By GERALD NEILY
What’s dizzy about the city’s $28 million proposal for six new roundabouts isn’t that traffic circles are inherently bad. Roundabouts are often the best solution when dealing with intractable traffic problems isolated at a single complicated or high-speed intersection. They work well in rural areas, for instance.
But city transportation officials want to slap roundabouts onto all sorts of urban trouble-spots, whether or not they’re the best solution, showing once again their chronic failure to grasp the big traffic picture or to try simple fixes first. The most potent tool in an urban grid is to coordinate the traffic signals, for instance, which would go a long way toward calming some of Baltimore’s most clogged-up areas.
City conditions are different from those in suburban areas like Howard County or even those that spawned the Towson Circle. Urban traffic patterns are governed by an entire network of streets, not isolated intersections. This provides far more flexibility, but the city hasn’t learned how to use it to its advantage.
Yes, the Towson Circle is a big improvement over the old days. Engineers tried everything and none of it worked. There was no getting around the fact that York, Dulaney Valley, Joppa and Allegheny formed a major unmanageable six legged intersection that defied efficient and safe traffic-signal timing. So whether you’re a motorist or pedestrian or both, whether you like it or it scares the wits out of you, the Towson Circle turned out to be the best solution.
But simple fixes are available at most Baltimore City intersections, either by changing local circulation in the street grid, or improving the coordination of traffic lights to slow down traffic and reduce delay, or more likely both working in concert. Many, if not most, complex city intersections can be simplified by having the local legs flow out from the intersection, allowing the remaining vehicle and pedestrian movements to be safer and have fewer conflicts, without expensive scary roundabouts.
Our Report Card on the City’s Latest Roundabout Plans:
33rd Street/University Parkway/Barclay Street – Six legs come together, but Barclay Street is for local traffic only and can easily be made one-way into the neighborhood (northbound only to the north, southbound only to the south), allowing the traffic signal timing to be greatly streamlined. This would also allow for angle parking opportunities to help the library and the farmer’s market. City’s Grade: D.
33rd Street/Hillen Street/Lake Montebello– Again, the extra fifth leg of the intersection could easily be made one-way into Lake Montebello, simplifying the intersection and greatly reducing cut through traffic which interferes with folks having fun around the lake. If the lake needs more access, it should be located somewhere else besides at this intersection. City’s Grade: C.
Paca/Centre/Druid Hill/St. Mary– This is actually a rather normal intersection by Seton Hill standards. It can easily be fixed by making St. Mary one-way westbound (out of the intersection) instead of eastbound as it is now. Seton Hill’s real traffic insane asylum is along Madison Street as it transitions to McCulloh Street between Eutaw and MLK Boulevard. The intersection of Eutaw, Paca and Madison requires Paca traffic to make a totally improvised “S” turn going the wrong way on Madison to get to Eutaw. McCulloh approaching MLK is an Interstate highway-style weaving bowl that is a total disaster in an urban neighborhood. What’s even worse is that this mess is the only way to get from Mount Vernon to Seton Hill, physically alienating the two neighborhoods from each other. City’s Grade: F.
Mount Royal/Maryland/Cathedral – These three streets never even intersect each other. What could the City be thinking? City’s Grade: F.
Key Highway/Light Street – The only problem at this intersection is that it is way too wide. Light Street is grotesquely wide all the way north to Pratt Street, which is a major impediment to the entire west shore of the Inner Harbor. The City needs to think big here, and not just stick a roundabout in isolation where it would interfere with a broader vision, such as integrating the Inner Harbor seamlessly into downtown and Federal Hill and extending the proposed streetcar network. Roundabouts and streetcars don’t mix. City’s Grade: D.
Reisterstown/Park Heights/Druid Park Drive – This five legged intersection used to be Park Circle, and it could be again. All of the legs are too regionally oriented to be converted to one-way. Over the years, the City tried to tweak the intersection by preventing turns with signs and islands, but this caused its own problems. So a modern roundabout looks like the solution. City’s Grade: A.