County Council seeks to navigate hazardous path of traffic calming

Safety, public opinion often at odds in efforts to keep car speeds down

November 13, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Facing a lack of clear guidelines, the Baltimore County Council is seeking countywide standards for installing "traffic-calming devices," the often contentious mechanisms used to slow cars in residential neighborhoods.

Traffic calming is probably the No. 1 request of community groups throughout the county, councilmen and neighborhood leaders say, but the county's response has been haphazard and community reaction mixed.

On Newburg Avenue in Catonsville in 1996, a group of residents began studying ways to slow down cars. Eventually they succeeded in getting the county to act.

Now five sets of urnlike planters, about 3 1/2 feet in diameter and 3 feet high, sit opposite each other on the street at 100-yard intervals. In theory, they slow drivers down by making them think the road is narrower than it is.

Some call the planters a boon to the neighborhood. Others call them an accident waiting to happen.

"I'm out here all the time with my kids, and it really has slowed the traffic down," said Eric M. Lund, who has a 5-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. "The quality of life in my yard has definitely improved as a result."

"I hate it," said Fred K. Wolf, who has lived on the street for 45 years. "Everybody plays chicken when they come up to them and there's a car coming the other way. It doesn't really do any good."

In several cities and counties across the nation, backlash against traffic calming has resulted in lawsuits, petitions and other forms of pressure on local governments. In Montgomery County, a group tried unsuccessfully in 1998 to amend the county's charter to ban speed humps.

Probably the most commonly requested - and most disputed - traffic-calming device, the speed hump, is a larger version of the kind of speed bumps found in supermarket parking lots. They're usually 3 inches high at the peak and 12 to 22 feet wide.

Theoretically, drivers traveling the speed limit notice only a minor disruption. But critics of the speed hump say they can damage cars, impair the ability of emergency vehicles to maneuver and cause pain for people with disabilities who ride over them.

David A. Loughery, program manager in Montgomery's public works department, said the county has worked to designate routes for emergency vehicles and, because the referendum failed, speed-hump opposition has all but vanished. The county has more than 1,400 such devices, at a cost of about $2,200 apiece.

Howard County has an extensive traffic-calming program that uses traffic islands, pinch points - narrow sections of a road - and other techniques, but no longer uses speed humps because they proved too controversial, said Public Works Director James M. Irvin.

Baltimore County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, said the county needs to be aware of problems other jurisdictions have encountered.

"I don't think a policy should be established until we are clear on what the implications are," he said. "Right now, it appears we don't even have a policy. We're not consistent, and I think citizens should have the opportunity to have a consistent response."

Baltimore County has no written policy on traffic calming but has worked with council members and communities in a few cases to install pinch points, median islands and traffic circles. The county has refused to allow speed humps.

The council's resolution, which was co-sponsored by all seven members, calls on the Planning Board to make recommendations by spring in hopes that funding can be included in next year's capital budget.

Darrel A. Wiles, the Traffic and Transportation Bureau chief, said the county will have to be careful. If it makes standards too permissive, it won't be able to fund all eligible requests. If it makes them too strict, no streets will qualify.

On Newburg Avenue, no one knew what traffic calming was or how to get it, said Vince Iatesta Jr., a local businessman who spearheaded the efforts there.

Iatesta started doing research. He borrowed a radar gun from police, did speed surveys and found that the 85th-percentile speed on the 25-mph stretch of road was 38 mph, meaning that 15 percent of motorists drove faster than that.

Many traffic-calming programs set standards based on the 85th-percentile measure. In Montgomery, for example, the 85th-percentile speed in a 25-mph zone needs to be at least 32 mph to warrant speed humps.

Baltimore County has no rules like that, but armed with their research, Iatesta and his neighbors got help from the Department of Public Works in formulating a plan.

Initially, they envisioned a neighborhoodwide approach including narrowing streets at certain points, making some streets one-way and cutting off others to through traffic.

But they didn't get the support they needed from other residents, and the plan got whittled down to the planters.

Some in the area say they'd like to see the planters go, too, but Iatesta said the planters seem to have had a modest effect, reducing the 85th-percentile speed by about 3 mph.

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