Monday, January 2, 2017

Radio talk about Baltimore transit

The first time I sat in front of the microphone in the seventies public radio station house on North Charles Street was decades ago when Lisa Simeone did a once a week public affairs talk show on Baltimore matters.
WYPR studio as seen from control room
Then the hosts were Marc Steiner, Dan Rodricks, Sheila Kast and today it was Tom Hall. Throughout the various hosts, the topics remained the same, Baltimore, its architecture, urban design and transportation and how it could become a better place. Sometimes the link to Baltimore was indirect, for example when I discussed streets and place-making with book author Charles Montgomery or urban design with nationally known David Dixon and former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy.

There are three microphones on one side of the table and one on the other. There are a couple of computer screens that show who is called in. The technicians, the announcer and the producer sit behind the sound proof glass, intro the program, do the announcements during the breaks and do the countdown when the mics become hot and screen incoming calls. The sound of the broadcast comes through headphones including the voices that can given instructions such as "move closer to the mike".  During the breaks an intern pops in to bring in a printed stack of comment or question e-mails, they could show up on the second computer monitor, but they don't. This gives the program a real life immediacy and a sense of improvisation when the host rifles through the sheets to check which comments to read out in the next segment.
Baltimore subway: 15.5 miles, 14 stations, slightly under 50,000 daily riders

Transportation is always a topic that moves people, no pun intended, since in Baltimore people aren't satisfied with how they get or don't get moved via transit. Some people have real life transit experience, some just mouth off what they heard from others about Baltimore transit, amplifying its bad reputation. My radio show partner Jimmy Rouse of Transit Choices explains eloquently what is needed moving forward. 

So I push back a bit on the bad reputation at the beginning of the show and say that local transit is actually better than its reputation. This a rather relative statement based on a few facts that give our regional transit system a fairly good standing in a national comparison in terms of quantitative output. APTA in its annual compilation of all the major transit systems in the US  in terms of passenger-miles (a metric of output across all modes run by one agency, in this case MTA) ranks Baltimore  as #10 in the US even though the metro area is only #19 in the population ranking. In other words, Baltimore's transit measures up in size with much larger metro regions such as Houston, Detroit or Atlanta (twice the size) and, compared to several similar sized city regions we have more transit; more than, for example, Denver, San Diego and Minneapolis, all three cities praised for their new rail systems which outshine Baltimore's 1992 LRT. 
Baltimore Light Rail: 30 miles, 33 stations, slightly under 27,000 daily riders

This is a strictly quantitative observation, certainly not one about quality. Still, the quantities are impressive: Baltimore's transit system moves every day well over 300,000 people (even if one subtracts MARC intercity travel and the demand based MTA mobility service). There is no way to move that many people if the transit system were not pretty robust in terms of miles of rail (45.5 miles without MARC), number of rail stations (47 without MARC) and buses put on the road every day (nearly 800). This is a lot of transit capacity and accounts for the fact that even more qualitative metrics such as the the Brookings study which compares access to transit and access to jobs for 100 US cities. That 2011 study places Baltimore in transit and job access in the upper half nationally, even though  the Baltimore-Towson metro area places only on rank 51 in terms of prosperity and growth. The Baltimore regional Opportunities Study refined this analysis a bit further for access to low skill jobs from high poverty neighborhoods. It is in this specific measure where Baltimore doesn't do well and comes up with those excessive trip times of 90 minutes and above, a result not only from lack of transit but also from a lack of low skill jobs within the city limits or within a reasonable distance. (Report)
Baltimore buses, 76 lines, about 230,000 riders a day

MTA's big bus overhaul (Baltimore Link) to be enacted on the night of June 17 of this year will show if the existing fleet of buses can operate more efficiently and provide a higher level of reliability. The goal: fewer buses not showing up at all, being too crowded to stop or arriving way late through a complete system overhaul with shorter lines, some new cross town routes, designated lanes, signal priority, last mile options and a new sign system.

 Administrator Paul Comfort has spent the last year making the Link project his trademark and has an impressive team of people working tirelessly on the task. The effort deserves to be taken seriously. It can't succeed if folks simply stand on the sidelines just waiting for failure. Instead, cooperative partnerships are needed between Baltimore City (after all the buses ride on public streets controlled by the City), private industry and employers. Failure simply can't be an option. Ultimately, what MTA does needs to be integrated and coordinated with the City's fledgling transit operations such as the Charm City bus and the Harbor Connector as well as active modes (biking, walking) and policies regarding car sharing and autonomous vehicles. With the new Mayor, a largely revamped City Council and new department heads we are on the brink of a moment where Baltimore could actually be able to become a proactive player that can define a specific vision and purpose of its transportation policy instead of simply reacting to various transportation debacles.

If today's radio show just helped a tiny bit in an understanding that well integrated multi-modal transportation with excellent transit is something that everybody in this metro area needs, it was worth the effort.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


Transportation Show