Saturday, January 25, 2020

How Baltimore could move up from its F in transportation

To say that Baltimore City's DOT has a fractious relation to its private transportation vendors is an understatement. It would be closer to the truth to call it a continuous failure to provide oversight and quality assurance. Even broader than that one could say that Baltimore transportation in general deserves a failing grade. Not for lack of "stuff" but for how its is operated.
Intermodal bus stop at North Avenue. Penn North
was remodeled as part of "North Avenue Rising"
(Photo: Philipsen)

Remember the Baltimore bike-share where we had the largest fleet of electric bikes? The scandal when a DOT employee sold surplus bus stop shelters for his own profit? When the Circulator operator Transdev was allowed to charge all scheduled service runs, whether they happened or not and how the City then wound up to sue the global company? How the then selected new Circulator provider immediately ran into trouble with operator training and having the necessary buses at the ready? How the Baltimore water taxi doesn't operate 7 days a week year round as required in the license agreement and instead in the shoulder seasons runs boats only on the weekends, and not at all in the winter except for the mandated commuter "Connector" services?

Remember, how an attempt to clear intersections of cars blocking them because of poor signal timing led to complete gridlock for days because the City tried in vain to optimize the traffic lights better? The end result was to go back to how it was before, i.e. a system that is totally frustrating to anybody who uses the streets, whether on a bike, on foot, in a bus or in a car.  Remember the bike lanes first installed and then removed again? Not only once but twice?

The most recent news , then, that the City failed to collect the ride-share taxes from Uber and Lyft even though Uber had actually charged its rider the surcharge, come as no surprise.
The failed and abandoned Bewegen 
bike-share agreement (Photo: Philipsen)

Each of these failures has many reasons and a complicated back-story. In none of the examples does all the blame go to the City, even though poorly written "requests for proposals" lead to poorly defined contracts that then, ultimately are not enforceable in the vendor relations. A lot of articles in this space have been devoted to the ugly details, no point to repeat them here except to say the City should swap prescriptive procurement for outcome based procurement wherever possible, especially in transportation services. A lot has been said about the lack of interest and understanding on the side of Baltimore Mayors, let alone leadership, when it comes to transportation.

Which leads us to the question where to go from here?

For this it is useful to recall that most of Baltimore's transportation isn't in the hands of the City but is managed by the State. That is true for transit and for many highways. Here Baltimore is in the unique position of maintaining all the roads that are elsewhere State Highways under the responsibility of SHA. Many drivers and transit users can tell where the City line is by the precarious change in road condition, whether it is the smoothness of the pavement or the quality of winter service, such as salting and plowing.  Here, too, the matter is complicated by the fact that the State is supposed to reimburse the City but that it has dwindled those funds over the years to a point, that the City can't do a good job any longer.
the ill conceived separation of tourist water taxi and commuter taxi
(Photo: Philipsen)

In the case of MTA transit, one could argue that it is better than its reputation, but there is no question that it, too is marred from lack of resources, a poor state of good repair and various communication blunders which do little to endear the service with its users.

The best functioning transportation related "service"in the City is unwelcome to most:  Ticketing for unlawful parking! Something that works all year round with admirable
The new water taxi fleet with Plank Industries custom
ordered boats (Photo: Philipsen)
efficiency, even when the computers are down in a hacker attack. The "meter maids" were there, undeterred and went back to their good old paper pads. But as noted, this efficiency doesn't create good feelings about the City and transportation either, no matter that the Parking Autority also runs parking garages and residential parking permits equally efficiently and that it is overall a standout in effective work, use of modern technology, and prompt service. No doubt every other City department could learn from the Parking Authority.

The unmarked buses running the Circulator
service  for lack of functional buses (Photo: Philipsen)
In short, though, Baltimore needs a nearly complete overhaul when it comes to transportation. Progress is underway. The fact that DOT is now headed up by an effective manager, Steve Sharkey, is good news. Also good news is that DOT and MTA are now in weekly communication, which is a big deal, since MTA can't run buses effectively when the signals don't work, the bus lanes are blocked or not permitted, or bus shelters can't be placed for lack of space. MTA bus reliability is also on the uptick (75%) but still far from optimal. (85% or above).

Looking ahead to a new Mayor and the campaign, it is pertinent that transportation becomes a top priority (along with crime and housing as I noted before) and that the thinking shifts from specialty silos to a comprehensive outcome-based approach. For that, it is useful to remember that poor transportation is a major factor in poverty and that poverty is a huge factor in crime. As in no access to jobs, unreliable trips or much too long commute times as deterrents to finding, having or keeping a job.

So the outcome should be to give more people  better (faster and more reliable) access to jobs in the entire region. This may involve many travel modes such as MARC trains, light rail, buses, shuttles, boats, rideshare and yes, also the much maligned bicycles and scooters. At least for some people. The transit industry now calls this "mobility as a service", a fashionable term that for too is little more than a fancy app on a smart phone on which one can book a ride across various modes and providers with one push of a button. This is certainly nice, but means little if there isn't the right service on the ground in the first place. But transit as a service as an integrated cross-platform and across provider approach to providing travel options is immensely useful. The Regional Transit Plan (RTP) due this October should be based on this outcome based goal of faster and more reliable service to more people than it is currently offered and clearly spell out how that can be achieved. But the City representative on the commission overseeing the RTP has yet to demand such a concise goal.
Light rail continues to lose riders and operates far below target figures
(Photo: Philipsen)

Mobility as a (public) service also has a lot to do with cost and fares. Since the beginning of transit riders pay their fare with coins on the carriage (bus).  Each new carriage on the trip is a new fare.  The time for that archaic approach is up. (MTA already offers free transfers when trips are paid on their transit app). Archaic frae structures have set transit on a death spiral of sinking ridership, higher fares, even lower ridership in cities across the US. The well known result is that too many people get around in cars, congest the roads and foul up the air while those without a car are punished with a  bus as marginalized mobility of last resort.

Other countries and some cities have proven that transit can flourish. Seattle and Portland come to mind, but also unlikely places like Los Angeles, where strong Mayors and their transportation leaders have created the kind of multi-modal transit system that attracts new riders and allows people to get around with decency. It is a matter of priorities. The future is a cash-free unified ticket (something that has been an option in most European metro areas for at least 20 years) and possibly even free transit. (The arguments around free transit and progressive fare strategies see here and here). If the trip involves a boat or an employer shuttle or a taxi at some point, it shouldn't matter, as long as the rides are coordinated and respond to the same rider need and rider ticket. The rider doesn't care who the provider is but cares about a fast, efficient and reliable trip that goes from where people are to where they want to go.  They want to pay one ticket for all services and they don't want to fumble for money at each transfer nor be held up by others fumbling for money.

In Baltimore, if the candidates for Mayor conclude that a State run transit agency can't be brought to bring optimal service to the central region, they need to realize that the alternative, a local or regional transit authority, won't drop into their lap. It will require a heavy lift in Annapolis.  A condition for any consideration of transferring transit away from MTA is to get tBaltimore's own house in order when it comes to those transportation elements for which Baltimore is already responsible.  Regardless from where the main transit operations are orchestrated, seamless integration of all options will become a must.
The canceled Red Line left a deep hole in
Baltimore's rail transit system (Photo: Philipsen)

Some other solutions have long been debated and are not really new, but they still haven't been done here. For example, subsidizing transit rides the same way as car trips are with their subsidized or free parking.

Imagine making free transit part of an employer perk package instead of free parking! Given transit priority over cars in the management of the available public streets. Giving out transit points instead of "gas points" in the local grocery chains. Giving frequent flyer points to frequent transit users to attract occasional riders to become regular ones. For this to happen transit cannot be kept an insider deal for a shrinking clan of people who don't have a choice. Instead it must be made so good that everybody wants to use it.

The "future of Baltimore's transportation" also demands that leaders need to think about autonomous vehicles, what they would mean for transit and car usage and all the deliveries and how future streets need to be organized so they don't become a nightmare. I have speculated in various articles that transit could change drastically from what it is today once buses and vans can drive themselves.

BC-DOT has a pretty good scooter agreement.
Can they enforce it? (Photo: Philipsen)
Most of all, and that gets us right to the beginning of this article: Transportation in Baltimore has to finally function on its most basic levels. Those responsible for the operations of everything transportation need to become accountable,  outcomes must be measured with measurable metrics and against community based goals that enjoy broad public support.

The future Mayor must dust off the once famous CitiStat, give it a new start in the name of transparency and accountability, and make transportation the shining example for both.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The article is part of a series of articles on this blog which are addressing  addressing issues especially relevant in this upcoming election. See also the stakeholder interviews. 

Alvin Hathaway: A Marshall Plan for Cities! - First of a series of interviews about the upcoming elections

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