Roland Park may be going on a road diet.
As part of efforts to address safety hazards and other issues stemming from the installation of a divisive cycle track on Roland Avenue, city officials are proposing to conduct a nearly month-long “road diet” experiment that would involve reducing the number of lanes for vehicular traffic from two to one during the test period.
Representatives from Baltimore’s Department of Transportation (DOT) will hold a community meeting on April 1 to explain how the test would work and gauge community sentiment about moving ahead with the demonstration project.
The meeting is a sign that transportation planners in the Pugh administration are seriously considering permanently cutting the number of lanes for car traffic on Roland Avenue, a much-used thoroughfare in North Baltimore, despite opposition from many Roland Park residents.
The area that would be affected by the temporary reduction of traffic lanes is the boulevard-like stretch that sits roughly between Cold Spring Lane to the south and Northern Parkway to the north. DOT officials are proposing to conduct the study between April 17 and May 12, a period of three and a half weeks that includes school breaks and the Easter holiday. Here’s a link to a flyer showing where it would take place.
The idea is the product of efforts to improve safety and eliminate hazardous conditions following the creation of a cycle track occupying part of the roadway previously used by parked and moving cars.
Now three and a half years old, the cycle track offered a pair of protected lanes designed to let cyclists more safely traverse Roland Avenue. But to many neighbors’ and drivers’ dismay, it removed curbside parking on many blocks, requiring them to park their cars in “floating” lanes away from the sidewalk, a configuration that Roland Park Civic League members said has caused numerous accidents.
The road diet was an idea that transportation planners suggested for Roland Avenue last year, when they proposed five options for addressing safety hazards posed by the cycle track configuration, with costs ranging from $200,000 to $1.4 million. Four of the five suggested options called for reducing the number of travel lanes from two to one in both directions.
At a June 14 meeting that drew 200 people, DOT representatives said one of the plans that called for reducing Roland Avenue traffic from two lanes to one in each direction was their preferred option, and that its $200,000-$250,000 price tag meant that they had the funds to implement it right way.
Planners said the amount of road surface taken up by the existing second lane could be used to widen the floating parking lane, so that drivers would have more room to get in and out of their cars and there would be more of a buffer between moving traffic and the bike lanes.
Many Roland Park residents rejected the idea of a road diet, saying that reducing Roland Avenue to one lane of vehicular traffic would create bottlenecks and lengthen travel times, especially during morning and afternoon rush hours when parents are dropping off or picking up children at nearby schools. They also voiced fears that having only one lane for cars would make travel more difficult for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.
Instead of selecting any of the five options to pursue, DOT director Michelle Pourciau formed a task force to study the matter further and recommend how to proceed. The road diet has come up again during meetings of the task force.
The idea of a road diet demonstration project has strong support from the head of cycling advocacy nonprofit Bikemore. Executive director Liz Cornish said they’ve advocated for years for reducing the number of vehicular lanes on Roland Avenue from two to one. Doing so would require traffic to slow down while also widening the cycle track and parking zone, she said.
“We believe that taking the street down to one lane is a great way to accommodate everyone,” she said.
But even before the April 1 meeting, the idea has drawn opposition from the president of the Roland Park Civic League, Robert Connors, who has been serving on the DOT task force to explore ways to improve Roland Avenue. In a letter addressed this week to neighborhood association members and other residents, Connors said it doesn’t make sense to conduct the study.
He wrote that even though other community stakeholders questioned the idea at a DOT-arranged meeting earlier this month, the agency is moving ahead anyway. He said the fire department, schools and local businesses were among those who attended, and all of them “expressed serious safety concerns about this proposal.”
His position, he said, is that “the road diet concept is an inappropriate treatment here because it’s experimental, not based on best practices or data,” and that it would only heighten existing “unsafe conditions” or create new ones. Specifically, he expressed concerns about DOT’s plan to place orange drums in the road to reduce the number of lanes, and raised questions about the effects it would have on emergency vehicles.
Connors also said in his letter that said that DOT has not completed studies that the community asked for, including a “comprehensive engineering survey” or a traffic circulation study.
DOT spokesman German Vigil said he does not know why the studies weren’t completed. The agency is now holding a public meeting to outline plans for the road diet test and answer questions, and the response from the community will help planners determine whether to proceed.
At this point, “we haven’t decided if we’re going to go ahead with it,” Vigil said. “This is just a preliminary idea.”
If the city does decide after April 1 to move ahead with the test, it will be in effect 24 hours a day, Vigil said. DOT will be monitoring the response from motorists, especially during hours when parents are picking up or dropping off children at schools.
Cornish said this isn’t the first time the city has studied the idea of putting a public road on a diet to improve safety. She pointed to The Big Jump, an ongoing year-long project to create a separate track for bicyclists and others on 28th Street and other roads connecting Reservoir Hill and Remington, using flex posts and water-filled barriers.
A successful example of a road diet, she said, was when northbound traffic on Charles Street was reduced to one lane between 29th Street and University Parkway.
For Roland Avenue, Cornish worries three and a half weeks may not be long enough to give planners a sense of how drivers will react to the change, as drivers may temporarily use alternative thoroughfares like Falls Road during the test.
Cornish applauded city officials for proposing to test the idea. She said the only real time when Roland Avenue is congested is the two hours a day when parents are dropping off or picking up children at their schools. “We don’t think you need to design streets for two hours a day and then be unsafe for the other 22 hours a day.”
The April 1 DOT meeting will run from 6-7:30 p.m. at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School. If the city proceeds with the road diet test, Vigil said, the drums will be removed after it ends and Roland Avenue will return to its two-lane design.
Planners will then evaluate data to determine whether to recommend making the road diet permanent. “If it makes traffic worse, we will have to come up with a different solution,” Vigil said.
And if people at the April 1 meeting voice strong opposition to the test?
“If they say they don’t want it, we’re going to have to listen. Our goal is to listen.”
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