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Commentaryby John Papagni2:36 pmMar 22, 20160

Crossing a street in Baltimore shouldn’t require so much courage

Changes to signal lights that give walkers a few seconds to cross before cars turn could lower pedestrians’ stress – and save lives

Above: At Charles and Fayette streets, even though pedestrians in the crosswalk have a “Walk” signal, they still must beware of cars making legal left turns. (John Papagni)

Three years ago, I contacted the city transportation department about safety issues at the intersection of Fayette and Calvert Streets, a busy spot in downtown Baltimore near where I work.

I suggested they implement a pedestrian-only cycle at the traffic signal to allow pedestrians to cross more safely in advance of vehicles. These “leading pedestrian intervals,” as the planners refer to them, typically give pedestrians a 3-7 second head start when entering an intersection with green signal in the same direction.

The DOT official I contacted, James Harkness, dismissed my idea as unworkable, saying it would cause “major congestion” for vehicles and add little additional safety for pedestrians. (See his reply below.)

Fast forward to Tuesday, December 22, 2015: A colleague was struck by a car making a left turn into a crosswalk in another downtown intersection. This was a vehicle that was northbound on Charles Street, turning left onto Fayette Street.

To make matters worse, the driver fled the scene, turning a traffic accident into a potential felony. I would have been upset under any circumstances, but given my past contact with Baltimore DOT, this incident was particularly galling.

More Pedestrians Coming

Both of these intersections handle high volumes of cars and people. And both spots are likely to experience higher volumes of people as more and more downtown offices are converted into residences.

Downtown Baltimore is already the fastest growing area in the city, with over 40,000 residents, and more growth coming.

According to the Downtown Partnership, there are more than 25 residential projects under development in downtown, and nearly 5,100 units will be completed by 2017. All of that means more feet on the street, creating demand for ground-floor retail and supporting the revitalization of Baltimore’s central business core.

That’s great news for downtown, but it also means transportation and pedestrian safety is more important than ever.

Ex-DOT Traffic Chief James Harkness’ reply to author*

The Traffic Division has conducted an investigation based on your email. Traffic Signal timing technicians conducted observations at the intersection at various times over the course of several days. They found that the safety issue arises because many pedestrians in the courthouse area disregard the traffic signals. They cross the streets when there are gaps in traffic, whether or not they have the “walk” signal. The introduction of an exclusive pedestrian phase would cause major congestion for both Fayette St and St Paul St, while only benefiting those pedestrians willing to wait to cross during the exclusive phase. The pedestrians that do not obey the signals would still be a safety concern.

* Written on August 1, 2013; Harkness left city government in 2014.

Bike Maryland’s Nate Evans rightly declares that traffic fatalities are a form of violence, claiming more lives than homicides in the state. In 2013, 387 people were murdered, while 465 people were killed on Maryland roads. Evans notes that, on average, 100 pedestrians die annually on Maryland roadways.

And what he’s pointing out is not just a suburban problem. In Baltimore City alone, 700 pedestrians are hit by a vehicle every year.

Thankfully, my colleague was released from the emergency room and was able to spend the holiday with her family. I’ll never know if my suggested improvements would have prevented her injury.

While there will always be the risk of an accident from inattentive drivers or careless pedestrians, modest safety improvements can prevent similar accidents.

A Delay That Could Save a Life

A pedestrian-only cycle is a little like wearing a seat belt: you put up with a minor inconvenience knowing that compliance can prevent an injury or even save your life.

The concept is nothing new. Pedestrian-only cycles are already being used in a number of cities including, actually, downtown Baltimore. We simply need more of them.

The city would not come to a standstill. My guess is that drivers would tolerate a brief delay at some intersections if they understood that their wait was making the crossing safer for everyone using it.

Stated differently, is someone’s life worth a seven-second wait? According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, pedestrian-only cycles have been shown to reduce vehicle-pedestrian collisions as much as 60% at treated intersections.

What will it take for Baltimore to embrace such pedestrian-friendly improvements?

Leadership from the next mayor would do it. On the campaign trail, though, pedestrian safety has been largely absent from the candidates’ talking points that lead to plans about easing road gridlock and traffic delays.

Lost in the discussion is the fact that accidents also cause serious delays, as any commuter can attest.

Safe, rational traffic patterns may not speed traffic, but they’ll make it more likely that we’ll arrive at our destination.

John Papagni is a longtime activist on bike/ped issues who has been involved with Bike Maryland. He commutes by bicycle daily from his home in East Baltimore to a downtown office.

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