Negotiating city speed humps is an increasingly bumpy road

Motorists deplore them, neighborhoods want them

October 07, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

If you seem to be hitting more bumps in the road on Baltimore's streets, it's at least partly by design.

Since the late 1990s, the city, acting at the request of residents seeking to slow drivers speeding through their neighborhoods, has installed one or more speed humps at nearly 100 locations. Two dozen more requests are pending, from Forest Park in Northwest Baltimore to Cherry Hill in South Baltimore, and more are arriving every week.

The city's Department of Transportation Web site lists "How do I get a speed hump installed in my neighborhood?" among the half-dozen most frequently asked questions, along with "My vehicle has been towed ... how do I get it back?" and "How do I report a pothole?"

But even as the requests continue, the move to install the devices is encountering some bumpy roads.

In North Baltimore last month, after a contentious months-long debate, a proposal to have speed humps installed on stretches of two well-traveled city streets fell short of the required supermajority of area residents - for the second time in the past two years.

"There are just too many negatives, and they weren't going to resolve things," said Mari Ross, who voted against installation of the devices on Lake and Gittings avenues between Charles Street and York Road. "I have a 93-year-old mother who lives with me. I'd like to think that if she had a problem, emergency vehicles could get there in a timely fashion without slowing down for speed humps."

The outcome disappointed Daniela Calzetti, who went door to door in her Cedarcroft neighborhood advocating the speed humps because of concerns for her two small children.

"My children are forbidden from going on the front lawn," said Calzetti, whose house is on Gittings Avenue. "The road is definitely dangerous."

The devices are designed to do what police can't: provide round-the-clock traffic control. Outside the United States, speed humps are often called "sleeping policemen." In Jamaica, signs warn: "Sleeping Policemen Ahead."

Stumbling blocks

While most agree the humps do slow traffic, others say they don't really solve the problem, they just move it from one street to another. And driver advocates and transportation officials acknowledge that the issues raised by speed humps and other so-called "traffic-calming" devices extend beyond neighborhood boundaries, pitting residents' wishes to live in as sedate an environment as possible against the desire of commuters to travel relatively unimpeded.

"People do have a right to go through neighborhoods," said John White, head of public and governmental relations for AAA of Maryland. "They also have to obey the speed limit.

"If neighborhood streets are becoming thoroughfares, the local jurisdiction needs to see how it can increase capacity on major thoroughfares," he added.

Striking a balance

Frank J. Murphy, Baltimore's chief of transportation planning, said having too many speed humps could create a "motorist backlash."

"We feel you need to have a balance," he said. "You don't want so many speed humps that people get irritated."

If that happens, they could ignore other laws, such as stop signs, creating more problems, he said.

Baltimore and Howard counties are among the jurisdictions that have decided to curtail their use as much as possible, opting for other ways to control speed.

"While these devices are effective in reducing speed and are relatively inexpensive to build, they also cause aggravation to motorists and can cause them to divert onto other local streets to avoid them," according to a Baltimore County policy adopted in the spring and posted on its Department of Public Works' Web site.

This fall, the county plans to install its first speed hump on Placid Avenue north of Carney, said Darrell Wiles, Baltimore County's chief of traffic and transportation, along with two "chokers" - extensions of curbs to reduce the road width.

Humps "bring more negative baggage than any of the other devices" to reduce speed, Wiles said. "If other measures can be applied, the other measures, we felt, were more desirable."

The city has occasionally used other devices to slow traffic, such as traffic islands, but they are not suitable for all streets and must go through a more complex budgeting and contracting process, Murphy said. In fact, the city agreed to allow concrete bump-outs, designed to slow traffic by reducing the width of lanes, as well as speed humps on Gittings Avenue, but that alternative also failed to muster the needed votes.

The city installs speed humps, which cost about $2,000 apiece, only after careful study, he said.

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