Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Laying the Groundwork for a "Popular" Transit System In Baltimore

As we continue to work on analyzing places in Baltimore for suitability as 20-minute walkable neighborhoods, we are beginning to focus on how transit and bicycle infrastructure could be optimized to connect and support a network of walkable places and destinations.

In order to foster such a regional network of 20-minute neighborhoods, a key ingredient is that public transit must become a truly popular form of transportation. A "popular" transit system is one that is as attractive as driving (if not more so) to those who can afford to drive for many trip purposes, and one that is patronized by a wide cross section of residents and visitors in a metropolitan area. A transit system can only be popular when a pervasive "transit culture" exists that supports public transit as an integral part of daily life and civic pride.

Washington, DC's MetroRail is perhaps the best known model of a popular transit system in this country. This popularity didn't happen overnight, but took decades to develop and foster. New York City, Boston, and San Francisco have managed to maintain popular transit systems which are used by a large cross section of the population, and for varied trip purposes. Other cities like Philadelphia and Chicago also have a popular transit culture, but to a somewhat lesser extent.

Even cities that until recently had no modern transit systems to speak of such as Denver, Seattle, Portland, Dallas, Charlotte, Houston, and Minneapolis are aggressively expanding their light rail lines and focusing on developing transit oriented development around stations. These are cities where transit culture is gradually beginning to emerge because of deliberate policies and actions to make it happen.

In other parts of the world in cities across Europe and Asia, and even South America, transit culture is being strengthened as strategies for reducing carbon emissions and investment in sustainable mobility options are being expanded at an accelerating pace.

Baltimore, in contrast, has plenty of transit service, but no real transit culture or popular constituency. Public transit in Baltimore could be describe as anything but popular. Rather, there is more of a feeling that transit is tolerated - by those who use it and those who don't. Baltimore's rail lines - the Central Light Rail and the Metro Subway - are not perceived or marketed as part of a unified system and are notorious for being slow and "going nowhere" respectively. Local bus routes are seen as the mode of last choice, and commuter buses are used by a minuscule portion of the region's labor force. The MARC commuter rail lines are tailored primarily for Washington, DC -bound workers and don't even operate on the weekends. The planned east-west Red Line light rail, which has been in planning for seven years and will not open for at least another eight years under the most optimistic scenario, has been the subject of fierce opposition and controversy. All the while, new highway widening projects and downtown parking garages continue to get built here with relative ease.

So what will it take to for public transit to become popular and widely embraced in Baltimore? And why does it matter?

The answer to the second question of why it matters should be obvious to anyone. The most successful metropolitan areas going forward into the 21st Century will be built around sustainable mobility networks: in other words, those that rely less on highways and driving as the only practical choice for getting around, and rely more on providing attractive transit and biking options to and from walkable destinations within their metro area.

Baltimore's demographic landscape has been changing over the past decade and there has been a dramatic influx of young creatives who are predisposed to using alternative transportation including transit and biking. This is a growing market that, by and large, want to live in walkable neighborhoods where there is typically less dependence on driving. Yet, at the same time, there is also a widespread sentiment that a usable transit system here is the one missing ingredient in what could otherwise be world-class city.

Creating a decent transit system that newcomers have experienced elsewhere and demand will likely be a key factor in being able to attract and retain the educated, creative generation in the Baltimore Region. At this point in time, there should be sense of urgency in re-imagining our transit system as Baltimore competes against the other cities mentioned above who are positioning themselves to capture this next generation.

So, to begin laying the groundwork for a popular transit system in Baltimore, consider these fundamental elements which, when combined, would have a transformative effect on how transit is perceived and used:

1. Creation of a Primary Transit Network
2. Effective branding and marketing of transit
3. Dedicated transit lanes and rights of way
4. Robust use of customer information tools

Upcoming blog entries will start to address each one of these elements in depth and reveal how Baltimore currently fares, what other cities are doing right, what the opportunities are here, and what it will take to do it.

1 comment:

  1. Eager to see how this discussion plays out. I've always been struck by what seems to be the prevailing view of transit in Baltimore -- as a last resort option. Yet I sensed the hint of something different the first time I rode the Charm City Circulator (purple route) this past spring. The bus was pretty full, and the passengers appeared comfortable and content to be aboard.

    The Circulator has had its share of problems in its first two years, but the service seems to be improving. For the most part it works. Sure, it's a free ride. But there's more to it than that.

    It's a mode of transportation that makes sense for getting around downtown Baltimore. The buses I've taken are mostly clean, reliable and convenient. The Circulator leaves me confident it'll get me where I need to go, comfortably. I sense the same from other passengers.

    I'd call it popular transit. What can Baltimore do to replicate its success?


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