At rush hour in Baltimore, downtown can feel like one big parking lot. Thousands of vehicles flow into the city center from Interstate 95 to the south and Interstate 83 to the north, leading to traffic jams along the roads near the Inner Harbor.

So when developer P. David Bramble proposed reducing Pratt Street’s four travel lanes to two and eliminating the Light Street spur as part of his reimagining of Harborplace, many wondered: Where will the traffic go?

“Nightmare coming,” wrote Jim Palmer, the Orioles’ Hall-of-Famer and broadcaster, on social media platform X in February.

Redesigning Pratt and Light Streets is at the heart of Bramble’s plans to remake the traffic grid in downtown and change the way people move around it. Harborplace planners see slower car speeds, better transit access and safer roads for pedestrians and cyclists as downtown’s brightest future.

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And if something’s gotta give, it might be your commute time.

In public meetings, Bramble has chosen his words carefully.

MCB Real Estate Co-Founder David Bramble speaks at a press conference where the company’s plans for the Harborplace development are revealed, at the Light Street pavilion on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023 in Baltimore, MD.
MCB Real Estate co-founder David Bramble speaks at a press conference in October revealing the company's plans to redevelop Harborplace. (Wesley Lapointe/The Baltimore Banner)

“The whole concept obviously is, again, traffic will be slowed. And that’s a decision we have to make as a city. Do we want people to cut quickly across downtown on Pratt Street? Or are we OK if they have to drive a minute and half further north?” he asked at a Dec. 12 community meeting in Cherry Hill.

Bramble’s firm, MCB Real Estate, and other downtown stakeholders have hired consultants at The Traffic Group to evaluate the best ways to move people and vehicles around.

“What exists at Harborplace today is not doing anybody any good. It’s not creating an economic environment; it’s not creating a pedestrian environment; it’s not creating a safe environment,” said Wes Guckert, president and CEO of The Traffic Group.

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Guckert said his team is finishing a traffic impact study that should be released to the public in the coming months based on Bramble’s proposed changes. The study wasn’t available to members of City Council before they passed three amendments necessary for Bramble’s vision, but should be released well ahead of November’s public ballot measure, which would allow the project to move forward.

An illustration of design plans for the upcoming Harborplace development is revealed at a press conference held by MCB Real Estate, at the Light Street pavilion on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023.
An illustration of design plans for the upcoming Harborplace development is revealed at a press conference held by MCB Real Estate, at the Light Street pavilion on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (Wesley Lapointe/for The Baltimore Banner)

They measured vehicle numbers and patterns at 37 locations, with a focus on rush-hour traffic flow. Guckert is confident that it’s not an insurmountable puzzle, and that with the help of artificial intelligence and better signage, the pieces will come together.

Eschewing the expressway

Pratt Street has long been a major roadway, even before developer James Rouse erected Harborplace’s two pavilions in the 1980s. Its current traffic pattern is in some ways an outcome of a grassroots effort that defeated a proposed east-west expressway decades ago. The expressway would have connected Interstate 70 in the west with I-83 in the east, extending across Fells Point, Canton and Highlandtown.

In the expressway’s absence, Pratt Street has been the next best thing. Between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and President Street, around 20,000 cars travel on Pratt Street on a given workday, according to data from the State Highway Administration. That’s more than other west-to-east downtown roads like Orleans Street and North Avenue.

Bramble has said that Pratt and Light streets effectively cut the harbor off from pedestrians and those that live nearby. Baltimore, with the United States more widely, has a track record of doing this. Some residents have decried the “Highway to Nowhere” in West Baltimore, Druid Hill Park Drive, even I-83 as projects that split communities — predominantly Black communities — for the sake of suburban commuters.

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The Light Street spur, which connects Light and Pratt streets, would disappear under plans to redevelop Harborplace. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“In general, traffic kills community; no one wants to live near traffic, no one wants to be in traffic. It is the opposite of placemaking,” said Gregory Newmark, a transit planner and professor in Morgan State University’s Built Environment Studies program. Newmark’s philosophy aligns with Bramble’s — sticking a highway next to a major community asset decreases its value.

In the Harborplace master plan, Bramble outlines his ideas in detail.

Pratt Street would remain one-way for car traffic, taking four travel lanes down to two while expanding a shared-use bike lane and adding another planter line for trees. The sidewalk and planters would be narrowed to make room for two-way public lanes on the north side of Pratt that would be off-limits to cars.

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An even bigger transformation is envisioned for Light Street, the entryway into downtown that is now nine travel lanes at some locations; it would drop down to four travel lanes. The remaining space would be converted into planters, sidewalks and shared-use bike lanes. The reconfiguration would remove the Light Street spur, the curved roadway that carries traffic to the intersection of Pratt and Calvert streets.

That section of Light Street between Conway and Pratt Streets handled around 55,000 cars on the average weekday in 2022, according to State Highway Administration data.

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State and city transportation officials are saying little about what they think Bramble’s vision will mean for downtown traffic. Officials at the Baltimore’s Department of Transportation and the State Highway Administration declined requests for interviews.

During a Feb. 13 City Council hearing on the package of proposed Harborplace bills, city DOT Secretary Corren Johnson said the DOT plans to make a “full assessment” that will include a traffic analysis of the entire area, separate from The Traffic Group’s work.

Under the Harborplace master plan, the bus lane on the south side of Pratt Street would be replaced with two-way transit lanes on the north side. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Where will all the cars go?

Figuring out where the traffic will go largely depends on the kinds of trips those cars are making. For crosstown trips, as Bramble suggested, drivers will have to zip north of Pratt. That would mean Baltimore Street, Orleans Street or beyond. Those looking for a shortcut to I-83 may have to build in extra time to make the wide loop around I-695, the Baltimore Beltway, instead. The Beltway already experiences major backups during rush hour, but a current road-widening project aims to alleviate it.

But on the west side, the lack of a direct connection between I-95 to the south and I-83 poses a challenge for many cut-through trips and even commuters who live in North Baltimore.

Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, which crosses over I-395 at the edge of downtown, could be another short cut to I-83. But carrying more than 57,000 cars on the average workday in 2022, MLK Boulevard already handles even more traffic than Light Street and is often congested.

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Guckert sees two main linchpins for managing the new traffic flow. First, he said, Baltimore’s DOT needs to better synchronize traffic signals, an effort he said can best be achieved with the help of artificial intelligence. The DOT is already undertaking a multi-year effort to synchronize stoplights, with 120 intersections down and more than 1,000 to go, agency director Johnson told members of the City Council on Jan. 24.

The second is dynamic signage that will point motorists in the fastest direction for getting to their destinations.

“We’re ultimately going to have, what I recommend, a Waze-type system, so that when you come off [Interstate] 395, for example, you will see message boards that tell you the quickest way to get to I-83,″ Guckert said, referring to the GPS app that finds the best routes to avoid delays.

Better public transit will also be essential, Newmark said. Advocates have long argued that making it easier to cross town on a bus or train means fewer cars on the road.

Interstate 395 (right) carries traffic into downtown Baltimore from Interstate 95 (top of screen). (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

MCB’s renderings include what appears to be a light rail train traveling on Pratt Street, which is being studied as a possible route for the future Red Line.

Guckert stressed what he sees as a necessary shift in priorities that puts safety ahead of society’s desire to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Though he and Bramble assure residents that they’re going to make this work, commuters may have to swallow a tough pill — if you choose to drive downtown, it’s going to take longer.

Tell that to Jim Palmer.

Banner reporters Adam Willis, Giacomo Bologna, and Hallie Miller contributed reporting