Friday, July 5, 2019

Can the City Council end Baltimore's transportation woes?

Baltimore “complete streets” maverick and Councilman Ryan Dorsey now chairs the newly created Transportation Committee. He will have his hands full. Here a very small sampling:

Bus operator Corey Lamar Falcon says he has to leave the yard early in order to do the 150 Express bus route towards Columbia in the evening rush hour. "Too much traffic going through downtown to get to Harbor East to begin the service and then more traffic coming out of Harbor East once service has begun". Stuck on President Street the bus lanes on Lombard Street are of no help.
Slowing down the bus on Fayette Street: Parking in the
bus lane

His route 150 bus inches along Paca Street where cars going along Saratoga Street frequently block the intersection. Same at Mulberry Street where the operator has to cross three lanes of stopped traffic to make a left turn at Franklin (US 40). When he arrives at the Edmondson Village, traffic frequently is backed up because a densely packed slew of signals are regularly falling out of sync, wasting a large part of the road capacity. The Blue, the 77 and the 78 are also caught in the mess that began when a previous mayor who lived in Hunting Ridge ordered extra signals. Those roadside problems are part of why the MTA buses are only 68.1% of the time "on time", which is a 9 minute window between 2 minutes early and 7 minutes late. This means a third of the buses are more than 7 minutes late. (See also here).

Streets falling apart
On a spring morning 7 vehicles line the shoulder of the highway to nowhere eastbound, flashers blinking. All of the m have the their front left tire blown out by an oversized sharp edged pothole in the center lane that surprised them just when they were accelerating for the 1 mile dash on this destructive and useless urban freeway that is now in such disrepair that it takes out vehicles on a regular basis.

Baltimore's subway now has a piano in the Charles Center station but still no real time arrival signs on the platforms or above. It wouldn't be a problem to show scheduled times, but this part of Link is more than 20% of the time not on time which means more than 7 minutes late. That is because of speed restrictions due to poor track, one track segments for track repair and failures on the 35 year old equipment. As a consequence the Baltimore subway has lost half of its riders in the last 5 years or so. Of ourse, the bus, subway and light rail woes are technically not the City's problem, since MTA is a State agency, which some see as part of the problem.
Baltimore subway: Deteriorated rails, structures and

New and not so new needs 
The always chirpy mailman Tony ("mail's in") comes to the downtown mail delivery with his specialized postal truck which he moves from block to block, before delivering his mail to the individual buildings. Since he now also delivers packages, he sometimes comes twice a day and his truck is fully loaded. In a rare display of bad mood Tony curses about the new bike lanes on Paca Street that are "a disaster for delivery vehicles" as he puts it. His favorite spot to park is the end of the bus stop pads on Eutaw Street. Not ideal, but he has to put the vehicle somewhere. His colleagues from Fed Ex and UPS park in handicap spaces or conveniently in the second row on the drive lane. What else can they do? The City has yet to respond to the new needs for spaces exclusively for loading. Maybe this will be part of the "Complete Streets" design manual that has been in the works for too long already.

The Uber driver sits in the bikelane in front of the former BGE Gas and Electric headquarters on Liberty Street. His window is down. "I am waiting for my passenger", he says, not really an excuse to block the bikelane. But he, too, has to make it work somehow. Rideshare service accommodation is rare. One of the few designated rideshare pick-up places can be seen at the new Guinness brewery in Baltimore County where parking is no problem anyway. How would staging and loading areas for driver-less shuttles look like? There is a lot of talk about "managing the curb space", but very little in terms of policies and solutions.
Water taxi in April: waiting for Godot
Water Taxi
It is a beautiful Wednesday in April, the promenade at HarborPlace is full of strolling visitors. There seems to be some event nearby, many walk around in the traditional Jewish Orthodox garb. No water taxi is in sight anywhere. People at the landing pylon stare at the schedule, some even line up for the next boat. But it won't come. The company has suspended service until May due to lack of ridership and run away cost. Meanwhile lots of people use the promenade to ride the electric scooters. After a year of testing, the City now has a set of regulations for those new transportation devices which take the world in storm, but, just as on bikes, the population is divided about how to handle the scooters. Some just want to see them banned altogether.

Bike lanes: Into the potatoes and out again
On May first city crews showed up on Roland Avenue and remove the line markings for a protected bike lane on Roland Avenue, a lane that was once unprotected and then had been altered after a bicyclists died while riding in the unprotected lane when a car veered into his path. The removal of the protected lane followed protests of drivers who didn't like to park away from the curb where their cars acted as a barrier for the bikelane and occasionally lost a mirror in the process.
“Mr. Mayor, please halt the deconstruction and bring everyone to the table,” wrote State Delegate Robbyn Lewis to the new MayorYet, only a month after the actions on Roland Avenue the City crews would remove another recently protected bike lane for a block on Madison Avenue. A church had complained about the loss of a dozen public curbside parking spaces across from the their facility. In one direction bikes now have to ride on the sidewalk and have to negotiate light poles. The just opened protected bikelane on Mt Royal Avenue is such a foul compromise that it’s longevity is also in question. As Bikemore and others have pointed out, the back and forth on bike facilities in Baltimore which started at Patomac Street is a waste of money. It also cuts deep into the credibility of City DOT whose man for strategy, Theo Ngongang confirmed in a recent presentation that Baltimore (like Chicago) subscribes to a policy that puts pedestrians, bikes and transit ahead of cars.
Central Avenue at HarborPoint:
Ugliest bridge in all of Baltimore

Missed opportunities
A new four lane bridge is conceived as a vital access to HarborPoint, Baltimore's latest eastward push of downtown. The abutment on the peninsula is a good 10' higher than the one on the Harbor East side making the loveless bridge with the charm of a freeway overpass even uglier. The bridge is part of Baltimore's 5 mile waterfront promenade and should have become an urban icon in the manner of Denver's Millennium Bridge. Central Avenue, an extra wide roadway that covers a forgotten creek, could have been converted into an attractive boulevard signaling the economic development marching north along this spine, one day maybe all the way to Oldtown. But years of construction have yielded nothing more than an unimaginative sea of asphalt, just like the new bridge devoid of any attractive design features.

Higher standards and expectations:
From acute collapse to waffling on active transportation goals, to a total lack of imagination, such are the transportation woes in Baltimore in the first half of the year 2019, a year in which worldwide protests bemoan the lack of progress in the reduction of greenhouse gases and in which cities worldwide take action to rein in the absolute dominance of cars.
City forces removing protected bike lane on
Roland Avenue (Sun photo)

Baltimore’s sister city Rotterdam declared itself "a city of electric transport" as early as 2009. In their 2017
Transportation Plan, "Smart Accessibility for a healthy, economically strong and attractive Rotterdam" the in many respects comparable Dutch city sets even more ambitious goals to a mode split of which we can only dream at this point. At several points the 2017 Rotterdam plan mentions the AV as an opportunity. The current work on the complete streets guidelines has not considered AVs according to DOT staff.

Reverse the mode split and priorities
Many European cities which made promising moves towards traffic calming and less reliance on cars in the early 70s have since forgotten those ambitions.  In spite of what we usually think about Europe, people love their cars there, too. SUVs have become just as big and popular as here, diesel is the preferred fuel (leading to horrendous air pollution),  many cities grow in population and find themselves violating air standards and in a state of traffic infarct. Paris with mayor Hidalgo who is particularly progressive in her transportation vision had to enact the most restrictions to car travel ever during the recent heatwave. Paris bans up to 60% of its cars as heatwave worsens pollution.
Mode split Rotterdam 2016 and 2030 goal

Planners routinely travel to famous model cities to study what can be done. Those are Copenhagen, Vienna, and Zurich, all three places that kept their car reduction course which they began after the first oil crisis and refined it over many decades. In Zurich the mode split is reverse form Baltimore: Only 25% use the car, 75% use transit, bicycles or walk. All three cities managed through variable pricing and reduced supply, reduced space for cars to drive, added bus and bike lanes and improved public transportation.

Cities that don't have those mode splits are scrambling to catch up, in Europe and elsewhere. The city of the future won't be one where access depends on privately owned combustion engine automobiles. Baltimore must do the shift as well.

Ryan Dorsey, the chair of the Transportation Committee likes to quote former New York traffic director Sadik Khan:"An advanced society is not one where the poor drive cars but where the rich ride transit.  He has called DOT's previous director incompetent and tweets daily about drivers, bicycling and complete streets. He will make sure that Baltimore transportation woes will remain in the headlines. Just complete implementation of Dorsey's complete streets bill would be huge progress.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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