At least he made the traffic move

April 12, 1997|By Antero Pietila

HIS NAME IS largely forgotten now. But in 1953, when Henry A. Barnes was hired to straighten out Baltimore's traffic problems, he became the highest paid official in the city government and, except for the mayor, the most powerful.

Even today, nearly 29 years after his death, Hank Barnes' stamp remains on Baltimore -- ''a town that even Rube Goldberg couldn't invent,'' according to his condescending 1965 autobiography.

During his nine years here, he banished the last of Baltimore's streetcars, installed a network of one-way streets, introduced parking meters and synchronized traffic lights. ''The biggest obstacle for the traffic engineer is the unwillingness of people to change old habits,'' said the cigar-smoking director who went on to became a controversial traffic commissioner in New York City.

Mr. Barnes thought women in particular were beyond hope. ''I love them all,'' he said, ''but when a woman driver puts out her hand, you never know whether she is feeling to see if the window is open, drying her nail polish or making a turn.''

During Mr. Barnes' tenure here, the postwar exodus to the suburbs was still in its infancy. There was talk about the city's population soon reaching one million. That, of course, never happened. The population had peaked in 1950 at 949,708 and then began falling. By last year, it had dipped to 675,401, the lowest level in eight decades.

Such shrinkage has created many problems. Among them is an overabundance of vacant and deteriorated housing, a topic provocatively covered in a three-part series this week by Sun reporters John O'Donnell and Jim Haner. (The vacant-housing crisis will be the focus of a conference sponsored by the Citizens Planning and Housing Association from 9 a.m. to 1: 30 p.m. next Saturday at the Baltimore City College. For information, call 539-1369).

Undo the damage

If there is a silver lining, it is that depopulation offers a unique opportunity to undo some of the worst damage of Hank Barnes and his disciples.

Mr. Barnes' single-minded mission was to unsnarl and speed traffic. He did what needed to be done. That's why cities from London and Paris to Buenos Aires and Managua, Nicaragua, sought his advice and solutions. But he gave little thought to the impact of his edicts on residential or commercial neighborhoods. Maintaining the livability of cities was not his concern, moving traffic was.

At one point in Baltimore, he told the Women's Civic League that its annual one-day Flower Mart in May hampered traffic at Mount NTC Vernon Square and would have to be moved. The ladies refused. Uncharacteristically, the usually inflexible Mr. Barnes capitulated. But he insisted on one-way traffic on Charles Street, a decision which even today is seen by some as having started the decline of its retail activity.

Traffic patterns can either make residential neighborhoods more desirable or less so. As a legacy of Hank Barnes, this shrinking city has far too many one-way streets than are needed today.

Here is just one example: Traffic volume does not necessitate one-way flow on Eutaw Street or Madison Avenue between North Avenue and Druid Hill Park. If they were converted back into two-way traffic, the likely result would be a friendlier streetscape, more people presence and more homeownership and restoration. This would be an easy and cheap way to enhance these once-elegant streets and improve struggling Reservoir Hill.

As population losses decrease traffic volume, the time has come to rethink Henry Barnes' actions. Many neighborhoods could benefit from the reversal of some of his most excessive decisions.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/12/97

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