Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Future of Transit in the Baltimore Region

Two very different ways of improving transit

Think Big: One way of thinking about transit in the region is to think big, expensive rail projects, one after another until, after some decades later a whole system emerges. 

This was the vision of the 2002 Baltimore Rail Plan which had mapped out a nearly ten billion dollar investment into a rainbow of rail lines (2002 dollars). This is also the approach that the Denver, Phoenix, Charlotte and Houston regions took. However while those regions open new rail lines on an annual basis, 13 years after the adoption of the Baltimore regional Rail Plan we have not even commenced a single line. After the cancellation of The Red Line no funding is in sight for any of those lines to happen anytime soon or for any variation of them.
The 10 billion dollar 2002 Regional Rail Plan

Think large: Is there another way to envision a future for transit in this region?  The think large approach may be best epitomized by Curitiba which instead of building one subway line built an entire rapid bus system citywide.

Is there such an alternative way available for this region. one without large federally supported and regulated "New Starts Projects", one in which not all the marbles are put in one basket but applied systemwide? A way that does not require years of environmental impact statements and consensus building but works on the base of the needs that have already been identified, quantified and documented? Is there an approach that funds itself through increased efficiency? Is the such a thing as a free lunch? 

Some consultants and certainly the Secretary of Transportation think so. They talk about leveraging, synergies, efficiencies, and partnerships; there is a whole dictionary for the term "free lunch" in the business world. And who would deny that one could get some more efficiency out of the MTA? Who would deny that private side isn't sufficiently engaged in better transit? Who wouldn't admit that there are more duplications than synergies (just think of all the college bus services). The very likable and experienced Transit Guru Jarrett Walker shows with the Houston bus network revamp how an entire system can be redone for little or no money. (The proof is still out since his plans only went into effect a week ago). 

Walker always demands that transit advocates be less mode and project focused and work, instead, on a set of desired outcomes. Who would not want that? Who would doubt that better service and increased ridership could be leveraged  through emphasis on better access to the system via active transportation, last mile technology and intermodal connectivity to other systems? All things on the system level with an effect on the entire system instead of just line or corridor, but none of those are free. 

The two approaches sketched out above, the big project approach and the systemwide refinement approach are not mutually exclusive; they don't have to be either or and they are not alternatives but different ways to achieve positive outcomes. In fact, those two approaches should probably occur concurrently. However, in the absence of the one the other certainly becomes more urgent. But the idea that the one is very expensive and the other, well, "free", is unrealistic.

Current transit in the region 

The good: The Baltimore region moves about 350,000 people per day through transit, its transit ranking in terms of equipment, network and passengers scores above its population ranking nationally. This is to say many people depend on or use transit and improved service and efficiency would affect many people.

The bad: Most area residents, transit users and non-users, give the transit system low scores for convenience, reliability and commute times. In part that has to do with inefficiencies, but in part also with lack of funding and the system being stressed beyond capacity. Additionally several new growth areas are only poorly connected, the transit network was only insufficiently adjusted to new growth patterns and there is no convincing and integrated transit strategy for the region as a whole. Transit travel between Baltimore and the most recognized places in the area, Annapolis, BWI, Columbia, Towson, Frederick to name just the most obvious ones, is obscure, tenuous, infrequent and certainly not 24/7.
Baltimore downtown congestion on Pratt Street
(Red Line corridor. A tunnel was suggested as a way to
avoid the congestion but was called a "fatal flaw" by
adversaries of the plan)

In spite of being a region with above average influx of “millennials” the region shows poor retention. This highly mobile younger generation has high expectations for transit and even pioneers won't take the abuse for long. The region has good prospects for continued growth and economic development but road congestion and unreliable workforce transit access act like a wet blanket. (For more detail see the report of the Opportunity Collaborative).

While the Regional Rail Plan strategy in its totality would have theoretically addressed those issues, the regional buy-in the plan was shallow at best. This allowed it to erode and eventually be toppled by a simple election result. A true regional transit vision needs a broad regional base and needs to be to be sustained over more than the usual election cycle. No vision can be fully achieved in four years. For sustainability of such a plan transit improvements must spread benefits such as high frequency, reliable transit access 24/7 over a wide geographic area.

What should system-wide improvements look like?

The discussion about the deficiencies of transit is frequently mired into geeky arguments of technology and "mode". The mode centered discussion, trains or buses, light rail or streetcar, surface or tunnel etc. should be replaced by a performance centered debate oriented on user outcomes and hard system-wide metrics which measure actual progress.
Washington DC Priority Corridor Bus Network (PNC)
WMATA plans a drastic Houston style
overhaul of its entire system for 2016

As seen from the residents' perspective the desirable outcomes are not all  that complicated: 
  • Enlarge the area one can reach with transit within a reasonable time ("the transit shed") especially for low income neighborhoods connecting to lower qualification jobs
  • Make all important service 24/7 i.e. transit should be available for the full diversity of activities
  • Design transit so that no automobile is needed at the beginning or end of trips
  • lay out transit lines in such a manner that they follow the geography that people have in their heads
  • Bring transit into the 21st century by making use of current technologies and anticipate coming technologies such as autonomous ("self driving") cars and buses
  • Leverage transit to lift dis-invested communities
Early consideration of a "Rapid Bus Network" for Baltimore (Ben Groff)
 (shown are also the two existing rail lines in green and blue)

The four year implementation list

  • Make buses faster, more reliable and efficient by overlaying local service with an express priority service that has
  • fewer stops, shorter stop times without cash payment with boarding through front and back doors
  • Give high priority to the unmet transit needs in the east west corridor by providing high frequency priority bus service on North Avenue, Edmondson Avenue/Fayette Street and Frederik Avenue/Pratt Streets (or similar)  
  • Engage local jurisdictions to provide bus lanes in strategic places, signal priority, better stop locations and transit hubs where lines connect
  • improve intermodal and regional use convenience through single ticket system for all modes over the entire region (chip cards or better: smart phones)
  • Improve access to the high frequency net work through shuttles, bike-share, safe walking networks, on demand bus systems (line taxis)
  • Fully integrate all modes including Amtrak, MARC, subway, LRT, bus, Circulator, shuttles and water taxi through a system of schedule coordinated transit hubs
  • Eliminate duplication and use College Buses, hotel and apartment shuttles not as competition but as instruments to solve "last mile" access.
    The "high frequency bus network" implemented in
    Houston on a Sunday in August
There is no way that the region can tolerate four years of inaction added to 13 years of planning one single system that was then cancelled. Shifting the approach to short-term, system-wide, state and locally funded improvements is a necessary survival strategy for the region. Whatever motivated Secretary Rahn to ask for suggestions, here are some.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

I work with James Rouse Junior's  transit advocate group Transit Choices on creating a regional transit system that is "Comprehensive, Multi-Modal, Integrated, Equitable & Sustainable and User Oriented". I wrote a paper for the group that inspired me to modify it for the above article.

A second article will address visions that were associated with the Red Line but should still be built, even without it. 

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