Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A new year's present: Bicycle and Pedestrian planning advances in Baltimore County, Maryland

Bill 2-11: Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, was submitted at the County Council meeting on Monday January 3rd, 2011.

The bill calls not only for a pedestrian and bicycle advisory committee, it gives the committee responsibility for:

- adopting a county complete streets policy (including road construction standards and procedures)
- developing sustainable transportation protocols for the development review process
- creating a process for a sustainable transportation element to be included in community plans
- developing a 6 year capital improvement program for bicycle and pedestrian improvements as part of the County capital improvement program planning process (6 year plan, reviewed and approved on a 2 year cycle)
- recommend necessary amendments to the county code for necessary accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists
- bike parking at county facilities, for visitors and employees
- annual reporting

For the most part, these responsibilities are directly lifted from the recommendations in the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan, which is still in draft form, and has not been approved. That's "my" plan.

Last fiscal year, I served as the bicycle and pedestrian planner for Baltimore County, Maryland, funded through a federal transportation planning grant via the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the metropolitan planning organization for that region. (With the trying fiscal environment the county, and all local governments, face presently the likelihood of a new position being created for me/bicycle and pedestrian planning beyond the terms of the grant period was remote.)

My task was to produce the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan, for a 110 square mile section (one half) of the urban part of the county, paralleling the Eastern County Plan that had been created in 2003/4 and then passed in 2006 by the Planning Board and the County Council.

I was assisted by a GIS Analyst, Bineeta Sihota, and ably managed by the Chief of the Strategic Planning section, Kathy Schlabach. Using the Eastern plan as a model and guide we proceeded, having four public meetings, a number of presentations and meetings (one being disastrous, with a park organization against putting a trail through the park) with individuals or community groups in the office or in the field, five advisory committee meetings, and a number of meetings with other county government officials, as well as interactions with people working for state government, plus during the time I was there, I participated on the regional bicycle and pedestrian planning committee, and we also got some design assistance from the Youth Design Team at VisArts in Rockville.

Bineeta and I measured a lot of roads and sidewalks, and in the end other people in the Office of Planning pitched in to help us with this, because the grant had a drop dead deadline of June 30th, for everything to be submitted--plan document, recommendations for infrastructure improvements, maps, and presentations.

The one major difference between the Eastern and Western Plans (note that the Western Plan has not gone through the approval process yet, although it is still posted for public comment) is that the policy, organizational, and programming sections are significantly expanded and more intricate compared to the Eastern Plan.

Of course, I saw this as a chance to codify my thinking about how local governments should address sustainable transportation matters in a substantive, structured, and focused fashion, extending ideas expressed in the paper/blog entry, "Ideas for making cycling irresistible in DC" but for a suburban county.

The other thing that shaped the recommendations was the perception that while the Eastern County plan was a step forward for the county, for the most part, recommendations in the plan for physical improvements, not to mention policy changes (such as the creation of a Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee) were not being implemented.

Of course, part of the "problem" of implementation is that transportation/road projects take a long time--even fast tracked projects unless they are very simple, take 5 to 10 years, but still there was a problem.

The way my thinking-doing process works generally is that I try to figure out what the preferred outcomes are, and then if these outcomes are not regularly achieved, work backwards and look at the organizational structure and processes, to figure out why they don't work the way we want them to, and what kinds of changes are necessary in order to generate routinely the outcomes we desire.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how agencies work, how projects are designed and funded, the policies and regulations under which the agencies work, and how to create preferred outcomes more regularly by implementing structural changes to the land use and transportation management, planning, and operations systems present in the Baltimore County.

That's reflected in the set of policy recommendations on the first 11 pages of this section of the draft plan, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, Evaluation and Appendices. Not everything (text, recommendations, sections) included in the draft that was submitted on June 30th ended up in the final version represented in the posted draft (some things were controversial or seen as superfluous), but all in all I am quite proud of the final product, especially given how little time and money we had to work with.

To see already this level of movement in terms of enacting into law a number of the recommendations is quite the new year's gift, although it's not enough to pass the laws, the kicker is in the implementation.

Still, I always find it quite amazing to see implementation steps proceed in the communities where I have produced and delivered "plans" for community improvement.

(Although I joke that when I do plans in other places, they are a form of "gap analysis" of DC. Why is it that making these kinds of necessary changes in DC is so hard?)

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