Wednesday, February 10, 2021

How the Baltimore SUN hijacked a Hopkins Study

 Johns Hopkins 21st Century City initiative recently published an analysis with the title: 
"Investing in High-Speed Rail to Washington, D.C. to Boost Baltimore’s Economy.”
 In the study it is suggested that MARC trains should be faster so they could leverage the real estate market differential between Baltimore and Washington. One of the study authors is Ron Hartman, from 1984-93 MTA administrator, later an Amtrak official and a CEO of Veolia Transportation and a current board member of the Baltimore Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (CMTA), a transit advocacy group. 
MARC Penn Line: In 48 minutes from Baltimore to DC for $8.00

The brief paper acknowledges that COVID and a 90% loss of riders on MARC trains will change the market potential between DC and Baltimore but still suggests that not enough is done to connect the two cities with fast and reliable transit. One can certainly agree, even though COVID has made the DC office worker a much less viable entity to fill Baltimore's empty rowhouses. Too many work for home now, and chances are, they will continue to do so in bigger numbers than before. Hence the empty MARC trains. 
A summary of the Mirage News service summarizes the paper this way:
“There are few pairs of neighboring cities in the United States such that one city is booming while the nearby city is struggling,” states the report, co-authored by Mac McComas, senior program manager at 21st Century Cities Initiative. “Just 40 miles to the north of economically booming Washington, D.C. lies economically struggling Baltimore City.”
That proximity “offers the possibility that an effective investment in cross-city transit could help residents of both cities to gain improvements in quality of life and economic vitality,” the report states. Faster train service would offer more affordable living options for D.C. residents struggling with skyrocketing costs while opening a lucrative job market to Baltimore residents.
The state has two options for providing faster MARC service: convert existing local trains to express schedules or adding new trains with limited or non-stop service. The authors note how the political timing could be right for pursuing such investments. President Joe Biden, a longtime champion and user of Amtrak, could usher in more federal investment in public transit through his administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Doing so would mesh with new Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s transportation initiatives.

The next generation Amtrak Acela Alstom train starting service this year
Amtrak Video

What did the Baltimore SUN make out of that study in their main editorial commentary on Wednesday?  They turned a paper about MARC into an argument for Maglev, the magnetically levitated trains that the Japanese want to desperately want to sell here! The SUN graced its commentary with this title: 

"What do you call a 311-mph train serving Baltimore? "

If Baltimore is to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and flourish in a way that it was not before the virus even arrived, what it needs most is for its residents to have better access to well-paying jobs. Expecting those jobs to suddenly plop down in Baltimore once herd immunity is achieved is beyond improbable. But what if the city could be served by a high-speed train that could get passengers from a station in Cherry Hill to the heart of Washington, D.C. and its wealth of employment opportunities in just 15 minutes? That may strike some as unlikely, too, but with Joe Biden in the White House, a proposed privately-operated maglev train serving the Northeast Corridor — beginning with Baltimore-Washington and capable of speeds of 311 miles per hour or more — suddenly doesn’t seem qu,ite so far-fetched. And the latest study from Johns Hopkins University’s 21st Century Cities Initiative lays out the argument for how Baltimore could receive an extraordinary economic boost from such a project.

The entire Hopkins paper never mentions Maglev once. Certainly no MARC train would ever do 311mph.The Hopkins paper authors even picked a place in Baltimore for its trip time comparison Balto to DC via car versus via train from where to start would be very disadvantageous for the Maglev train which is proposed to end at Westport/Cherry Hill and never make it to downtown Baltimore. 

What the SUN editorial did with the Hopkins study is really poor journalism. It graced its commentary  graced in its online edition with a Maglev train photo and pretended the study would make an argument for Maglev when that is far from true. Study author Hartman tells me he is no proponent of Maglev.  Taking the Hopkins study and put it into a totally different context is bad, but it is  also bad to merely advocate for the Maglev trains as a solution that would be of interest for those who would want to live in Baltimore and work in DC. That logic just doesn't hold up as will show below.

(As a small fix, the SUN later edited their online version to at least acknowledge that the Hopkins paper never mentions MagLev).  For those who don't know what Maglev means, here the explanation in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that released for public comment in December.

SC-MAGLEV is a transportation technology developed by the Central Japan Railway Company (JRC), but not currently in operation in the United States. The SCMAGLEV system relies on powerful magnetic forces to operate and results in travelling speeds of over 300 miles per hour. Unlike typical electric trains in service in the United States, a SCMAGLEV system does not operate on standard steel railroad tracks. (DEIS)

Maglev alignments shown in the DEIS
As I have commented many times in various blog articles (here and here), Maglev is a "future technology" of the distant past that Germany began hawking to the world some 50 years ago and that now Japan tries to sell so badly that they offered to pay a chunk of the huge $16.3 billion cost that a DC to Cherry Hill train would cost.

A 311mph train that starts in DC, stops at BWI and then at Cherry Hill serves no transportation purpose whatsoever! Least the budget conscious DC worker who would buy a house in Baltimore to save money. It wouldn't  serve people who board today's MARC commuter trains at Penn Station, in West Baltimore, in Halethorpe or in Odenton, all stations which very high boardings that Maglev would not serve becaue it is so busy being fast that it can't stop. 

It wouldn't serve New Carrolton either, an important intermodal node with lots of new development in the DC orbit. It would certainly cost as much as a ticket on Amtrak's ACELA trains which already travel as a high speed trains (38 minutes travel time) between DC and Baltimore for a minimum of $44 one way. (Compared to $8 on MARC). A fare way too high for the imaginary budget conscious DC worker moving to Baltimore! 

So Maglev doesn't serve the regular DC-Baltimore resident who wants to shuttle between the two metro areas. Would it serve the business traveler going up to Philly, New York or Boston? Nope! Riders who want to go to Philadelphia or New York would have to travel to Westport/Cherry Hill and then take a bus or Light Rail to trek from there to continue their trip. Something that nobody would do who could instead sit in a spanking new 150mph + AMTRAK train without any transfer. It is this confusion between long distance travel and local commuting that is the problem of the Maglev industry ever after they failed to sell any country a long distance solution. Thus the only magnetic leviated train in revenue service is an airport shuttle in Shanghai that is barely used because it duplicates a slower cheaper conventional shuttle. 

It is the blind adulation of speed and technology by folks like the SUN editorial board and Governor Hogan that has brought the Baltimore to DC Maglev boondoggle back from death multiple times over recent decades. This time all the way to a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and two alternative alignments (one not recommended version would end at Camden Yards). And to be sure, the DEIS is administered by MDOT, MTA and the Federal Transit Administration who all have to spend useful resources on this nonsense. (DEIS comments can be made here).

True, President Biden is known to be a friend of trains, and also possible, there may come an ambitious investment in rail, for Amtrak, for MARC and for urban transit as part of a recovery investment package. many friends of better transportation hope for that. 

But any money and energy spent towards Maglev is money spent on subverting and undercutting the plans for better NE corridor AMTRAK high speed rail, for better Maryland commuter trains (MARC) and better bus and light rail connections between the two metro areas of DC and Baltimore. Anyone who says otherwise is just not telling the truth. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Japan started planning a long distance Maglev project  between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka in 1973. It was planned to open service on its first leg in 2027. That date is now uncertain due to COVID disruptions, questions about the future of business travel and a provincial government objecting to a tunnel for environmental reasons. 

Adding to the stalemate between Shizuoka and JR Central is the coronavirus pandemic, which has endangered the maglev project’s already questionable profitability.

In 2013, Yoshiomi Yamada, then-president of JR Central, admitted at a news conference that “there is no way” the maglev initiative will register a surplus on its own, and that the cost of building it is so huge that it can only barely be offset by revenues from the conventional Tokaido Shinkansen Line that it operates.

But COVID-19 has taken a toll on the firm’s prosperous high-speed train business, slashing passenger traffic by about 90 percent in April and May from a year earlier.

Moreover, the pandemic has “made many businesspeople realize they can replace their traditional trips with teleconferences,” Mitsuhiro Miyashita, chief consultant at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co., says. The normalization of online meetings, he says, suggests demand for conventional business trips via shinkansen won’t fully recover even after the pandemic has subsided.

This new normal is threatening to question the raison d’etre of the maglev shinkansen project itself, sparking skepticism among some toward the necessity of its 500-kph speed.

“We need to adapt to a new era,” Kawakatsu told Kaneko.

“The internet is faster than the maglev train, you know.” (The Japan Times)

LIVE Baltimore study shows City growth potential

I have long held the opinion that if there is one silver bullet that could solve multiple Baltimore problems at once, it would be growing the population of the City. (See my November article, Grow the City!). 
New housing on Paca Street downtown.
(Photo: Philipsen) 

Now a study titled  "An Analysis of Baltimore City’s Residential Market Potential" released by the non-profit organization LIVE Baltimore suggests that it could be done. 

The study demonstrates that the City’s residential housing market is strong, and that additional housing stock is needed to meet it. Zimmerman/Volk Associates (ZVA), conducted this first-ever analysis of residential market potential for all of Baltimore City. The study addressed these questions:
•Where the potential renters and buyers of new and existing housing units in Baltimore are likely to move from (the draw areas).
• How many households have the potential to move within and to the City each year if appropriate housing units became available (depth and breadth of the market).
• Who the households are that represent the potential market for new units in the City (the target markets).
• Housing preferences of those households—rental or ownership, multi-family, or single-family.
• What the target households can pay to rent or purchase new and/or
renovated dwelling units in the City.
• How quickly the new/renovated units will lease or sell (absorption forecasts).
The analysis projects that between 5,300 and 7,100 households would rent or buy new or significantly renovated homes each year over the next five years if such homes were added to the City’s housing stock. Those would be in addition to those households renting or buying units now.

Filling this number of additional housing units would be a major step forward as it would help grow the population, generate new economic activity, and expand Baltimore’s tax base.

Live Baltimore's Executive Director Anne Milli states in the press release of her organization: 
“These numbers suggest a bright future for Baltimore City, and they tell us clearly who makes up the potential residential market. Policy makers should use this study to inform strategies that increase the number of people living in the City. If we renovate or build the right kinds of housing at the right prices, we can retain and attract thousands more Baltimoreans. These numbers provide a roadmap for how the City can grow its residential base and become stronger economically.” (Anne Milli)
The report clears up which key demographics constitute the largest potential residential market in Baltimore City:  63% young single people and childless couples, other families of all kinds account for  a distant 21%, and retirees and empty nesters trail with just 16 %. This breakdown isn't exceptional for Baltimore since nationally only 22% of households are still the traditional family with children. Like it or not, the study seems to suggest that Millennials, indeed, drive the influx of new residents. But there is a counterforce at work so that the City still lost overall population: More people are moving out than are moving in. The Zimmermann/Volk study appears to suggest that moving out could also be driven by lack of the appropriate housing since it identified the demand in the market as stemming 2/3 from existing residents and 1/3 from coming form the outside:
  • More than 44,000 households could potentially move into existing and new housing units in Baltimore each year. 
  • An estimated 58 percent live in the City now, with another 20 percent living in Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County, or Howard County.
  • 59 % would look for rental homes, 
  • 41 % would opt for homeownership.

The study concludes that the potential residential market is made up of households of all incomes would look for homes to buy or rent in a wide range of prices including some that would need financial assistance or subsidies for housing. The lack of quality affordable housing has long been established along with the fact that the available resources are far smaller than needed to meet the demand.

But as LIVE Baltimore emphasizes, there is also a healthy demand for mixed-income with more than a third of households identified in the potential market having incomes that meet or exceed the average for the region. This finding matches the experience of 2019 and even COVID year 2020 as the best years for Baltimore’s housing market in a decade. The study also identifies what type of homes potential buyers and renters would look for:
  • 46 % of possible owners would  prefer rowhouses or townhomes. (This type of home represents an estimated 52 percent of the existing housing stock in the City.)
  • 37 percent would likely choose to buy single-family detached houses (currently just 14 percent of Baltimore’s housing units).
  • 17 percent  would opt for multi-family units—condominiums or co-operative apartments.
New Mayor Brandon M. Scott who can find various grow the City recommendations in the Transition Report released this Tuesday (2-9-21) said about the LIVE Baltimore study: “It’s clear from this report that we have momentum to build on as we grow our city and reimagine equitable economic development in Baltimore.” The study authors clearly hope that the Mayor and his department heads will take the study to heart. They imagine it to be used for:

  • Enabling smarter, more targeted marketing to prospective City residents
  • Serving as a development prospectus for the entire City of Baltimore
  • Contributing to the planning of City-sponsored housing developments, limiting, for example, market cannibalization between neighborhoods,
  • Encouraging citywide growth
  • Benefitting the work of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development and Department of Planning, as well as Baltimore Development Corporation, neighborhood-based community development corporations, and others
This is a lot of expectation for a study that essentially concludes that Baltimore could grow by an additional 5,300 households each year for the next five years if enough housing could be constructed or renovated. It is very close to what Mayor Stephany Rawlings Blake established as the first ever specific growth target for Baltimore and that she failed to achieve in the end, because having a potential market alone isn't enough to actually realize it. This growth would be about 53,000 residents in five years (assuming an average household size of 2.0 persons), in my estimation less than half of what the City would need to eliminate residential abandonment and achieve fiscal stability. 

The study does not address the various housing submarkets in Baltimore (apparently work is underway to study "micro-markets")and their very different attractiveness for the identified market nor does it address the annual supply of new and renovated housing units, whether the the supply pipeline matches the market and where the major discrepancies between supply and demand  are or how they could be alleviated.  Hopefully Mayor Scott will establish not only a specific growth target but also the policies to actually achieve it. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

How COVID gave Baltimore "Slow Streets"

While many office workers hunkered down in their home office a movement swept across the United States like wildfire. Its name: "Slow Streets". What would take years in the normal bureaucratic grist mill of local traffic planning was churned out within weeks of the initial lockdown last spring. Before motorists or residents could think twice, they faced makeshift barricades on their local streets that looked like some tactical urbanists would have nailed them together overnight. This isn't far from the truth. 

Slow Streets at Perkins Homes (Photo: Philipsen)

Baltimore was on the ball with a City Council bill matching the approach of other cities: Introduced on May 11, the bill passed a week later as an ordinance that mandated a minimum of 25-miles of Slow Streets in Baltimore City. The temporary program is intended to discourage residents and visitors from driving on all “Slow Streets” unless they are necessary to reach their final destination and provide residents more space for "social distancing". The ordinance expires when social distancing is no longer needed. City DOT established a website where the program is explained:

The Slow Streets program is intended to support safe, essential physical activity by creating more space for social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. DOT has implemented the 25-mile goal mandated by The Baltimore City Council. The program is now in its “Evaluation Phase”. The public comment period ended on January 24th. We appreciate your feedback and will publish the results soon. Check back here for updates.

 "Slow Streets" urges all people driving to drive slowly and safely to respectfully share the road with people walking and biking. Mayor Jack Young was in support of it and expanded it around Lake Montebello, a popular bike and hiking spot. Soon Baltimore City had the full 25 miles of designated Slow Streets in place. 

Slow Streets in many cities: San Francisco 

But soon the insight dawned that a simple street barricade won't change behavior much. When the wooden barricade showed up on Paca Street, just north of Franklin Street, presumably to protect the residents of Seton Hill and provide better access to Seton Park, it was obvious that the heavily traveled corridor wouldn't be calmed by this simple contraption. It was soon pushed aside and then disappeared altogether.  

Per the bill City DOT had made an effort to apply the Slow Streets evenly and include more distressed communities as well. Barriers along the Perkins Homes on Gough Street were simply ignored by drivers traversing on this route and it was not obvious what the residents of Perkins Homes  would do with the barren and presumably calmer street, even though they don't have lots of open space

A clear shortcoming of the fast roll-out was that residents had little say in it. This has been a problem in other cities as well. Some residents liked what they saw, others less so. 

Residents of Hunting Ridg,e where an entire area was zoned as "Slow Street", took their kids on out for a small Halloween parade in the middle of Glen Allen Street, a perfect use, but just for a day. As DOT Director Steve Sharkey explains: The law requires people to use the sidewalk if there is one, the Slow Street designation doesn't change that.  50 years after the Dutch invented the Woonerf, (a small residential street with a shared surface in which the playing kids have the right of way and cars are only tolerated as guests), such regulation is still not present in the US traffic encyclopedia titled "Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices" or MUTC. Asked about the regulations and the prospects for shared streets DOT spokesperson Virgil German  confirmed:

Woonerf sign in Europe: Kids first

"Current state legislation makes a woonerf or shared street more difficult with our existing infrastructure because pedestrians are technically required to utilize the sidewalk on an active/open street.  However, this style of street is being designed/constructed in areas around the city with more dense activity, including Port Covington and the planned entertainment district on Warner Street." (City DOT, Virgil German) 

As it stands now, DOT is in an evaluation phase. As  Mr German informed me, "BCDOT is in the process of considering the placement of signs at key locations to deter “cut-through traffic,” where barriers were previously placed until we can procure new, more durable barriers". This is whats City DOT's website says:

During the evaluation phase, residents will notice short term changes to the Slow Streets program. As a result of our preliminary findings, BCDOT will remove the temporary street barriers to address ongoing community concerns and maintenance issues. BCDOT is currently working to secure funding for upgraded barriers that will enhance the Slow Streets program. The temporary barriers have been removed and Slow Streets signage and information will be reinstalled. (DOT website)

Outdoor seating carved out from Thames Street. (Photo: Philipsen)

Other changes that Baltimoreans saw popping up, almost over night, are the outdoor dining spaces that were carved out from curbside parking or, at times, even from travel lanes. 

Those type installations had been before only as one-day exhibits of creative "tactical urbanism" under the label PARKing Day, a movement that initiated in San Francisco. 

Outdoor dining was for years something that was relegated to skinny sidewalks, some terraces and rooftops but generally much more rare in Baltimore than tourists know it from Barcelona, Paris or Florence or Mexican tourist towns. A few cities such as Montreal had developed the mini terraces in the street as a formal annual city program that expanded restaurant space during the warmer months of the year and gave Montreal even more of an old world flair. 

It isn't clear what the long-term prospects of Slow Streets are and how this ad-hoc measure can fold into the longstanding "Complete Streets" program in effect in Baltimore, also based on City Council bill. That one, though, had been in the making for years and is progressing at a sluggish pace. The program's most visible pieces are a few protected bike lanes and about 5 miles of designated bus lanes. In spite of explicit language in the Complete Streets bill that specifically addresses equity, the concept of complete streets is eyed with suspicion by some who see it as a means of gentrification.  

DOT's Virgil German expresses optimism how the Slow Streets can advance:

Children Halloween parade in Hunting Ridge
Photo: Philipsen

We believe that enhanced traffic calming measures that incorporate using traffic diverters or alternating one-way patterns can be an evolution of the Slow Streets Program, where streets would be calmed to decrease traffic volume and traffic speeds while increasing the opportunity for recreation.  Our agency is also looking at opportunities to close streets to vehicular traffic entirely, like in the case of Lake Montebello, or other opportunities in and around parks. (City DOT, Virgil German) 

As in many other instances, the COVID-19 pandemic has been like a magnifying glass. In the case of Baltimore's streets, it highlighted how important the streets are as a public space that can  be so much more than just a conduit for traffic. The many new outdoor restaurant spaces will certainly be welcome even beyond the pandemic. 

If the view of the street as a meaningful public space prevails even after the pandemic subsides, Baltimore will have become better for it. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA