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, November 28, 2012

The Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan approved

100_2716.JPGAt a public meeting in Catonsville.  About 200 pepole attended one of four public meetings on the plan, 300+ people submitted online surveys, and 100+ people attended other meetings.

See "Balt. Co. Council approval keeps path for cyclists and pedestrians clear" from the Times newspapers.

So in September 2009, I got hired (funded by grant) to be the project manager for a bike and pedestrian planning process in Baltimore County, Maryland. Earlier in the decade they produced a bike and pedestrian plan for the urban part of the "eastern county" (eastward from Towson), and that process, from start to approval, took about 6 years.

They had received a grant from the transportation planning funds allocated by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council (the Metropolitan Planning Organization for that region) to do a similar plan for the urban county "west (and north) of Towson" and they had to spend it by the end of the fiscal year or it would have to be returned.

So they needed a body to run the project, I was somewhat known to the people at BMC at the time, because I had been active on a Baltimore area urban revitalization e-list for some time, and I was available to work on the project for the paltry amount they had available (because I wanted the experience and the ability to have a another finished plan, this time transportation-related, in my portfolio).

The plan was produced and adopted in about 3 years with an interim step passing breakthrough legislation

What's amazing about this process is how fast it has been, comparatively speaking.

I turned in the draft on June 30th, 2010. An edited draft was posted publicly in August 2010 (some of the stuff I wrote was excised). In February 2011, a walking and biking ordinance was passed, mostly with language drawn from the recommendations of the plan. But the plan didn't get its first public hearing til January 2012. It was approved by the Planning Board in April 2012, and finally adopted by the County Council a couple weeks ago--in November 2012.

100_2589.JPGRight: on Warren Road in Cockeysville, as part of an informal meeting on walk to school issues and Cockeysville Middle School.  Much of Warren Road, a couple blocks from the school, doesn't have sidewalks.

So in 2.5 years, or just over 3 years from the time I started, not only was the plan adopted but legislation based on it was passed within a few months of the plan's submission, and began being implemented more than one year before the plan was adopted. This is half the time that was required for the Eastern Plan.

Plus, in part at my recommendation, one of the Councilmembers created a District-level bike and pedestrian committee and has been moving forward on recommendations and advocacy at the District level for more than one year ("Committee seeks state grant to help create Towson 'Bike Beltway'" from the Baltimore Sun).

Not to mention that the ordinance as passed is probably one of the strongest in the United States.

And a concept that I came up with two weeks before the draft was due--and sadly I didn't have enough time to develop the concept--what I called "Signature Streets" as a way to link complete streets planning principals with a path for funding (counties have to purchase rights of way for roadway expansion, which is very expensive and the signature streets concept outlined a way forward justifying bond-based funding) is enshrined in the plan, with three streets so designated!  (See the past blog entry, "Step up and envision an interconnected public realm.")

Lessons learned

I often make the point that plans are beginnings, not endpoints.

I have written about this project quite a bit::

-- "Best practice bicycle planning for suburban settings using the "action planning" method"
-- "Western Baltimore County Draft Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan"
-- "State and county advocacy agenda setting for biking (walking/transit)"
-- ""Too much pressure": Fixing bicycling in the suburbs"
-- "Baltimore County legislation to create a Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, and pass Complete Streets and other hefty requirements"
-- "Baltimore County passes pedestrian & bicycle legislation unanimously"

because it was instructive for me in a lot of ways.

First, I got some taste of how it is working inside the executive branch of local government, and basically, I got schooled. In short, how I thought things worked isn't how it is, and the reality is that a staff member's ability to work "outside the box" is very much constrained.

Second, I got the opportunity to do the kind of meta-analysis that is necessary but too rarely done in planning, and proposed a great number of "process redesign" changes in how the government was supposed to operate with regard to biking and walking.

The kinds of recommendations in the plan that I made concerning programming, education, government operation, communications, and biking-related economic development weren't part of the original scope and certainly weren't expected, but I made them anyway, in part as a response to the frequent laments of people that "the Eastern Plan was passed after a really long time and nothing has happened anyway."  (And for the most part, they are comprehensive and pathbreaking.  Most bike and pedestrian plans don't get at these elements in the same way.)

I think that after awhile, knowing that I was on a grant, and not likely to be retained, they figured that they could take the recommendations they thought were useful and use the process as a way to push change forward.

Third, when people would say that they participated in X or Y planning process years ago and never saw any results, I made the point that collectively those efforts, including the eastern plan, contributed to the environment that made the western plan possible, but also the farther reaching recommendations about government organization, programming, etc. that were presented within the plan.

This relates to the point that urban regime theorist Clarence Stone makes that government is about "sustained efforts." I make the same point about advocacy and social change.

Fourth, prepared advocates poised to act are key.

After the election in November 2010, the County's elected officials went from biking/walking neutral to a pro-biking/walking majority. Advocates approached the two Councilman most overtly supportive of active transportation, Councilmembers Tom Quirk (D1) and David Marks (D5), and they agreed to press for legislation creating not just a pedestrian and bicycle advisory committee, but also many of the process redesign recommendations outlined in the plan draft, which fortuitously, they were able to use as an agenda.

This relates to the point I make all the time that if you want to improve the situation for whatever you are advocating for, YOU NEED AN AGENDA, one that is clear, cogent, and ideally comprehensive and complete.

Too often, advocates are diffuse and don't have a clear idea of what they are trying to accomplish and how to do so.  (Also see "Guide for Reviewing Public Road Design and Bicycling Accommodations for Virginia Bicycling Advocates" which discusses a guide produced by the Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling.  The guide helps advocates shape their interactions with transportation officials.)

I do know how that is, when you have so much on your mind, and few opportunities to put it out there.  But I wasn't the person citizens needed to lecture about sustainable transportation.  They needed to take that message to the elected officials, who had to sign off and put the vision out there.  (And once they do so, it's up to the staff to make it happen.)

bikesville walksville signLeft: Pikesville is one of the town centers located in Baltimore County.  An image of a highway sign was Photoshopped to come up with Bikesville and Walksville.

Fifth, so the Ped and Bike Advisory Committee was created, and has begun the work, with County staff, to implement the law. That includes implementing a Complete Streets policy and other changes to zoning and development review and road construction procedures.

The great thing about all those hard core process redesign recommendations is that they are identified as necessary, and the bureaucracy works to make the changes as ordered. If you don't identify the gaps, I guarantee they will never be corrected.  This, sadly, is something that most plans in DC don't do.

Sixth, I will say that one thing I didn't anticipate was how important it was to specify the process for appointing the Chair of the committee. The County Executive appointed someone who works for Executive Branch. You could say "good, the person is connected." On the other hand, people who work for the executive branch are ultimately responsible to the County Executive, and I think that poses a conflict of interest. Oh well, lesson learned. (This relates locally to the point I make that DC government employees serving as ANC commissioners poses the potential for conflict of interest.)


So that this happened, so fast, in Baltimore County, a place that is not as advanced, planning-wise as DC, is really galling to me considering how often I advocate for robust land use, transportation, parks, schools, and revitalization planning in DC, and so often, the points are ignored.

Being an outsider (and I imagine, even being an insider) in DC is very very frustrating.

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At 7:41 AM, Blogger Unknown said...


The Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan is an extraordinary bicycle and pedestrian plan and overall planning effort. It could not have been done to this level without your participation. As both an active cyclist and a resident of the area, I thank you very much and I look forward to endorsing future submissions of this remarkable plan for planning awards in Maryland.

This plan should be a template for similar planning efforts in other counties and municipalities throughout our state.

I am also looking forward to learning more about the "Signature Streets" concept that you referenced. This also could have applicability to Maryland communities.

David T. Whitaker, AICP
Catonsville, MD

At 5:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the love of g*d people, do not where bicycle clothing in public, especially not in a public meeting, and especially not with a belly hanging like that.


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