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Conflict over crosswalks

Above: Jamie Kendrick (left), of the Baltimore Department of Transportation, listens to citizen complaints about new crosswalk buttons.

There were some tense moments last week at a sidewalk meeting of Baltimore transportation officials and Fells Point residents angry about changes the city has made to walk signals at certain intersections.

“You’re making my daughter unsafe!” one person shot back.

The dozen people with gathered there with him, including the administrators of two local elementary schools, had turned out on a rainy Thursday pretty much to get across that same idea – that they believe the city’s changes are endangering pedestrians, especially children.

The implication clearly irked Jamie Kendrick, the deputy director of transportation for Baltimore, who’s been hearing from the Fells Point group for a couple of weeks.

“The e-mails seemed to indicate some kind of malice!” said Kendrick, who also mentioned at one point that he had considered bringing his young daughter to the meeting to show that he understands the concerns of parents.

When everyone calmed down – with City Councilman James B. Kraft acting as a mediator between his constituents and Kendrick – there was some progress made at the noontime meeting.

Kendrick and Randall Scott, chief of the traffic division, agreed to a schedule for installing “countdown lights” at key intersections, including Wolfe and Fleet streets, Wolfe St. and Eastern Ave. and several others. They also agreed at these intersections to re-set the lights so that there is an overlap period where they are red both ways for a few seconds.

But the officials would not commit to the main change the parents are seeking: to have the automatic walk signal restored.

“We appreciate the changes that have been agreed to, the all-red period and the countdown lights, but there’s still a lot of work to be done on this issue,” said Miranda Wulff Altschuler. “Our number one goal going in to this meeting was to have the automatic walk signal restored at every cycle and the DOT has taken this under consideration, so we shall see.”

Complicated Problem or Simple Fix?

The residents have been complaining to the city for a couple of weeks about the crosswalk signals for north-south streets like Wolfe and Washington streets, which used to flash white for “walk” automatically, every time the light turned red for Eastern Ave. or Fleet St. traffic.

About a month ago this changed. Now the walk signals only come on when newly-installed pedestrian buttons are pressed.  How does this change affect traffic patterns? How much of a hardship does it impose on pedestrians? Clearly the two sides had pretty different ideas here.

“Push button lights are only appropriate in low-pedestrian areas,” said Rebecca Gershenson Smith, as the group walked along Wolfe St. “You’re telling somebody who’s a walker that they’re a second-class citizen.”

Scott replied this way: “If I go into a building and I’ve got to push a button to get an elevator, is that making me a second-class citizen?”

The residents say, using that analogy, it’s more like having to get off the elevator and push the button for every floor.

“That’s the equivalent time delay we are talking about for families walking from Upper Fells Point to Fells Point, because we have to push a button and wait at EVERY intersection,” Altschuler said, over the weekend.

The parents say removing automatic walk signals is dangerous because it’s confusing to be greeted at an intersection with a crossing light that stays red, even when the walkers are supposed to walk. If a pedestrian doesn’t push the button they have only 10 to 12 seconds to cross at some intersections. If they hesitate at first, they have even less time.

Favoring Motorists over Pedestrians?

The residents’ larger objection is with the general effect they think the change is having. As they see it, it’s favoring drivers over people and promoting unsafe driving in an area where a lot of people walk and shop.

“School children walk these streets too,” noted Thushari Gunawardane, of Baltimore Montessori School. Frank Alden, who heads New Century School and is president of Patterson Park Public Charter School, was also at the sidewalk meeting. Wolfe Street Academy, a Baltimore City public charter school, is also in the area, they noted.

Still, Kendrick challenged their assumptions that pedestrian-actuated signals would necessarily cause a hardship.

“What is the rationale for holding up traffic if there is no one here?” he said, at one point.

The parents’ answer is that the area is so heavily used by pedestrians that drivers should be conditioned to drive as if they are almost always going to be there.

Kendrick and Scott suggested that maybe the east-west drivers and walkers need consideration too. “In the last 10 minutes, I counted 16 people walking east-west and three people walking north-south,” Kendrick said. (Some in the crowd protested that you couldn’t generalize form one head count on a rainy day.)

Dodging a Van

No one would disagree with the generalization that Baltimore motorists have some pretty bad habits.

During the tour the group witnessed some hair-raising behavior. At least one driver ran a red light, and a work van pulled a u-turn on Wolfe St., then backed up into oncoming Eastern Ave. traffic coming within a whisper of the residents and officials.

Scott at one point told the group the city has an overall policy of trying to balance the needs of the many people who use Baltimore’s streets – motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, etc. “Generally, we will give preference to the greatest number of people who need to get through an intersection,” he said.

Smith asked if that meant  cars were being favored over pedestrians and if the city shouldn’t be giving greater weight to pedestrians as part of Baltimore’s so-called Complete Streets initiative.

“No special adaptation was needed [as a result of that initiative] because that was our policy before,” Scott replied.

By the end of the meeting it was clear that balance is in the eye of the beholder, and the residents pretty much thought it had been achieved before the city made its recent crosswalk signal changes.

This became abundantly clear as the group was about to disperse.

“I understand the request,” Scott said, “just give me an opportunity to educate the community on the options, with the computer capability that we have, for example, if we knew that the park was open from dusk to dawn …”

At this point (see it yourself on this video on Claudia Towles’ blog), you can hear members of the group shouting “NO, NO!”

Kraft stepped in to clarify:

“Randall, I don’t want to sound rude, but we’re past that. The community has been very clear. They understand that there are options. They want it back the way it was.”

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