Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What's next for Baltimore transportation?

While the fretting about Baltimore Link may continue for a few more days or weeks until people will get used to the new bus system, the question "what's next?" remains unavoidable.
Title slide of a presentation to "Transit Choices"

The truth is that the MTA has no answer to that question, because there is no long-term or even mid-term plan for expanding or innovating the transit system.

The current MDOT Secretary is all about fixing what's already on the ground. Light Rail and Metro are in overhaul mode, Metro gets all new train cars, LRT has a mid-life overhaul in which the trains get basically reassembled from the ground up. Tracks get fixed, safety systems installed. While this is laudable, from a rider's perspective it isn't satisfactory as a future plan. It isn't like Baltimore couldn't use a few more transit options even if the current systems would miraculously run smoothly. Making existing transit run correctly is an achievement Samuel Jordan of the Transit Equity Coalition describes as "the MTA just doing their job".
There has been no new regional rail route for over 25 years in a period when some cities like Charlotte or Houston created entire new light rail systems. Taking off the table the only plan there was, is therefore certainly not acceptable.

On occasion of my book "Baltimore- Reinventing an Industrial Legacy City" I was invited by the Baltimore transit action group "Transit Choices" to speak about the transportation and transit elements of that reinvention, i.e. about the future of Baltimore's transit.  This article describes the three main points of my presentation.

1. The shift from bricks and mortar to equity

For decades the future of the City has been described as building a lot of new stuff. Either by growing at the fringes (sprawl) or by bulldozing old things (urban renewal). To this day economic development is equated with the number of cranes in the air. The Baltimore Business Journal recently included a regular feature in its reporting called "crane watch".
Baltimore area rail plans. What's next?

Transit advocates equally saw their biggest goal in building additional metro, light rail, streetcar or bus rapid transit lines. A vision of the future was a map with more lines. The problem: New investment, amenities and transit were concentrated in thriving areas and largely absent from communities of color and poorer neighborhoods in a cycle that can be called "design of exclusion" (see the "Arsenal of Exclusion", a book by Daniel D'Oca), systemic racism or even, as new Baltimore Councilman Ryan Dorsey did in an editorial to the Sun, "white supremacy".

A focus on equity in transit would be less about new miles of track built but about people and outcomes. Transit isn't a purpose in itself, instead it is supposed to give people access to jobs (education, services, leisure) through short,  reliable and quick transit rides. More equity is to give more people such access especially where they were denied it before.

One way to measure this, is by creating a metric about how many % of workers live within a reasonable transit ride of their work. The Baltimore Equity coalition and the NAACP have filed a Title 6 (Social Justice) complaint against the cancellation of the Red Line because this line would have provided markedly improved access to impoverished West Baltimore communities to job centers at Hunt Valley, the Airport and East Baltimore. Baltimore Link needs to prove that it improved trip times of workers trying to reach job centers where available jobs are. Beyond the Red Line and a working bus system, many additional steps are needed to ensure equitable mobility as a path out of poverty. Grading transit by access, outcomes and equity is a qualitative different way than simply by how many miles of track or how many riders.
Daniel D'Oca illustration: "The Arsenal of Exclusion"

2. Think systems not lines

The Legacy City can only pivot to a new future if it plans in comprehensive systems and not in disconnected scattered steps preformed by individual departments here and there. With limited resources the trick is to employ the resources where they create virtuous loops, i.e. where investment creates stepping stones from where improvements feed on each other.

The ugly sibling of virtuous loops are the vicious cycles in which bad decisions lead to a seemingly unstoppable downward spiral.

In the case of Baltimore's transit, some would argue that the Red Line as a third rail line would have created the critical mass that would transform two disjointed individual rail lines into a connected system in which benefits would exceed by far the additional miles and stations because they would connect to MARC, LRT and Metro, opening up a much larger part of the region for access by rail than is currently accessible. This in turn would have elevated the bus system as well.
Inequity in Baltimore: Unequal and divided

But, once again, it isn't just about building new lines, it is about integrating all modes properly to achieve what riders want: getting safely and reliably from door to door in a reasonable time.

Door to door includes "the last mile" trip from the bus stop or rail station to work or home. Can it be walked safely? Is it accessible for the mobility impaired and elderly? Are there options such as bicycles, Zip-Cars, taxi or ride-share services? Are those options integrated with the transit ride, for example accessible with the same fare card?

System thinking doesn't even limit its concern to the ride door to door, it also includes health , land use, economic development considerations, things far beyond the reach of a transit agency which require an entirely new approach to governance.In such a new comprehensive approach existing silos are busted and various departments collaborate around desirable outcomes instead of each just churning out "one-trick-pony" offerings.

3. The future isn't like the past

Most future modeling is achieved by extrapolating the past, a method that is guaranteed to produce wrong results, even if it is difficult to predict a future with unexpected disruptive elements in it. Taxi businesses didn't see the Uber service coming, for example.

By contrast, transit agencies, cities and politicians can certainly see the autonomous vehicle (AV)  on the horizon. They can also see that the character and schedule of work will change drastically, that shopping will be revolutionized further (think Amazon buying Whole Foods) and that the combination of these factors will  upend the demands for mobility and the solutions how mobility demand can be met. Still, so far all parties chiefly focus on the technology of the AV, maybe liability issues but not on the desirable outcomes.

The impacts will be vast: Computer driven electric vans and mini-buses can dynamically respond to demand and don't need to run on a fixed schedule like traditional transit. Even traditional transit can become cheaper and more flexible if the deciding cost factor is no longer the operator. Cities will be able to re-dedicate up to a third of their land area to new uses by converting all the spaces currently devoted to parking vehicles to higher and better uses. private resources can be spent much better than on large cost items (cars) that sit between 95-97% of the time around waiting for an owner. Each car owned in America has somewhere up to three parking spaces held in storage for the case it shows up. (Total number of cars over total number of designated parking spaces). 
Self driving small bus (La Rochelle, France, 2015)

The disruptive technological changes (AVs, robots, artificial intelligence) will create completely new opportunities for considering equity and for create more holistic systems. Such a future can be good and produce a much more livable and equitable city for all. 

But the "good future" won't happen by itself. In fact, by default it may be likelier that the future will be a chaos of privately owned expensive cars that clog up cities much more than today, cause additional sprawl and deepen the injustices and social bifurcations we see today.  

To ensure desirable outcomes in transportation, a blueprint for the future is needed that entails with some precision what steps and policies need to be taken now so that we will enter a good future  and not a nightmare. The time to act is now. Action requires close collaboration between City and MTA and the inclusion of many local and state departments. And it requires to consider equity, systems and disruption.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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