As traffic grows, so does demand for speed bumps

April 09, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

Steve McKew knows not every neighbor is fond of the changes on Hilton Avenue.

But he likes the sharp turn and flashing lights at the end of his street in Catonsville's Oak Forest Park neighborhood. The curbs that jut into the street? The bumps capable of scratching the muffler of a speeding car? Even better.

"It's worth any inconvenience," says McKew, president of the Catonsville Recreation and Parks Council. "It's a small price to pay for saving the life of a child riding a bike or someone walking down the street."

In response to growing concern about speeding and erratic driving in neighborhoods, governments throughout the Baltimore region have developed "traffic calming" programs. Officials in Baltimore County have found that theirs is so wildly - and widely - popular that there's always a waiting list.

Requests for speed bumps, concrete funnels and traffic circles have more than doubled in the past three years. And in at least one Towson-area neighborhood, a resident built his own speed obstacle.

The asphalt bump built several years ago in the alley behind Murdock Road in Rodgers Forge was removed because such civilian-made hurdles aren't allowed in the county. But it did get a nod of approval from some neighbors.

"The rules are the rules. But on the other hand, you want it in your neighborhood," says Lawrence Swoboda, president of the Rodgers Forge Community Association. "You see the kids playing in the alley, walking home from school. ... The speeders aren't generally the residents. It's the people cutting through."

As traffic in the region has increased and commutes have grown longer, neighborhoods in the Baltimore area are noticing that their side streets have become alternates to clogged highways and shortcuts to trim drive times.

But local governments are reluctant to respond to every problem with a hump or traffic circle.

Baltimore City, and Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford, Carroll and Baltimore counties all require a majority of homeowners in a given problem area to approve new bumps or other speed-reducing measures. Many, including Baltimore County, have established specific calculations on the volume of cars and average speeds that quantify a need for a change.

And in Anne Arundel, the communities are also often required to help pay for speed bumps, which cost $1,300 to $1,950 each, says James Schroll, chief of the traffic engineering division.

Developers are also routinely told to incorporate - and pay for - traffic-calming measures, such as signals, speed bumps, and roundabouts in new communities.

"We have the most problems with long, straight, wide streets," said J. Michael Evans, director of Carroll County's Department of Public Works. "The newer developments have narrower roads that squiggle around," which he says reduces the need for speed bumps.

Engineers say the curves and width of a road are among the "psychological" features that cause motorists reflexively to reduce speed.

Sometimes, something as simple as more trees along a street can make drivers feel the need to slow down, says David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration. Other times, parking or bike lanes are painted along the sides of a road or islands are built in the middle of thoroughfares.

Then, there are the curbs, called "chokers," that bump out to narrow a road. The name alone sounds like something a driver would instinctively avoid.

But the most popular request is for the speed bump or hump - the sudden rise in the pavement that causes motorists to feel a jolt at fast speeds. A Harford County brochure about its neighborhood traffic management program notes that they're sometimes referred to as the "sleeping policeman."

Traffic engineers say they're quite effective.

In Baltimore County, for example, studies show that they generally reduce average speeds 5 to 10 miles per hour, says Keith Link, head of the county's traffic-calming program.

But they aren't always the right solution to a speeding problem, he and other officials say. They aren't constructed on heavily traveled roads or on streets with a speed limit of more than 25 mph. They're not recommended for winding or short streets either.

Traffic planners also point out that they can slow the response of emergency vehicles by several seconds.

Officials generally wait for communities to come to them with requests. And the burden is on the residents to prove that a majority of their neighbors agree that a traffic-calming device is needed. Often, they're required to go door to door with petitions.

There are residents who are unwilling to approve the measures - which, in some cases, blocks the projects. Some feel the garish yellow stripes on the road detract from the value of the nearby homes. Others call the speed bumps inverted potholes.

But it's not just the majority that rules. All the local governments also have standards for the speed and volume of cars on a road that warrant a change.

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