Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Does Towson need its own transit?

In Towson the political fronts seem reverse from the usual, a Republican councilman who is requesting transit and a Democratic Executive saying it isn't needed.
We should never be afraid to try out new ideas. What we should fear is the gridlock that might occur without a real solution to Towson's transportation challenges. (Councilman David Marks)
"The expectation is that people will be able to walkI think right now, it’s quite manageable. We don't have any failed intersections. It seems to work pretty well. At first glance, [the circulator] seems like a good idea, but when you drill down, maybe it isn’t." (Executive Kevin Kamenetz)
Who is right? One answer can be expected from a MTA study which has not been published yet and is overseen by former Baltimore County Planning Director Pat Keller, now with MTA. In many ways the question of transit is reflective of what has happened with the once rural County surrounding the City like a vise.
Baltimore City Circulator: The right model for Towson?

Baltimore County is often seen in some kind of competition with the City not only because of the geographic configuration in which the City is locked into place by the surrounding County with no chance to grow. Perception is strongly tainted by the fact that many people who were fed up with urban living resettled in the County, a pattern that has fueled the decline of city and the growth of the County for decades until at the turn of the century the County surpassed the City in population.

Since the County itself limited its own expansion by a growth boundary (URDL) with the objective of preserving rural lands, the communities inside the URDL began to urbanize, a fact many County residents still have to fully grasp. Transportation is one of those issues. Except for the old streetcar villages such as Catonsville and Towson (both towns were once connected by the #8 streetcar), much of the County is laid out in the familiar suburban manner which is entirely relying on the car for access and mobility. Consequently that Towson transportation question is bi-forcated: Yes, one can certainly get around within downtown Towson by walking as the Executive says, but one cannot walk to Towson from the surrounding communities.

For the circulator bus that means, it would make the most sense if it doesn't just circulate around within the Towson core but would ferry people in from the surrounding areas. That, however, should be done at least in part by MTA. Poor transit access to Towson is a longstanding complaint that MTA is well aware of.
Boulder Skip, Hop and Jump buses replaced parking

Meanwhile following trends of large and small cities nationwide, downtown Towson sees a boom of new apartment construction that will bring finally day round activities to the core. It is likely that those new urban residents won't all get into their car to go to the town-center mall or the restaurant around the corner. Will they clamor for a transit alternative to walking? The experience of smaller towns is mixed. Boulder, Co was very successful with instituting bus transit (Hop, Skip, Jump) by re-channeling resources from parking to bus (developers were required to pay towards the bus instead of building parking). Small towns like Blacksburg sustain their 50 bus 30 route municipal transit system with the help of the local university (95% of BT riders are university related). The extensive service runs a lot of empty buses through a downtown which is largely depleted by suburban sprawl.

Kamenetz is probably right: Before Towson can embark on a new transit system it should install a sustainable funding mechanism and it should get the support from Towson University which currently runs its own shuttle system. For funding the County could take a chapter from Baltimore City which created the very successful circulator largely funded by a surtax on parking. (It runs a deficit now because it bit off a larger network than the surcharge can support). In principle an excellent solution if combined with regulations which restrict new parking garages in the core and place parking at the periphery with the bus as the connector.
Blacksburg Transit: A public system transporting students

While the MTA and the County are further studying the issue, immediate steps need to be taken to reduce parking in the core area, making downtown Towson even more pedestrian friendly and creating a walk and bike trail and greenway system that bridges the forbidding downtown by pass traffic sewers and reaches deeper into the surrounding neighborhoods and the Towson University campus. Better transit in Towson is certainly desirable.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Towson  University shuttle: Exclusive transit

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