Almost Being Able To Bicycle to School

My son is off to start high school as a freshman in three weeks at Baltimore’s Polytechnic Institute (Poly) High School.  I was excited that he would have an easy bike ride to school. The newly created Jones Falls Trail would get him 90% or  0.7 miles from his high school. I thought it would be a bicycling slam dunk.  I went out to inspect and whoa, not so easy and not so safe…. The last leg is comprised of crossing a highway interchange, hyper fast speeding vehicles, and scary street crossings.  As parents, we are going to have to veto this bike route to school.

Trail my son would take 90% of the way to his High School

Trail my son would take 90% of the way to his high school

Getting from the Jones Falls Trail to Poly HS on foot or by bicycle

The last 0.7 miles between the Jones Falls Trail and his high school

If Baltimore, Maryland, and the US gets serious about making bicycling a mainstream transport option the trails are going to need spurs that safely connect to the places we go.  Trails like the Jones Falls should find tentacles that reach schools and neighborhoods that are nearby but not connected.  A safe spur from the Jones Falls Trail to Poly (and Western) under the elevated portions of the expressway (JFX) could probably be built for under two million dollars. The connection would also provide access to neighborhoods (Cross Keys, Roland Park, Medfield) that are currently blocked to the trail by the expressway.  Because of the scarce dollars allocated to bike infrastructure, I am not necessarily arguing here for this specific project . ( “Safe Routes to Schools” funding is regularly on the Congressional chopping block) Unfortunately, bike planners have to make priorities that make ubiquitous safe connected networks seemingly decades away.

Maryland Counties have highway interchanges on their priority list projected to cost $140 million and more.   These may or may not be worthy projects.  The hypothetical two million dollar trail spur connection between Baltimore’s north-south spine trail to Baltimore’s Math and Science High School and three adjacent neighborhoods is probably considered too expensive to build. As I see a highway interchange prevent my son from easily bicycling to school, it does make me wish one proposed highway interchange in Maryland could be sacrificed so dozens of safe networks of trails could be built linking Maryland’s communities and their schools.

(Baltimore City’s Transportation Priority Letter  emphasizes Transit Oriented Development (TOD) projects, but lists no bike paths among its priorities.  Ironically, the letter does focus on a TOD adjacent to the Cold Spring Station and interchange. The letter describes the Jones Falls Trail as “value added.” Today, the Jones Falls Trail passes within 70 yards of the Cold Spring Light rail stop, but does not connect.

JL

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Life or Death: America’s Crosswalks

In Baltimore, there are good crosswalks out there, but there are more that are mediocre.  Many have the stripes worn away. Others are not prominent enough to slow oncoming drivers. The sad state of crosswalks often includes areas that garner walkscore.com ‘s prestigious “walkers paradise” rating. Next time you are on a walk, notice the street crossings. Are they prominent? Are they in good condition? Do they slow car traffic?

In health circles, advocates preach that walking is good for your health.  That is not true if you get mowed over by a car, truck, or SUV. Walking can be deadly. In 2009, 4092 pedestrians were killed and 59,000 injured in the US according to walkinginfo.org According to the New York Daily News, “about 19% of the 770 pedestrian fatalities from 2005 to 2009 (in New York)- roughly 150 deaths-were people crossing at an intersection with the walk signal in their favor.” Over the five year period, 335 deaths occurred at intersections controlled by traffic signals.  This means crosswalks are not doing a good enough job, and there is room for innovation and upgrades.

Family sprinting to safety

Family sprinting to safety

In the 2010 Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State, prepared for the Governors Highway Safety Association, the study makes no meaningful analysis regarding the quality or type of crosswalks in pedestrian safety, nor does it dive into vehicle speeds or road design in areas where pedestrians frequent.  It does offer impotent conclusions like “pedestrian fatalities are affected by the amount of walking” and “no single countermeasure can make a substantial impact.” Pedestrian infrastructure deserves an out of the cubicle analysis.

Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City, argues walkability is the single factor to attracting and retaining business and entrepreneurial talent. Surely, playing frogger from one side of the street to the other is not part of the recipe for Speck’s walkable prosperity. Kaid Benfield has a persuasive post about poor walking conditions across America where he points out, that in 1973, sixty percent of American kids walked to school and by 2006, kids walking to school had dropped to 13 percent. Should walking to school in America be an unusual thing?  I don’t think so.

Pedestrian crossing sign near North Avenue light rail station

Pedestrian crossing sign near North Avenue light rail station

I write this post, because crosswalk (and street) design does not consume enough of the discussion about safety, walking for health, or economic revitalization. It should. Pedestrian planners are often not the ones with the big influence at DOTs or MPOs and their influence is not heard enough.  A notable exception may now be Los Angeles. LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is championing the investment of 53 “Continental Crosswalks” starting implementation near transit lines and schools. These crosswalks will have a vehicle stop line, have wider stripes, and be more prominent than LA’s other 5250 crossings.   LA has recognized the challenge and is beginning to overhaul its pedestrian infrastructure.

If your town, suburb, or city needs better crosswalks, let people know. It may save someone’s life.  I’ll conclude with a slideshow of good and not so good crosswalks.

JL

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