Monday, June 10, 2019

A total reset of City Transportation

Now that Mayor Pugh and her handpicked DOT Director Pourciau are both gone, and Baltimore has still no new transit project thanks to the Governor, it is a good time to hit the reset button at Baltimore's Transportation Department for real. Not in the unfortunate way of the last round where demotivated staff left DOT in droves, people that are now missing to work through the significant backlog of things that didn't get done at a department that seemed paralyzed by bad morale.
Traffic signal in Marble Hill: As ancient as a tube radio

Former Director Pourciau's idea to initiate an asset inventory was good. The department has indeed no proper record of signals, sensors, cameras, signs and all the other things that have been stuck into the ground over decades. But doing this inventory cannot come at the cost of everything else. A year into her short tenure, the Director had still been tackling the most basic questions:
  • What infrastructure do we have today?
  • What has been our vision?
  •  What plans have been made for transportation in our city?
  • What are our challenges? –
  • What are the competing physical and financial demands for resources?
These were questions she presented at an interim report of the steps towards a Comprehensive Transportation Plan that Pourciau had given to to the group Transit Choices shortly before she quit.  She reported how goals for transportation policy were derived from analyzing a gazillion plans and their transportation elements in a gigantic effort of bean counting. The problem with this approach is that it was done without ranking those elements for priorities or urgency or without setting them in relation to data, such as crashes, traffic fatalities, speed violations, congestion, slow transit or air pollution, to name just a few metrics that would indicate serious deficiencies and a need for action. By linking those goals culled from dozens and dozens of plans with actually relevant data, a few goals would quickly rise to the top and become a priority. 

Besides, there are surely enough things that need to be turned around because bad performance and poor outcomes are self evident without much study. Poor signal coordination, buses stuck in traffic, lack of directional signs, no guidance to available parking. Anyone walking, biking or driving in Baltimore has their own litany.
Pourciau's Comprehensive Transportation Plan: What will happen?

Some things are systemic. In a city that shrank from a population of 950,000 to about 600,000, there aren't only a lot of vacant houses, there are also a lot surplus traffic signals, signs, islands and traffic lanes. When the JFX, I-95 or MLK were completed, there was never a single lane of traffic or a single signal removed on those routes that had previously taken all the traffic through the center of town.

That there should be surplus capacity may come as a surprise to those who are tuned to the old song about ever growing congestion. Truth is, congestion in high travel growth areas can very well coexist with excess capacity of roadways in other areas of town which have been in decline for decades.  For starters, DOT could probably remove about 1/3 of its traffic signals which would result in immediate savings in energy and upkeep and would reduce red light running and the ill feelings that come from sitting at endless red lights with no traffic anywhere in sight.
Pourciau's Comprehensive Transportation Plan: Fake complexity

Beyond that quantitative change, there is a whole host of qualitative changes in transportation with which DOT needs to catch up, namely the global departure from the tradition of giving at all times the highest priority to the internal combustion engine powered vehicles. This Neanderthal policy of "car first" no matter what, appears to be very hard to shake in Charm City. It still directed DOT when it recently replaced a freshly installed bike lane in favor of a dozen convenient on street parking spots. This happened, even though the City Council made "complete streets" the law, a policy that explicitly prohibits to consider driving by car as the only one mode of transportation that counts. The compendium design guidelines which would outline "complete streets polices" chapter and verse have not been presented to date, and without them, even the brand-new Young administration is continuing the habit of blatantly ignoring the mandates of complete streets.

Pourciau liked to brag that she was the City's largest real estate holder owning about 30% of the City's footprint in the form of public streets and parking lots. She was right about that. With so much land comes a lot of responsibility. Safe, functioning and equitable transportation is the lifeline of any thriving city. So with inventory, a comprehensive plan and complete streets guidelines in the works here a few additional items stuck in the huge planning and construction back-up that DOT has created through inaction, incompetence and, at least in one case, blatant corruption:
Ailing Circulator, poorly enforced bus lanes
  • Achieve a better state of good repair for street pavement, signals and bridges and overpasses
  • Work more seamlessly and effectively with MTA towards making transit faster and more efficient. (Well maintained and enforced transit lanes, signal priority, widened sidewalks at bus stops and safe access to transit stop locations).
  • Set specific air pollution reduction goals for the various transportation modes and effectively implement strategies towards cleaner mobility
  • Eliminate excessively wide one-way streets, eliminate most rush hour parking restrictions and create a program for better pedestrian safety
  • Fix the Circulator and make it a premier form of urban transit which it was for a while. But the system has to operate within its means from dedicated funding sources such as the parking tax surcharge. Simplify routes and cut out any part for which there is no funding. Alternatively get additional funding from developers and institutions which directly benefit from a route.
  • Fix the water taxi. Integrate it with the Circulator, merge tourists and commuter services in terms of fleet and operations and create a dynamic price ticket system that maintains free commuter rides but allows others to pick fare options beyond the $16 day pass. 
  • Get serious about supporting active transportation choices such as walking, scooters, bicycling and whatever other new stuff may come down the pike if it augments how we can get around. Implement the bike masterplan and rename those bike lanes as active transportation lanes.
    Ailing water taxi: Loosing passengers in droves
  • Get serious in prioritizing transit via bus lanes and signal priority.
  • Get in front of rideshare and autonomous vehicles before we hand the city once more to a new technology without first creating a set of policies to manage it. We urgently need the 30% of the city footprint that is public street space and ensure that AVs won't simply extrapolate the undesirable outcomes that ride-share has already wrought on cities. In spite of all the lofty promises to the contrary, ride share brought mostly additional trips and congestion. Self driving cars will enlarge those effects exponentially, unless there will be congestion charges, AV management districts and restrictive parking policies. The AVs could create a transportation nightmare of previously unimaginable dimensions, especially if the technology would proliferate with privately owned cars instead of fleet based, shared vehicles. Without drastic action, the ineffective single-person-occupant vehicle could soon be trumped by the zero-occupant vehicle, indeed the absolute nightmare. Sprawl would get another boost if a one hour commute or more becomes a piece of cake in a car in which one doesn't have to drive but can perform work.
  • Transportation knows no jurisdictional boundaries and must be regionally coordinated. Transit priorities and new operational models such as demand-based micro-transit must be integrated into the earliest version of the new Regional Transit Plan  (RTP) currently underway per state law. Only hand in hand with the surrounding jurisdictions will Baltimore have a chance to manage the centrifugal forces that cars without drivers no doubt represent. 
  • Make equity and sustainability the guiding principles of all matters transportation and in close coordination with other departments such as Housing, Planning, Economic Development (BDC) and Health.
    The AV can save or ransack cities
Without a new director in place, the recently appointed deputy director and man for strategic planning, Theo Ngongang, and the veteran DOT war horse Frank Murphy (the acting director) who knows every traffic signal by first and last name, are an unlikely couple and by their nature no revolutionaries. Still, they have to hit the reset button really hard. Baltimore needs it.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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