Thursday, March 28, 2019

MTA: 60% of regional residents don't have access to transit. Will a new regional transit plan change that?

That more than half of the region's residents don't have access to transit within 1/4 mile was one of the facts that MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn dispensed on Wednesday morning in front of a panel of high octane representatives from the very region he was talking about.
Secretary Rahn: "call me Pete" at the kick off meeting for the RTP

The occasion: A new Regional Transit Plan Commission which was legislated last year thanks to an initiative of the Baltimore delegation. The legislatures squeezed the creation of a Baltimore regional transit plan (RTP) out of agreeing to a big chunk of money going to Washington's regional Metro system for upkeep and repairs.

"We know Central Maryland is desperately in need of better connected and more reliable transit,
and we need a plan to make that happen. Because no single comprehensive plan had been created for the region in decades, I worked hard with my colleagues last year to pass a bill
requiring a new Regional Transit Plan for Central Maryland. We need an ambitious and 
thoughtful plan to meet the needs of Marylanders," (bill sponsor Delegate Brooke Lierman, Baltimore City)
CO2 emission from transportation in MD
How urgent such a plan is, becomes apparent when one considers that this region has no plans for transit expansion, whatsoever, no matter that Maryland has ambitious climate change goals, is a non attainment area for air quality and that transportation is the largest source for CO2 emissions in the State. Personal injuries from traffic crashes are on the rise, congestion is at an all time high and nearly 75% of all trips are done in drive alone cars. Vehicle miles traveled increase, transit ridership decreases. Only 9% of all jobs in the region can be reached within 60 minutes according to the transit advocacy group CMTA. For all the focus on transportation, planners also need to consider land use. No transportation system can chase job sprawl into the last corner of the region.
Vehicle miles traveled: Up and up: 75% commute in single user cars

Any land use or transportation planner would conclude, that a serious shift is needed to rectify these bad trends. Alas, the Secretary who presides over air, water, rail and road transportation and the Governor are staunch opponents of transit expansion and set on wider roads instead.

Secretary Rahn  ("call me Pete") greeted the new RTP Commissioners with the ambiguous statement that the RTP is a "valuable opportunity to examine transit for the region, paint a vision and see how it can be implemented and eventually funded". He doesn't see anything wrong with his current approach and is happily pointing to transit investments such as the ongoing rail car overhaul and replacement, investments dating to a time before he came into office. He used a good time of his talk to paint the bus overhaul dubbed LINK as a success. The bus reform had been initiated by his boss, Governor Hogan as a consolation prize for Baltimore after the $3 billion Red Line had been taken off the table.
Link has produced significant results. Changes are based on data. On-time performance [for bus] improved from 59% to 77%, a huge improvement. [18%](Secretary Pete Rahn).
The  RTP is supposed to be a plan for the near-term future of area transit, an especially urgent undertaking since there is almost nothing on the table in terms of expansion of service. This puts the entire region into a competitive disadvantage, because mobility and alternatives to the dreadful commute in a car are big draws of attractive regions elsewhere. This makes transportation a big issue for employers searching for talent as well as for workers who can’t get to their employment on time.
Once sinking, now rising again: Personal injuries in traffic

Not that the region has no transit today. Without the MTA traffic would be decidedly worse. The MTA Administrator gave the new Commissioners a few impressive numbers describing his daily operations:

  • There are 210,000 daily bus riders utilizing some 762 buses, 
  • 51,000 transit rail users in about a 100 Metro and light rail cars and 
  • 38,000 MARC commuters in 225 coaches, many double deckers. 
  • And then there are 15,000 passengers on commuter buses and 
  • 7,000 customers on MTA's 376 vehicle mobility service "2% of riders but 12% of operating expenses").

However, this system was created decades ago in a much less populated region.

The preparation of the RTP is headed up by MTA and a full complement of consultants distributed over a number of Focus Areas described on the website this way:
State of Good RepairIdentify the level of reinvestment needed to maintain the existing transit services in Central Maryland.
FundingDevelop funding and financing strategies to support regional mobility services, based on best practices and regional analyses.
New MobilityEmbrace changes in transport, technology, and mobility that are altering how we move about. Assess the new mobility options available in the Baltimore region, including bikeshare, scootershare, carshare, rideshare, and microtransit, and identify opportunities and challenges associated with leveraging these services to meet regional mobility needs.
Customer ExperienceImprove the experience of using transit—from planning a trip to reaching a destination—through new technologies, improved amenities, and better customer service.
Service Quality and IntegrationEvaluate existing transit services and determine potential improvements to make it easier to travel in the Central Maryland region.
AccessWork with local partners to ensure the areas served by transit are safe, comfortable, and convenient for people who use the region’s transit options to live, work, and prosper.
Corridors of OpportunityIdentify existing and potential corridors that could benefit from additional transit investment.
The Commissioners, instructed by Deputy Administrator Holly Arnold (“One of our stars at MDOT”  Secretary Rahn), were equipped with the yellow stickers and colored dots which one knows from community participation efforts. Armed with these conventional tools the Commissioners could indicate which focus areas they care about and what topics they suggest under each. The audience ("the public") was invited to do the same on questionnaires which consultant coordinator Simon Taylor carefully collected in some kind of ballot box. (Results will be published later, use of current smart phone polling tools would have brought immediate results).
The region as defined by the RTP

Eventually the three hour commission session ended with a series of public testimonies.

Only the intrepid Transit Equity Coalition spokesman Samuel Jordan addressed the elephant in the room directly, the fact that the cancellation of the Red Line took off the table what would have been the only transit expansion in some 30 years, making Baltimore's economy poorer by $3 billion in the process. Jordan encouraged the Commission to consider this line as a basic block of the new RTP, even if the Secretary would not want this.

Proponents of a transformative regional plan included the Greater Washington Regional Partnership, a group which looks at DC and Baltimore as one region, the Get Maryland Moving Coalition, CMTA the Sierra Club, the Greater Baltimore Committee and a Housing advocate. Josh Tulkin of the Sierra Club illustrated in drastic  numbers what the region has to do, to bring the transportation emissions in compliance with the 2030 targets. The 16 year old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who is the root of international student led climate strikes, would have approved. 
Sam Jordan of the Transit Equity Coalition

Those demonstrating high-schoolers should inspire this Commission. After over 50 years of doing almost nothing on regional transportation plans (as GBC CEO Don Fry pointed out in his testimony), it is time for aggressive and accelerated catch-up.  

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The Regional Transportation Plan previously on this blog:

April 2018: State transportation: Lessons from this legislative session

Monday, March 25, 2019

The deadliest roads in America are in the suburbs

More pedestrians die on suburban roadways than on congested city streets, and most die in the poorer suburbs than in the leafy ones. 
Last week's hit and run crash in Woodlawn was indicative: A pregnant women and a 12 year old girl tried to cross North Rolling Road near Security Square Mall and were hit by a car whose driver never stopped. The girl was killed, the woman hospitalized. The newspaper note was sparse:
nationwide rise of pedestrian fatalities 
A 12-year-old girl was killed and a pregnant woman was injured Friday evening in a hit-and-run crash on North Rolling Road in Catonsville, Baltimore County police said. [..]The victims were crossing North Rolling Road at Johnnycake Road when they were struck at about 9:20 p.m., police said.
Police are seeking the driver, who made no attempt to stop, police said. (Baltimore SUN)
The site reveals how it could have been: There are two bus stops on the south side of the intersection but the only signalized crosswalk is on the north side. The poorly marked crosswalk requires that the pedestrian activates the walk signal with a push button. The intersection is poorly lit and sits immediately next to a an underpass under I-70 which impedes sight distance. The speed limit is 35mph but most drivers go considerably faster, especially once they glimpse the green light beyond the underpass. 
Anne Arundel County Police said Monday that a 15-year-old boy who was struck in a hit-and-run accident in Pasadena on Friday night has died.
Skylar Marion, 15, of Pasadena, had been walking along Mountain Road — a dangerous roadway with a long history of fatalities — with two other juveniles at about 9:25 p.m. when he and a 13-year-old girl from Clearwater Beach were struck by a passing vehicle. (Baltimore SUN)
North Rolling Road and Johnnycake: A 12 year girl was killed here
A 72-year-old man was killed in a pedestrian-involved crash Tuesday night, Baltimore County Police said.
A pedestrian, identified as Mohamed Hamid Idries Hassan, of the 600 block of Walker Ave., was crossing Loch Raven Boulevard near Sayward Avenue around 9:30 p.m., when he was hit by a 2003 Chevrolet Tahoe traveling northbound, police said.
 (Baltimore SUN)
The three short notes about suburban tragedies in which pedestrians were killed have one thing in common, the time of the crash. It was after dark when visibility is poor and the number of impaired drivers is high. At a time when the only people walking are those too young, too old or too poor to have a car at their disposal. They all died because the suburban world is not made for them.
A tragedy for sure and very sad that something like this had to happen to, hopefully, get Baltimore county to take some action.  Rolling Rd. Has become a speedway.(Resident in response to a NextDoor posting about the crash)
A pedestrian walking along a busy arterial road at night is not part of the design manual for those highways with its focus on a smooth flow of car traffic. In Maryland, 60 pedestrians were killed on roads during the first half of 2018, according to this report. That's a 25 percent increase compared to the first half of 2017.
More and bigger vehicles: More  pedestrian fatalities
In recent years, the number of pedestrian fatalities in the United States has grown sharply. During the 10-year period from 2008 to 2017, the number of pedestrian fatalities increased by 35 percent (from 4,414 deaths in 2008 to 5,977 deaths in 2017); meanwhile, the combined number of all other traffic deaths declined by six percent. Along with the increase in the number of pedestrian fatalities, pedestrian deaths as a percentage of total motor vehicle crash deaths increased from 12 percent in 2008 to 16 percent in 2017. (Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State, GHSA 2019)
75% of pedestrians get killed after dark
Increased pedestrian fatalities are a national trend. The Governors Highway Safety Association reports that crashes killed 6,227 pedestrians in 2018, which represents an increase of 4 percent compared to 2017.

This trend has been going on for a decade: Over the past 10 years pedestrian fatalities have increased 35 percent the group states in the report, in the same period overall  traffic deaths declined 6 percent. This means, while people in their cars, trucks and SUVs get safer, in part thanks to fortification (heavier and bigger vehicles), pedestrians are more likely to become the victims.  The League of American Bicyclists, in a different recent report, published that 2016 was the deadliest year for pedestrians and bicyclists in a quarter century.

Maryland is among the States with relatively high pedestrian fatalities: It is among the 12 jurisdictions that reported pedestrian fatality rates of 1.0 or higher per 100,000 population. The deadliest state was New Mexico with 2.26 fatalities per 100,000 residents, Maryland’s was 1.00. Maryland's secretary of transportation served in various capacities in New Mexico before he came here.
Endangered species: Pedestrians

Many of the suburban roadways are wide, have high speed limits (40 or 45mph), many still don't have sidewalks and crosswalks are scarce. Where they exist, they are spaced so far apart that pedestrians will attempt to cross the roads in between where there are no signals or markings.

Many of the arterials are the responsibility of the State Highway Administration (SHA) many are local roads administered by the counties, which almost never have a transportation department (DOT), but maintain roads with the Department of Public Works (DPW). Transportation "planning", i.e. a course that does more than administering the status quo is foreign to those car-centric departments. Rolling Road is a Baltimore County artery which frequently takes on heavy traffic when the Baltimore Beltway is clogged. When adjacent community associations asked for measures to slow traffic to make it easier to turn in and out of side streets or back in from driveways, the County traffic engineers resisted citing the high numbers of vehicles on the road.

Contrary to what should be done, the engineering heavy approach of maintaining flow at all cost led to the recent widening of Rolling road a few miles further north towards  Liberty Road. There the former country road had still been a two-lane windy road. That every widening just makes this artery more an "outer beltway", further worsening the quality of life of residences lining the road on both sides, seems to elude the engineers. The newly elected County Executive Olszewski is currently advertising the new position of Transportation Director in the hope to get somebody in his department who understands the nexus between land use, community and transportation.
Typical suburban arterial: No safe way to cross

The State Highway Administration, like almost any highway entity in the country, works from standards in which pedestrians don't get amenities until they show up in sufficient numbers. (In technical lingo, until it is "warranted"). This is a conundrum pedestrians or bicyclists can't win. If not enough pedestrians can be counted taking their lives into their hands to reach a lone bus stop that has no sidewalk or no cross walk, no crosswalk or sidewalk will be installed. Or no bike-lane, or no signal. I liken this to counting swimmers crossing a river to determine the need for a bridge, obviously a nonsensical approach. 

No cross-walk, no ped signal and poor light on the south-side of the
fatal intersection of Rolling Road, no safety island and high speeds
All items that could easily be fixed
One can hope that the staggering numbers of pedestrian facilities will bring about a better awareness in all the new executives around Baltimore City and also in Baltimore's own DOT which is still grappling with how to implement the legislated "complete streets" bill. "Complete Streets" is the notion slowly taking root across the country, that streets are not only for cars and trucks, but that they represent a significant part of the public lands and are key for the safety and quality of life of entire neighborhoods and communities.

I a new regional approach, complete streets, land use, and transit need to play a major role. The suburbs can no longer remain the undisputed domain of driving as the only way of getting around. For pedestrian safety well illuminated crosswalks, safety islands, speed cameras and a complete set of pedestrian signals are needed at each signalized intersection.
There is such a need for this. So many use Rolling Rd to avoid Beltway backups. There may be businesses on RR, but it is mainly residential. So tired of going the speed limit and having cars pass me like I'm standing still. (Resident in response to a NextDoor posting about the crash)
It is high time to end the deadly spiral of people fleeing the older suburbs for quieter new digs in the outer periphery. It just brings more traffic and makes the inner suburbs less livable. By contrast, traffic calming, safer walking and smaller, slower streets increase quality of life in the older communities and will lead to less traffic.

Immediate and low budget pedestrians improvements should be installed in each case of a pedestrian crash.  With a new County District Court being constructed near the crash site on Rolling Road and the Beltway being widened as a result of State DOT's obsession with car centric transportation,  there it imperative that the County ends the concept of an "outer beltway" as a deadly high speed

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Its not all falling apart: Small miracles in Baltimore's "Westside"

 The "Westside", or as the local merchants want me to call it, "Market Center" is my local habitat and a place that is quite representative of Baltimore at large. Three steps forward, and two back, sometimes more like two steps forward and three back. Just think "Superblock", a 18 year story of failure I have extensively covered in these columns. There are many boarded buildings and the light rail trip up and down Howard Street has been the subject of many snide remarks about the state of affairs. When it comes to Baltimore's downtown Westside, the mood can flip from hope to despair within moments, depending on what happened last.
The arts as savior? Westside Bromo District
(Photo: Philipsen)

Cliffhangers abound: The Superblock, the Mayfair redevelopment, The Lexington Market to name just a few of the bigger deals that never seem to happen. Intermittently the BBJ busts out with news of RFPs issued by Baltimore Development, new land disposition awards made and hopeful news of investments here and there.

But then the wildly successful Asian themed Night Market happened and brought out thousands to mill around in the usually desolate old retail center and as if a magic wand had been waved, actual construction activity is now more common than new paper renderings. Especially heartening is the activity on both sides of the 400 block of Howard Street, a block that was probably as dead as it can possibly be with only one building, St. James Place, occupied at the corner of Franklin Street and one in perpetual rehab mode (Le Mondo). It is still possible to overlook the mostly indoor activity, except for the dumpsters collecting demolition debris tossed out of the hollow window openings from time to time. And from my office I can peer over the rooftops, and see that several of the buildings have received all new roofs in recent weeks.One group of five buildings that sat vacant for decades is renovated by Poverni Sheikh for 39 market rate apartments and some retail. The same goup had turned the former Planned Partenthood building further north on Howard Street into a storage facility with some retail.
The Time Group apartments on Park Avenue create a solid edge
on the area's north side (Photo: Philipsen)

These more surgical operations are indicative of the new approach that may actually turn the area around without much fanfare. The new approach is mostly small, incremental and driven by a diverse slate of investors not tapped from the usual suspects which do development elsewhere in the City. Investors include the Le Mondo group and the Current Gallery, artistic users that have to cobble their funds together from many sources and who do their projects in fits and spurts often with sweat equity. There are bigger projects, too. Enterprise's new apartments on Mulberry Street probably helped to encourage Park Avenue Partners to engage on almost a full block investment between Tyson Street and Park Avenue, a project that involves the old Marticks building which, along with several old Chinatown buildings on Park Avenue is supposed to be spared the wrecking ball.
The L on Liberty: 71 affordable apartments between Liberty
and Park. Architect: Peter Fillat  (Photo: Philipsen)

Of course, in reality, the change did not happen overnight. The tandem redevelopment of the former Hutzler distribution warehouse with its popular Mount Vernon Market Place and the brand-new apartments next to it (500 Park Avenue) by Time Group shored up the northern edge, the fod hall turned into an attraction. Early on, large adaptive reuse projects such as the conversion of the former Hechts department store and the old BGE headquarters into apartments, the new construction of Centerpoint and several entertainment venues such as the Hippodrome and the Everyman Theater had fueled expectations for a rapid revival that never became reality. Still, progress was made: A whole block of West Baltimore Street around the corner from the Hippodrome was filled with retail behind nicely restored facades. All of Saratoga Street east of Paca Street is filled with shops and new apartments behind old walls, including a new hotel and Howard Street south of Fayette Street has barely any vacancies.
Neglect in the public space is rampant
(Photo: Philipsen)

Yet, the Westside is so large and abandonment so pervasive in some areas that the area could never quite cast aside its image of a run down place full of addicts and barbershops. For any new projet several old stores and businesses gave up and created new vacancies. The stately Gombrecht building on Eutaw Street burnt in a fire only to stand two years later as derelict as the fireman had left it. That BDC slogan that "The West has Zest" became over time even more ridiculous than it was at its inception and was eventually abandoned.

Once again merchants, the Market Center organization, stakeholders and BDC officials are hopeful that a break-through is near. I, too am happy to pin hope to the work crews I can hear clanging away. As I have pointed out many times before, run-down downtowns and commercial districts can revive. This is what happened in the old heart of Los Angeles, in the Over the Rhine section of Cincinnati and in our own Hampden and Highlandtown neighborhoods. For the final breakthrough of Baltimore's Westside/Market Center area to really happen, though, a better consensus is needed how the neighborhood should look like in the end.
Il Mondo: Part 1 of a larger renovation
(Photo: Philipsen)

Under the leadership of Kristen Mitchell, the Market Center Development Association is just now embarking on the effort of creating such a consensus and strategic plan. A few successful strands seems to emerge: African American and Asian themed, mom and pop shop oriented, preservation rather than demolition and lots of art and entertainment.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Trade vans and new roofs: Signs of rehabilitation
(Photo: Philipsen)

BBJ map of current projects (BBJ)

Friday, March 22, 2019

AIA lecture "Engaging The Edge": Defying Expectations for the Inner Harbor

The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, AIA Baltimore, premiered its traditional spring lecture series in an all new format yesterday: Good bye to the old style glamour architect's "show and tell" with glossy slides. Hello to a philosopher and a climate activist, to an inspiring combination of theory and practice! And yes, including the moderator, there were two architects as well.
On the edge of water and land: Oyster program to clean the water

The local architects making up AIA's lecture committee took a considerable risk in leaving behind a format that has worked for 40 years!  But the local AIA isn't your grandfather's Oldsmobile: social consciousness and high participation of young architects who want get something done propels several committees to new levels of civic engagement.

Unfortunately, the lecture series announcement is rather obtuse. Titled "Engaging the Edge" there is talk of a swimmable harbor, of a design competition and coordination with the Baltimore journal based T3XTURE in best archispeak, according to the Urban Dictionary "Large, made-up words that architects and designers use to make themselves sound smarter than you". Examples: "initiate the overall dialogue [..] and set forth the theme of 'the edge', the nature and culture of conditions at the intersection of land, sea, and edge, explored from the perspective of philosophy, architecture, and ecology". All clear?

The first speaker, Ed Casey (The World on Edge) is a philosopher, certainly not using Archispeak, his explorations into  Phenomenology and Ontology scanning "earth, cosmos and divinity" also created a rather obtuse curtain consisting of words like geo-ontology and geo-directionality and concepts such as "land as an existential state". No glossy slides at all. But the philosophical tour de force from Greek antiquity to Hegel and Heidegger was short. It certainly pushed the minds of those who cared to listen beyond the usual spheres. Here was somebody who didn't speak so much about the looks of the built environment but about what it does to our minds. Casey made clear why the edge-condition between water and land should be of particular interest. He closed with the inspirational quote that  at "the edge of the water is where wisdom reveals itself”.
A softer edge at the Harbor: Floating grasses
Edward S. Casey identifies how important edges are to us, not only in terms of how we perceive our world, but in our cognitive, artistic, and sociopolitical attentions to it. We live in a world that is constantly on edge, yet edges as such are rarely explored. Casey systematically describes the major and minor edges that configure the human and other-than-human realms, including our everyday experience. (Casey, World on Edge book blurb)
This was the perfect jumping board for architect and professor Travis Price, FAIA (The Spirit of Place) to show actual built stuff. In this case, his work with students which he had taken around the world to build  astonishing structures of contemplation and celebration in just 9 days. His learning by doing resembles the approach of the late Sam Mockbee's teaching in the Rural Studio at  Auburn University in Alabama who was a strong believer in learning by doing. Much of Price's student projects sat right on the water's edge, in frequently highly spiritual spaces. Beautiful slides provided plenty of the eye candy of conventional lectures. Price and the students proved that one can build modern, yet authentic and site specific, with culture, poetry and ecology in mind. Price's short but esoteric presentation still left his listeners wondering how these built miracles could be tied to Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
Lecture logo
About Spirit of Place-Spirit of Design
Founded by architect and professor Travis Price, Spirit of Place-Spirit of Design is a design-build, educational program for undergraduate and graduate architecture students. Over the past 18 years, the program has resulted in a series of 17 built projects with students and local host countries, that respond to regional ecology, the diversity of the vanishing cultures, threatened historic resources, and building and craft traditions associated with the historic sites. Projects have taken place in Peru, Canada, the United States, Ireland, Nepal, Italy, and Finland. See (Catholic University)
This is where the third presenter, Carmera Thomas, Program Director at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation came in when she explained her direct actions at the Inner Harbor. She manages oyster gardening in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, growing over 400,000 baby oysters in the harbor waters and provides hands on learning experiences which connect inner city students with the issues of water and ecology.
in April 2016, Waterfront Partnership partnered with CBF to hire a shared program manager position and form a more intentional partnership between the two organizations. The program manager helps to increase awareness and environmental stewardship and coordinates the Greater Baltimore Oyster Partnership program. The five-year-old program now includes over 600 volunteers through community engagement and Baltimore City public school students. (CBF)
Land meets water: from the Spirit of Place (Ireland)
The vision is to make the harbor “swimmable and fishable. Seeing the City students venture out on the Harbor waters was the perfectly brought to life the abstract concepts of the earlier speakers. Now it all made sense! Here was action on the edge, here was a notion that so far lives only in the mind (the swimmable harbor) and here was the spiritual act of liberating kids from their locked up condition in their often unsafe neighborhoods by transgressing that edge between land and water.
“The lighting was so bright. People had scooters. They had bikes. They had babies in strollers. What city is this? This is not Baltimore City.’ Because if you go up to Martin Luther King Boulevard” — the demarcation between downtown and the west side — we’re all bolted in our homes, we’re locked down.” (Renee McCray, a Baltimore resident speaking to the new Police Commissioner after she had recently visited the Harbor)
That the entire waterfront is essentially beyond reach is part of "The Tragedy of Baltimore". Far from being "Baltimore's living room", as developer Jim Rouse had envisioned the harbor, it has become a place for "them", the tourists, the rich, the "other" for way too many.
The excess of commerce and tourism: Entertainment at the Harbor

In spite of this perception, the reality is a  HarborPlace that is run-down and tired with failing businesses and desperate attempts of creating attractions. (Ripley's Believe it or not"). Rouse's pavilions have become barriers between the land and the water and should go, the ill conceived six and seven lane roadways ringing the harbor hold a firm grip all around the Inner Harbor and prevent easy access.

All speakers asked their audience to think about how to make Baltimore's water more accessible and an attraction for everybody, not only in the touristy way of attraction, but also in the transformative spiritual, relaxing way that water in the heart of a city can provide.
Youth access to the water: Oyster program

Starting from the big picture of the cosmos, the land and the sea, the mind and global examples the tri-part lecture was a brilliant way of setting the stage and releasing the Baltimore mind from the narrow cage of the usual loop thinking.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Additional lectures will take place on March 27, April 24 and May 1, each at 6pm in the Brown Center of MICA on Mt Royal Avenue. The lectures are free and are followed by a reception. For the complete series look here
Water access for City youth: Living Classroom 

Local knowledge is at one with lived experience if indeed it is true that this knowledge is of the localities in which the knowing subject lives. To live is to live locally, and to know is first of all to know the places one is in. (Edward S. Casey)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Charm City Circulator remains in the headlines for all the wrong reasons

In 2010 when the City Circulator bus shuttle rolled out, it was to great fanfare and a series of success stories following the launch. The service was praised for its spanking new innovative electric buses, reliable operations, it’s real-time online app, well marked stops, a diverse, rapidly growing ridership and the fact that it wasn’t MTA. The service had a secure funding source and clearly defined logical routes. Downtown Partnership's CEO Kirby Fowler called it "the gateway drug to transit".
Circulator with "limousine bus" as a patch (Photo: Sweeney)

In 2019 the luster has worn off. The Circulator has long become a troubled child with years of making headlines for all the wrong reasons. (2014: Former head of Charm City Circulator pleads guilty to bribery).

In 2019 there are not enough buses, the vehicles themselves are aged. and often in worse shape than those of the MTA. The previous real time app is defunct, and the operator is inexperienced. The service racks up a deficit every year, it’s routes are confusing and far longer than the revenues can sustain. To top it all off, the City is engaged in a law suit with the previous provider, a global company with deep pockets that is unlikely to easily concede. The system operates under an "emergency contract".

The reasons for this change of fortunes don’t reside only with one entity and they have many roots.
  • For example the buses: the innovative electric bus turned out to be a dud. It’s manufacturer went bankrupt and the fleet had to be retired and replaced long before it’s time. Unfortunately, bus replacement hadn’t been in the budget, creating one of the key reasons for the deficit. 
  • The routes: the Charm City Circulator became subject of the accusation that everything was done for the “white L” and nothing for the “black butterfly”. Even though, that had never been entirely true for the Circulator, the City twisted the Green Line to meet Equity goals. The result is a unconvincing and unpopular alignment. 
  • Finally, the operator. Understanding that the City DOT was ill equipped to be a bus company, operations and maintenance was shopped out to Veolia (which later became TransDev), a juggernaut that runs transit around the world. An arrangement that required strong oversight.
For whatever reason, the City took a hands-off approach which allowed lax maintenance and reimbursement patterns that are now subject of the lawsuit. While the new DOT Director wanted to clean house and use the end of Transdev’s contract to provide a new beginning, Transdev told me at the the time, that six months after the new director had been in office, they had yet to meet face to face.
Tortured routes in the name of equity (Green Route)

By the time a new contract for the Circulator was supposed to go into effect, the old agreement with Transdev was simply extended. Finally, when the bids were on the table, only Transdev and RMA had submitted a proposal. Only one had the necessary buses and a maintenance facility: Velia/Transdev.  But it couldn’t be a contender any longer  after the City had filed suit against the company on September 15 of last year. That left one single bidder which had the future in its hands. A bidder with scarcely any experience in running transit except for a tiny shuttle in Bethesda, MD.
At the time I wrote in this blog:
It doesn't take much to imagine the train wrecks that are possible once the Veolia extension expires on October 11:
  • A new company gets the contract without funding for the required Banner Route (where already old Diesel fumes spewing bus are run to save cost), low ridership on the Orange Route,  a route that defies any transit planning logic, and the flagship Purple Route bleeding money since it has been extended to Hopkins University). A company that would have to procure buses and grab a maintenance facility in mere weeks 
  •  Additionally, further State support for the Circulator on which the City came to rely, could be in jeopardy if no viable operation of the City system is in sight, especially since the State already saw their support of bikeshare evaporate into nothing.
 Many were still hoping that a new contract would create a clear new beginning, especially ending the annual deficits and a solution for the problem with the bus replacement cost. Hope, in spite of the way how the pre-Pourciau RFP had been written, leaving little room for creative innovation. The new contract puts the vendor in a straight jacket, forcing him to run exactly the same expanded routes that had contributed to the deficit with a specified number of buses. An attempt by MTA to suggest a simpler, shorter and sustainable route system that would not duplicate MTA service was probably too drastic to be taken seriously. In the RFP the City had to admit it had no maintenance facility and the RFP didn't pay attention to what had been recommended in the Transition Report for Mayor Pugh.
It is incumbent upon the Department of Transportation, under the guidance of the Pugh Administration, to reinvigorate the system so that it performs optimally. The first step in this process is to articulate a clear and bounded mission for the service, defining it as a supplement to MTA service in dense, walkable neighborhoods. The service must then seek to maintain the nexus with the parking tax by limiting service to areas where the tax is collected. It should only provide the amount of service that can be covered by the existing parking tax and state support it receives. (Mayor Pugh Transition Report)
When the extension date expired, Veolia was in no mood to continue a day longer, and RMA wasn’t ready. No buses, no operators, no shop and no experience with fixed route urban transit. Still, after severe initial hick-ups, no complete melt-down occurred and Charm City buses were seen plying Baltimore's streets, given the impression that somehow things were working.
RMA shuttle in Bethesda (RMA)

But last weekend the SUN came out with another damaging headline: "Charm City Circulator's new operator has not trained all drivers, faces persistent bus shortage". Both the Mayor and BC-DOT Director Pourciau sure could have used some good news, both are battling issues on many fronts, issues that continue to bury the progress that is being made. (For example, Pugh's new Police Commissioner, or Pourciau's successful completion of a baseline assessment of previous transit plans).

As the SUN article from last weekend shows, RMA is still struggling to get its bearing. This isn't surprising since all legacy issues continue to be a drag on the system:
  • the insufficient number of buses, 
  • the irregular headways,  
  • the inefficient Green Line route, 
  • the unfunded Banner Route and extended Purple Route, 
  • the overlap with MTA’s service, 
  • the lack of real integration with the also City-subcontracted water Shuttle Harbor Connector 
  • or the fact that the Circulator doesn’t show up on the now popular Transit App for lack of a published GTFS feed. 
When I am in Fed Hill/Locust Point and need to get home, I am more likely to take a scooter or walk versus using the Harbor Connector. I don't want to have to look up a schedule every time I want to use it. Its probably faster for me to just hoof it. (Brian Seel, a want to be Circulator rider who became famous when he posted his torturous commute to work in a Howard County TOD)
Recycled transit buses 
At the time of the RFP, I had written that "Instead of ordaining how many buses to run and asking what it would cost, the RFP would have been more innovative by stating: This is my budget, how much service can you give me for that?". This would still be a good question to ask. In the meantime, RMA learns fixed route transit operations by providing them. Maintenance of the buses is still a problem and there simply aren't enough since Veolia had taken several of their own buses back when their contract expired and RMA had not enough transit suitable vehicles, only "executive limousine coaches" which are not accessible and not made for transit. So instead of a shiny fleet that shows MTA how transit needs to be run, the Circulator fleet is a ragtag fleet, cobbled together from various places, including old retired transit buses spewing fumes worse than any current MTA bus. Meanwhile, MTA has revamped its bus operation under the banner LINK and introduced its own colored CityLink routes, adding confusion. Still, at this time MTA's buses operate more professionally and predictably than those of the Circulator. Quite a reversal of fortune. The Circulator still has a chance to become a premier service again. For that it needs to be seriously reformed.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

From this blog:

2015: Free Downtown Bus Transit - Community Asset or Yuppie Shuttle?
2018: The Circulator hanging in the balance
2018: City sues Transdev. Circulator on course to crash and burn
2018: Circulator service severely disrupted - totally down on two routes

Friday, March 15, 2019

A brand-new retro Lexington Market is supposedly right around the corner

The big news at the design review panel yesterday wasn't that the new Lexington Market would be designed as a traditional market shed and not as the previously proposed glass box. The big news was that years of uncertainty about the future of the market are supposed to finally come to an end. "It is real", Seawall representative Jon Constable said. Seawall is the design build partner of the City in the endeavour.

That's a big deal. For years customers and merchants of Baltimore's largest public market knew only one thing: the powers to be didn't love the old market and wanted to build something new instead of investing in the old. The only certainty in this vague future  was that there would be no money to fix what wasn't working in the ever more decrepit old hall. As a result, shoppers stayed away, stalls remained vacant, then even less customers showed up, and so on. This death spiral is still in full force. But now it should end in 2021 when the brand-new market is scheduled to open.
Rendering of the upper level market hall (BCT Architects)

Here is what Jon Constable of Seawall Development said about the project: "It is under a very tight timeline". Construction is slated to begin a year from now, Seawall is part of a design-build contract with the City, has hired a new architect and has no equity stake in the project. It will withdraw after completion of the new market building. This means Lexington Market will remain owned and managed by the City as public market just like now.
Baltimore’s Lexington Market is the oldest market in America. Founded in 1782 at the site where it stands today, Lexington has served Baltimore and surrounding communities for more than nine generations. It’s as old as America itself. (Market website)
Baltimore's historic market shed
The concept of rebuilding the market on the south parking lot on Eutaw Street while merchants continue to sell in the old building isn't new. It was first presented in 2016 with an anticipated construction begin for 2018, a price tag of $30-$40 million, and a construction time of three years. This 2016 proposal followed earlier plans to rehab the old market for $27 million. However, as Robert Thomas of Baltimore City Markets stated upon request, that $27 million cost "was not confirmed by a professional cost estimator". The apparently most economical solution was never carried forth and eventually dropped by Baltimore Public Markets. The exact reasons remain somewhat mysterious, because the old market could have been renovated relatively easily once one would accept the sloping floor which was a pretty elegant solution allowing equal access from two streets that are on different levels by some 13'.

Two big problems immediately surfaced after the 2016 glass box design was unveiled: Nobody liked Murphy Dittenhafer's design and the cost estimate began rising. There wasn't nearly enough money for new construction, demolition and plaza design as cost estimates "ballooned to 60 million", according to Robert Thomas. After a poor reception at an initial UDAAP presentation, the concept languished and finally died without fanfare.

Eventually Seawall was hired to cut cost and restart the design with the help of BCT Architects, the firm that already had designed the last face-lift that the market had received, the one visible today. The new approach presented to UDAAP on Thursday saves the demolition cost of the East Market Building by leaving it standing, although, so far, without a designated purpose. It also reduces the cost for landscape construction through a much smaller plaza and it created with a traditional market shed a much more economical building with far less glass. Nevertheless, the cost is still estimated with $40 million, and there continues to be a $13 million funding gap. [Additional information provided by Seawall after this article was published puts the current budget for the new facility at $36 million and the funding sources at $17m from City and State, $10m equity from New Market Tax Credits, $7m from a HUD 108 loan with a remaining $2m gap]
Eutaw Street elevation (BCT Architects)

The new design approach did not question the decision of not using the old market building, leaving a big blank spot in the proposed solution. No longer slated for demolition,  its future appearance or use was "off the table" for now, as Jon Constable put it. Nobody from Baltimore Public Markets spoke. This leaves a fairly large question mark since the success of a new Lexington Market will largely depend on how that entire ensemble of City owned parking garages, office buildings and market sheds will be handled. There is no way that the new market can  succeed without sprucing up the area which shows many signs of neglect. Another big question mark is the future of the West Market and its adjacent historic multistory office building and garage which is subject to a separate request for proposals by BDC for which no selection has been made yet. 
Paca Street elevation (BCT Architects)

The proposed shed design is a vast improvement over the previous design and solves the height difference between Eutaw and Paca Streets far more successfully than the glass box, with its terrible interior circulation. The proposed shed remains a "two slab" design, though, i.e. two stories face Eutaw Street and one story faces Paca Street. This necessarily leads to a divided market: A smaller fresh foods market area on the lower level at Eutaw Street and a larger mix of fresh and prepared foods "food hall" type design for the upper level. The upper level at Eutaw Street is occupied by an "event space". A grand stair roughly at the 1/3 point of the building towards the west sits at an opening that connects the two floors for visual connections. Unlike the glass box design, which had put circulation along the edges to allow for a glass wall, the new design places the prepared food vendors along the north and south perimeter of the long shed. They sit below the lower portion of the shed roof below the "clear-story" window band, allowing accommodation of the venting equipment needed above kitchen and cooking areas of the prepared food vendors.
Aerial view of the proposed market seen from Eutaw Street (BCT Architects)

UDAAP members observed that the arrangement created a largely "impervious" north wall facing the "plaza", the opacity clearly in conflict with the traditional market concept of the historic 1803 historic market buildings which burnt down in 1949. As seen on old photos, those sheds had a lot of exterior market stalls all around the core building and its large roof overhangs and awnings expanding the roofs further out.

The new design struggles with balancing the desire to have a large open court in the center of the shed with open view lines and lots of daylight with the wish of also having a flexible and open side which opens up to the plaza, allows outdoor seating and outdoor market stalls in good weather.
The previous design by Murphy Dittenhafer

There are other competing notions: Especially the conflict between circulation and place-making, i.e. between being in a space versus moving through. This conflict affects the so called plaza extending Lexington Street towards Paca Street. The space was presented on the one hand as a major corridor through which people move to and from transit, a task the current "Arcade" with its doors didn't quite fulfill. Bike advocates hope for a "low stress" connection as well. But the plaza was also presented as a plaza suited for sitting down, eating prepared foods outdoors or for events and farmers markets. It is difficult to reconcile those two functions. and UDAAP comments questioned especially how inviting the provided spaces are for rest, eating or people watching.

The strong east-west flow across the substantial grade difference presents a major design problem for the building as well, especially in the age of barrier free access. The building aims for a free and easy east-west flow but the two story design requires elevators and a fairly substantial set of stairs, elements that tend to block open views. The proposed design solves these issues generally with elegance, but some issues remain as UDAAP observed in their comments.

One aspect escaped UDAAP's critique: The pretty low and  compressed entrance from Eutaw Street, probably the most frequented point of entry. The placement of a second story event space right above the Eutaw Street entrance makes the experience more like the entry into a subway than into a market hall. A fairly obvious remedy would be to delete the event space in favor of a grander two story entry. Giving up on the event space should hardly pose a hardship, given that the old market building eventually standing vacant is crying out for a use. It could easily be used, among other things, as an event space.

For years everybody agreed that Lexington Market is hugely important for the future of the historic Market Center, Baltimore's old retail core. Lately, far from being a pull, the market has even become a drag. The Seawall solution, after a few more tweaks, promises that the market can finally be the regional draw again it once was, and that its sister markets in Seattle, Philadelphia and elsewhere are to this day.  One can only hope that this time, its actually "real".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The article was updated on 3/26/19 based on an e-mail from Thibault Mannekin clarifying cost and sources

The arrangement of current market buildings (BCT Architects)

Upper level (BCT Architects)

Lower level at Eutaw Street side (BCT Architects)

Section showing interior stair area between upper and lower level (BCT Architects)

Section showing the shed, clearstory and the area with prepared meal kitchens (BCT Architects)

Existing market Atrium addition on the Lexington Street right of way (BCT Architects)