Wednesday, February 10, 2021

How the Baltimore SUN hijacked a Hopkins Study

 Johns Hopkins 21st Century City initiative recently published an analysis with the title: 
"Investing in High-Speed Rail to Washington, D.C. to Boost Baltimore’s Economy.”
 In the study it is suggested that MARC trains should be faster so they could leverage the real estate market differential between Baltimore and Washington. One of the study authors is Ron Hartman, from 1984-93 MTA administrator, later an Amtrak official and a CEO of Veolia Transportation and a current board member of the Baltimore Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (CMTA), a transit advocacy group. 
MARC Penn Line: In 48 minutes from Baltimore to DC for $8.00

The brief paper acknowledges that COVID and a 90% loss of riders on MARC trains will change the market potential between DC and Baltimore but still suggests that not enough is done to connect the two cities with fast and reliable transit. One can certainly agree, even though COVID has made the DC office worker a much less viable entity to fill Baltimore's empty rowhouses. Too many work for home now, and chances are, they will continue to do so in bigger numbers than before. Hence the empty MARC trains. 
A summary of the Mirage News service summarizes the paper this way:
“There are few pairs of neighboring cities in the United States such that one city is booming while the nearby city is struggling,” states the report, co-authored by Mac McComas, senior program manager at 21st Century Cities Initiative. “Just 40 miles to the north of economically booming Washington, D.C. lies economically struggling Baltimore City.”
That proximity “offers the possibility that an effective investment in cross-city transit could help residents of both cities to gain improvements in quality of life and economic vitality,” the report states. Faster train service would offer more affordable living options for D.C. residents struggling with skyrocketing costs while opening a lucrative job market to Baltimore residents.
The state has two options for providing faster MARC service: convert existing local trains to express schedules or adding new trains with limited or non-stop service. The authors note how the political timing could be right for pursuing such investments. President Joe Biden, a longtime champion and user of Amtrak, could usher in more federal investment in public transit through his administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Doing so would mesh with new Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s transportation initiatives.

The next generation Amtrak Acela Alstom train starting service this year
Amtrak Video

What did the Baltimore SUN make out of that study in their main editorial commentary on Wednesday?  They turned a paper about MARC into an argument for Maglev, the magnetically levitated trains that the Japanese want to desperately want to sell here! The SUN graced its commentary with this title: 

"What do you call a 311-mph train serving Baltimore? "

If Baltimore is to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and flourish in a way that it was not before the virus even arrived, what it needs most is for its residents to have better access to well-paying jobs. Expecting those jobs to suddenly plop down in Baltimore once herd immunity is achieved is beyond improbable. But what if the city could be served by a high-speed train that could get passengers from a station in Cherry Hill to the heart of Washington, D.C. and its wealth of employment opportunities in just 15 minutes? That may strike some as unlikely, too, but with Joe Biden in the White House, a proposed privately-operated maglev train serving the Northeast Corridor — beginning with Baltimore-Washington and capable of speeds of 311 miles per hour or more — suddenly doesn’t seem qu,ite so far-fetched. And the latest study from Johns Hopkins University’s 21st Century Cities Initiative lays out the argument for how Baltimore could receive an extraordinary economic boost from such a project.

The entire Hopkins paper never mentions Maglev once. Certainly no MARC train would ever do 311mph.The Hopkins paper authors even picked a place in Baltimore for its trip time comparison Balto to DC via car versus via train from where to start would be very disadvantageous for the Maglev train which is proposed to end at Westport/Cherry Hill and never make it to downtown Baltimore. 

What the SUN editorial did with the Hopkins study is really poor journalism. It graced its commentary  graced in its online edition with a Maglev train photo and pretended the study would make an argument for Maglev when that is far from true. Study author Hartman tells me he is no proponent of Maglev.  Taking the Hopkins study and put it into a totally different context is bad, but it is  also bad to merely advocate for the Maglev trains as a solution that would be of interest for those who would want to live in Baltimore and work in DC. That logic just doesn't hold up as will show below.

(As a small fix, the SUN later edited their online version to at least acknowledge that the Hopkins paper never mentions MagLev).  For those who don't know what Maglev means, here the explanation in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that released for public comment in December.

SC-MAGLEV is a transportation technology developed by the Central Japan Railway Company (JRC), but not currently in operation in the United States. The SCMAGLEV system relies on powerful magnetic forces to operate and results in travelling speeds of over 300 miles per hour. Unlike typical electric trains in service in the United States, a SCMAGLEV system does not operate on standard steel railroad tracks. (DEIS)

Maglev alignments shown in the DEIS
As I have commented many times in various blog articles (here and here), Maglev is a "future technology" of the distant past that Germany began hawking to the world some 50 years ago and that now Japan tries to sell so badly that they offered to pay a chunk of the huge $16.3 billion cost that a DC to Cherry Hill train would cost.

A 311mph train that starts in DC, stops at BWI and then at Cherry Hill serves no transportation purpose whatsoever! Least the budget conscious DC worker who would buy a house in Baltimore to save money. It wouldn't  serve people who board today's MARC commuter trains at Penn Station, in West Baltimore, in Halethorpe or in Odenton, all stations which very high boardings that Maglev would not serve becaue it is so busy being fast that it can't stop. 

It wouldn't serve New Carrolton either, an important intermodal node with lots of new development in the DC orbit. It would certainly cost as much as a ticket on Amtrak's ACELA trains which already travel as a high speed trains (38 minutes travel time) between DC and Baltimore for a minimum of $44 one way. (Compared to $8 on MARC). A fare way too high for the imaginary budget conscious DC worker moving to Baltimore! 

So Maglev doesn't serve the regular DC-Baltimore resident who wants to shuttle between the two metro areas. Would it serve the business traveler going up to Philly, New York or Boston? Nope! Riders who want to go to Philadelphia or New York would have to travel to Westport/Cherry Hill and then take a bus or Light Rail to trek from there to continue their trip. Something that nobody would do who could instead sit in a spanking new 150mph + AMTRAK train without any transfer. It is this confusion between long distance travel and local commuting that is the problem of the Maglev industry ever after they failed to sell any country a long distance solution. Thus the only magnetic leviated train in revenue service is an airport shuttle in Shanghai that is barely used because it duplicates a slower cheaper conventional shuttle. 

It is the blind adulation of speed and technology by folks like the SUN editorial board and Governor Hogan that has brought the Baltimore to DC Maglev boondoggle back from death multiple times over recent decades. This time all the way to a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and two alternative alignments (one not recommended version would end at Camden Yards). And to be sure, the DEIS is administered by MDOT, MTA and the Federal Transit Administration who all have to spend useful resources on this nonsense. (DEIS comments can be made here).

True, President Biden is known to be a friend of trains, and also possible, there may come an ambitious investment in rail, for Amtrak, for MARC and for urban transit as part of a recovery investment package. many friends of better transportation hope for that. 

But any money and energy spent towards Maglev is money spent on subverting and undercutting the plans for better NE corridor AMTRAK high speed rail, for better Maryland commuter trains (MARC) and better bus and light rail connections between the two metro areas of DC and Baltimore. Anyone who says otherwise is just not telling the truth. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Japan started planning a long distance Maglev project  between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka in 1973. It was planned to open service on its first leg in 2027. That date is now uncertain due to COVID disruptions, questions about the future of business travel and a provincial government objecting to a tunnel for environmental reasons. 

Adding to the stalemate between Shizuoka and JR Central is the coronavirus pandemic, which has endangered the maglev project’s already questionable profitability.

In 2013, Yoshiomi Yamada, then-president of JR Central, admitted at a news conference that “there is no way” the maglev initiative will register a surplus on its own, and that the cost of building it is so huge that it can only barely be offset by revenues from the conventional Tokaido Shinkansen Line that it operates.

But COVID-19 has taken a toll on the firm’s prosperous high-speed train business, slashing passenger traffic by about 90 percent in April and May from a year earlier.

Moreover, the pandemic has “made many businesspeople realize they can replace their traditional trips with teleconferences,” Mitsuhiro Miyashita, chief consultant at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co., says. The normalization of online meetings, he says, suggests demand for conventional business trips via shinkansen won’t fully recover even after the pandemic has subsided.

This new normal is threatening to question the raison d’etre of the maglev shinkansen project itself, sparking skepticism among some toward the necessity of its 500-kph speed.

“We need to adapt to a new era,” Kawakatsu told Kaneko.

“The internet is faster than the maglev train, you know.” (The Japan Times)

LIVE Baltimore study shows City growth potential

I have long held the opinion that if there is one silver bullet that could solve multiple Baltimore problems at once, it would be growing the population of the City. (See my November article, Grow the City!). 
New housing on Paca Street downtown.
(Photo: Philipsen) 

Now a study titled  "An Analysis of Baltimore City’s Residential Market Potential" released by the non-profit organization LIVE Baltimore suggests that it could be done. 

The study demonstrates that the City’s residential housing market is strong, and that additional housing stock is needed to meet it. Zimmerman/Volk Associates (ZVA), conducted this first-ever analysis of residential market potential for all of Baltimore City. The study addressed these questions:
•Where the potential renters and buyers of new and existing housing units in Baltimore are likely to move from (the draw areas).
• How many households have the potential to move within and to the City each year if appropriate housing units became available (depth and breadth of the market).
• Who the households are that represent the potential market for new units in the City (the target markets).
• Housing preferences of those households—rental or ownership, multi-family, or single-family.
• What the target households can pay to rent or purchase new and/or
renovated dwelling units in the City.
• How quickly the new/renovated units will lease or sell (absorption forecasts).
The analysis projects that between 5,300 and 7,100 households would rent or buy new or significantly renovated homes each year over the next five years if such homes were added to the City’s housing stock. Those would be in addition to those households renting or buying units now.

Filling this number of additional housing units would be a major step forward as it would help grow the population, generate new economic activity, and expand Baltimore’s tax base.

Live Baltimore's Executive Director Anne Milli states in the press release of her organization: 
“These numbers suggest a bright future for Baltimore City, and they tell us clearly who makes up the potential residential market. Policy makers should use this study to inform strategies that increase the number of people living in the City. If we renovate or build the right kinds of housing at the right prices, we can retain and attract thousands more Baltimoreans. These numbers provide a roadmap for how the City can grow its residential base and become stronger economically.” (Anne Milli)
The report clears up which key demographics constitute the largest potential residential market in Baltimore City:  63% young single people and childless couples, other families of all kinds account for  a distant 21%, and retirees and empty nesters trail with just 16 %. This breakdown isn't exceptional for Baltimore since nationally only 22% of households are still the traditional family with children. Like it or not, the study seems to suggest that Millennials, indeed, drive the influx of new residents. But there is a counterforce at work so that the City still lost overall population: More people are moving out than are moving in. The Zimmermann/Volk study appears to suggest that moving out could also be driven by lack of the appropriate housing since it identified the demand in the market as stemming 2/3 from existing residents and 1/3 from coming form the outside:
  • More than 44,000 households could potentially move into existing and new housing units in Baltimore each year. 
  • An estimated 58 percent live in the City now, with another 20 percent living in Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County, or Howard County.
  • 59 % would look for rental homes, 
  • 41 % would opt for homeownership.

The study concludes that the potential residential market is made up of households of all incomes would look for homes to buy or rent in a wide range of prices including some that would need financial assistance or subsidies for housing. The lack of quality affordable housing has long been established along with the fact that the available resources are far smaller than needed to meet the demand.

But as LIVE Baltimore emphasizes, there is also a healthy demand for mixed-income with more than a third of households identified in the potential market having incomes that meet or exceed the average for the region. This finding matches the experience of 2019 and even COVID year 2020 as the best years for Baltimore’s housing market in a decade. The study also identifies what type of homes potential buyers and renters would look for:
  • 46 % of possible owners would  prefer rowhouses or townhomes. (This type of home represents an estimated 52 percent of the existing housing stock in the City.)
  • 37 percent would likely choose to buy single-family detached houses (currently just 14 percent of Baltimore’s housing units).
  • 17 percent  would opt for multi-family units—condominiums or co-operative apartments.
New Mayor Brandon M. Scott who can find various grow the City recommendations in the Transition Report released this Tuesday (2-9-21) said about the LIVE Baltimore study: “It’s clear from this report that we have momentum to build on as we grow our city and reimagine equitable economic development in Baltimore.” The study authors clearly hope that the Mayor and his department heads will take the study to heart. They imagine it to be used for:

  • Enabling smarter, more targeted marketing to prospective City residents
  • Serving as a development prospectus for the entire City of Baltimore
  • Contributing to the planning of City-sponsored housing developments, limiting, for example, market cannibalization between neighborhoods,
  • Encouraging citywide growth
  • Benefitting the work of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development and Department of Planning, as well as Baltimore Development Corporation, neighborhood-based community development corporations, and others
This is a lot of expectation for a study that essentially concludes that Baltimore could grow by an additional 5,300 households each year for the next five years if enough housing could be constructed or renovated. It is very close to what Mayor Stephany Rawlings Blake established as the first ever specific growth target for Baltimore and that she failed to achieve in the end, because having a potential market alone isn't enough to actually realize it. This growth would be about 53,000 residents in five years (assuming an average household size of 2.0 persons), in my estimation less than half of what the City would need to eliminate residential abandonment and achieve fiscal stability. 

The study does not address the various housing submarkets in Baltimore (apparently work is underway to study "micro-markets")and their very different attractiveness for the identified market nor does it address the annual supply of new and renovated housing units, whether the the supply pipeline matches the market and where the major discrepancies between supply and demand  are or how they could be alleviated.  Hopefully Mayor Scott will establish not only a specific growth target but also the policies to actually achieve it. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

How COVID gave Baltimore "Slow Streets"

While many office workers hunkered down in their home office a movement swept across the United States like wildfire. Its name: "Slow Streets". What would take years in the normal bureaucratic grist mill of local traffic planning was churned out within weeks of the initial lockdown last spring. Before motorists or residents could think twice, they faced makeshift barricades on their local streets that looked like some tactical urbanists would have nailed them together overnight. This isn't far from the truth. 

Slow Streets at Perkins Homes (Photo: Philipsen)

Baltimore was on the ball with a City Council bill matching the approach of other cities: Introduced on May 11, the bill passed a week later as an ordinance that mandated a minimum of 25-miles of Slow Streets in Baltimore City. The temporary program is intended to discourage residents and visitors from driving on all “Slow Streets” unless they are necessary to reach their final destination and provide residents more space for "social distancing". The ordinance expires when social distancing is no longer needed. City DOT established a website where the program is explained:

The Slow Streets program is intended to support safe, essential physical activity by creating more space for social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. DOT has implemented the 25-mile goal mandated by The Baltimore City Council. The program is now in its “Evaluation Phase”. The public comment period ended on January 24th. We appreciate your feedback and will publish the results soon. Check back here for updates.

 "Slow Streets" urges all people driving to drive slowly and safely to respectfully share the road with people walking and biking. Mayor Jack Young was in support of it and expanded it around Lake Montebello, a popular bike and hiking spot. Soon Baltimore City had the full 25 miles of designated Slow Streets in place. 

Slow Streets in many cities: San Francisco 

But soon the insight dawned that a simple street barricade won't change behavior much. When the wooden barricade showed up on Paca Street, just north of Franklin Street, presumably to protect the residents of Seton Hill and provide better access to Seton Park, it was obvious that the heavily traveled corridor wouldn't be calmed by this simple contraption. It was soon pushed aside and then disappeared altogether.  

Per the bill City DOT had made an effort to apply the Slow Streets evenly and include more distressed communities as well. Barriers along the Perkins Homes on Gough Street were simply ignored by drivers traversing on this route and it was not obvious what the residents of Perkins Homes  would do with the barren and presumably calmer street, even though they don't have lots of open space

A clear shortcoming of the fast roll-out was that residents had little say in it. This has been a problem in other cities as well. Some residents liked what they saw, others less so. 

Residents of Hunting Ridg,e where an entire area was zoned as "Slow Street", took their kids on out for a small Halloween parade in the middle of Glen Allen Street, a perfect use, but just for a day. As DOT Director Steve Sharkey explains: The law requires people to use the sidewalk if there is one, the Slow Street designation doesn't change that.  50 years after the Dutch invented the Woonerf, (a small residential street with a shared surface in which the playing kids have the right of way and cars are only tolerated as guests), such regulation is still not present in the US traffic encyclopedia titled "Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices" or MUTC. Asked about the regulations and the prospects for shared streets DOT spokesperson Virgil German  confirmed:

Woonerf sign in Europe: Kids first

"Current state legislation makes a woonerf or shared street more difficult with our existing infrastructure because pedestrians are technically required to utilize the sidewalk on an active/open street.  However, this style of street is being designed/constructed in areas around the city with more dense activity, including Port Covington and the planned entertainment district on Warner Street." (City DOT, Virgil German) 

As it stands now, DOT is in an evaluation phase. As  Mr German informed me, "BCDOT is in the process of considering the placement of signs at key locations to deter “cut-through traffic,” where barriers were previously placed until we can procure new, more durable barriers". This is whats City DOT's website says:

During the evaluation phase, residents will notice short term changes to the Slow Streets program. As a result of our preliminary findings, BCDOT will remove the temporary street barriers to address ongoing community concerns and maintenance issues. BCDOT is currently working to secure funding for upgraded barriers that will enhance the Slow Streets program. The temporary barriers have been removed and Slow Streets signage and information will be reinstalled. (DOT website)

Outdoor seating carved out from Thames Street. (Photo: Philipsen)

Other changes that Baltimoreans saw popping up, almost over night, are the outdoor dining spaces that were carved out from curbside parking or, at times, even from travel lanes. 

Those type installations had been before only as one-day exhibits of creative "tactical urbanism" under the label PARKing Day, a movement that initiated in San Francisco. 

Outdoor dining was for years something that was relegated to skinny sidewalks, some terraces and rooftops but generally much more rare in Baltimore than tourists know it from Barcelona, Paris or Florence or Mexican tourist towns. A few cities such as Montreal had developed the mini terraces in the street as a formal annual city program that expanded restaurant space during the warmer months of the year and gave Montreal even more of an old world flair. 

It isn't clear what the long-term prospects of Slow Streets are and how this ad-hoc measure can fold into the longstanding "Complete Streets" program in effect in Baltimore, also based on City Council bill. That one, though, had been in the making for years and is progressing at a sluggish pace. The program's most visible pieces are a few protected bike lanes and about 5 miles of designated bus lanes. In spite of explicit language in the Complete Streets bill that specifically addresses equity, the concept of complete streets is eyed with suspicion by some who see it as a means of gentrification.  

DOT's Virgil German expresses optimism how the Slow Streets can advance:

Children Halloween parade in Hunting Ridge
Photo: Philipsen

We believe that enhanced traffic calming measures that incorporate using traffic diverters or alternating one-way patterns can be an evolution of the Slow Streets Program, where streets would be calmed to decrease traffic volume and traffic speeds while increasing the opportunity for recreation.  Our agency is also looking at opportunities to close streets to vehicular traffic entirely, like in the case of Lake Montebello, or other opportunities in and around parks. (City DOT, Virgil German) 

As in many other instances, the COVID-19 pandemic has been like a magnifying glass. In the case of Baltimore's streets, it highlighted how important the streets are as a public space that can  be so much more than just a conduit for traffic. The many new outdoor restaurant spaces will certainly be welcome even beyond the pandemic. 

If the view of the street as a meaningful public space prevails even after the pandemic subsides, Baltimore will have become better for it. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

How Cooperating Leaders Will Shape the Future of the Baltimore Region

 On a cool winter Monday morning the newly minted Mayor Brandon Scott and the also still relatively new Executives of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howards County, Olszewski, Pittman and Ball huddled around the entrance to Hopkins subway station.  They held a press conference in support of transit funding. Together they demanded better funding of the MTA which serves all four of the jurisdictions with bus or rail service. No longer see the regional leaders transit as only an issue that affects merely Baltimore City.

A bit later in January Steuart Pittman launched an online "Future Forum" under the title "Common Ground: Urban Rural, Suburban". His speakers included former Baltimore Mayor Rawlings Blake, former State Planning Director Hall, The Bay Foundation's Allison Prost and Colby Ferguson from the MD Farm Bureau. There was some tough talk about land use and preserving open space. No longer sees this executive land use solely through the lens of homeowners and property rights. 

Pittman showed himself during his online event in front of a scenic photo of a farm meadow and a wooded edge. "This is the last larger farm near BWI", he explained, "it will soon become a bunch of warehouses. That wasn't in the plan", he observed, "but a council member voted for a zoning change, and so it goes", adding that this continued land consumption has to stop. Indeed, Maryland's' development footprint increased in the last 50 years more than it had occupied in the 250 years before, another way of saying it more than doubled in only 50 years! Neither city nor suburbs can thrive if the natural environment is destroyed.

The Baltimore Business Journal ran a cover story of its print edition under the headline "Howard County's Smart Growth Challenge" in which the paper points out that only 2% undeveloped or not protected open space is left for development in Howard County. Executive Ball promises a balance between the County's environmental, economic and social standing. His Planning Director is pointing to redevelopment as the new frontier for growth. 

“We are at a point in our maturity as a county where we are having to look at redevelopment opportunities for the future and less on typical suburban growth patterns,” Amy Gowan, director of Howard County’s Department of Planning and Zoning.

For a shift in the growth paradigm it comes in handy that both, Baltimore County and Howard County are starting new masterplans this year. Brandon Scott has vowed to restructure City government and pay way more attention to the City's disinvested neighborhoods. Equity and economic development is no longer a zero sum game where one jurisdiction can thrive while the other fails.

Mayor Scott and Executives Olszewski (at the podium), Ball and
Pittman at the Johns Hopkins Metro Station.

Together these young leaders can be quite a force. Will they be?

The Baltimore Metro area, as defined by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, also includes Harford and Carroll Counties which are more rural and more conservative and have historically put their foot on the break when the core jurisdictions became too brash. Given the multi-pronged crisis we are facing, the quartet of progressive young leaders may just be the medicine this region needs if they continue to forge ahead with a coordinated and prudent land use and transportation strategy that looks at economic development, environmental protection and social justice all at once. There is much to do.

  • Sprawl is continuing unabated, threatening farms and forests and putting pressure on the designated agricultural preserves all the while Baltimore City's population continues to shrink and the amount of abandoned land grows.
  • Neither in the three Counties nor in the City growth does development pay any attention to where transit is already on the ground, especially expensive high capacity rail transit. Before Hogan Maryland's Department of Transportation had once worked out that all of the State's growth could fit into the underdeveloped lands around existing transit stations. 
  • All three Counties have a history of picking the lucrative raisins out of growth combined with overt racism. As a result economic energy was directed towards the suburbs and siphoned out of the region's core city. 
Racism is how light rail never made it through Glen Burnie to reach Annapolis, how Ruxton fended off a light rail station, how in Owings Mills the terminal Metro station was kept isolated in a highway median, far away from the now defunct and demolished mall, and how a segment of the planned and then defeated  Baltimore City freeway network was built in an African American neighborhood. ("The Highway to Nowhere").
Steuart Pittsman's new platform: Future Matters

All four jurisdictions never zoned land so development would be concentrated where the MTA stations are. The region's lukewarm relation to MTA and its transit system was a key reason why Hogan could get away with killing $ billion Red Line and returning nearly $1 billion of federal funds to the feds. For decades transit oriented development (TOD) remained just a slogan with a few half-hearted projects such as Symphony Center, Odenton and Dorsey Road as fig leaves on the generally dismal state of affairs. Of course, today Howard County would love to have rail access to Columbia. Instead it lost its bus life line when MTA struck the 150 Express bus, the only transit connection from Columbia to downtown. 

Although land use (and its relation to transit) sounds like a geeky and esoteric topic to most people, it is key to solve the cacophony of crisis we currently face: 

  • the crisis of inequity and racism, 
  • the crisis of climate change and 
  • the crisis of depleted public coffers. 
As the above examples illustrate, sprawl and dispersal of development have facilitated racial and income segregation. Sprawl consumes viable natural resources and exacerbates the climate crisis; sprawl also depletes public funds, because the dispersed infrastructure is fiscally unsustainable in the longer run.  

Rash development on green fields once created a gold rush of quick revenue for local government. Increasingly this pattern has turned into a fiscal liability with the insight that edge developments age and the endless new roads, schools, and pipes will have to be maintained or repaired. Meanwhile the core city of the region, Baltimore is suffering from abandonment. Its concentrations of poverty, crime and failing schools have long become a problem that also affects the surrounding communities and the State of Maryland as a whole. The Baltimore region is not unique in this paradigm. In fact, the entire US will be in trouble if the trifecta of inequality, climate crisis and public debt isn't addressed promptly and fairly radically.

The pandemic has made discrepancies crystal clear. Although experts differ greatly in their predictions of what the longterm effects of this unprecedented health crisis will be, they agree that it has already heightened and amplified all the other ailments from which our nation suffers. 

Regional problem: Trash

Mayor Scott and County Executives Olsziewski, Ball and Pittman need all the support they can get to succeed in turning the regional ship around. The Maryland Legislature is considering several bills this period which would be of great help for the Central Maryland region. Two are of exceptional interest: The Transit Safety Investment Act and the Climate Solutions Now bill. The former is the reason why the Executives had gathered at the Hopkins subway station.   

Many other urgent issues that affect everyone's daily life are awaiting solution and know no jurisdictional boundaries: The aging regional water system and its billing troubles, the aging regional trash incinerator that sits in Baltimore City but 50% of the trash burnt there is from the County, the regional and State electric grid that needs to become more resilient and much greener and the Chesapeake Bay which knows no boundaries, only watersheds. (A WYPR moderated discussion with County Executive Olszewski and others about regional collaboration for the Chesapeake is here).

The Baltimore region is one of only a very few in the nation, where the core city is not part of the surrounding county. While there is little hope for a truly regional government in the near future, well cooperating leaders and legislators are exactly what is needed to solve our multi-prong crisis. But they can only succeed if residents are willing to bury the illusion that they will be fine if they managed to secure a safe and secluded spot on the map and that racism, climate or transportation should not concern them. 

With collaboration and a focus on regional solutions the untapped potential of our metro area is vast. Let's tap it!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, January 15, 2021

A New Tune from City DOT

For years Baltimore City DOT mostly made headlines for unfixed potholes, badly timed traffic signals, the faltering of the once popular Circulator bus, followed by the faltering of the Baltimore Water Taxi service (a private service licensed by the City), and the collapse of Baltimore Bikeshare. As frosting on these failures DOT installed bikelanes and then ripped some out again. To boot it missed opportunities to apply for federal grants or to submit the transportation "priority letter" to MDOT in time. The litany of misery was topped off when employees resigned en masse due to alleged abusive behavior of the director and finally the director herself suddenly departed in the wake of Mayor Pugh's "Healthy Holly" scandal.

A new age for Baltimore City transportation (Photo Phlipsen)

Then came Steve Sharkey, a manager who switched over from the Office of General Services and was tasked by then Mayor Young to get DOT  in order, mostly by managing better what MC DOT has to manage. 

This was no small assignment, considering  that the department, which was split from Public Works some years ago in the hope of giving transportation more attention, manages about 30% of the City's land area which happen to be the public roads, plazas and alleys. 

DOT also runs or licenses the City's cool mobility systems, the water Connector, the water taxi, the Circulator and the various scooter and bikeshare services. 

How much BC-DOT has changed becomes already clear  when one opens the department's website: Instead of a photo of the Director accompanied with a murky message there is now a clearly structured welcome page with buttons for the main aspects of DOT's work, along with a status report using the traffic signal colors showing which services are running under COVID.

Baltimore bus lanes (BC-DOT image)

The new City DOT 18 months with Sharkey's at the helm came into even starker focus at this week's morning meeting of the transit advocacy group Transit Choices where Sharkey was the keynote speaker. He started his presentation by focusing on the 29% of City households who don't own a car and going from their to stress the importance of MTA's bus service. "Bus transit is an important basic function in the city along with fire police and water", and defining as part of his work the question" How can the city be a partner to MTA, especially for the bus?" adding that "buses are the workhorses of transit in American cities and declaring that "Its true economic development to connect people to their jobs". When did one ever hear words like this from a department that in the past was singularly focused on the automobile and the free flow on city streets?

Charm City: New Nova Bus (Photo: Philipsen)

"Part of the transit experience is the wait", Sharkey explained in transitioning to the importance of bus stops and the role that the City plays in approving and permitting stops and ensuring that the necessary amenities such as shelters can be placed.  "You can help by resisting those who want to remove bus stops because they don't like the people sitting under the shelters", he told the roughly 50 advocates following his presentation on Zoom. Addressing MDOT he said "We need to not cut transit in the middle of a crisis but support transit because we need it". Sharkey clearly understands that the State-run MTA bus transit can only function well when MTA and the City are partners. MTA buses run on City streets after all, and they can be only fast and reliable when they are not stuck in congestion, delayed by signals or falling apart because of the terrible condition of the pavement. 

The newly discovered partnership is not just a matter of words. Sharkey and Mayor Scott had recently a direct conversation with the MTA Administrator, something that nobody recalled to have happened ever before. 

The list of touch points in which the collaborative idea translates into actual projects is long. Sharkey ticked off these projects and investments:

  • The "North Ave Rising" project under construction that installs 7 miles of additional bus lanes
  • $5mio investments from federal money for capital improvements on priority bus bus routes.
  • Easier permitting of the construction of shelters on City sidewalks
  • Installation of signal priority (TSP) that gives buses some advantage at traffic signals 
  • Corridor studies for the Blue and Orange Link bus routes from North Bend to Essex 
  • The implementation of the City Council enacted Complete Streets law which requires that pedestrians, bicycles and buses have highest priority on public streets
  • Support for the bus lane enforcement bill introduced by Delegate Robbyn Lewis (who also presented to Transit Choices)
    "Transit Deserts" (red, image BC-DOT)

  • Support and participation in the Regional Transit Plan (RTP) and the corridor studies with two priority corridors in Baltimore City (east west and north south)
  • Legislative support in Annapolis for the Transit Investment Act to be debated in Annapolis next week.
  • Attention to the identified "transit deserts" in the name of better transit equity
"COVID hit transit hard, especially those agencies who are farebox dependent", Sharkey noted in concluding his remarks about working with MTA. 

Of course, as a transit provider, BC-DOT knows the impact of COVID on ridership first hand. The Harbor Connector, Baltimore's municipal version of water transit currently runs only 2 of 3 routes thanks to a severe drop in ridership. The remaining water taxi service licensed by DOT has been fully suspended. The Connector and the Charm City Circulator are both DOT operated transit services, originally funded by a surcharge on Baltimore's parking tax, but eventually becoming underfunded because "of mission creep" as Sharkey called it. He reported that the Orange and the Purple lines had the least decline in ridership. He noted as the biggest reason for past troubles the lack of maintenance on the Circulator buses. The City now operates six new buses and is in the process of adding six more and is reviewing the route map. "Stay tuned", Sharkey advised the audience. 

Asked about the bike-lanes Starkey pointed to the past high turn-over in the position of bike planner which he hopes has now stabilized, so the bike-share program "can be built back" and more bike lanes be added. 

Collaboration Opportunities (BC-DOT graphic)

Thanks to COVID the City saw an unprecedented installation of miles of BC-DOT designated "Slow Streets", as well as the use of street space for outdoor dining. 

Asked whether those saw-horse barricades would transform into a more permanent strategy, Sharkey allowed that not all of the program was as successful as the "recreational use" of closed streets around Lake Montebello. Adding that the Slow Streets also have a traffic calming component, he noted that regulations have to catch up, citing as an example the law that pedestrians have to use a sidewalk if there is one. This may explain the lack of acceptance in some areas which saw many of the "Road Closed" sawhorses simply being pushed to the side by motorists. We are replacing the flimsy sawhorses with more stable "class 3 barriers" he said, as it was done in other cities.  
The bus stop is part of the journey  (Photo: Philipsen)

An ably managed and led Department of Transportation has become the signature of many progressive cities which put quality of life, traffic safety, transit, alternative transportation and equity on the forefront of their agenda. 

Baltimore seems to be catching up. Mayor Scott who is much more interested in transportation than his predecessors is probably well advised by keeping Director Sharkey in place. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The State of Transit in the Region: From Bad to Worse?

This year has been extremely rough for transit and has heightened the need to think about the  future of transit. In Baltimore, transit and transportation, once a geeky topic, have become the focus of public interest. 
Event poster of the Baltimore Transit
Equity Coalition 

Various bills are anticipated to address the region's transit future in the State's legislative session starting in January: Foremost the Transit Safety and Investment Act still pending from last year. Another bill is expected to require tracking transit equity. It has not yet been published. Mayor Scott has officially declared December 21 as Baltimore Transit Equity Solidarity Day and has already shown more interest in support for transit than previous Mayors.

At least three documents are trying to map the transit future in the greater Baltimore Washington region.

More bus lanes to accelerate the bus

Finally, there is the Transportation & Climate initiative, a compact between 13 states of the eastern US (including Maryland) which will introduce carbon pricing and trading into transportation. While not a Baltimore region initiative, TCI has enormous potential to shift transportation priorities and open up new funding streams, especially for transit. 

A D-grade for transit

Meanwhile, the latest CMTA Report Card gave Baltimore area transit once again a D grade, mostly because of poor job access based on the annual analysis performed by the University of Minnesota. The depressing thing about that is that the LINK bus reform promoted by the current Governor has not lifted the poor grade, worse job access is supposed tohave slipped compared to 2018, the basis of the previous report. In short, the state of transit in the Baltimore region hasn't been stellar for a long time and COVID has made it much worse. 
The Transportation Report Card by CMTA

A typical Baltimorean can only get to 9% of the region’s jobs in under an hour using public transportation. (Report Card)

According to data collected by the Federal Transit Administration, MTA’s bus and rail systems have the highest breakdown rates compared to its peer agencies (2018 data, cited in CMTA Report Card_
 Would the three plans and the proposed bills improve area transit? 

The Transit Investment Act

Since the biggest problem for transit is the lack of money, the Investment Act would make a difference since this governor consistently prioritized roadway spending over transit ever since he took office. With COVID having drastically decreased the dollars flowing into the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund, which fuels all matters and modes of transportation in Maryland, the Governor announced especially drastic cuts for MTA. The proposed bill squarely aims at funding MTA for a "good state of repair", if need be, by reallocating other transportation funds towards transit. 

Requiring the Governor to include certain appropriations in the State budget from the Transportation Trust Fund to the Maryland Transit Administration for certain operating and capital needs of the Administration in certain fiscal years; (Bill description)
To make financial matters worse, the single large transit project that the Governor let happen, the DC area Purple Line, hit a big snag when the lead contractor walked off the job frustrated by the many delays that the project organized as a public private partnership has experienced. In a settlement, designed to rescue the partially constructed project, the State will have to pay at least $100 million to get the project moving again. Although it isn't clear yet what the total tally of this major hick-up will be, nor from where the funds will come, there is little doubt that the Transportation Trust Fund will pay this settlement which was celebrated as a success, both by MDOT and by transit advocates. 

The Regional Transit Plan

The Regional Transit Plan was finished under COVID but was commenced much earlier. It, too originated from a bill sponsored by Delegate Lierman. Titled "Connecting Our Future" the 25 year plan was completed in October 2020. In its introductory letter MTA Administrator Quinn says:

Over the past two years, MDOT MTA has worked collaboratively with the Central  Maryland Regional Transit Plan Commission, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, and the public to develop a comprehensive twenty-five-year vision for transit in the Central Maryland Region: Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, and Howard Counties.
The Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan presents goals, objectives, and initiatives to enhance transit service, support the economy, and reduce our environmental impact. Through coordinated planning and investment from the region’s transit agencies and the local jurisdictions, we have an opportunity to create an interconnected transit network that is more reliable, convenient, and efficient.
Goals and Initiatives (Regional Transit Plan)

The Regional Plan, initiated long before anybody remotely thought about a virus, addresses several of the typical issues that plagued our transit all along, namely lack of reliability, not enough destinations to reach within a reasonable time, long trip times, a poor state of repair and poor communication. Addressing these issues will be good, no matter what. The plan also identifies various priority corridors that should be studied for expanded service without suggesting a mode (bus, light rail, subway etc). All metrics and goals in the plan are based on improvements above pre-COVID services. Since the pandemic resulted in service cuts rather than improvements, all metrics are already off to some extent. 

Really drastic cuts almost happened this fall when MTA proposed massive cuts only to avert most of them last minute. A public outcry caused MTA to alter their plans and slash only rail and commuter bus service where ridership losses were the highest. How long will this truce last is not known, no further cuts are proposed at this time, a significant advantage over many other systems in the nation. As is well known, the current pandemic landscape has turned the economy of many industries upside down to such an extreme amount that it is entirely unclear how a "new normal" after COVID will look like, whether in office, hospitality, culture, or entertainment. All affecting transportation. Especially work from home could reduce the commute numbers for a long time to come. 

The regional transit authority

When things don't go so well, there is always the possibility that they are not well organized. The MD Transportation Trust Fund has been long a point of Maryland pride, but the status of Baltimore transit as a function of a State Agency with no local participation (or funding contribution) is fairly unique. After the cancellation of the Baltimore Red Line a movement to limit the Governor's power over local transit gained momentum. The report by the transportation think tank ENO in Washington DC suggests three models for how the Baltimore region could get additional say over how transit is run in the metro area. The most drastic option would be the creation of a regional transportation authority similar to what is common in most metro regions across the country, including DC's WMATA
Ridership loss on buses: MTA has the third smallest loss
in the nation (Source: MTA)

The governance of public transit in Greater Baltimore limits its ability to address those regional transportation needs. Of the 50 largest transit agencies in the country, Baltimore’s is the only one that is governed and operated by a state agency without a board of directors.[...] The local governments in the Baltimore region do not directly contribute funding to the transit services the state provides.
Unfortunately, under this governance structure, metropolitan Baltimore’s public transportation system has not kept pace with repair and service needs nor has seen a new rapid transit line in more than two decades.

ENO points out that Baltimore does not contribute to the area transit cost. In that it is unique, since the surrounding jurisdictions such as Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford Counties get operational aid from MTA but contribute to their capital and operational expenses to varying degrees. Baltimore, of course, runs its own Circulator bus, largely funded out of City funds. ENO suggest that the hodge-podge of local systems should be integrate into one system if a regional authority would run it. 

While funding of a regional authority would still come mostly from the State Trust Fund, the aspect of increased local contributions may very well lower Baltimore's excitement about this model. 

The Capital Rail Vision

Finally the rail vision plan which isn't strictly a Baltimore area plan. It proposes to integrate Maryland's MARC commuter trains and Virginia's VRE trains which current each terminate at Union Station in DC. MTA's MARC trains were the agency's flagship service with rising ridership and the fastest commuter trains in the country (top speeds above 100mph). It is tempting to look at how this service could penetrate the nation's capital better and potentially even reach up to the Philadelphia commter rail system as well.

The Capital Region Rail Vision seizes on recent wins for the region’s rail network and charts a course for a transformed rail system that offers seamless, all day connections that span the Potomac River and rail operators to connect Maryland, the District, and Virginia and deliver a globally competitive system that takes the Capital Region to new heights.

But oh, have things changed! A recent presentation by MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn cast a light on the current conditions. Like in transit across the country, MTA lost riders in droves, nearly 90% for rail services and commuter buses and about 50% for local buses. With such devastation in the commuter rail ridership, it isn't likely that this vision will get much traction any time soon, even though a State bill introduced last year, already asked to study how MARC service could be extended to DC's L'Enfant Plaza, currently only served by VRE. 

The Capital Region Commuter Rail system

The high ridership losses on MARC come from our region's high dependency on government work, especially for commuters riding MARC to DC. Almost all this work is now done virtually and it is quite unclear to what extent in person work will return even once COVID is in the rear view mirror.

Commuter rail is hugely important for the well being of the Baltimore region, which is dependent on participating in the much healthier capital economy. In spite of the cratering passenger numbers, it is the time to fully appreciate the importance of high capacity trains that connect our region. They should be more than a conduit for federal workers. Instead of wasting energy on far fetched boondoggles such as MagLev and Hyperloop, the focus of our regions must now be how to replace the missing federal commuters with everyday riders that currently clog the streets. 

The "captive ridership" trap 

Common wisdom has it that the pandemic accelerates and magnifies trends that were detectable long before the pandemic. Certainly true for transit: The increase in ridership that had followed the financial crisis of 2008 has long reverted back to the steady loss of transit's share that has been underway for as long as mass motorization. The future of transit depends on reverting this trend in the name of climate change and a better quality of life in our road congested and air polluted region. 

In spite of  the pandemic and the associated fear of sharing a space with others, in spite of work from home, closed schools and closed government offices, nearly 100,000 people still use the buses every day! This means, tons of "front line" or "essential" workers depend on transit for getting to work! If these employees, nurses, sanitation workers, shop clerks, check-out personnel, construction workers, delivery drivers, or warehouse workers couldn't get to their jobs, our society wouldn't function anymore and all those who get by without touching transit would have a rude awakening. 

Zurich trams: Not spectacular but reliable (Photo: Philipsen)

In fact, Baltimore's transit dependent population is higher and the 50% ridership in loss is smaller than that of many other cities. This points to Baltimore's high poverty rates and the large inequality and inequity in this city. Protecting these riders has become a clarion call for those who demand more equity. The observation that transit is a necessity is not new, though. However, in the past it was seen as a trap if agencies would simply rely on "captive riders" for whom transit is a last resort. 

As a result transit agencies have tried to attract "choice riders" (meaning riders that have a choice), often by building rail service which had a higher acceptance than buses. This approach has come into the cross hairs of the equity discussion. Posh new suburban light rail systems were increasingly derided as "white rail" and as an inequitable shift of resources away from overburdened and underserved communities where transit is truly needed. Attracting choice riders was criticised as some type of trickle down approach in which the new attractive services should eventually improve bus service as well. On the other hand, it is probably true that transit won't excel unless broader segments of the population have some "skin in the game", best by being transit users themselves.  

Who can tele-work? Source: MTA

The master precedent for attracting "choice riders" had been Zurich, Switzerland, interestingly Zurich was successful after it rejected very expensive new underground lines that would have done away with its narrow gauge trams in the streets and opted for making those trams an investment priority instead. Only after the transit agency resolved that it wanted to improve its existing system but didn't want to be just a service of last resort, did the service really improve. Making existing trams and buses more reliable, cleaner and operating them with use of state of the art technology and giving transit priority in the narrow streets of the city made it one of the best systems worldwide. That approach had been very successful and today, all segments of the population rub shoulders in the many tram lines around the city. 

What needs to be done?

Considering COVID, equity and the Zurich experience  raises many questions for Baltimore's transit future beyond the noted transit plans.  

  1. How can the region respond effectively to climate change? What role must transit play in that?
  2. How can transit help to reduce the inequities in the region by providing much better job access without breaking the bank?
  3. How can transit service respond to continued migration of jobs away from the traditional job centers? 
  4. How can transit become attractive beyond the existing "insider" circle of those who are familar with the system and all its indignities? Good transit has to be attractive to transit dependent riders and choice riders alike. 

MTA and the City of Baltimore have started many good initiatives: 

  • a fairer distribution of the existing street space through miles of bus only lanes and many cases of signal priority which have broken with the tradition of traffic planning that always prioritized the car over everything else. 
    The new MTA Nova Bus being rolled out now

  • MTA's buses have become "smarter" and MTA's dispatch folks as well as riders can usually find where any bus is at any given moment. 
  • The bus fleet is in the process of being renewed and MARC, light rail and Metro also have seen upgrades for their rolling stock (or will see it in 2021, in the case of Metro). 
  • MTA is preparing for a regional fare system where riders could use a single ticket on various transit providers in the region. 
Problems remain:
  • Service remains slow and unreliable and trips too time consuming as CMTA's transit report card shows. The other deficits contribute to this: 
  • A poor state of repair for tracks, signals and stations, slowing things down. 
  • Insufficient number of buses, especially when break downs are frequent
  • Insufficient number of operators, especially when COVID increases the sick rates

Only money can alleviate these deficiencies, no matter who runs the system or how ridership will develop after COVID.  Severe service cuts taking out essential lifelines for underserved and overburdened communities must remain off the table. The Maryland Transit Safety and Investment Act will be key to the needed funding as well as the second COVID aid package that Congress just stitched together. It is anticipated to contain about $120 for Maryland Transit.

The Efficiency solutions: Better land use and demand based transit service

There are perspectives beyond money, namely how land use and transit service can be brought into better alignment. Better land use by the local jurisdictions  via zoning and land management around the existing transit stations (rail) and bus lines would be the kind of support any transit agency needs to flourish. Although the connection between land use and transportation has been understood for decades, there has been little or no action in the Baltimore region to do anything about the fact that the land around rail stations is usually not at all "transit oriented" but is characterized by abandonment, disinvestment, low density and auto centric uses that don't bring any riders to transit. Masterplans and development plans need to recognize the presence of a transit station as an asset. The fact that in our region state money has funded transit and the stations has enabled local government to pretty much ignore those assets. 

Typical suburban land use pattern (Graphic: Kittelson)

A case in point is the Lutherville Light Rail station in which vicinity a shopping center has seen four different big box users since the station was built. None presented "transit oriented development", all failed one way or another. Recently the site was bought by developers just before it would have been auctioned off. What will happen now? There is no adopted local plan that would mandate a transit friendly use. 

The same is pretty much true up and down all stations of MARC, Metro and Light Rail.  The famed exceptions are Owings Mills for Metro, Symphony Center and Clipper Mill for Light Rail and the Dorsey Road and Odenton Stations for MARC, all examples which deviate in many respects from optimal TOD.

With better land use and a broader service menu, efficiency could be achieved, ideally without much new capital. This requires action on both sides:

  • Intensified use around existing rail stations all across the map can bring additional riders to transit and out of cars. Putting development and jobs in areas that are well served by transit rather than out where transit is impractical is by far the most cost effective option for sustainable economic development
  • A further diversified transit service menu must be considered by MTA to serve the many lower density areas in our region to to provide service during "slow" hours. The menu must include services that are not the traditional fixed-route, fixed-service model that is the base of all existing MTA service except Paratransit/Mobility. 
  • The operational service alternative is a demand-based system that runs when and where needed, replacing costly mostly empty buses circulating on routes with low ridership. Mobility-Paratransit is already a "demand-based" service that adjusts for demand and moves off fixed routes to the doors of users and their destinations.
  • A cash free integrated fare payment system across all modes and the entire region which would allow buses to be faster since operators would not have to wait until everybody paid on board.
A demand based system doesn't have to be a train or bus and it doesn't have to be owned by MTA. It could be cars that would operate like taxis or ride share with pick up of additional riders along the way. It could be a van type demand responsive service as it is popular in South America and Turkey. Eventually, once regulations are adjusted, it could even be a broader use of the existing Mobility/Paratransit fleet. Covering "last mile" service, late night and weekend hours on low density routes could bring riders to the transit system who haven't used the system to date. 

The State of transit may not be good. But with the most progressive MTA team in generations in place, a new Mayor, and progressive Executives in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel Counties a breakthrough towards a better future could be possible, in spite of the rough year behind us. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA