Friday, February 26, 2016

Clowns at Crosswalks or what we were missing at the Mayoral Transportation Forum

From the forum venue one can see what the invited candidates have in their focus: City Hall.

The venue, located in the former Brink building that is now a well equipped Real News studio, allows a considerably sized audience. (The Real News Network (TRNN) is a non-profit, viewer-supported daily video-news and documentary service which doesn’t accept advertising, government or corporate funding but is sustained by viewer donations and earned revenue. Website).
Mayoral Transportation Forum at Real News studio (Photo ArchPlan)

The 1000 Friends of Maryland, Transit Choices, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and CPHA invited to this issues forum of the Baltimore mayoral candidates to discuss transportation. They had sent out a seven item questionnaire to all candidates ahead of the forum and eight of the over 30 candidates had responded in writing. Booklets with the answers lay in the chairs for all visitors to the forums. There was a lot of action outdoors, with a campaign helpers and activists handing out all kinds of materials.

But the main action was on the stage under the glaring studio lights: initially only seven candidates, Elizabeth Embry, Nick Mosby, Alan Walden, David Warnock, Sheila Dixon, Carl Stokes and Patrick Gutierrez; Catherine Pugh arrived late from a legislative session in Annapolis; others had not responded in time and were not present. DeRay Mckesson's responses are included in the book but he was ill and couldn't attend. In his written response he says he would try to bring the Red Line back and supports the current Title VI (environmental justice) legal challenge of the cancellation.

Transit Choices founder Jimmy Rouse laid out the importance of transportation in introductory remarks in which he stressed transit as a crucial element for social justice and for attracting business and millennials to Baltimore. He suggested as streetcar line on North Avenue as an appropriate response to the "disturbances" of last April. He said that he remembers the 68 riots and that not much has changed on North Avenue.
Real News venue with view of City Hall (Photo: Brian O'Malley)

The candidates had three minutes to respond to a broad multi-pronged question from moderator Marc Steiner which asked how important transportation is to the candidate, what the main three transportation priorities would be, and what the candidates would do with the Baltimore Department of Transportation (BDOT).

The candidates had drawn numbers in what order to respond and chance would have it that poll leader Sheila Dixon was the first to respond.

Dixon pointed out that when she was Mayor she knew that transit could transform neighborhoods and touted her past accomplishments including the creation of the city-run Circulator bus system and the project "Orange Cone" which as she put it "increased the number of lanes not only for cars but also for bicycles". (Orange Cone was a repavement project).

Embry, who was next, pointed to the fact that a third of city residents have no access to cars and that this number was as high as 70% in some neighborhoods. She noted that therefore the city needed to be "walkable" and that it needs all modes of transportation. She advocated for a universal fare card, for implementation of the new zoning code and noted that BDOT is poorly managed.

Warnock noted his 276 neighborhood tour in his truck as an irony at a forum focusing on transit. He pointed out that the city doesn't control the bus system but still advocated for a "modified" Red Line" that would only entail the western spur and end at Lexington Market which "could be our Penn Station" with transfer to a subway. (Not sure what Penn Station he referred to since we already have one).

Walden, the only Republican in the group intoned his statements with a perfect radio voice he had practiced for years on WBAL radio. He went back in history, pointed to his upbringing in New York City and called it "a terrible mistake" when the rail systems (streetcars) were scrapped in favor of bus. He said he disagreed with the Governor on the Red Line but said that "there were all kinds of alternatives" to it. He seemed to prefer surface solutions over tunnels.

Mosby pointed out that he was the only candidate who had released a transportation platform so far. He noted that "Baltimore was always a leader in transportation" (historically) and how "upward mobility was interwoven with good transportation". He bemoaned that there hasn't been a transportation plan for Baltimore since 2003 and then went into his regular stump speech story about his mother getting up "at 4:30 in the morning to catch two buses going to Social Security".
wide angle shot of yesterday's forum (Photo Rich Hall)
Gutierrez stated that he was "fed up with poor transit" and that "we deserve better" and then went immediately into his stump speech logic that in current politics the problem isn't the absence of ideas but the inability to implement them. He points to his experience as operations manager at a big bank. He allowed though, that the proposed Baltimore Link bus system should be implemented.

Stokes took the opportunity to stress that he supports all the major transportation bills pending in Annapolis right now, namely better oversight over road spending, abolishing the fare box recovery and an oversight board for the MTA. He picked up on Rouse's streetcar idea and said he would advocate "for a streetcar on North Avenue from Hilton to Milton with a spur down Pennsylvania Avenue".

Then candidates took questions from the audience ranging from the B&P tunnel to physically separated bicycle lanes, citywide 20 mph speed limits, a comprehensive transportation plan and what to do with BDOT.

The question about the rail tunnel study that would replace the 150 year old B&P tunnel was mingled with the issue of "bomb trains" (referring to trains carrying the highly volatile bakken crude oil coming from fracking). Candidates' responses showed that they don't always have a firm grasp on transportation planning procedures. In this case on the issue of the Northeast Corridor upgrades in which freight plays a somewhat minor role. The B&P tunnel replacement is a vital piece in that upgrade but candidates went as far as saying they would stop the (Amtrak funded) studies to investigate safety issues. This ignores the fact that this is precisely the point of the federally mandated Environmental Impact Study that had caused these anxieties among residents in West Baltimore in the first place. Warnock reminded folks that double stacked rail cars can't get through current tunnels and that his fact "costs us thousands of jobs" but he suggested that a freight rail tunnel should take a southern route.
Tactical urbanism: "Parklet" in Philadelphia

All candidates supported better bicycle facilities

Senator Pugh had arrived at this point and used DC as a good precedent where the separated bike lanes made bicycling a lot more enjoyable. Stokes considered to eliminate "left and right turn on red" to protect bicyclists and pedestrians. 

On the 20mph urban speed limit that some other cities were testing (New York City), it was clear that most hadn't heard about it and were tepid to endorse such a  comprehensive approach. Only Sheila Dixon went for it, the others opting for "case by case studies", the Republican going even as far as stating that pedestrian and bike fatalities were often the fault of the victims themselves. Warnock quipped: "if we can't get a handle on BDOT we may go only 10mph."

When it came to what to do with BDOT, there was talk about "cleaning house". While Dixon spoke about bringing in "talented people", Stokes upped the ante by saying he would "ask everybody to resign. Everybody, not just BDOT staff". Embry observed how "CitiStat, something that Baltimore had become known for around the globe" had "disintegrated" and how she would reinstate it as an important tool. She also said, that the city needs to "demand from MTA a more predictable service". It was Walden who reminded everybody that "we have 624,000 people in this city and that this is a lot of power".

A benefit from this forum was that transit advocates had come together and agreed on a set of questions with which to elevate transportation as an issue that ties together so many other issues such as jobs, access, equity and social justice. Answering the questions had forced all candidates to think about transportation beyond some sound bite. 

No candidate seems to yet embrace a comprehensive easy to understand urban mobility strategy similar to what Portland, New York or the District of Columbia have done: A rapid and complete re-calibration away from the traditional car- first policies to one where all decisions are guided by an overarching policy with the principle that the pedestrian comes first, transit second and the car third. (Portland). 
Clowns protect crosswalks: Philadelphia

Many cities with courageous mayors and transportation officials who embraced such simple rules were able to transform their cities within a few years. 

The transformation of New York's Time Square by former NY-DOT Commissioner Sadik Khan maybe the most famous example. The deployment  of clowns by Philadelphia's Rina Cutler, Deputy Mayor Transportation and Utilities, another. 

The clowns acted out on crosswalks when cars didn't stop. 

Cutler also installed automated radar on roadsides, but instead of sending tickets to speeding drivers, the machines turned the next signal on red every time anyone was going too fast. 

Humor, courage and out of the box thinking: Let's hope we will have more of it come April and a vote has to be cast.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for the Q&A link 11:40h. Correction regarding DeRay Mckesson 12:38h. 

Links:
SUN article about the Forum
The Questions and the Candidate Answers can be found here