Friday, June 23, 2017

McKeldin Plaza: The sad case of diminishing expectations

After much debate and back and forth McKeldin Plaza opened Thursday without fanfare but in presence of the hapless descendants of the former Baltimore Mayor McKeldin who were trotted out to legitimize the travesty of demolishing the fountain that carried his name since 1982. McKeldin is still well regarded for his ability of seeing 30 years ahead in his then stagnant burg and envisioning a lively waterfront.

What was revealed after the veiled 6' chain-link fence came down is that the full throated tiger Downtown Partnership has fathered a mouse. McKeldin Plaza is now so mundane it wouldn't raise an eyebrow in downtown Arbutus. A bit of grass, a few skinny trees and a 5' perimeter walkway are not able to cover the gaping hole the $4 million demolition of the brutalist fountain left behind in Baltimore's landscape. Strings of light and recovered shiny art round out the decor that would even be able to enhance a Bavarian beer garden.
The new McKeldin Plaza: grass, trees and berms (Photo Philipsen)
“This is where Baltimoreans come to celebrate holidays and watch parades. It’s the town square where civil and political opinions are expressed. This new design makes the space better for all of these activities. It’s placemaking on a human scale.” (Kirby Fowler Press release)
The only thing the new plaza can claim for itself is that there is no concrete left after fountain and bridges have been removed with much effort and so many dollars that nothing was left for the new design. A plus for those who hate concrete and confuse brutalism (B├ęton brut) with brutality; to avoid even a speck of concrete, rock caged in chainlink, "gabions" typically used by engineers to stabilize eroded river banks, forms little walls here and there. Not being a brutalist fountain is hardly enough of a program for one of the most prominent parks in Baltimore.
The fountain that allowed walking through it and was clearly part of the
Inner Harbor design

This is a very disappointing outcome if one cares to remember the promises with which it all started and which were taken back one after the other: As shown in ASG's Harbor 2.0 masterplans, the promise was to connect McKeldin Plaza to Harborplace by closing the four lane traffic connector that slips northbound Light Street to Calvert and eastbound Pratt.
Imagine what Art History would include if all the ‘ugly’ art was destroyed by the haters of their time? Pretty much all of it. Every piece of historically significant art has been hated by a contemporary audience in its day. (Cara Ober in Bmore Art May 2015)
The idea of closing those lanes gave traffic engineers hives and was referred to lengthy study conducted by Sabra Wang, a consulting firm where several other hot traffic issues went to die, probably less the consultant's fault than the fact that Baltimore's DOT has been largely rudderless for years.

With the expansion promise gone, the justification for demolition of the fountain was gone as well. But it turned out that the closure of the dogleg was nothing but a pretext for those intent on knocking the fountain down, come hell or high water. It was the money from the owner to the west who looked across the street against the fountain's pump room door spoke.
The original Ziger Snead/ Mahan Rykiel redesign of McKeldin

Now the promise shifted to "world-class park design" on par with Chicago's Centennial Park. In July 2015 a Downtown Partnership representative introduced the design concept to UDARP in this lofty but accurate assessment:
"DPoB believes that McK Plaza is the maybe the most important civic space. And if it isn't it has the potential to be it". 
But the design of the hand-picked homegrown design team of Ziger-Snead and Mahan Rykiel was met with scathing  comments from the local design review panel UDARP which didn't find anything "world class" in the proposal. Panelist Richard Burns likened the proposed water wall to a hotel lobby design ("I have seen this at a Marriott") and determined that nothing about it was specific to Baltimore.

In response DPoB suddenly scuttled the design and there was whispering about a design competition. Another ruse. DPoB saw a chance to knock the fountain down and then do almost nothing. In a special kind of irony, UDARP panelist Rubin gave a hand in the design of the temporary fix that is now on display, either a blatant violation of the rule that panelists can't design what they critique or abuse of a very capable designer. Rubin, an excellent and sharp critic, a Harvard trained landscape architect, couldn't win when confronted with Fowler's budget that never included more money than what was needed for the costly demolition.
Gabion stsyle walls and bling sculptures (photo: Kevin Lynch)

Exactly a year ago I wrote this on Community Architect Daily:
The new zoning code prohibits the demolition of buildings before a replacement is designed, approved and funded. It isn't clear why that logic shouldn't apply here, too. What could possibly be worse than a half-baked underfunded provisional open space? 
The current fountain has the heft and scale to holds its own in a sea of traffic. The cascading water provides a sound that neutralizes the traffic noise to some extent; the steps, bridges and structures make it a walkable big sculpture and offer many surprise views,  The illumination at Light City Baltimore showed how easy it would be to spruce the fountain up, especially at night. No doubt, a better design is possible, except it hasn't see the light of day, yet. McKeldin Fountain in its current form is an important public space and its disposition should not be left to private entities, no matter how laudable many initiatives of DPoB are or have been.
The new McKeldin Plaza: Bling and shrubs (Photo: Elliott Plack)
Of course, what we have now is precisely that,  a half-baked underfunded provisional open space easily outwitted by the new temporary Sandlot park at HarborPoint. As if DPoB wanted to make sure that even more energy travels east on Baltimore's waterfront. In spite of the designs flatness, the surrounding walkway isn't even accessible when it ends in a sudden a dangerous double step.

Kirby Fowler will tell concerned citizens not to worry, the real design is yet to come. Why should anyone believe this? It is well established that temporary solutions are the most enduring. They better be really good to start with.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
A poorly drained 5' perimeter walk has all the charm of a suburban sidewalk  (photo: Klaus Philipsen)

What to do with these lawns, another suburban design staple  (photo: Klaus Philipsen)

a few tiered benches suggest that there would be something to see  (photo: Klaus Philipsen)

The tiny trees suggest that a long life for this temporary fix is expected  (photo: Klaus Philipsen)

Nothing here has the scale to hold its own in a setting of massive structures and traffic  (photo: Klaus Philipsen)

McKeldin Plaza now: A flat island in a sea of traffic and pavement (photo: Klaus Philipsen)
The McKeldin fountain hadn't been abandoned as many tried to tell us (photo: Ryan Patterson, Bmore Art)
This image shows how much the fountain was a part of the Inner Harbor setting and protected
users from the trucks and traffic all around (Photo: Philipsen)

A sudden reversal on McKeldin Plaza design
The McKeldin Fountain Folly Continues
McKeldin Fountain back to UDARP
McKeldin Fountain catches Council President's Attention
New McKeldin Plaza Design Unveiled
McKeldin Fountain Its Fate is Sealed


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Pugh names new department heads

Pugh named Janet Abrahams to be the executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, She was previously the Vice President of Operations, overseeing New York City Housing Authority’s innovative Optimal Property Management Department (OPMD), now known as NextGeneration Operations since September 2015. Prior to joining NYCHA, Ms. Abrahams served for almost 10 years as Chief Operating Officer at the Newark Housing Authority, the eleventh largest public housing authority in the nation, where she planned, executed and managed all agency operations. Before joining the Newark Housing Authority, Ms. Abrahams served as Assistant Director of Operations at the Chicago Housing Authority
Pugh announces new department heads:
From left: Pourciau, Abrahams, Braverman (Photo: Baltimore Brew)

Michael Braverman who was the acting Commissioner of the combined agency after Graziano resigned will run the Department of Housing and Community Development. He has held various city jobs over a 30-year career and is well respected in the community.

After many months of vacancy which began under Mayor Rawlings Blake, The Department of Transportation (BCDOT) will now have a Director again. Several decisions such as whether St Paul and Calvert Streets should be converted to two way traffic and whether the traffic dogleg at the McKeldin Plaza could be closed remained on the pile of undecided issues. The department  will be headed by Michelle Pourciau, who previously ran the DOT of the District of Columbia, starting in 2006 as acting director. She was not appointed as director in the end and left DDOT  changing over to the private sector as vice president for transportation at the McKissack & McKissack of Washington, Inc. McKissack & McKissack of Washington, Inc. is a minority and woman-owned business which provides architectural, environmental engineering and program management services. The company has offices in Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta and Orlando. McKissack & McKissack of Washington was founded by Deryl McKissack in 1990 and is headquartered in Washington, DC.

Pourciau has 30 years of transportation experience mostly in the District of Columbia in DPW and in D-DOT. At D-DOT she earned $128,000 before she left. Most recently, i.e. in March of this year she had been appointed as Executive Director of External Affairs for the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). She has undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan and Howard University and studied at the Kennedy School of Government. In addition to representing the University of the District of Columbia on the Van Ness Main Street board, she was a long time neighbor to the Van Ness community. Pugh joked that Pourciau had worked on bike lanes in DC. Baltimore's bike lanes became the topic of some discontent after Pugh decided that installed design on Cantons Potomac Street had not been properly vetted by BCDOT and should be in part removed. That change has been halted by a court injunction brought forth by Bikemore.

There are high hopes that a progressive DOT director should lead Baltimore into a less car-centric future. It remains to be seen if Ms Pourciau can live up to those hopes. Material online is sparse, she doesn't seem to have left a large body of published work. DDOT has certainly done good work in recent years converting the District into a more bike, pedestrian and transit friendly environment. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The article was modified and updated. 

SUN video of the public introduction
Brew article

Why the suburbs lack parks

For decades green space had been privatized. The suburban house with a yard was the ideal while cities bled out and their parks fell into disrepair.
Then came the urban renaissance, most cities got back on their feet, parks like Central Park in New York and Patterson Park in Baltimore were repaired and fixed up. New ones such as the Highline in New York, Centennial Park in Chicago or Eager Park in Baltimore were added. Now the suburbs look like the losers. Especially older suburbs such as Towson, Essex, or Dundalk which have a lot of rental housing or small yard homes lack the amenity open spaces. Private yards meanwhile have much less utility with two working parents, 10 hour school days, after school activities, daycare, Netflix and air conditioning   The neighborhood kid offering to mow for a buck has turned into an army of Latinos descending on the yard with heavy machinery. This has converted the private yard from an asset into a cost item on the expense ledger.
The map is a beta of a new NeighborSpace modeling system. The inner ring suburbs show no or insufficient access to open space within 1/4 mile walk access. Ideally this mapping model should be merged with a city data-base. 

Cities easily caught up with the idea that they can only compete over quality of life, converting this insight into action that goes from dog parks to bike lanes even though amenity distribution remains very uneven. The burbs? Not so much action there.

An example is Baltimore County, its diminished Department of Recreation and Parks that handed maintenance of its parks to DPW and can hardly take on new responsibilities. While the County grows and the needs for open space increase, some green spaces inside the URDL are turned over to development such as on Bosley Road where mature trees were cut for a Royal Farm mega gas station, or in Mays Chapel for a new school. Like in the City, new development is unevenly distributed, but unlike the City and the County collects fees  from developers who don't create their own green spaces as part of their development. Those fees are a continual item of dispute. What fees have been collected and where they went remains largely a mystery in spite of various County Council bills requiring transparent reporting. Transparency isn't what characterizes Baltimore County, instead it is all about not raising property taxes. The lack of public amenities is especially discouraging when one compares it with the County's progressive and bold move in the 1970s to create as the first County in the US an urban-rural demarcation line and protect large swaths of its rural heritage.

Designation of a small neighborhood park in East Towson (photos: Philipsen)
Baltimore County's non-profit NeighborSpace was created to provide open spaces inside the development envelope in an effort to give all residents some walkable access to a public and protected open space. Because the County protected so much land outside the development envelope, development pressure inside has become larger. Developers moan in every round of the quadrennial re-zoning about running out of space to grow and develop.

Urban developers are used to catering to quality of life and "lifestyle" through mixed use, urbanity and amenities such as transit. Suburban developers are discovering the new paradigm only slowly and where they do so, they, just like their urban brethren, provide those amenities only for their own development as privatized, gated pools, roof gardens, indoor gyms and gated dog parks. It is therefore essential that fees get collected for the creation of open spaces in areas where developers don't invest and parks are scarce. Access to open space isn't just a frilly thing in a real estate brochure that adds value to property, it is an essential item for social capital, community health and even personal health. Even a small neighborhood gathering space has social, economical and environmental benefits and is, therefore, a vital component of sustainability and quality of life.
Neighbors posing in the new park. In the background the Black & Decker
plant (photos: Philipsen)

How new development can leverage open space in a community that needs it was on display Wednesday in the East Towson where NeighborSpace dedicated a half acre pocket park cheek to jowl with corporate neighbor Black and Decker on the one side and community leader ("Mayor of East Towson") Adelaide Bentley as a neighbor on the other.

Ten years in the making, the little jewel didn't just drop into the community's lap but took lots of work including design concepts from Morgan State students and their professor Jack Leonard (who is a board member of NeighborSpace) to goats weeding through invasive plants, a landscape firm run also by a Morgan student felling irreparably damaged trees, corporate donations and lots of sweat equity, including from County Council member David Marks and his daughter. Marks was also the one who directed mandatory public purpose funds from a Planned Unit development to this site. The property was originally privately owned and acquired by NeighborSpace to protect it as an open space in perpetuity. Marks is frequently the target of Towson's community groups who fight the onslaught of development and want to see more open space. He posted on his Facebook page:
Adelaide Bentley cutting the ribbon of the new park named
after her with Delegate Lafferty (right) looking on.
(photos: Philipsen)
Why is this such a special place? First, it is an example of how government does not have a monopoly on building parks - NeighborSpace is a nonprofit organization. Government lent a hand, and so did Stanley Black & Decker, its neighbor to the east.
Second, the park provides green space in a very densely-populated part of eastern Towson - the heart of Towson's African American community.
I have grown to love this neighborhood and its "mayor," Adelaide Bentley. Congratulations to everyone who made tonight happen
The celebration showed how a park can bring people together and foster community. Attendees where offered the option to "buy" a tree on this site or for future parks NeighborSpace will create. The tree purchase program is part of NeighborSpace's new initiative to increase the tree canopy in Baltimore County.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The author is President of the Board of NeighborSpace

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Baltimore infrastructure woes: steam-pipe blows up

Baltimore doesn't need terrorist attacks to frighten its citizens. Baltimore's own infrastructure, its collapses, explosions, fires and inundations regularly terrify residents. Tuesday as part of summer solstice, it is a Baltimore steam pipe.
Eutaw Street steam explosion Tuesday evening: 5 injured

The most spectacular infrastructure malady was the train fire in the ancient Howard Street tunnel, even though the ultimate cause for the derailment and subsequent fire was never fully determined, CSX always suspected water dripping onto tracks from a leaking pipes. Also spectacular the entire edge of a street sliding onto the CSX tracks in a giant splash just a bit north of the Howard Street tunnel. The sinkholes that could have easily have swallowed at least two rowhouses whole on Centre and on Mulberry Streets were kind of benign by comparison, even though a DPW inspector unfortunately fell into one of them.
Baltimore: this photo shows the force with which debris was ejected

At times manholes have been ejected into the air through unruly things happening in the conduits under the street where hard to extinguish electric fires have caused occasional alarm as well.

Now its a steam pipe blowing up on Eutaw Street south of Lombard. As if for special effect, the explosion occurred Tuesday after 6pm  right north of Camden Yards with a clear view from the field. Great timing, too, just before the begin of a game. Five persons are reported as injured, apparently none with severe injuries.
New York steam explosion 2007: 1 dead

The steam-pipes are part and parcel of the old legacy cities. New York has the largest steam pipe system that started in 1882. The honor of oldest system goes to Denver's small system that operates since 1880. Other steam systems run in Boston, Philly and Chicago. New York's steam pipes exploded twice with such forced that the explosion killed one bystander in 2007 and three in 1989.
The first district heating system was designed within a liberal market framework. In 1877, inventor Birdsill Holly pioneered the sale and distribution of heat in Lockport, New York. Holly recognised that urban life was full of thermal energy, and that you could recover heat from industrial processes and sell it using pipes to connect supply with demand – effectively creating a second saleable commodity. (The Guardian)
Baltimore's system today is run by Veolia, the French infrastructure giant who runs all kinds of privatized infrastructure in many parts of the world. The system was built in the early 1900s and originally owned by Baltimore Gas & Electric. At its peak in the 1970s it had about 600 customers. In the 1990s it was run by Baltimore Thermal, later by Trigen. One of the more prominent structures heated by steam heat is the Bromo Seltzer Tower.
Veolia’s extensive heating and cooling networks provide steam, hot water and chilled water to over 255 prominent commercial, healthcare, government, institutional and hospitality customers in the central business district and in Inner Harbor East (website).
The steam in the district heating system is gained in what is called co-generation as part of the trash incinerator on Russel Street, in essence an environmentally smart way of using the heat of incineration instead of blowing it out the chimney. Baltimore also has a underground cooling system for air conditioning  fed by a central chiller plant on Eutaw Street behind a single story retail strip just south of Saratoga Street.
View of the steam powered Bromo tower and the steam leak in
Eutaw Street to the south 

The Baltimore system consists of 15 miles of buried pipeline with 24" main trunk pipelines spidering off into smaller pipes down to six inches to cover the area of downtown Baltimore. Pressure is 50 pounds and 150 pounds depending which pressure system. Pipes are between 6 feet and 25 feet under ground made from ordinary black iron pipe encased in insulation material and concrete. Some pipes are still the original. The steam temperature is about 350F. Steam can also be used for cooling by running compressors. Leaky steam-pipes cause the base of streets under which they run to liquify resulting in an extremely wavy surface if the wear layer is asphalt and not concrete.
Wednesday morning puffs of steam are still rising and the debris is in clear view
the mud covered vehicles are still parked on Eutaw while workers
and equipment are gathered  awaiting instructions. Apparently the blow-up
occurred on a straight stretch of the line without an invert and sits
parallel to a gas line and next to a recently refilled trench. The steam pressure
broke through the roadway concrete slab attesting to significant force

Although district steam is a technology going almost as far back as the steam engine, district heating in its more modern hot water version has regained renewed interest as an energy friendly solution. Leader in district heating is Sweden with 60% of all households getting their heat from district systems. Most energy there comes from biomass, only 15% come from incinerators. Baltimore's system still suffers from the fact that BGE let it wither in the early 80s before it sold it entirely.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Why the heck does New York have steam pipes anyway?

Awaiting instructions

The sidewalk will be swept and opened for hotel access

The newest downtown attraction: A volcano 

What's next for Baltimore transportation?

While the fretting about Baltimore Link may continue for a few more days or weeks until people will get used to the new bus system, the question "what's next?" remains unavoidable.
Title slide of a presentation to "Transit Choices"

The truth is that the MTA has no answer to that question, because there is no long-term or even mid-term plan for expanding or innovating the transit system.

The current MDOT Secretary is all about fixing what's already on the ground. Light Rail and Metro are in overhaul mode, Metro gets all new train cars, LRT has a mid-life overhaul in which the trains get basically reassembled from the ground up. Tracks get fixed, safety systems installed. While this is laudable, from a rider's perspective it isn't satisfactory as a future plan. It isn't like Baltimore couldn't use a few more transit options even if the current systems would miraculously run smoothly. Making existing transit run correctly is an achievement Samuel Jordan of the Transit Equity Coalition describes as "the MTA just doing their job".
There has been no new regional rail route for over 25 years in a period when some cities like Charlotte or Houston created entire new light rail systems. Taking off the table the only plan there was, is therefore certainly not acceptable.

On occasion of my book "Baltimore- Reinventing an Industrial Legacy City" I was invited by the Baltimore transit action group "Transit Choices" to speak about the transportation and transit elements of that reinvention, i.e. about the future of Baltimore's transit.  This article describes the three main points of my presentation.

1. The shift from bricks and mortar to equity

For decades the future of the City has been described as building a lot of new stuff. Either by growing at the fringes (sprawl) or by bulldozing old things (urban renewal). To this day economic development is equated with the number of cranes in the air. The Baltimore Business Journal recently included a regular feature in its reporting called "crane watch".
Baltimore area rail plans. What's next?

Transit advocates equally saw their biggest goal in building additional metro, light rail, streetcar or bus rapid transit lines. A vision of the future was a map with more lines. The problem: New investment, amenities and transit were concentrated in thriving areas and largely absent from communities of color and poorer neighborhoods in a cycle that can be called "design of exclusion" (see the "Arsenal of Exclusion", a book by Daniel D'Oca), systemic racism or even, as new Baltimore Councilman Ryan Dorsey did in an editorial to the Sun, "white supremacy".

A focus on equity in transit would be less about new miles of track built but about people and outcomes. Transit isn't a purpose in itself, instead it is supposed to give people access to jobs (education, services, leisure) through short,  reliable and quick transit rides. More equity is to give more people such access especially where they were denied it before.

One way to measure this, is by creating a metric about how many % of workers live within a reasonable transit ride of their work. The Baltimore Equity coalition and the NAACP have filed a Title 6 (Social Justice) complaint against the cancellation of the Red Line because this line would have provided markedly improved access to impoverished West Baltimore communities to job centers at Hunt Valley, the Airport and East Baltimore. Baltimore Link needs to prove that it improved trip times of workers trying to reach job centers where available jobs are. Beyond the Red Line and a working bus system, many additional steps are needed to ensure equitable mobility as a path out of poverty. Grading transit by access, outcomes and equity is a qualitative different way than simply by how many miles of track or how many riders.
Daniel D'Oca illustration: "The Arsenal of Exclusion"

2. Think systems not lines

The Legacy City can only pivot to a new future if it plans in comprehensive systems and not in disconnected scattered steps preformed by individual departments here and there. With limited resources the trick is to employ the resources where they create virtuous loops, i.e. where investment creates stepping stones from where improvements feed on each other.

The ugly sibling of virtuous loops are the vicious cycles in which bad decisions lead to a seemingly unstoppable downward spiral.

In the case of Baltimore's transit, some would argue that the Red Line as a third rail line would have created the critical mass that would transform two disjointed individual rail lines into a connected system in which benefits would exceed by far the additional miles and stations because they would connect to MARC, LRT and Metro, opening up a much larger part of the region for access by rail than is currently accessible. This in turn would have elevated the bus system as well.
Inequity in Baltimore: Unequal and divided

But, once again, it isn't just about building new lines, it is about integrating all modes properly to achieve what riders want: getting safely and reliably from door to door in a reasonable time.

Door to door includes "the last mile" trip from the bus stop or rail station to work or home. Can it be walked safely? Is it accessible for the mobility impaired and elderly? Are there options such as bicycles, Zip-Cars, taxi or ride-share services? Are those options integrated with the transit ride, for example accessible with the same fare card?

System thinking doesn't even limit its concern to the ride door to door, it also includes health , land use, economic development considerations, things far beyond the reach of a transit agency which require an entirely new approach to governance.In such a new comprehensive approach existing silos are busted and various departments collaborate around desirable outcomes instead of each just churning out "one-trick-pony" offerings.

3. The future isn't like the past

Most future modeling is achieved by extrapolating the past, a method that is guaranteed to produce wrong results, even if it is difficult to predict a future with unexpected disruptive elements in it. Taxi businesses didn't see the Uber service coming, for example.

By contrast, transit agencies, cities and politicians can certainly see the autonomous vehicle (AV)  on the horizon. They can also see that the character and schedule of work will change drastically, that shopping will be revolutionized further (think Amazon buying Whole Foods) and that the combination of these factors will  upend the demands for mobility and the solutions how mobility demand can be met. Still, so far all parties chiefly focus on the technology of the AV, maybe liability issues but not on the desirable outcomes.

The impacts will be vast: Computer driven electric vans and mini-buses can dynamically respond to demand and don't need to run on a fixed schedule like traditional transit. Even traditional transit can become cheaper and more flexible if the deciding cost factor is no longer the operator. Cities will be able to re-dedicate up to a third of their land area to new uses by converting all the spaces currently devoted to parking vehicles to higher and better uses. private resources can be spent much better than on large cost items (cars) that sit between 95-97% of the time around waiting for an owner. Each car owned in America has somewhere up to three parking spaces held in storage for the case it shows up. (Total number of cars over total number of designated parking spaces). 
Self driving small bus (La Rochelle, France, 2015)

The disruptive technological changes (AVs, robots, artificial intelligence) will create completely new opportunities for considering equity and for create more holistic systems. Such a future can be good and produce a much more livable and equitable city for all. 

But the "good future" won't happen by itself. In fact, by default it may be likelier that the future will be a chaos of privately owned expensive cars that clog up cities much more than today, cause additional sprawl and deepen the injustices and social bifurcations we see today.  

To ensure desirable outcomes in transportation, a blueprint for the future is needed that entails with some precision what steps and policies need to be taken now so that we will enter a good future  and not a nightmare. The time to act is now. Action requires close collaboration between City and MTA and the inclusion of many local and state departments. And it requires to consider equity, systems and disruption.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Monday, June 19, 2017

Shock and awe in Baltimore's bus world

Just like on Christmas Day Baltimore residents woke up this Sunday morning to check out what was in their stockings. But Santa was the MTA, it is steaming hot outside and there is more trepidation than joy in the hearts of those who rely on transit. Many could probably do with less shock and awe. In hindsight, one can wonder if it would have been better to display the old and new bus stop signs for several months together instead of aiming for the overnight reveal. If the electric on-bus displays would show the new route designation and old one in sequence, that would be helpful, too, but it wouldn't work in all cases and require adjustments during the trip. So the MTA went for the "immersion" method of learning.

In an impressive display of what Santa can do in one night the bags covering up 5,000 bus stop signs have all disappeared overnight and people see for the first time the entirely unfamiliar routes on display on their neighborhood stop.Those new signs glistened in the morning sun and made those surprisingly many that have to head out to work early on a Sunday morning scratch their head.
New signs: More information, more clutter
(Photo: Philipsen)

"Why did they do it?" was a common refrain among a clutch of would be riders standing on Edmondson Avenue at Wildwood Parkway. The MTA had installed a new shelter there in recent months but that didn't improve the mood since the new Blue Line hadn't shown up in a while. When a bus finally showed up it was a #77 (which replaces the western leg of the #23) and just before getting to the stop on Edmondson it turned north to circle by the Wildwood apartments to then come back to Edmondson bypassing the folks at the stop.
Finally a Blue bus showed up and everybody climbed on, except one lady who needed to be at work somewhere on York Road by 10am and was now late. She either didn't trust the bus system or couldn't figure out how to get to her destination and after a phone call resolved to get to her destination some other way.

The 77 stopped then stopped just east of Wildwood although that stop was labeled as discontinued. The Blue bus found throngs of people at each stop on the way to West Baltimore MARC. Blue is still going to Bayview like the QB 40 but no longer goes all the way to Essex as the QB 40 had done. That can be achieved with the Orange line that can be picked up at West Baltimore or at Bayview.

At West Baltimore the MTA has created a brand-new bus hub, the biggest MTA present in the Link stocking. Sunday it carried buses for the first time having been finished just in time in a by MTA standards incredible speed. The Blue doesn't go into it but stops across the street on Mulberry Street. Folks going to the train, the #77, #78, Orange, Pink or Green line can cross at Smallwood on a new pedestrian crosswalk. When they enter the new hub they only see the standard bus stop signs  from behind and have no easy way to figure out which of the bays are for what route. The operators seem to be equally confused about where to stop for letting folks out, where to lay over and where to pick new riders up. As a result, even on a Sunday there is congestion at the bays nearest the entry forcing the OR bus to find another spot and its riders to scurry across the tarmac, something designers had tried to prevent with fences on the center island but leaving a gap where operators can reach their lay-over restroom. That little gap continued to be the favorite shortcut for all to get to their connection.
All the buses clustering at the entry with pedestrians cutting across
the bus loop. (Photo: Philipsen)

The contingent of MTA helpers in yellow vests which advised riders where to go and tepidly gave tips to bus operators, although they always added that they were not authorized to do so had swelled to a full army on Monday morning. At times there were more MTA assistants than there were riders.

Acting Administrator Kevin Quinn was among the observers, and so was Suhair Alkhatib, Senior Deputy Administrator. Both had only slept two hours during the last two nights to be everywhere to ensure a launch that was as smooth as possible. Quinn who is a born optimist gave a very careful assessment of success on Monday morning. "We will get there", he said hopefully cheering every time a bus pulled into a correct position in the hub area without having to be told. He hopped onto the buses greeting the operators, "Hello, how are you? I am Kevin". In between he gave an interview to a SUN reporter who roamed around getting printable quotes from riders.
MTA Acting Administrator Kevin Quinn talks with a rider
at the West Baltimore MARC transit hub with Suhair
Alkhatib in the background.
 (Photo: Philipsen)

Several of the buses showed up and departed on time, although some passengers clutching their paper route schedules were clearly unsure where they would be taken. "Who designed this", one customer wondered aloud on Sunday. The #77 sat in his bay for what seemed like forever ignoring the inside layover spots along the island. Some buses arrived with signs stating "not in service". All buses idled their engines, even though I recall a MTA statement to the West Baltimore community that engines would be turned off during layovers.

There are a couple of fancy new electronic sign boards which are supposed to list all pending departures but they were not activated yet and just displayed a message that "all lines have changed".

The time on display was about three hours off, not exactly instilling trust in an agency relying on punctual service. "The signs should be on tomorrow, MTA's planner Michael Helta monitoring the situation informed me on Sunday, but they were still off on Monday. The new satellite based AVL (automatic vehicle locators) installation is complete on the 250 CityLink buses but not on the LocalLink buses, according to Alkhatib and it will
Transit hub Eutaw Street at Lexington: Wrong time and
less than helpful information
 (Photo: Philipsen)
take another 18 months until the new real time bus information system will be completely operational, he said. New buses have small monitors which then should be able to display several next stops and upcoming connections at once.

Word that LINK would offer free rides during the first few weeks got out much faster than information about the new routes. Almost no boarding rider tried to pay or show a fare card.

Monday morning conversations on the bus center around being late. "I have been for 20 minutes at West Baltimore MARC" a resident of the area complained when the CityLink OR bus failed to immediately start up. "I need to be at the VA hospital in 20 minutes". (He made it). The reporter from the SUN took note. On another bus the driver made announcements from the front and also picked riders up at stops where he wasn't supposed to stop. He couldn't fully answer how many lines had replaced the #23 bus. (Answer: LocalLink 77 and CityLink Orange). "Good question" he said, "this is all new for me, too".

The success or failure of Baltimore LINK is not a trivial matter in a city on edge in which 225,000 people use the bus on a typical workday and where tens of thousands have no other means of getting around. reliable transportation is repeatedly named as the most important factor in reducing systemic poverty.
Helpers in yellow jackets help riders at the transit hub
at Eutaw and Saratoga Streets  (Photo: Philipsen)
Plenty of ride choices at West Baltimore, even\
on a Sunday morning
 (Photo: Philipsen)

MTA ad in the Sunday print edition of the SUN
Monday's SUN paper carries an Op-Ed by Brian O'Malley and Eric Norton of the Central Baltimore Transit Alliance. In it the two ask the all important question: How will we know if  the overhaul delivered what it promised? When and how will we know if it was a success?
Last winter, the MTA’s public presentations no longer included information on the performance measures it had reported in the summer.
In the absence of transparency we’re going to be really hard pressed to assess whether this is working.
Now that the planning is behind us and BaltimoreLink is a reality, we remember the promises regarding reliable, timely transit that will provide more efficient access to jobs.
In October 2015, Governor Hogan said BaltimoreLink will be “transformative.” And as recently as February, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said “it will be a huge leap forward in transportation for Baltimore.”
Our response: Prove it. Show the public the results. (Brian O'Malley, Eric Norton).
As stated in previous articles on this blog, the MTA bent over backwards to respond to rider complaints and adjusted the Link plans many times. But many questions need to be answered:

  • Is the new system now too much like the old or will it still be able to realize the efficiencies that were assumed and which were to result in a more reliable service? 
  • Will the transfers be smooth or add additional time to the trips that require them?
  • Will more people get to their jobs on time, will the trip times to work become faster? 
  • Will more jobs be served by transit, more households?  
  • Will the new service save money or be more costly to operate?

The MTA will have to provide precise facts on all of these counts in the next few months. Baltimore's future will depend on it.

Baltimore LINK will be also the topic of Monday's WYPR Midday show with Kevin Quinn, Brian O'Malley, Sam Jordan and me. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN report about the launch night.
Baltimore SUN report about the first work day
WYPR report about Link

Friday, June 16, 2017

On the eve of the Link launch

On the eve of the biggest change that Baltimore transit has ever seen and which ranks as one of the largest overhauls of any system in the country, the mood among Baltimore's transit users is one of trepidation. Riders may be gripped by bouts of fear about how this will all work out when starting the work week on Monday. All riders will have get used to new bus stop signs, some to new stop locations, new route names and numbers. In addition  many will find that their bus will take a different route than their bus did for decades until this Sunday night.

Bus Wrap CityLink

 These color-coded, high-frequency routes offer frequent, 24-hour service, form a downtown grid, and radiate out from the city on major streets.
Bus Wrap LocalLink
LocalLink: These operate on neighborhood streets between the CityLinks and form crosstown “rings”.
Bus Wrap Express BusLink
Express BusLink: These offer limited-stop service from suburb-to-suburb, and suburb-to-downtown. In June 2016 an express beltway “ring” was created for the first time ever!

As it is typical when big change is imminent, people take notice and many still ask the question: Why? As much as hardly anybody considered the existing bus service satisfactory, it never looked as good as in light of the drastic disruption that is in store this weekend. The MTA has talked incessantly about their big undertaking, but they have broad public attention only now, 2 minutes before high noon (the schedule change will actually take place at night).
Count-down clock on MTA website

The MTA website provides route by route information showing the old and the new lines in one route diagram. The example for the #23 bus is provided in a graphic in this article. It illustrates the desire by MTA transit planners to break overly long lines up into shorter more reliable segments. However, a #23 rider who would have used the route from its beginning at the Giant on Rolling Road in Catonsville all the way to Essex would now have to use two lines: The new LocalLink #77 to go to West Baltimore MARC and then the Orange CityLink to Essex. The website allows you to enter departure and arrival addresses and you will get a route map and schedule.
The new Baltimore bus system is also trying out this innovative
abstracted system map

Riders who want to find out what their bus will do on Monday can also use the "Transit" App available for I-phones and other smart phones and map their current route with today's date. They can then move the date forward to Monday's date and see how their destination will be reached with the new lines. This will also tell the transit rider whether the new ride is faster, the same or slower, assuming the schedule times are realistic.

Doing this for a trip on the #23 from Saratoga and Eutaw Street (downtown) to the Giant Plaza at Rolling Road will take Friday morning 47 minutes from stop to stop with 61 stops in between.
Doing this trip on Monday would involve a 6 minute ride on CityLink Blue (15 stops) to Edmondson Village, a 12 minute wait  and then a 17 minute ride on the #77 (14 stops). The total trip time would be 35 minutes, i.e. a 12 minute time saving in spite of the wait at the transfer.  It appears that the ride on the Blue line is underestimated on the Transit app.
The MTA website provides a more realistic 13 minute trip time on Blue, 18 min on the #77 and 4 minutes for transfer for a total of also 35 minutes.

The full set of schedules can be found here.
The #23 as an example of information available on the MTA website
showing the routes before and after Link launches

Assessing the 18 months of comments one distill a few findings and observations even before the results of the actual experience are in:
  • an overhaul of the bus system was overdue since the current system had grown ever more convoluted and isn't performing well. The deliberation for this go years back and BaltimoreLink could utilize a lot of groundwork from the previously aborted BNIP effort.
  • the introduction of all new line numbers and replacing numbers with 12 route colors causes more confusion than clarity. A simple new numbering system that maintains the old numbers for those routes that stay largely identical would have been less menacing and more appreciative of the cultural history of some of the lines which date back far into the streetcar dates.
  • the distinction between City Link and Local Link isn't strong enough or easy to understand. The 12 CityLink routes will be slower than the current QB buses but faster than the current local buses. The expedited QB service will likely be missed
  • The popular Express Link buses will essentially perform as they do today but their number was expanded which is good for regional connectivity.
  • The total number of routes has been reduced from 64 to 54.
  • the promise of heightened efficiency and reliability through shorter routes, dedicated bus lanes and signal priority is plausible and logical but needs to be born out in reality
  • the prospect of added transfers instills fear on those who have to do them, even if in the aggregate the additional transfer are said to affect only a small percentage of rides as the MTA claims and reliable service would make transfers less perilous than today.
  • Fewer bus stops, more bus lanes and signal priority will speed up the bus and a faster bus can adhere better to the schedule which should avoid bunching and missed connections
  • The MTA responded to hundreds of rider suggestions and has revised their proposed routes four times based on input from over 200 meetings. As a result the system is now more like the old one than it is first version. 
  • the MTA Link team and their consultant Josh Diamond  are highly dedicated, innovative good listeners and have high professional standards and the very best intentions. They promise to continue refinements as needed
  • City and MTA collaborated in a previously unknown intensity 
  • Prewparations such as the new bus colors, the new signs, new bus pads and shelters as well as the all new West Baltimore hub were completed within a very tight schedule, a good sign that MTA seems to perform as planned.
  • If the system will still show problems it is because it may still be stressed too much. The $135 million funds for Link over 5 years are likely not enough to provide the extra cushion of buses and operators needed to avoid all the current stress points.
  • The MTA installed new shelters, made real time bus detection possible, paid for additional bike-share stations and paid for signal priority on a good number of signals on the CityLink routes. All of this should make the rider experience better. 
  • Methods of speeding up buses used elsewhere such as all door boarding and more pre-paid tickets are not part  of the reform, neither are innvovative last mile solutions involving demand based small "transit" or taxi service.

New MTA Administrator: Kevin Quinn
A tremor of a special kind went through all the tension and anticipation in the last two weeks before the system launch when MDOT Secretary Rahn fired MTA Administrator Paul Comfort who had been the chief promoter and salesman of the new bus system and attached his name and reputation to the success like no other. He would also have been identified as responsible for failure. Paul Comfort, has pushed this reform as necessary ever since he was put in office by the current Hogan administration. His high energy and open style was a welcome change from the past when MTA administrators were all but invisible and agency morale was low. Kevin Quinn, the young and dynamic Acting Administrator has excellent people skills and has been the technical force behind the Link effort to date. He should be able to see this project to success if MDOT has his back. Quinn will be missed as MTA Planning Director, though, an important position.

The exact reasons of this abrupt and entirely unexpected change of guard so shortly before the system goes into effect has caused a lot of head-scratching and remain a mystery. It may indicate that the previous hyperactive MTA administrator didn't have all the wiggle room under DOT Secretary Rahn that he wanted or needed. Quinn may have to watch his back.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA