Break up the Beltway

February 21, 2007|By Gerald Neily

When the Baltimore Beltway was completed in the early 1960s, it was part of a transportation revolution.

Beginning with mankind's first dirt trails, the purpose of transportation facilities had always been to connect places where people wanted to go. The Baltimore Beltway (Interstate 695) was one of the first highways built for the express purpose of allowing people to avoid a particular place - Baltimore.

Before the Beltway, the city was the inevitable focus of regional commerce, but the Beltway made it easy to avoid the city. The Beltway served its original purpose well, and people have been avoiding Baltimore ever since. Forty years later, we should recognize the need to make our transportation facilities work to create real connections between specific, well-defined places.

The Beltway defies one of the great laws of geometry: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. In contrast, the Beltway is a circle. If you travel far enough on the Beltway, you end up right back where you started. Traditional travel terms such as "northbound" had to be replaced with inadequate, almost metaphysical terms such as "inner loop."

Breaking the laws of geometry has consequences. By making it possible to drive in circles around Baltimore, what the Beltway really did was to create many new activity centers in lieu of the city. The Beltway's primary function is no longer to avoid the city, because there is not really enough "city" left to avoid, relative to the vast complex of activity surrounding Baltimore in all directions.

As a concept, the Beltway never made sense. It was a stopgap measure to compensate for the lack of other suburban roads and the incompletion of Interstate 95 for two more decades. Major road planning in Baltimore County pretty much began and ended with the completion of the Beltway (except for a few appendages such as Interstate 795 and White Marsh Boulevard). Not coincidentally, Baltimore County has been one of the nation's most successful jurisdictions in fighting sprawl.

Baltimore is now a much smaller piece of a much larger region that extends in all directions, but it relates most clearly to the megalopolitan corridor from Washington to Philadelphia and New York. So while it is probably too late to create stronger connections between the city and the small, well-established Beltway suburbs such as Catonsville and Parkville, there are greater opportunities along the larger Northeastern U.S. corridor: military base relocations to Fort Meade and Aberdeen, transit-oriented development opportunities in Odenton and Edgewood, commuters seeking outlet from Washington, and even New York Yankee fans attracted to Camden Yards.

Baltimore should be an integral part of it all. So we should get rid of the old, circular planning mentality and determine the best and most direct way to connect our city to the greater region.

We can start by thinking of the Beltway as less of a beltway. As you travel south on Interstate 83 from northern Baltimore County, the signs and markings direct you naturally from I-83 onto the Beltway's westbound outer loop. The natural southbound procession is then to continue around the Beltway. The west side of the Beltway should be renumbered I-83 instead of I-695 to reflect this.

Then, when the westbound/southbound/outer loop of the Beltway hits the Interstate 97 interchange south of Baltimore, the natural movement is to leave the Beltway and proceed south on I-97 toward Annapolis. So I-97 should also be renumbered I-83 to reflect this. The west side of the Beltway should be considered an integral part of the I-83 highway that is the most direct path from Harrisburg, Pa., to Annapolis, and all points in between.

The Jones Falls Expressway into downtown Baltimore is but a spur from this interstate highway, so it should be renumbered Interstate 183 - a three-digit number, like all interstate spurs. The I-795 spur to Owings Mills could also be renumbered I-183 as part of this urban spur into downtown.

The east side of the Beltway would remain I-695, creating a distinct identity from its west-side counterpart. The interchanges of I-95 and I-695 would no longer have a split personality. I-695 would be anchored to the east, while the interchange of I-95 and I-83 would be distinctly anchored to the west, with no more confusing talk of inner and outer loops.

It is time to break up the Beltway, and liberate ourselves from the circular reasoning of highways past.

Gerald Neily is an independent transportation planner who blogs at He can be reached at

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