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.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Baltimore County passes pedestrian & bicycle legislation unanimously

Speaking of how government systems work...

Baltimore County is very much a motor vehicle oriented community. Fewer than 7% of residents commute by transit, walking, or biking, many streets don't have sidewalks, and arterial roads can be quite narrow, making bicycling difficult. The Baltimore Beltway (1-695), I-83 (Jones Falls Expressway), I-95, I-70, and I-795 (Northwest Expressway) are major arteries for county residents, and it can be easier to get around the county by driving the freeways, rather than on arterials.
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Last night, the Baltimore County Council passed unanimously Bill 2-11: Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Now at first glance from the title, it looks like all the County did was create a Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, which is nothing pathbreaking for counties located in metropolitan areas like Baltimore, Washington, or anywhere else across the country.
Emailing: no walking.jpg
Photo of residents in Cockeysville, after a Saturday (unofficial) planning meeting on Safe Routes to Schools issues. Residents of this neighborhood have to walk along or cross Warren Road to get to the nearby school, and Warren Road doesn't have sidewalks for most of its length. The text on the road sign was modified.

But really, the Bill is two different ordinances in one. It creates the PBAC, but in the creation of the committee, the bill also passes other changes in County policy, by charging the committee with oversight responsibilities concerning the development and implementation of:

- A Complete Streets Policy
- Sustainable Transportation protocols for use in development review and site approval plans
- Sustainable Transportation elements as part of developing comprehensive community plans
- A 6 year bicycle and pedestrian capital improvement plan, as part of the County's Capital Improvement Planning process (it's a 6 year running plan, updated every two years)
- A Review of gaps in the County Code and Zoning regulations concerning sustainable transportation and making recommendations for changes
- Installation of bicycle parking for visitors and employees at county government buildings
- Amendments to the County design, engineering, and construction process so that Complete Streets are in fact constructed/reconstructed
- A process for seeking transportation monies and grants*

Plus, with an amendment that was passed last night (yes, I wrote the original draft of the amendment, which was also in the original draft I submitted for the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan, but was excised from the posted draft), the legislation does something that probably no other jurisdiction does in the United States.

At the discretion of each Councilmember, it allows for the creation of PBACs at the Council District level, which in turn become standing committees of the County-wide PBAC.

This is designed to foster organizing, capacity building, and programming at the District level, complemented by how the Western County plan organizes infrastructure recommendations by Council District, rather than in one long alphabetical list--again, to promote focus on implementation and a Council District specific agenda for improvement.

* The reason that this provision (also added by amendment last night) is important is that Baltimore County traditionally hasn't participated in various transportation enhancement programs funded by the Federal Government and other sources, even though Baltimore County is the third largest jurisdiction in the State of the Maryland.

Pretty much, these provisions (with some modifications) were drawn from the text of the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan. And with the passage of Bill 2-11, now Baltimore County has some of the strongest ordinances concerning sustainable transportation of any jurisdiction in Maryland, as well as the U.S. (for example these provisions exceed those of Washington, DC, where complete streets is a policy of the transportation department but the policy is not a DC law that all agencies have to follow)--of course, these provisions now remain to be implemented.

But what is remarkable about this is that the Western County plan has not yet gone through the public approval process. It's still in the public comment period. There hasn't even been the post-comment period community meeting.

But key process redesign/systems of government provisions from the plan are now on the verge of being implemented, having been passed into law, in advance of the approval of the plan by the County Planning Board and the County Council.

DON'T THINK that this happened because (even though much of it is) the plan is so damn good.

That's not how change happens. Change is about alignment and timing. It's a perfect illustration of my modification of Pasteur's saying, "chance favors the prepared mind."

My modification (depending on the audience), is that "chance favors the prepared advocate" or "chance favors the prepared city."

When you have the right planning documents, laws, regulations, and procedures in place for cities, or when advocates have their arguments down and are able to press their case cogently and persuasively supported by the right documents, proposed laws, actual laws and regulations, etc.--you are able to take advantage of "chance" or "luck" because you are already well prepared.

1. You need enlightened legislators willing to pass the legislation you want.

2. You need two types of advocates--people with passion and people with knowledge--with access and the ability to be articulate and to persuade.

3. You need the plans and documents to draw upon, that lay out the new course.

4. You need enlightened government officials, willing to push change forward, and able to work within the constraints that are present in any already existing organization (these constraints are usually termed "bureaucracy").

Basically, what happened in Baltimore County is this:

1. The planning process--including the four public meetings that drew almost 200 participants, which is very good for Baltimore County--raised the level of citizen interest and helped to bring people together from multiple council districts (the plan covered parts of 4 districts, and about 110 square miles);

2. While at the same time, the planning process through inter-agency meetings and an advisory committee refocused attention on bicycle and pedestrian issues within government, involving multiple agencies, some strongly supportive, some actively indifferent, allowing the safety to call attention to active indifference in policies and regulations;

3. Also produced a completed document which could be drawn upon by multiple constituencies and stakeholders. In addition to traditionally expected recommendations specifying pedestrian and bicycling related infrastructure improvements, the document went far beyond the original scope and included substantive and far reaching recommendations concerning the planning and development review process, implementation, communications, programming, and economic development;

4. In the November elections, new people were elected as County Executive and to five of the seven council positions--6 of the 8 elected office positions changed. The new council has a majority of members (including a transportation professional who has worked for state and federal planning and transportation agencies) inclined to support bicycling and walking, and to varying extents, sustainable transportation;

5. Advocates (not just in District 1,which has the most active cluster of bicycling proponents in the County), leveraging their existing relationships, immediately approached newly elected Councilmembers inclined to be supportive about the possibility of passing legislation, pointing to the Western County plan's recommendations as a source for suggested policies and procedures;

6. Legislators took office in December. Bill 2-11 was proposed in the very first session of the Council in January 2011. After a work session later that month, which included testimony from advocates and a planner-advocate (the Baltimore City bicycle and pedestrian planner is a resident of Baltimore County) and afterward focused communications (lobbying) to the legislators, the bill was passed last night.

Now in the normal course of events, without the massive change in the composition of the County Council, the Western County plan would have gone through its three part approval process over most of this year or longer. It took almost 3 years for the Eastern County plan to be approved after it was completed in 2003--and none of its process recommendations had been implemented as of the start of the Western County planning process in September 2009.

After the eventual approval of the Western Plan, the process of getting the County Council to approve legislation for a PBAC (which was also one of the recommendations in the Eastern County plan) and for Complete Streets would have to be initiated (although we proposed that such a bill be passed simultaneously with the approval of the Western Plan).

You need a committed Council Member or the County Executive--definitely this isn't initiated by a government agency without a directive from the top, not to mention you need a majority vote, and hope that the County Executive won't veto.

And if the County Executive isn't favorable, such legislation doesn't usually move forward. That might have been another 1-3 year process. After that, a PBAC has to be appointed and organized and start functioning.

Then starts the process of implementation, and if there is resistance on the part of one or more of the agencies, and it's not seen as a priority by the County Executive, well, add a few more years to the process.

You get the picture. Getting to Bikesville and Walksville normally takes many years. And to be fair, it has taken many years in Baltimore County and the Baltimore metropolitan area, including:

- advocacy by BikeMaryland and Baltimore Bicycle Club

- Walkable Community" community visioning planning exercises in various county communities helped raise people's awareness and knowledge of placemaking

- community association initiatives for trails and county trails initiatives (Dolfield Run, Northpoint)

- The Eastern County pedestrian and bicycle planning process helped to move walking and biking higher on the county agenda.

- The creation of the North Central Railroad trail in Northern Baltimore County the State DNR increased the number of people bicycling in the county.

- The efforts of Catonsville Rails to Trails has created two well-used multiuse trails on old trolley lines, which in turn spurred some active bike route marking and the creation of some bike lanes by the DPW. They also helped to create the Grist Mill Trail in Patapsco River State Park.

- Trails in Anne Arundel County, both the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail and the trail around BWI Airport are used by Baltimore County residents.

- The active bicycling promotion planning and infrastructure development program in Baltimore City raises awareness, as does the Gwynn Falls Trail, which was developed by the Parks and People Foundation of Baltimore.

- Other state efforts including the Strategic Trails initiative.

- Safe routes to school efforts.

- State Highway Administration programs to improve the walking and bicycling environment on state roads.

- Federal Executive branch initiatives such as a policy statement by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on bicycle and pedestrian modes, various initiatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to promote active transportation for public health reasons, the Sustainable Communities partnership of EPA, DOT, and HUD, First Lady Michelle Obama's initiatives concerning childhood health and nutrition more generally.

- Congressional initiatives such as the creation of the transportation enhancements program.

Etc. You get the picture. It takes a lot of people, a lot of different efforts, and pulling the threads together coherently.
bikesville walksville sign
Pikesville is one of the communities in Baltimore County. The highway sign text is modified from the actual photo.

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