park Lake Drive expressway is a major arterial road that funnels cars from the I-83 interstate through this predominantly residential area at speeds of 60mph. It’s also why the neighbourhood has over 100 vacant properties, why it ranks among Baltimore’s worst for air pollution, cardiovascular disease and cancer, and why its asthma-related hospitalizations are more than three times the US average. 

The presence of the expressway is not an unfortunate accident. Rather, it’s a roaring, fume-choked symbol of the deliberate harm inflicted on the inner-city neighbourhoods of US cities during the 20th century. West Baltimore was doubly blighted, first by the practice of “redlining” that denied investment to minority communities, then by planning policies that prioritized fast car journeys above everything else. In the 1950s and 60s, expressways were constructed around the park so that the wealthy white commuters who’d moved out to the suburbs could get downtown quickly, and more than a dozen historic entrances were reduced to just five. The Black and Jewish neighbourhoods through which the roads were ploughed were not consulted, their objections ignored — and their access to Druid Hill Park was severed, apparently forever. 

Or perhaps not.

In 2018, Baltimore joined the national Complete Streets movement and adopted an ordinance that it hopes will change the city’s transportation landscape, and redress the skewed balance between rich and poor, car owners and those without. Projects will now be guided by the principles in its Complete Streets Manual, published in March 2021. This elevates the importance of pedestrians, bikes and transit users, and directs resources to level up disadvantaged areas rather than equally by geography. Druid Park Lake Drive is one of the city’s first targets for improvement — in the low-income neighbourhoods that surround Druid Hill Park, a majority of residents do not have access to a car.

“Complete Streets formalizes that there’s a need to spend transportation dollars in a way that’s equitable and reflects a social justice aspect that hasn’t existed in decision-making before,” says Will Ethridge, a city planner in Baltimore’s Department of Transportation. “And it acknowledges that there’s a significant proportion of the city that relies on being able to walk and bicycle and use public transit, and that for a long time has not been a priority.”

Druid Park Lake Drive is a perfect illustration of the negative impacts that accrue from a myopic focus on access for motorists, and giving them even more road space as the only solution to congestion. There are few crossing places and even residents who are physically fit and unencumbered struggle to make it across spans of up to 70 feet with cars bearing down. For those who are accompanied by small children or who have limited mobility, it can feel like an insurmountable barrier.

“The cars drive very fast and they do not yield to pedestrians,” says Graham Coreil-Allen, a public artist and president of the Auchentoroly Terrace Association. When Coreil-Allen moved in nine years ago, he was shocked to discover that his elderly neighbours never visited the park, while others would drive two blocks just to get there. Nearby, numerous buses and the subway depart from Mondawmin station, the city’s second busiest hub. “But just walking to that transit hub is very dangerous because there are all these cars everywhere going at exceptional speeds,” he says. Local residents’ cars are often side-swiped by out-of-control drivers, he adds, and there are frequent accidents and even more frequent near-misses.

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Not all the cars drive past: Coreil-Allen says that they also bring custom for the street-corner gangs that intimidate residents. “It might not seem like it’s directly related, but because our neighbourhood is surrounded by highways, it’s essentially a drive-thru situation where people are coming from as far away as Pennsylvania to purchase illegal drugs and contribute to that economy, to the detriment of the people who actually live here.”

Coreil-Allen and his neighbours have had a tantalising glimpse of how things could be: in 2018, during improvement works to the city water supply on the other side of the park, a temporary shared-use path dubbed “the Big Jump” allowed pedestrians, cyclists and wheelchair users to safely cross the Jones Falls Expressway for the first time in 50 years. For them, it was a revelation. But neither that project nor the current plans are popular with everyone. Emotions have run high during the consultation process, as the debate has polarized between passionate local advocates of pedestrian safety and equally passionate residents of outlying areas who don’t want to have to spend any longer behind the wheel.

Taking space away from cars is always a controversial proposition: for those who feel they have no choice but to drive, fear of congestion looms large. But Baltimore’s Complete Streets initiative has tapped into a much deeper schism in an increasingly divided US society, riven by culture wars and alternate realities. In this atmosphere, the issues in play are far bigger than a stretch of bike lane or a few more crosswalks. It’s about privilege, ownership, whose voices should be heard and, ultimately, whose lives matter more. This is the debate that the city has been drawn into, and it’s one that it has to win if West Baltimore is ever to be a safe place to live.

“There’s just a lot of passion and energy about this particular project,” says Wes Mitchell, who leads WSP’s local transportation planning business and has been supporting the city. “You have to keep in mind that the roadway has been in place for decades and there has been a very auto-centric view of transportation. So when we’re talking about a change like this, we’re almost looking at a paradigm shift in the way people view this particular roadway and the way they view infrastructure in general. That’s one of the biggest hurdles that we’re overcoming right now.”

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“When we’re talking about a change like this, we’re
almost looking at a paradigm shift in the way people view this particular roadway and infrastructure in general”

Wes Mitchell, WSP


 

So far, the project has primarily been an exercise in listening — and being seen to listen. The transportation department is coming to the end of a year-long design effort, during which it has consulted with communities around the park and further afield, and analysed road-use patterns along the park’s southern and western borders. Based on this, the team has created three concept layouts for a two-mile corridor encircling the park, each intended to calm the traffic, make it safer for other road users and restore lost connections.

“One of the things I’ve heard a lot from different groups is that there’s been a tendency in the past for the department to ignore certain people or certain groups or certain neighbourhoods, because we come to a project with a preconceived notion about who’s important and who is not,” says Ethridge. “So we’ve tried to make an emphasis on treating everybody equally.”

On one hand, this has involved making a greater effort to seek the views of groups who have historically been marginalized — not only deliberately, but by conventional approaches to local democracy. The city’s representatives have spent time in the neighbourhood, visited the farmers’ market, held pop-up events, spoken to drivers through their windows. “Not everyone goes to the traditional type of community meetings,” Coreil-Allen points out. “They may just not be interested, or they may be working two or three jobs or taking care of kids at home, and they just don’t have the bandwidth to participate.”

Ethridge’s team have also gone out of their way to demonstrate that they are still listening to car users too — even if the Complete Streets ordinance is clear that they will not take precedence. “Even if you live a mile and a half away and you just drive through the neighbourhood, if you’ve got a valid concern and we can make an improvement that helps you without hurting the people who live there, we’ll take a look at that idea and see if we can incorporate it,” he says. “If any of the concepts are implemented, there is definitely going to be a need for public outreach, not only signage on the roadway to say there’s going to be construction coming, but also reaching out to community organizations and stakeholders, telling them what’s happening, why it’s happening and what to expect.”

Ethridge has also tried to emphasize the road safety angle, that it’s in drivers’ own interests to slow down. As well as Complete Streets, Baltimore has a “Vision Zero” policy with the goal to bring traffic fatalities to zero, not only between cars and pedestrians and cyclists, but with other vehicles too. “I think we’re going to be asking drivers more and more to slow down, to pay attention, and implementing traffic-calming policies that are designed to save people’s lives.”

“Not everyone goes to the traditional type of community meetings. They may just not be interested, or they may be working two or three jobs or taking care of kids at home, and they just don’t have the bandwidth to participate”

Graham Coreil-Allen

The three design options address Complete Streets principles in slightly different ways. There is a plan with a single lane of traffic in either direction, which reduces crossing distances to 20 feet and reclaims space for the park; a hybrid plan with two westbound lanes and one flowing east, which includes a localized roadway for Auchentoroly Terrace residents; and, most car-friendly, a plan with two lanes in each direction, but with additional intersections and longer crossing times. All three add a shared-use path next to the park and a bike path on the opposite side.

The concept designs were presented at a public meeting in October 2021, and from Ethridge’s point of view, it went a lot better than a previous, much more stormy, session back in April. “At that meeting, there was a lot of backlash that our focus was on the neighbourhoods in close proximity. This time, I think there was an acknowledgement from community organisations further away that at least we did not ignore all of their concerns. So from my perspective, it was a very successful meeting.” But Ethridge wasn’t reading the chat window. He found out later that what was intended as an overspill for the Q&A had deteriorated into a heated debate. “It seemed like instead of asking questions, people were making statements back and forth at one another.”

Going out to the wider community not only produces a more representative sample, says Mitchell, it also amplifies the more moderate voices that make up the mainstream — public meetings are disproportionately attended by those who have more time and money, but also by those with the most strident views. “It’s all good information, but what we need to do more of is meeting people in their natural environment, when they’re just going to the store or they’re walking through the neighbourhood or they’re waiting at a stop-light. That’s where we can get a more even-keel view.

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“One of the things that we have to do is to humanize the whole situation, and try to have people be a little bit more empathetic to their neighbours. That five minutes that you have to sit in a little more traffic to get to work, does that outweigh the needs and safety concerns that these individuals that are adjacent to the park are dealing with on a regular basis? Trying to make it more of a community discussion versus an individual discussion, to take it out of the ’me’ and look at the ‘we’ side of it.”

The data that the city has gathered is also useful to cool the debate, says Coreil-Allen — but only up to a point. “Some of the folks who don’t want to impact driving whatsoever will claim that there’s no data to back this up, and when we show the data that says half of the folks in this neighbourhood walk or take the bus or ride a bike or use a wheelchair, then they question it. It’s really important to have a well-documented process to substantiate it, because unfortunately we’re in such a polarized world now that people are even questioning facts.”

He argues that the data also highlights a generational shift in approaches to mobility. “When we think about acknowledging the needs of existing residents, it’s also looking to the future,” he says. “For my Millennial generation, owning a car may not necessarily even be that attractive any more, while things like dockless scooters are hugely popular. We’re seeing a ton of young people who are getting around by bike and scooter. Some folks may say, ‘Oh, nobody gets around that way’, but the statistics show it and it needs to be acknowledged so that everyone can have the same level of safety and convenience as the folks who have driven for decades.”

Even with a smooth path to implementation — and with the big “if” that it can secure the necessary funding from state or federal government — it could be six years before construction is complete. The next step will be a more detailed design of the three concepts, and the city has allocated enough funding to progress the chosen design 30% of the way, which will make it eligible for federal funding.

“Hopefully in ten years’ time, rather than saying ‘what’s happening?’ we’re going to say ‘wow what a remarkable impact, we have such a gorgeous neighbourhood and much better indicators of health’"

Graham Coreil-Allen

“Baltimore has a grand tradition of developing beautiful visions, not all of which are built because they’re not actionable,” says Coreil-Allen. “Hopefully in ten years’ time, rather than saying ‘what’s happening?’ we’re going to say ‘wow what a remarkable impact, we have such a gorgeous neighbourhood and much better indicators of health’.”

Aside from failure, and traffic gridlock, there’s another spectre that haunts the project: gentrification. If the neighbourhood really does improve that significantly, what guarantee is there that the current residents will be able to enjoy it? This is out of the hands of the transportation department, but Ethridge says that the issue is always at the back of their minds. This is not the only investment planned for West Baltimore or the park, and he has spoken to other departments about the need to support the existing community. “The Department of Housing and Community Development is looking at a lot of the abandoned buildings and we want to make sure that as we invest those dollars, we don’t price people out and that they can continue to age in place. Whatever change we bring to the community, we want it to help people, not hurt them.”


“We want to make sure that we don’t price people out … Whatever change we bring to the community, we want it to help people, not hurt them”

Will Ethridge, City of Baltimore


 

This is an all-too-familiar theme to Coreil-Allen, who moved to Baltimore from Brooklyn, the New York borough that has become synonymous with breakneck gentrification. It’s also a familiar accusation against active travel projects — cycling is often perceived as a hipster, middle-class pursuit. But he thinks it’s a red herring, a function of the way the real-estate market is set up, rather than a legitimate reason to prevent investment in accessibility or public safety. “We can’t let the threat of gentrification derail the attempt to reinvest in infrastructure in an equitable way. Oftentimes the car lobbyists will say ‘bikes lanes are for gentrification’ because there have been examples where the perception was that a bike lane went in and all of a sudden the neighbourhood was too expensive. But historically disinvested neighbourhoods deserve nice things too. All of the neighbourhoods need bike lanes, and bus lanes, and wheelchair ramps. We can’t lose sight of that.”

Read about Zhee Chatmon’s photo essay here

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