Happy Birthday, Beltway. You started as a detour. You evolved into Main Street.
Without so much as a fanfare, the Baltimore Beltway turned 30 years old last week. No cake, candles, balloons or mid-life crisis for this 52-mile ring of concrete, steel and asphalt -- just the usual thankless workday, getting hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks from one point to another.
The circular highway was initially conceived as an ideal way for East Coast interstate traffic to bypass the busy streets of Baltimore, particularly if the city became ground-zero in a nuclear attack -- a serious consideration when Congress adopted its national interstate and defense highway program in the mid-1950s.
But the only explosion the Beltway ever witnessed was the boom of traffic in the neighborhoods surrounding the city. As a result, Interstate 695 evolved into the region's most important connector, the vital artery feeding the fast-growing suburbs.
It is simultaneously the bane and boon of every motorist. Get from Catonsville to Towson in less than 20 minutes without it? You might as well sprout wings and fly.
A generation of shopping malls, tract housing developments, office parks, strip shopping centers, and apartment complexes has sprung up around it. No public works project has meant more to Baltimore. No other highway is more loathed.
"It is a love-hate relationship, but believe me, we'd be much worse off if it wasn't there," said J. Craig Forrest, Baltimore County's transportation coordinator. "It's the main street of the entire Baltimore region."
In an average rush hour, a quarter-million motor vehicles will traverse the highway -- though at peak hours they will sometimes have to do so at a snail's pace. In a typical year, 926 people are injured in Beltway accidents; eight or nine are killed.
Before the Beltway was created, people generally lived, worked, shopped and were entertained in the city. Today, they are no longer so city-centered.
"It may have been built as a bypass, but that's no longer its primary function," said Neil J. Pedersen, director of planning for the State Highway Administration. "The Beltway didn't cause suburban growth, but it certainly facilitated it."
The statistics make it clear that for the past three decades, the region's most fertile area for growth was beyond the Beltway.
Between 1960 and 1990, the number of people living in Baltimore shrank 21.6 percent to 736,014. The population of the Baltimore region, not including the city, nearly doubled from 864,721 to 1.6 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In 1960, three of every four Baltimore County commuters were headed into the city for work each day. Thirty years later, more than half of those county commuters go to jobs somewhere in the suburbs.
The Beltway has helped convert a string of towns and villages into what planners call "edge" cities -- Towson, Catonsville, Essex, Pikesville, Glen Burnie, Timonium, Owings Mills, White Marsh. Most new jobs and homes are created in or around those fast-growing communities positioned around the high-speed highway.
A suburbanite can easily live in one place, White Marsh, perhaps, and work in another, Catonsville. Community distinctions become blurred: what's important is that they are all part of a ring of development.
"The dominant commuting pattern of cities today is a suburb-to-suburb pattern," said Alan E. Pisarski, a national transportation policy consultant based in Falls Church, Va. "That was abetted by beltways."
Baltimore's experience is part of a national trend felt over three decades: a dramatic increase in the number of commuters, private vehicles and suburban jobs.
Typical of the Beltway generation are Jane and Michael Feigh of Owings Mills. They are in their 30s, live in a three-bedroom rancher, and have a 2-year-old son, Christopher.
Mr. Feigh, a major appliance technician for General Electric, commutes each morning on the Beltway, picking up parts near the Security Boulevard interchange before visiting clients. Mrs. Feigh takes the Beltway when she goes grocery shopping, drops by her in-laws, or visits her doctor in Timonium.
Do they live in Owings Mills to be near family? Because they grew up there? Because they work there? None of the above. They moved to Owings Mills because they liked the convenient access to the Beltway.
"At some point in the day, I'm probably on the Beltway," said Mrs. Feigh. "You fight the traffic and make sure you don't get caught in rush hour."
Such a notion would have seemed absurd on that hot July 1 day in 1962 when the black and yellow ribbon was cut near the Reisterstown Road exit and a four-lane, 32.8-mile Beltway opened for business. Shaped like a horseshoe, it linked Pulaski Highway on the east to Ritchie Highway on the south.
(For the record, the Beltway's first traffic jam began minutes after the 3 p.m. opening. Its first accident, a fender-bender, came at 4:30 p.m.)