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Transportationby Mark Reutter4:42 pmFeb 14, 20230

Questions raised about Baltimore’s $4.5 million study to retime its traffic signals

Critics want assurances it won’t be a car-centric review that ignores the needs of pedestrians and bikers and the requirements of the Complete Streets law

Above: Traffic streaming west on Baltimore’s Edmondson Avenue at rush hour. (Fern Shen)

Baltimore’s notoriously long waits for traffic lights to “change color” has long been a source of aggravation for drivers and, at the same time, a source of potential harm to pedestrians and bicyclists as vehicles race to avoid reds and make time on greens.

The city Department of Transportation is planning a $4.5 million signal retiming study – up for Board of Estimates approval tomorrow – that it says will help ease the backups and lost time at 1,100 signaled intersections.

2/15/23 UPDATE: Following the boycott of today’s BOE meeting by Comptroller Bill Henry and Council President Nick Mosby, this item was deferred.

In 2021, WYPR’s Aaron Henkin timed how long he waited at red lights while doing routine chores and family pickups. Fully 24% of his drive time was spent going nowhere.

The agency wants to hire traffic engineers Mead & Hunt to explore ways to re-jigger the signals – each a Rube Goldberg collection of dials and cam shafts that determine how long the lights show green, yellow and red – controlling the movement of the roughly 250,000 motorists that roll down city streets daily.

Warning From Bikemore

The simple goal of the study is to “minimize and balance congestion,” says DOT.

But behind that goal are many considerations, some of them conflicting, that will impact not only drivers, but city residents who walk, bike and use other forms of transportation.

DOT wants to focus attention on resignaling downtown and harborside streets that have become increasingly residential as well as expedite traffic on “gateway” thoroughfares like Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Pulaski Highway and Edmondson Avenue.

One idea is to re-establish peak-hour restrictions on street parking.

Another is to update the synchronized (“Synchro”) models used by the Traffic Management Control Center.

DOT’s apparent predisposition for traffic channeling, reminiscent of the days of Henry Barnes, has the cycling advocacy group Bikemore worried.

“Longer cycles that encourage speeding and scofflaw driving will not only violate our law, but harm our most vulnerable residents”  – Bikemore.

In a letter to the BOE, Bikemore Interim Director Jed Weeks says a major retiming study is warranted, but must be executed in accordance with the Complete Streets strategy adopted by city ordinance in 2018.

”If executed correctly, a citywide retiming strategy can dramatically improve vulnerable road user safety, driver compliance with signals and signage and maintain orderly traffic flow,” the letter said.

“But if we continue on a path of longer cycles that encourage speeding and induce scofflaw driving just to speed traffic, it will not only violate our law, but cause harm to our most vulnerable residents,” the statement continues.

Baltimore city DOT's traffic control center. (baltimorecity.gov)

DOT’s traffic control center. (baltimorecity.gov)

Philadelphia Model

Bikemore has not gotten a response yet from DOT about how it will implement signal retiming in accordance with the Complete Streets Manual, a 199-page document issued by the Scott administration.

”If the guidance in the manual is to be followed, we support this agenda item. If it is not, we oppose it,” Weeks wrote.

Weeks says that shorter signal cycles are better for pedestrians and cyclists, while “long greens” encourage speeding and “long reds” lead to running red lights, a major cause of collisions at local intersections.

Philadelphia is an example of a city with old and narrow streets that has successfully implemented shorter timing, Weeks said.

Downtown Baltimore traffic congestion. (ggwash.org)

Downtown Baltimore traffic congestion. (ggwash.org)

Antiquated Signals

A major obstacle to better signaling in Baltimore is obsolescence.

Fully 80% of city traffic lights cannot communicate with or be remotely controlled by DOT’s traffic management center.

Wireless technology and better use of the city’s underground conduit system are needed to link isolated signals to the control center.

Just recently on MLK Jr. Boulevard, the synchronized signals were “slipping” and “drifting,” causing major delays.

Other problems include water seepage into the signal boxes.

Mixed with salt and brine from winter road treatment, the moisture increases the likelihood of signals shorting out.

Or of lights blinking red and green. Or flashing “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” instructions at the same time.

Earlier this month, technicians were dispatched to MLK Jr. Boulevard to figure out why the synchronized signals were “slipping” and “drifting,” causing major backups.

So far, there’s no official word on what went wrong.

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