Mixed signal confuses, but works

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

June 21, 1993

The downtown thoroughfare of St. Paul/Light Street just didn't seem the same anymore.

Traveling along Baltimore's busy southbound street, Intrepid Commuter instantly sensed that something had changed, some fundamental quality was different.

A light went off in the Intrepid One's head, but not at the intersection of Light and Lombard streets.

Aha.

Maybe some of you haven't caught on yet.

The change is relatively minor, but the results have been significant.

In January, the city made adjustments at three intersections along St. Paul and Light streets (the name changes from St. Paul to Light as you cross Baltimore Street) to keep traffic moving at a better clip.

Among the changes was new traffic-light controls for the double right-turn lanes at the Lombard Street intersection.

No big deal, right? Well, here's the rub.

When Light Street traffic is stopped at the Lombard Street intersection, travelers in the second lane from the west curb now have the option of turning right or going straight.

But they also are confronted by two red right-turn arrows. They remain red six seconds longer than the red lights above the through lanes.

This seems to cause problems, Intrepid has observed. First, some motorists think they should be able to go straight when the lights over the adjoining lanes turn green.

Second, when the arrow turns green and the motorist goes straight rather than right, he or she faces a gauntlet of cars with a head start. Many are bound for Interstate 95 and are eager to shift to the curb lane before the turn at Conway.

Drivers can find themselves cut off by the inconsiderate.

We brought this to the attention recently of James W. Causey, head of the city's traffic division. He thinks he may have an answer.

First, he explains, the straight option was installed to improve the southbound flow, and it seems to work.

Second, the right-turn arrows at Lombard linger on red to give pedestrians a chance to cross Lombard before traffic starts up.

"You're being delayed deliberately to protect the pedestrians," he says. "Our observations have been that this has been successful in doing that."

But, he notes, there is a traffic mixing problem between Lombard and Conway because of the delay. To remedy that, the city will soon paint lines to steer traffic across Lombard Street in a more orderly fashion. Motorists going straight from the right-turn lane will be directed to the curb lane on Light Street. The lane to the left gets the second-from-the-curb and so on.

As for those drivers who think they can go straight on a red, right-turn arrow, Mr. Causey says they are simply wrong.

"A red arrow means you're in a stop condition and you can't turn right and you can't go straight ahead," he said.

Baltimore, why not put your shoulders to good use?

It's an idea presented to us recently by Marvin Marks of Baltimore who thinks Beltway traffic congestion could be substantially eased by making use of the highway's shoulders.

Specifically, Mr. Marks wants to allow motorists to use the shoulder on southbound Interstate 695 from Windsor Mill Road to the Security Boulevard exit. (For those who don't drive the Westside regularly, that's about 2 miles.)

It would be like a 2-mile-long, right-turn lane. Traffic would be required to exit at Security Boulevard. The lane would be in effect only during peak morning rush, perhaps from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.

"It would do a great deal to relieve congestion for both the people exiting and the people continuing on I-695," Mr. Marks writes. "Is there any way this could at least be tested for a month or so?"

Maybe. Maybe not.

State Highway Administration officials say it's an interesting idea, particularly with the mounting number of cars jamming the Westside. However they have some concerns and won't commit to a trial run quite yet.

"But in general," says spokeswoman Liz Kalinowski, "we're not completely opposed to such an idea."

Here's the deal, Mr. Marks. They worry about how the loss of a shoulder might effect emergency situations: disabled cars, fire trucks and ambulances. They are also fearful that once people become accustomed to driving the shoulder some of the time, it could get tough keeping them off. Think about how people have slowly come to abuse right turn on red laws.

The state has so far been reluctant to use shoulders. The SHA has created only two permanent shoulder lanes, along Route 4 to the Capitol Beltway and on U.S. 29, where the lane is used for buses.

SHA types promise, however, to look at it as part of their long-range, I-695 planning efforts.

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