I’m Walking Here! 12 Ideas to Improve Public Transit in Baltimore
This was originally posted on Facebook. Many thanks to Eric Hatch for letting Baltimore Fishbowl repost it!
Relying on public transit in Baltimore makes me feel like Don Quixote, Ignatius Reilly, and “Ratso” Rizzo all rolled into one. As a rare “choice” rider in this city—someone who could afford a car (albeit a crappy one) but chooses to walk and ride instead—I’m accustomed to ruling out activities in whole chunks of the city. I go out most nights, but this means allocating extra time in each trip for buses that never come, trains that creep at half the speed they could, and long walks to destinations that should have service but don’t.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Literally 100 years ago, Baltimore had one of the best streetcar systems in the world, covering more area and running more frequently than today’s nightmarish bus system. In fact, many neighborhoods of Baltimore were literally developed around streetcar service, built with little walkable commerce since residents could rely on public transit to get them anywhere they needed to go.
We’ve all likely heard about streetcars before, but pause for a minute to let this sink in: 100 years ago a pedestrian in Baltimore could get to more places, and make their trips faster and easier, than we can in 2013. What should’ve been a source of enduring health and pride for the city was demolished after WW2 in the name of “progress,” a gross capitulation to car culture, the suburbs, and corporate power that resulted in inconvenience to me, but real horrors for much of the city. The death of the streetcar led to the creation and exacerbation of food deserts, to name one dire consequence, not to mention a working-class populace that must choose between either building their daily life around an unreliable transit system, or becoming shackled to the barely sustainable expenses of car payments, insurance, gas, and repairs.
Baltimore is bouncing back from hard times. In so many quality of life measures that matter to me, things are better than they were when I moved here in 1996. Despite a still-raging and horribly destructive drug war, most of our city is safer than it was then. Life is also potentially more enjoyable: we have more cafes, more clubs, more movie screens, more art galleries, more bike lanes, and a vibrant music scene that’s become internationally known.
Public transit lags behind. Why? Because almost all of the improvements I just mentioned are things that the people created, not waiting around for the government to get involved. Unfortunately, most expenditures in public transit are on a scale that requires government funding, often all the way to the federal level. This is especially true of “hard rail” (subway) construction. Moreover, that federal money is often allocated on a Catch-22 basis—not to cities like Baltimore, that show low ridership figures because we have woefully inadequate services, but to cities like DC and NYC that can already demonstrate robust ridership numbers due to their intricate pre-existing systems.
So while studies show that money spent on public transportation creates more jobs (not to mention more sustainable jobs) than money spent on highways on a nearly 2-1 basis and brings a host of environmental and economic benefits, Maryland plows forward with… highways. And then offers the public “outside the box” ideas like slots and a Grand Prix as government’s best hopes to transform the area.
But people can still come forward with ideas, can still vote with their dollars, and can still let the city and the MTA know that what we have now is not just insufficient, it’s unacceptable. The city continually dangles the Red Line (the long-planned east-west light-rail line) as a carrot; I no longer have any faith the city actually intends to build this line, since I’ve witnessed its dangle for more than a decade now with no action. As nothing concrete on that or any other major public-transit project emerges, let’s set the carrot aside for a minute and get discussions going on what else could really happen.
With that in mind, here are a Hatch’s dozen ideas for improving Baltimore’s public transit that come from a daily rider who’s spent almost 20 years (!) of my life relying on something utterly unreliable. Some of them would cost many millions, some wouldn’t cost a penny; I hope all are good food for thought, and hope some will happen.
1) Extend the Baltimore Subway with stops at The Rotunda, 32nd and St. Paul in Charles Village, and Memorial Stadium. Yes, Baltimore has a subway; if you live in Baltimore and didn’t know this, don’t be ashamed: you’re not alone. Intended to be a system comparable to DC’s metro, we ended up with one line that serves a few suburbs and a few areas of downtown well, but serves no one else at all. That said, as a regular rider I can verify that the subway runs about every ten minutes 7 days a week, and actually has plenty of people on it (especially between Lexington Market and Mondawmin). If it became a full-fledged system rather than one line, that ridership would unquestionably skyrocket.
At the moment, there’s a remarkable window of opportunity in the form of three prime locations that have ample space for subway construction, but probably won’t for long: the parking lot of the Rotunda; the block of St. Paul St. next to Hopkins in Charles Village that was demolished to build condos and became a vacant lot; and the site of former Memorial Stadium. Connect these to the Mondawmin Mall subway on the West and the Hopkins Hospital stop on the East, ideally with more new stops in between these existing stops and the new ones I’ve mentioned, and you have a game-changer for the city not just in ridership, but also in housing and commerce in all the areas impacted.
People approach the expansion of the Baltimore subway like it’s a science-fiction idea. Certainly, the cost is massive, but this country has pulled off public works on a scale that make ideas like this crumbs in comparison. Further, it’s a myth that Baltimore’s subway has been static. Subway planning began in the mid-60s, construction began in the 70s, and the bulk of our line opened in 1983, but stations were added in the late 80s (Owings Mills) and mid-90s (Hopkins hospital). That’s 30 years of activity through a variety of economic and political climates, and it’s counterproductive, provincial thinking to think that, just 15 years later, we’re stuck with these and only these stations for all eternity.
2) Add a light rail stop at Druid Hill Park/South Hampden. My first idea was an extremely expensive one: here’s an extremely cheap no-brainer. The light rail stops every few blocks from the stadiums downtown to North Avenue, and then has a painfully large gap between its next stop at Woodberry. Surprisingly, during this gap there is a walkway from the Wyman Park Drive Bridge extending down to the light rail—but no platform. An inexpensively implemented stop here would service Druid Hill Park (and, therefore, the zoo), south Hampden, and Remington. It would also be basically at the front doors of the Stieff Silver building now owned by Hopkins, and the new condo development at Mt. Vernon Mills (former location of the music/arts venue The G-Spot). I imagine the city would want to serve and please these two wealthy entities, if thousands of working-class residents in these areas aren’t enough motivation.
3) Expand the light rail east-west on North Avenue and south to Harbor East using Central Avenue. Whether or not the Red Line happens, we need to get movement on light-rail expansion. During the period the city has talked about (possibly, just maybe, but only if we’re really, really good) building a Red Line, other cities—Minneapolis, Austin, and Salt Lake City, to name a few other cities of comparable or smaller population sizes—have stopped talking and started doing, building impressive systems. To me, it seems obvious that light rails should be built along wide avenues like North Avenue, where east-west light-rail access could spur massive economic redevelopment, and Central Avenue, which would connect Fells Point and Harbor East to other points in the city whether or not the Red Line happens. These avenues are ideal: broad enough that construction would be less disruptive than in many areas of the Red Line, with long stretches that are commercial or industrial rather than residential, and long stretches that are much less heavily trafficked by vehicles than their width could support.
4) Eliminate, or expedite, the non-public light-rail stop at the MTA compound between North and Woodberry. While we’re talking about the light rail, let’s deal with a small but telltale sign of its poor planning: the unmapped, unscheduled stop at the MTA compound. This is not a public stop; it’s a few hundred feet from the North Avenue stop, and the public cannot get on or off here. This stop seems to exist just so light-rail trains can change drivers. I ride the light rail at least 20 times a month, and ~75% of these rides, both north and south, result in a train stoppage at this MTA compound of anywhere from 1 to 10 minutes. It boggles my mind that the drivers are changed so frequently; it further boggles that they are changed mid-route rather than at terminuses, where there would be no inconvenience to riders. Finally, it delivers a colossal coup de boggle that trains invariably still stop and wait at this stop even if the new driver is not ready; that’s not the riders’ problem, that’s the MTA’s problem. Furthermore, on the ~25% of the rides where there there’s no stop at this compound, there’s still a massive slowdown there that can’t be necessary, resulting in inconvenienced riders on 100% of all light-rail trips.
I’m used to these stops and slowdowns, but on each and every ride I hear a new light-rail rider experiencing, and rightfully complaining about, them for the first time. These new riders receive it for what it is: a confusing, unscheduled, and unnecessary delay that reflects poorly on the whole system and the degree to which the MTA cares about riders’ time and experience. The MTA needs to see it for what it is, too, and realize that their poor planning creates bad first impressions on potential new riders each and every light-rail trip.
5) Understand that a primary purpose of public transit is to eliminate drunk drivers: keep trains and buses active from midnight until 3a.m. Public transportation should not just save time, it should save lives. Even if the ridership numbers don’t justify it at first, as a public service transit should be active during the hours when bars let out. If this happened in conjunction with other expansions in the areas served, I am beyond confident the ridership numbers would be strong. Worst case scenario, this would be doing something government is supposed to do with our tax dollars: protect and serve its people.
6) Extend the Circulator North from Penn Station, at least to the BMA. This is being discussed, I believe, and I hope it will be implemented in 2013. If the original idea of the circulator was to skirt tourists from the harbor to points of interest, it seems silly to stop fifteen blocks short of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Meanwhile, as the actual impact of the Circulator continues to be giving residents some welcome relief from the MTA’s inefficiency, this would be an excellent improvement.
7) Make neighborhood “shuttle bugs” inter-neighborhood loops; for instance, connect the Hampden Shuttle to Station North and Charles Village. Unless you’re elderly or mobility impaired, most riders don’t need a shuttle to get them from one end of their neighborhood to another. They need shuttles to get them to bordering neighborhoods—particularly in situations where Hopkins University, Druid Hill Park, or other large entities form obstacles for pedestrians trying to get from points in one neighborhood to points in another. As an example, if the current Hampden Shuttle didn’t just have its loop of the Rotunda, Woodberry light rail, Stieff Silver, and south Hampden, but rather extended its loop south to Penn Station (and thus, The Charles Theater and everything Station North has to offer), ran north to JHU, and then headed west along University to the Rotunda and its other existing stops, I expect the growth in ridership would be exponential.
8) Connect our public transit to DC’s in more meaningful ways. Here especially I’d love MARC riders and others who regularly commute to DC to chime in. My impression is that most problems stem from MARC having to rent tracks from Amtrak. The result: MARC can’t meet demand for the number of trains they should supply, doesn’t offer weekend trains, and has to cede tracks to Amtrak trains during (increasingly common) extreme weather or other track anomalies. It’s simply unacceptable in 2013 that two metro areas so close together don’t have cheap, regular, 7-day-a-week public-transportation connections.
9) Take a closer look at the Charles Street “trolley” idea. There’s a proposal floating around to build a trolley up Charles Street, from the inner harbor to University Blvd. It might surprise you to hear that I’m skeptical of this project. Why? For starters, there is one street in Baltimore where one can already reliably catch a variety of northbound buses: downtown Charles Street. It also happens to be a narrow and congested road, and one of the most-used roads by tourists and suburbanites (the drivers least likely to be accustomed to sharing roads with city bikers, pedestrians, and public transit). A route that runs from the Inner Harbor to University Blvd would essentially run the route of the #3 bus, but stop in Charles Village before it turns east into Waverly, resulting in—you guessed it—a quaint, sanitized, less “urban” ride for tourists. As mentioned earlier, this goal could already be accomplished at little cost and no disruption by extending the Circulator to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Spend the money expanding public-transit to an area where it’s lacking, not doubling up on (and possibly additionally clogging) a heavily-serviced artery.
10) Offer light-rail ticket machines on both sides of the tracks; make sure they work. Many of the light-rail stops I use only have ticket-vending machines on one side of the platform, forcing riders to cross the tracks, buy a ticket, and cross back. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s missed a train due to this configuration, and I’m sure it’s enticed many a rider to jump aboard without a ticket. While we’re at it, make sure the machines work. Both machines at North Ave have had broken credit card machines for at least the last few weeks; in my observation it also has the heaviest presence of transit police checking for tickets. Hmmmm!
11) Don’t forget about the Yellow Line! The controversial Red Line was but one of several color-coded lines proposed about 10 years ago. Taking a second look at the Yellow Line, which would’ve began in Columbia, connected with our current light rail, and then turned into a loop that serviced Mount Vernon and Charles Village, I think we might’ve got hung up on the less-exciting colored proposal. Sure, I’m biased: I grew up in Columbia, and this plan intriguingly connects my childhood neighborhoods with my adult ones. Still, Howard County’s economic and cultural relationship to Baltimore city should be comparable to Montgomery County’s with DC, and the lack of anything close to adequate public transit between the two prevents this.
12) Learn from the Circulator and John Hopkins Shuttle. The success of these free bus systems isn’t just that they’re free. They also have short, efficient routes; take people places they want to go; and stick to clearly defined schedules. These are all essential ingredients of successful public-transit. The Circulator and JHU Shuttle are proof that these things can happen in Baltimore—even if the city bus system hasn’t managed them for many decades.