Thursday, July 30, 2015

Riding Transit with Kelly

It is six o'clock and Kelly Cross, his bold head wet from the steady drizzle looks at his watch. Kelly likes to connect with politicians, it isn't quite clear what brand he prefers, and before elections, he doesn't always sets on the winner. Last time when he convened transit advocates in the same place to tour transit with a candidate its was with Doug Gensler's running mate Jolene Ivey.  This time he is waiting for Sheila Dixon, once again at the Charles Center Metro Station, ostensibly to show how bad transit is in Baltimore.

But Kelly has also another agenda. He is one of the Red Line critics who thinks that now other transit plans can percolate, Red Line plan B becoming a veritable cottage industry at the moment.  He sets on streetcars and is sure that the money and the plans for that will materialize. "Transit is much more political than you think", he explains and current evidence confirms that, of course,  just not in a way that makes his transit option more likely. 

Candidate Dixon in her rain sneakers
Finally Sheila Dixon shows up, she had waited at the other entrance to the station, now she is also wet. amazingly, within seconds, she talks about her shoes, a topic that had spelled trouble for her before.  That sneakers on women are back again, that women in New York carry their high heels in a bag again, just like in the eighties. Clearly she is hoping for some flashback for her political fortune, too.

There isn't too much bad to say about the Baltimore Metro except that it doesn't go where most people want to go, a necessary flaw of a single line. Kelly points to the lack of working real time signs (electronic signs have been installed for years but still give just the day of date and time) and the general lack of information in the station. Some people in the group who never rode transit, are in awe about the gigantic subway station under Baltimore's downtown built in a time when tunnels were not yet considered boondoggles.

The group comes back to the surface at Baltimore's newest tourist attraction: Pennsylvania Avenue at North Avenue, to take the #13 bus east to Light Rail.  The area is always teaming with people, in part because of all the transit people are waiting for, in part because there are a bunch of stores and a library here (the CVS is still boarded up) and in part because this is West Baltimore where many people are unemployed. The former mayor is immediately mobbed. "Sheila, you are back?" they call out and the answer is, "I am trying". 

There is certainly much to point out here at ground zero of the Baltimore unrest, about transit and about redevelopment, streetscapes and traffic, all interesting topics for somebody who wants her old job back. But Dixon is now distracted with an ever larger throng of people posing for group pictures taken by dozens of cell phones and also by the professional photographer from the Baltimore Brew. Kelly Cross had alerted the Brew to his transit tour, a story may be upcoming.  

There is no #13 in sight. Somebody punches in the tracking # of the stop, there is either no response at all or only a #91 showing. So much for the touted MTA messaging app in this location.

Metro entrance at North and Pennsylvania Avenues
The alternative "Transit" app (a site created by hackers, not the MTA) shows two #13 approaching, one in 7, the other in 43 minutes. The earlier one disappears from the tracker and certainly doesn't show up on site. After some 25 minutes an articulated bus appears, the front display panel blank, on the side it says "not in service". But there are riders on it, the door opens and the driver cheerfully explains that this is a #91. 

More time passes, Sheila inspects some ADA issue on the other side of the street. Finally, after 38 minutes the #13 actually shows up and the whole group still fits on. Two properly filled Charm chip cards elicit the "rejected" sound at the fare machine, the driver waives those riders through anyway. Now full, the bus flies by the next stop packed with people who have waited at lest 38 minutes for their bus. No ride for them. Some waive their fists. 

The Charm Card poses problems again at the fare machines for the Light Rail where they have to be used to print a paper ticket since the trains don't have readers on the train. A puzzling feature only known to insiders. Four transit police officers check tickets on the train for which they have plenty of time since it sits at the North Avenue stop for at least ten minutes waiting for a second train to arrive to take its passengers on since that trains goes into the adjacent depot. Even after that time consuming maneuver progress is barely noticeable. "The train will come to a sudden stop" the operator announces and sure a jolting halt follows, evidently from automatic train control, possibly due to another train entering the track from Penn Station. No further explanation is given. The riders mostly want to go to the ballgame. They are already late and not amused. 

From the State Center LRT station Kelly guides the group back over to Metro, a connection that is close but far from obvious or convenient, as he points out with all the exasperation of someone used to the convenience of Uber and Zipcar.

The trip ends with the gates on the east end of the Charles Center station being locked, a fact not announced or signed at the platform level and therefore forcing the unsuspecting rider trying to leave where entry was made to backtrack the station in its full two-block length.
What Kelly had estimated to be a 8 mile 70 minute three-mode ride had now taken a full two hours. 
Whoever will be the next Baltimore mayor will have her hands full to get better transit to this city. That much is clear. How the death of the Red Line will make room for the birth of a streetcar system remains Kelly's secret. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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