The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore recently came up with a unique way to cope with snarled traffic. When there is a major traffic nightmare, say a water main erupting at 4 p.m. on Pratt Street, the partnership's Web site (getarounddowntown.com) will issue "traffic alert" coupons.
These coupons will be good for discounts at various downtown stores and restaurants. The idea of getting drivers off the road, lingering in restaurants instead of grinding their teeth while stuck in a gridlock, is a clever one. It might work for emergencies. But I have a congestion-fighting concept that could work every day: Synchronize the traffic lights.
This is my crusade. If I ever run for mayor, synchronizing the traffic lights would be my one-issue platform. It is not, I admit, a noble idea or one brimming with great civic vision. But it would keep traffic moving, lower road rage and maybe save some gasoline.
From time to time, I read news stories in which local government officials promise that the end of congestion is near. I read that new computers and high-tech improvements will eliminate ill-timed lights. I read that someday soon we will ride a great wave of green lights to our destinations. Then I get stuck at an out-of-sync light and I fume.
Lately, I have seen plenty of new signal control boxes at Baltimore intersections. They are big, boxy structures that block the sight lines of any pedestrians standing near them. If elected, I would place unsightly metal boxes either higher up on utility poles or underground.
I often ask myself if the traffic-signal situation is in worse shape here than in other parts of the country. My answer usually depends on whether I have been snagged on my way home by that new stoplight installed at Fallsway and Monument Street, just a tempting half-block south of the Madison Street entry ramp to the Jones Falls Expressway.
There is some national evidence that our traffic signals are in sorry shape. In fact, Maryland was given a D-minus rating for its traffic-signal system in a report card issued two years ago by the National Transportation Operations Coalition.
Low as it seems, that mark was the average grade for states participating in the study. A new report card is scheduled to be issued this fall.
According to Bert Sperling, an Oregon-based consultant whose Web site (Sperling's BestPlaces), rates the livability of American cities, Baltimore is the fourth-most-difficult city in America to navigate.
Baltimore's bridge tunnels and lack of predictable street grid put it behind only Boston, Washington and San Francisco in driving difficulty. Sperling teamed up with Avis and Motorola in a 2004 analysis of driving in American cities.
Rants about unsynchronized traffic lights are not, I learned, limited to me or my fellow Marylanders. A computer-assisted prowl of the topic found plenty of fellow howlers all around the country complaining about ill-timed lights. My favorite came from Santa Fe, N.M., where a letter writer to The New Mexican newspaper said: "I am sure that the City Hall person whose job it is to synchronize stoplights is a very nice person ... maybe even goes to church. But that person's person's performance costs you and me hundreds of dollars every year in wasted gas and helps pollute the air with unnecessary exhaust."
What I can't overlook, no matter how hard I try, is the related question of whether I really want to live in a place where the streets are speedways. There is something to be said for traffic interruptus, for meandering down a street taking in the view as opposed to roaring through a neighborhood to get to the great beyond.
My guess is that people who complain about the lack of synchronized lights don't want such lights on the streets where they live.
If I were running for mayor and pestered by reporters, I would probably end up waffling on the issue of synchronized traffic signals. I would say I favor putting them on the streets that I drive on but not on the one that I live on.
I would, however, quickly add that I support synchronizing the light rail signals. If elected, I would insist that the light rail trains be equipped with devices that change the traffic lights on Howard Street to green as trains approach an intersection. This would keep the trains from crawling through downtown at a snail's pace, as one did the other night when I rode it to Camden Yards for a baseball game.
The train took such a long time getting to the ballpark that all the Cal Ripken bobbleheads were gone by the time I got there. That should not happen in Charm City, where the lights should be synchronized and Cal's head should be bobbling in every home.