Friday, September 25, 2009

The Rules of the Road

I missed national Park(ing) Day activities in Baltimore last Friday. I had heard that a new boutique hotel in the central business district (the Kimpton chain finally came to town) was going to participate. Coincidentally, that same day, friends dropped off an article from the February issue of Scientific American (thanks Lisa and Kerr!). The story explains how street closures and shared roadways can actually increase efficiency. The author describes what is known as the Nash Equilibrium, where an individual driver does not fare better than other drivers by seeking out the fastest route. Since most drivers take a selfish, individualistic approach to the road, the theory continues, most everyone is changing their strategy to reach the route perceived to be the most efficient. Which more often results in traffic jams.

Conversely, roads designed to force an unselfish approach seem to function more efficiently. The writer points to the concept of shared streets. "The practice encourages driver anarchy by removing traffic lights, street markings, and boundaries between the street and the sidewalk. Studies conducted in northern Europe, where shared streets are common, point to improved safety and traffic flow."

A Baltimore Share Lane.

Baltimore does not have shared streets, per se, but we are seeing an increase in "share lanes," which include large symbols of bicycles on the asphalt meant to encourage drivers to yield to cyclists. I didn't immediately grasp what this was when I first encountered one in my neighborhood. (If you want to talk more about cycling and the city, come to the D:Center's next Baltimore Design Convo on Wednesday, October 7 at 6:30 PM at The Wind Up Space. The topic will be biking.)

So back to parking. The story included a sidebar about San Francisco, the city where Park(ing) day was born. Planners in the United States in the 1950s believed that a few free parking spots downtown were paramount to attracting people into the city, a strategy now understood to be counterintuitive. It ignored the basic economic truth that lower prices increase demand, thus spurring an insatiable desire for more car parks. "Now limited urban space and concerns about global warming are inspiring city planners to eliminate these requirements," the article states. In San Francisco, a city that once required all development to include parking, planners now limit parking to no more than 7 % of a building's square footage. That's not a lot. The result: while employment has increased in the city, traffic congestion has gone down as people walk, bike, and take transit.

Ask the folks at the Downtown Partnership in Baltimore (where my brother works, FYI) and they will tell you that parking is a major issue in this city. Take it away and you risk a business relocating elsewhere. The challenge here is that many of the people coming into downtown do not live in walking distance. They cannot realistically bike in from the suburbs and regional public transit options are abysmal. Look at the places where share lanes and street closures work: New York, Portland, San Francisco...places with public transit and people living and working in close proximity. But even if you don't live nearby, see what happens in a place like New York. The distance from Queens to Manhattan is about 11 miles. The distance from Towson, Maryland to Baltimore city is about 14 miles, a negligible difference. You can get from Queens to a job in Midtown without needing a car. Not as easy a commute from Towson to the city.

So what's the answer? How do you take those cities where transit is limited to cars (most American cities) and attempt to transform them? I think I'll pose this question at the next Design Convo....