The city has put a busy business corridor in northeast Baltimore on a “road diet” — reducing the number of lanes for cars and installing floating bus stops and bike lanes. The goal is to make the stretch of Harford Road between Echodale and White Avenues safer not just for pedestrians, bus riders and bikers, but also for cars.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, road diets like this one can reduce crashes by an average of 29 percent.
The agency says the best candidates for these changes are minor traffic corridors that are overbuilt and unsafe. That’s why Harford Road got one, said Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who ushered in the plan.
“Baltimore City has basically shirked any level of responsibility to use its power to design streets in order to move people, and instead has chosen to try to move cars,” said Dorsey, who represents the area. “We have a responsibility to engineer for the safety and movement of people.”
The road diet is part of a broader plan to redevelop the Hamilton Business District. It came about through a $400,000 state transportation grant and several community stakeholder meetings.
Here’s how it works: The city reduced four busy traffic lanes to three. Two lanes run up and down the street; a middle lane is for left-turns.
Lane reductions cut down on crashes in part because they reduce the number of times cars have to cross paths. According to the Federal Highway Administration, four-lane roads experience high crash rates — especially as traffic volumes and turning movements increase over time, as they have on Harford Road — due to crashes between cars moving straight at high speeds and those turning left. Studies also show that motorists drive slower when there are fewer lanes.
The city added bike lanes throughout the corridor. A lane of parking remains on either side of the street.
The city also added four floating bus stops, raised platforms on the side of the road that allow buses to pick up riders without weaving in and out of traffic lanes.
Floating bus stops prevent parked or idling cars from getting in the way of riders trying to board, optimizing the bus’s performance.
Because of the reduced lanes, drivers can no longer pass stopped buses. The new conditions have added a minute and 12 seconds to morning southbound commutes down the corridor and 44 seconds to evening northbound commutes, Dorsey said, citing estimates from the city Department of Transportation.
That’s a worthwhile price for calmer traffic, safer driving patterns and improved bus times, the councilman said.
“It's a safer environment than it ever was before,” Dorsey said. “We're going to eventually prove that this is a strategy for how we revitalize historic corridors like Harford Road all around Baltimore City.”
Some businesses say they’ve seen new customers thanks to the road diet.
“We have people come in that are like, ‘hey, we live two blocks away and didn't know you were here,’ because they're flying by on their way home from work and they don't see us,” said Jeremy Price, the executive chef of Hamilton Tavern.
Price himself was skeptical of the road diet. But the Hamilton resident said he changed his mind after he realized it made all forms of transportation around the corridor safer thanks to slower driving.
“It makes people pay attention,” he said. “Once they get into the corridor where the lanes are changing, you can't be just gunning it through the intersection and almost running me over, or hurting somebody else.”
Many local residents WYPR spoke with agreed with Price. But others, like Gil Silva, said he didn’t want safety improvements if it meant he had to spend longer times traveling up and down the corridor by car or bus.
“Why should everybody have to wait?” he said. “This is a busy road, especially for people that live in Parkville and work downtown.”
“A little delay here and there in order for everybody to be a lot safer, and for vulnerable road users to be prioritized,” Dorsey said, “that's something I think that we can afford.”
Experts say road diets can provide long-term benefits — and that the rest of Baltimore should consider following Harford Road's lead.
Building roadways that are inviting to everyone “is important not just for the health and vitality of the businesses along the corridor, but also ensures that more residents can access destinations of importance, whether it be a grocery store or a job,” said Joe McAndrew, director of transportation policy at the Greater Washington Partnership, an organization that advocates for transit as a means of economic growth throughout the region.
“We're expecting to see an increase in residents and jobs throughout the Baltimore region over the next 20 years,” McAndrew said. “If we don't change the travel commuting patterns, you would expect to see growing traffic congestion and mobility challenges.”