Howard seeks narrow roads Aim is to slow speeding drivers

January 24, 1998|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

The asphalt diet has begun in Howard County.

Following a growing national and international trend, county planners are asking developers of residential projects to build narrower roads with steeper grades with the goal of slowing speeding drivers.

The move is a tacit concession that the previous assumption -- that building wider, flatter roads would lead to safer driving and fewer accidents -- was wrong.

"America has always been a country where bigger is better," said Jeffrey L. Soule, policy director for the American Planning Association, a Washington-based research organization of planners, lawmakers and citizens. "But we're beginning to rethink that."

In Howard County, those "bigger is better" roads were 24 feet wide and graded to be fairly flat. Since spring, developers seeking to build residential communities have been told to design roads as narrow as 18 feet with slight inclines, said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

By comparison, Baltimore commuter thoroughfares such as Calvert and St. Paul streets are about 40 feet wide, and roads in neighborhoods such as Roland Park and Keswick are about 20 feet wide, said Bob Murrow, a spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works.

The rationale behind the Howard County change is simple, Rutter said: Steeper roads force drivers to keep their feet on the brakes, and narrower roads help dispel the drivers' perception of traveling on a wide-open "raceway."

"People feel comfortable driving at 35, 40 mph because there's good sight distance and a wide road to drive on," Rutter said of the current roads. "But there are children in these neighborhoods, people walking, biking and jogging, and the speed limit is 25 miles per hour. This really boils down to a safety issue."

David Rohrbaught, president of Ellicott City's Rockburn Township Homeowners Association, praised the idea. "It sounds like it could work," he said. "It sounds interesting."

Rohrbaught's neighborhood recently had five concrete circles installed at intersections on Rockburn Drive in an effort to thwart speeding.

Rutter said narrower roads could save money if they reduce the demand for such devices. George Frangos, an engineer with the county Department of Public Works, noted that speed humps can cost as much as $1,800 each.

"Speed humps are an admission that we overdesigned the road," Rutter said. "So why continue to build roads that we have to retrofit two months later?"

The concept is not new. Stephanie Faul, spokeswoman for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said planners in North America and Europe have been moving toward the narrow-road approach.

The idea has been implemented in communities near Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., Troy, N.Y., and Vancouver, British Columbia, Faul said. The notion is so popular in the Netherlands that the Dutch have developed a word for it -- "woonerf," which means "livable space in a neighborhood," she said.

"The motive is to effect a way where people can co-exist with cars," Faul said. "It doesn't stop people from driving, but it makes it easier for people and cars to get along."

Some say Rutter has jumped the gun in implementing the new standards.

During a hearing last week on a proposed 98-home community on 298 acres in Dayton, the county Board of Appeals criticized Rutter for imposing the criteria without seeking County Council approval.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray was also critical of the planning director.

"It's certainly well and good to have narrower roads, but from a process standpoint, this is something that should have been approved by us before it is implemented," said Gray, an east Columbia Democrat. "We need to have public hearings on it, and we need to let people know about it and discuss it."

Rutter said his office plans to file the necessary resolution this month, in time for the first council meeting next month.

Councilman Darrel E. Drown said the omission was minor.

"They probably should bring them before us," the Ellicott City Republican said of the proposed criteria. "But we get plenty of calls from our constituents complaining to us, and we've been in discussion about this for a long time."

One developer said he doesn't object to adhering to the proposed standards before council approval.

"The county has always been good about going back to review the current standards and making them more effective," said Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co. "With this, I think the risk is on the developers to design their plans according to the standards, and the developers will take the risk because it makes sense."

Soule said that although there are no statistical data to support the narrow-road argument, anecdotes suggest the results are successful.

"In the '70s, we designed neighborhoods where everything required a trip in the car, even to get a gallon of milk from the local store," Soule said. "Today, people are looking for more livable neighborhoods in a reasonable human scale, where the pedestrian, bike, child and dog have equal footing, instead of the car dominating everything."

Some civic leaders, although generally receptive to the idea, said it could create a citylike atmosphere that could lead to more problems.

"Sometimes people will walk into the road without looking, and if somebody's not paying attention, they will strike someone," said Greg Brown, president of the Cherrytree Farm Neighborhood Organization in Scaggsville. "If you have hills, I'm not sure that that encourages slowing down. I think it might encourage the opposite."

Rohrbaught said, "It's a trade-off. Narrow roads cut down on speeding, but there's less room for error if you have kids ducking in behind cars."

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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