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Commentaryby Gerald Neily7:39 amOct 24, 20120

One small street for streetcars, one giant leap for transit

Ways to think about transit beyond the Red Line and Circulator.


The Baltimore Streetcar Campaign, an outgrowth of the Charles Street Development Corp., targets only one small slice of the city.

But in a richly ironic twist, their vision for streetcars would be integral to a far more holistic approach to fixing Baltimore’s famously dysfunctional transit system than what the city and Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) have been proposing.

Streetcars are sufficiently visible, attractive, ergonomically friendly, flexible and inexpensive to be a true catalyst for transit reform.

On the other hand, the proposed $2.5 billion Red Line – whose torturous planning process the Rawlings-Blake administration is expected to commit to at today’s Board of Estimates meeting – would be none of those things.

Buried underground through downtown, Fells Point and other parts of the route, the east-west Red Line wouldn’t even connect to the existing Metro. It looks increasingly unaffordable as it enters a second decade of planning with no true construction in sight.

Another irony is that the MTA actually proposes to use small, low-floor-adapted streetcars for the Red Line, rather than larger light-rail vehicles. Surface street options scored better in the MTA’s feasibility studies, but were rejected. The Red Line could thus be dubbed the world’s most expensive streetcar line.

The city’s main short-term transit fix is the Charm City Circulator downtown buses, recently expanded with a fourth route to Fort McHenry. Interestingly, the mayor has proposed canceling that line in 2014 in order to extend the current Circulator Purple Line from Penn Station to Charles Village, effectively following the route of the proposed Charles Street streetcar.

This version of musical chairs – taking transit from South Baltimore to give to North Baltimore – demonstrates the fundamental limitation of a free system funded by a cash-strapped city.

Streetcar vs. Circulator

The streetcar campaign got a high-profile “knock” recently when the Baltimore Sun called it a costly “boutique” project and argued that the Charm City Circulator bus is a more effective and flexible alternative.

The Sun’s editorial implied that advocates of a trolley up Charles Street are only anti-Circulator because “for too many people, a bus is thought of as how poor people get around.”

It’s a bad rap and ironic because the basic concept of the editorialist’s preferred alternative, the city-run Circulator buses, is to offer free carefully-branded bus transit in the city’s most upscale, tourist-oriented waterfront or wannabe areas.

But the real giveaway is that the Sun’s piece never once mentions the MTA bus system, the elephant in the room, as part of the city’s transit cure. Remember, the MTA runs the $1.60-per-ride buses that serve the parts of town that have never seen a Circulator and almost certainly never will.

To be not just equitable but effective, the transit system must be considered as an integrated whole. A streetcar system can be planned as an efficient second- to third-tier mode in a connected transit hierarchy, after regional rail, heavy rail and longer distance bus routes.

Meanwhile neither the Charm City Circulator nor the Red Line can ever be anything more than fragmented pieces in a parallel universe.

A streetcar system would give Baltimore a chance to get it right, but even more importantly, it would give the city – and the MTA – a way to commit to a far broader planning process that does not ignore service disparities, disconnects, redundancies, unsustainable free buses and the same old auto-dominated collision course with congestion.

Confronting Wider Issues

Perhaps the biggest ongoing flaw of Baltimore’s transportation planning is that the process always proceeds immediately to drawing route lines on maps, rather than confronting the issues behind the lines.

We draw the lines, expect all our expensive transit projects to be our saviors, and then wonder what went wrong. Indeed, the Red Line drawn in 2002 has changed very little, unlike everything around it.

So here are some key principles:

1. Think of the system. Everything should connect. Any single transit line can’t by itself possibly make the difference. The light rail line’s connections are atrocious, as is the east end of the subway at its Hopkins Hospital terminus, as is the Red Line as a whole, as are all the mutual connections or lack of same.

Streetcar lines can be planned in a very modular manner that encourages connections.

2. Think transit hierarchy. Every transit line needs to be optimized for its chosen function within the whole system, both operationally and to tailor branding and marketing to the needs and identity of its clientele and its communities.

Center city lines should be short, to serve short trips, to make slow speed less of an issue and to avoid the reliability problems of longer lines. In that way, the Charm City Circulator is actually an excellent model for the way all center city lines should be operated – bus or streetcar, rich or poor.

By contrast, the heavy-rail Metro is ideally positioned to be the system’s high capacity, high speed “trunk line” – the structural backbone to organize all the various feeder connections.

The existing Light Rail sends mixed messages, resembling a streetcar line downtown along Howard Street, but actually serving long trips in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. The proposed Red Line would try to be all things at once, do nothing well, and thus would be destined to fail.

3. Think community. The city wants to turn downtown into a neighborhood. Very good. So they should act that way. Streets designed around streetcar lines can have a very neighborly feel. But through traffic must be encouraged to use bypasses like the Jones Falls Expressway, and local traffic should be controlled through parking management.

Traffic signals should be timed for short green-red cycles and slow speeds. (Instead, the city does just the opposite, timing major streets for high speeds with long bands of green and red, pushing bicycles away to places like the Fallsway prison district and accommodating 175-mph Grand Prix races, which are not exactly community-oriented.)

Sweeping Boo-boos Under the Rug

In sum, the city and MTA seem to be planning the Red Line the way they have because they’re afraid of themselves. They know that the net result of all their decisions has been to make the downtown streets more hostile to the very kind of transit that would best serve them.

Unwilling, or perhaps fearing they’re unable, to undo the damage, they propose to spend billions of other people’s dollars to bury the Red Line and ignore their systemwide problems.

Streetcars are not the whole solution, but in the newer, better vision of downtown Baltimore – a less car-centric, more-dense, better-functioning urban city – they can be a very important part of it.

And it almost goes without saying, a lot more miles of visible user-friendly streetcar lines can be built for the same money as the buried Red Line.
Gerald Neily was Transportation Planner for the Baltimore City Department of Planning from 1977 to 1996.

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