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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Walkscoring" Places in Baltimore

The latest step toward developing a conceptual framework of 20-minute walkable neighborhoods connected by transit and biking includes an analysis of Walk Scores and Transit Scores for places in Baltimore. We used the list of places recorded at the 20-Minute Neighborhood Workshop, and included all of those which could be considered a neighborhood. Place like shopping centers, parks, and other non-residential destinations were not included. Neighborhoods that were not recorded at the workshop were also not included, but will be added later. 

For this analysis, we calculated the Walkscore and Transitscore for each neighborhood and created a table that presents the results at a glance. Then we sorted the table from highest to lowest Walk Score using the more refined StreetSmart Walkscore method. Street Smart uses a more sophisticated algorithm than the Standard "crow-fly distance" Walkscore. More details on how this works can be found here.

The table shows the results of the analysis. The best performing areas were color-coded as green, while areas of decreasing walkability (meaning fewer amenities to walk to and/or inadequate street network connectivity) are shown in shades of yellow and pink further down the list.

This table is not comprehensive, but provides a good starting point for constructing a network of 20-minute neighborhoods. 

What other places should be added to the list? Let us know and we will calculate their Walkscore and Transitscore.

Next up will be using the analysis to date to begin looking at scenarios for connecting places together via Primary Transit Network and bikeways.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Road Trip: Savannah's 20-minute neighborhoods

As part of a whirlwind getaway last week, I visited Savannah, Georgia, one of the preeminent walkable cities in the U.S.  Even with Savannah's legendary oppressive heat, experiencing this place is a pure delight for anyone who appreciates great pedestrian-friendly urbanism.

This small city of approximately 136,000 was established in 1733 and laid out by General James Oglethorpe. His unique plan included 24 squares inserted at regular intervals into a uniform street grid. 21 of these squares still exist today and are one of the primary reasons why Savannah is such an inviting and special place. Savannah also boasts the nation's largest National Register Historic District which encompasses its entire downtown and its adjacent neighborhoods.

Despite its's small size, Savannah is a city of over 100 distinct neighborhoods, many of which would qualify as 20-minute neighborhoods. I was there visiting a good friend and fellow urbanist who lives near Forsyth Park, a vibrant urban oasis that seemed continuously filled with joggers, dog walkers, and stroller pushers.

We spent Friday evening and much of the day Saturday walking the city, where I was able to experience many of the wonderful squares - each with its own special charm and distinct character, the great human-scale architecture and walkable streetscapes, great local food and drink, and the general ongoing revitalization of Savannah's downtown core and neighborhoods.

A major factor in the revitalization of downtown Savannah is The Savannah College of Art and Design, or SCAD for short. SCAD is a relatively new school, having been in existence only since 1978, and is entirely embedded into the urban fabric through the reuse of mostly historic buildings for classrooms, dorms, and administrative offices.

I also observed Savannah's emerging bicycle culture where bicycles are increasingly being used by all ages and socio-economic groups as a basic form of transportation. Savannah is mostly flat and easy to get around by bicycle. The city has started putting in bike lanes, and there were obvious opportunities to do much more to make the streets bicycle-friendly.

The compactness of the city also puts most of it within reach of a short bus ride, some of which are attractive open-air rubber tired trolleys. Savannah's transit system, called CAT, includes a free trolley bus route that circulates through the urban core. Like Baltimore, Savannah's buses now have bike racks on them.

One of the most important aspects of creating 20-minute neighborhoods, is proximity to a full service grocery store or supermarket. There is a relatively new 44,000 square foot Kroger grocer in my friend's neighborhood, less than a 5-minute walk from his home. The free bus route also runs directly past the market.

There are also several smaller specialty grocers within a 5 and 10 minute walk of his home, as well as coffee shops,  restaurants, retail stores, health centers, parks, places of worship, and more. In fact, the Walkscore of his home address is 91 out of 100, classified as "Walker's Paradise."
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