May 21, 2007



Many people confuse streetcars with regional transit like light rail or heavy rail, including the Baltimore City government and the Maryland Transit Administration.

The MTA tried to build a very streetcar-like regional transit line on Howard Street when it built the central light rail system from Hunt Valley to BWI-M Airport (photo above), but it is a bad fit for Howard Street with average speeds of less than 10 mph and the block-long trains which overwhelm the streetscape.

The MTA is trying the same thing with the regional Red Line, proposing to try to cram block-long regional trains on the even narrower and more crowded streets of Fells Point and Canton.

Mayor Dixon's transition report identified the proposed reconfiguration of Pratt Street as a way to try to accommodate the regional Red Line on that very visible and high traffic artery. But the winning entry selected by City judges in the Pratt Street design competition very definitely does NOT accommodate regional transit.

The winning Pratt Street design concept (above) is dominated by a very wide boulevard (approximately 100 feet curb to curb) that would have similar traffic characteristics to Downtown Baltimore's other wide boulevards - President, Light, Conway and MLK Boulevard - which are most definitely NOT transit-friendly places.

The MTA had previously rejected Pratt Street for the Red Line for a very inherent geographical reason. It is too far from the existing Charles Center subway station to be part of a central hub around which the regional transit system is supposed to be integrated. Such a connection point is an essential element of any regional transit system.

Nevertheless, the City had a good idea when it suggested that good transit should be a priority on Pratt Street. After all, Pratt is the City's premier high-profile street - the main street of the Inner Harbor - which is what the world sees when it thinks of Baltimore. Good transit on Pratt Street would go a long way toward dispelling Baltimore's image as being a fourth-rate transit town, possibly more so than anything built underground, despite the obvious advantages of subways for speed, reliability and capacity. Many people still don't know that Baltimore even has a subway.

It's too bad that the winning Pratt Street design so utterly fails as an effective transit street.

For the same reasons, none of Downtown Baltimore's boulevards are friendly to pedestrians either. Crossing any hundred foot wide street is an ordeal, and it is especially difficult when traffic is coming at you in all directions. The new Pratt Street concept has been lauded for providing two-way traffic flow, but this is NOT good for pedestrians no matter what some architects and designers say. Making matters worse is the fact that Pratt Street handles heavy turning movement volumes so pedestrians have to look in even more directions to see cars that can potentially mow them down. In order to compensate for such potential chaos, Baltimore's big boulevards generally have very complex and time-consuming traffic signal timing, further exasperating both pedestrians and their potential prey behind the wheel.

Just try to cross Light at Conway, where the City had to erect fences to prevent pedestrians from taking the dangerous path of least resistance. Crossing President at Pratt Street is hardly better, although the City has not erected any fences there yet because crossing President Street on either side of the intersection is equally bad.

Perhaps the worst problem with the winning Pratt Street superwide boulevard plan is that it would render infeasible a great idea that emerged from a previous Inner Harbor plan. The Pratt Street sketch above is looking east from Light Street toward Calvert Street. The plan shows Calvert Street as being closed south of Pratt, as was previously recommended. This would integrate the large triangular open space between Calvert and Light (now occupied by the McKeldin Fountain) into the waterfront. However, this would require all traffic on northbound Light Street to turn onto Pratt and then immediately turn left off of Pratt to get to Calvert. With two-way traffic on Pratt, this traffic would face a heavy conflict with traffic in the opposing direction. The sketch above still shows the Calvert closure, but the plan makes it infeasible.

Pratt Street is enough of a barrier as it is. Pedestrians already complain about crossing traffic in one direction, even though the width is as little as 36 to 48 feet (west and just east of Calvert). Imagine how much worse it would be to cross a hundred feet with traffic turning on and off in all directions. (See the blog article on "Traffic 101" for more about the traffic problems inherent in wide streets.)

Transit would experience the same problems as pedestrians on a wide Pratt Boulevard. In addition, it would be next to impossible to coordinate the complex traffic signal timing to give transit some priority. Finally, of course, a hundred foot wide swath of Pratt Street pavement would leave little extra room to give transit or bikes their own right-of-way.


Pratt Street is not a good place for the regional Red Line, but it could be redesigned into a great place for a streetcar line, and the critical link in a modern LOCAL streetcar system.

Transit advocates have often complained that streetcars are just an inflexible cosmetic upgrade over buses and a poor substitute for good regional transit, and they have a good point. Certainly, the worst of all possible solutions is to build a streetcar line and expect it to perform up to the standards of a long-distance regional transit line like the Red Line. The MTA has already made that mistake on Howard Street, and has appeared to be going that way again with some of the Red Line alternatives, not only on Pratt Street, but other slow confined streets such as Cooks Lane in West Baltimore and Eastern and Fleet Streets in Fells Point.

The regional rail transit system needs to be able to perform as the backbone of the regional transit system. It must be fast and well integrated to allow riders to get from one end of the region to the other, quickly and efficiently. It must have enough of a speed advantage over buses and cars to justify the wholesale transfer of riders from feeder buses. It makes no sense for riders to transfer from slow buses to equally slow rail vehicles travelling on the same slow streets. That is why we should forget about building the Red Line on surface streets like Pratt.

But streetcars are another matter entirely if they are not part of the hard-working regional transit system, but are instead a showcase for the Inner Harbor and its spillover area into the rest of Baltimore. Think of streetcars as a physical design solution, as a human ergonomic solution, and as a smaller transit network down the hierarchical scale from the regional transit lines. Some folks may also construe sleek modern streetcars as slightly sexy looking.

The design of a streetcar line can be optimized provide the most attractive visual presence possible for transit, so that potential riders will see it whether they are looking for it or not, and they will want to ride it, just to see where it goes. A streetcar line can also fit into the urban design of an area without appearing to be just so much more oppressive pavement. And while there is no way that a surface streetcar line can be made to go fast enough to efficiently serve long trips, it can be designed for reliable and consistent performance at reasonable speeds for short to medium length trips.

A study has already been conducted which recommends streetcars on Charles Street as a way to provide attractive short to medium distance transit in that busy corridor from downtown northward to Hopkins University and Charles Village, a distance of about four miles. The only significant problem with that project is that it is seen as a "circulator" and not part of a network. It is envisioned as a way to extend the reach of downtown and the Inner Harbor to the north, but not as a way of systematically expanding the capture area of downtown as a whole. The reach of downtown transit should be expanded in all directions, especially along the waterfront to the east where the most recent growth has taken place.

The proposed route of the Charles Street streetcar line meanders too much along the streets of downtown, concentrating to much on trying to serve as many places as possible rather than trying to get between Points A and B as efficiently and quickly as possible. Northbound, it sticks to Charles Street, which is admittedly one of the slowest and most congested downtown streets, but also one of the most important, so that its use is justifiable. But southbound, the streetcar line is proposed to turn this and that way on numerous streets, which would slow it down needlessly, prevent it from having a clear identity, and discourage it use except by tourists.

Even though streetcars cannot be expected to be fast, time is still money for the transit operator. The slower the streetcar trip, the less frequent service will be, and the fewer riders will be attracted to it. Streetcars should not be targeted just to tourists or any other single market segment. They need to carry as many regular riders as possible to justify frequent service and minimize waiting times.

The proposed Charles Street streetcar line should be but one leg of a comprehensive streetcar network throughout the "greater" downtown area. The focal point should be along Pratt Street, which should be redesigned with streetcars as a primary focal point and functional priority.

As such, the regional Red Line should concentrate on longer distance, higher speed trips, and should be oriented to seamless integration with the rest of the transit system, especially the heavy rail Metro "Green Line" and the Howard Street light rail line.

The best alignment for the Red Line is to coincide with the Green Line, at the Lexington Market and Charles Center Metro Stations, and by extending the Green Line to the east beyond Hopkins Hospital to Highlandtown, Canton Crossing, the MARC Commuter Rail line and major feeder bus terminals. There is no efficient alignment for a regional Red Line on the streets of Fells Point and Canton, but a good streetcar line is eminently feasible there.


Pratt Street is uniquely poised to be a great streetcar street, based on its prominence, visibility and location on the edge of the harbor.

To be an effective street for pedestrians and streetcars while still accommodating the traffic it needs to carry, Pratt Street should be as narrow as possible.

Here is a recommended Pratt Street design:

1. Pratt Street in the Inner Harbor should be maintained as a one-way street. This will allow it to be redesigned to the minimum possible width instead of as a very wide two-way boulevard. It will also allow the Calvert Street traffic northbound from Light Street to be feasibly shifted over to a two-way Light Street south of Pratt, as previously recommended.

2. Instead of being widened to a hundred foot boulevard, it should be possible to make Pratt narrower in some locations, because there will no longer need to be designed in a merge configuration with Calvert Street. In addition, there are no traffic bottlenecks on Pratt from this point eastward to the approach to President Street, so all of the existing lanes are probably not warranted.

3. The service drives on the south side of Pratt which serve Harborplace, the World Trade Center, the Aquarium and Pier 4 Power Plant should be consolidated into a single service drive, accessible only from Pratt east of Light Street. This will allow Pratt Street to have a continuous uninterrupted curb between Light Street and Pier 5, just west of Market Place.

4. Between Light Street and Pier 4, the area between the unbroken south curb of Pratt Street and the service drive can be made into an exclusive two-way streetcar alignment and an adjacent parallel bikeway, totally uninterrupted by automobile or service vehicle conflicts.

5. The texture and design of the streetcar line, bikeway, service drive and sidewalks can be integrated to convey an image as part of an integrated urban "people space" instead of as part of an excessively wide and dominating street.

6. At Pratt and Light Streets, the westbound streetcar track would proceed in an exclusive right-of-way for one more block along Pratt Street, then turn northbound into Charles Street. The eastbound streetcar track would feed from a southbound streetcar track on Light Street. The southbound track should come directly from St. Paul Street to the north (see Preston Gardens blog article). This is a far quicker, simpler and more efficient southbound route for the Charles Street streetcar alignment than what has been previously recommended, which proceeds as far west as Hopkins Place.

Such a design would reduce conflicts between cars, pedestrians and streetcars to an absolute minimum, and create a visual environment dominated by people and transit, not cars, as in the winning design entry.


At Pier 5, the Pratt Street streetcar line should turn southward along the Inner Harbor promenade next to the Columbus Center. As shown in the photo above, the gentle curve of the promenade provides a natural path for the streetcar line southward from Pratt to Eastern Avenue at its existing bridge over the Jones Falls (westbound) as well as to a new bridge at Fleet Street (eastbound).

East of President Street, Fleet and Eastern should be converted to a one-way traffic pair. This is just as has been proposed by the MTA for the Red Line. It makes far more sense for streetcars, however, which would be much more in scale with the streetscapes than regionally-oriented light rail trains that would occupy up to an entire block and require the removal of significant on-street parking spaces (as on Howard Street).

Streetcars on streets such as Eastern Avenue and Fleet Street could be used as part of an innovative process to manage traffic flow. Unlike light rail, which requires traffic to stay off the tracks because trains can take up an entire block, the flow of streetcars, along with their strong visual presence, can be used to establish and regulate traffic speeds.

Traffic signals can be timed to coincide with the speed of streetcars. Transit stops should be moved out into the streetcar track lane by bumping out the curbs, and thus indenting the parking. (Because of this, full-time parking is essential. Parking should not be banned in rush hour periods to create an extra traffic lane.) The only cars in the streetcar lane should be parkers, turning vehicles, and vehicles willing to get stuck behind the streetcars.

The same type of configuration could be used with buses, but without the strong visual presence of the streetcars.

The east terminus of the streetcar line could be anywhere in Canton, Highlandtown, Bayview, Dundalk or any point in between.


The Pratt Street streetcar line could also be extended to the west. West of Charles Street, an extension of the streetcar line could be built along Pratt Street for eastbound streetcars, and along Lombard Street for westbound streetcars. At Arlington Street, the streetcar line would proceed southward through the B&O Railroad Museum complex.

This photo looks eastward from the old B&O Railroad tracks heading into the museum just east of Arlington Street. The Mount Clare Junction Shopping Center is just to the left and Pigtown is just to the right (south). The streetcar line would share these tracks, now used exclusively by historic museum trains.

Streetcars would be a great addition to the railroad museum experience, which could include historic streetcar rides from the collection of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum.

Proceeding westward along the old historic B&O Railroad line, as shown above, the streetcar line would pass the Mount Clare Junction Shopping Center (on the right) and then onward to the north edge of Carroll Park and Montgomery Park, which is the largest office building in the City of Baltimore, shown in the background on the left. (See the blog article on Carroll Park.)

The railroad currently merges into a single track, but there is plenty of room to restore a second track, along with tremendous development opportunities.


The proposed north terminus of the already-proposed Charles Street streetcar line is University Parkway, which is the north edge of the Hopkins University campus and home to many large high rise apartment buildings.

It should also be possible to build a connector track from this line to the Howard Street light rail line, at Mount Royal Avenue or Read Street, to allow streetcar service from Hampden, Timonium and/or Hunt Valley to the center of downtown, the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. This will also enable streetcars to use the existing light rail maintenance facility in the Jones Falls Valley.

As previously stated, a comprehensive streetcar system would be far better served if the southbound streetcar line was located on St. Paul and Light Street, rather than shifted to Hopkins Place to the west. This route would be far faster, simpler and more efficient, and would coincide nicely with the restoration of Preston Gardens (see blog entry).


A major realignment and transformation of Light Street adjacent to the Inner Harbor was proposed under an earlier planning process. This plan proposed to shift the northbound Light Street lanes westward away from the harbor and Calvert Street, effectively narrowing the street. This would create enough room between Light Street and the harbor for a major new open space, and for an exclusive streetcar line right-of-way south of Pratt Street toward the Federal Hill/South Baltimore neighborhood.

This earlier plan would, however, be rendered infeasible by the winning entry of the recent Pratt Street redesign competition, which would require a left-turn traffic slalom from Pratt to Calvert that could not be accommodated.

Believe it or not, the new design proposes that Pratt Street be widened to 7 lanes, which is not much narrower an not much less concrete-intensive than the current 10 lane width of Light Street adjacent to the harbor (shown above). The primary diffences are details such as left-turn bays and on-street parking.
The shift of northbound Light Street traffic away from Calvert Street should allow Light Street to be narrowed sufficiently from its current excessive width to make room for one or two streetcar tracks southward from Pratt Street to South Baltimore. The current width of Light Street very pointedly refects the problems caused by excessively wide streets such as is being proposed for Pratt Street, and the dire need to narrow Light Street to a much more human scale.
It may or may not be preferable to put only the southbound track on Light Street and put the northbound track on Charles Street, so that the trains may loop around in the vicinity of Henrietta Street near the South Baltimore Business District. South of there, Light Street gets too narrow.


Streetcars may also be a more practical option than extending the heavy rail Green Line to Morgan State University. Wolfe and Washington Streets comprise a very appropriate one-way street pair for a streetcar line that would branch off of Eastern Avenue/Fleet Street in Fells Point, for service northeastward to Hopkins Hospital, the Hopkins Biotech Park and Morgan State University.

Wolfe and Washington Streets already comprise the type of one-way couplet that would be ideal for a streetcar line. Combined with curb bulb-outs at transit stops and trasnit-friendly traffic signal timing, streetcars could be integral to an effective traffic calming strategy.

Whether such a streetcar line is worth building may depend on whether a good transfer connection can be established to the Green Line extension northeast of Hopkins Hospital. Such a connection would probably be impractical and prohibitively expensive if the Green Line extension is still underground beyond Wolfe and Washington Streets, near Eager Street. But a station near the tunnel portal would be less expensive and more convenient, and would also make it much more practical to provide security and surveillance for the portal.

Such a station would allow streetcar riders from the northeast to transfer to the Green Line to access the entire regional transit network, or stay on the streetcar to get to Fells Point, the Inner Harbor or anywhere else on the streetcar network, thus providing maximum flexibility.

A streetcar line north of Hopkins Hospital along Wolfe, Washington, St. Lo Drive and Hillen Road would be far less expensive and user friendly than a heavy rail Metro extension, which would no doubt be almost entirely in a tunnel. The exception for a heavy rail subway tunnel might occur above Hillen Road north of 33rd Street to Morgan University, where it may be justifiable to build a big elevated structure such as on the Metro above Wabash Avenue in northwest Baltimore. Such an elevated structure would be big and ugly, and possibly as unfriendly to pedestrians as a subway tunnel.

A streetcar line would be particularly attractive within Clifton Park, where it could be a catalyst for the revitalization of the park and its wonderful historic structures. It may make much more sense to devote transportation funds to revitalizing the park and the golf course adjacent to the streetcar line than to bury the money in a big subway hole in the ground.
A heavy rail extension should, however, attract much higher ridership than a streetcar line. This would require the support of a major feeder bus hub located at a terminal station or perhaps at Northwood Shopping Center. There would also be pressure to accommodate a large number of drive-in transit riders by providing a large park-and-ride facility rather than letting those riders park in the neighborhoods.
In contrast, a streetcar line would be a much more local and community-oriented facility.


Some of us have warm, fuzzy memories of Baltimore's old streetcar system and want to revive it. However, the old streetcar network from the 1950s and before would fit into today's city of monster parking garages and monster traffic about as well as zoot suits.

Baltimore needs a true regionally oriented transit system with a network of fast congestion-proof transit lines that is fully integrated around downtown connections and feeder bus terminals.

But for Baltimore's premier streets comprising the new expanded downtown realm that extends from Hopkins University to South Baltimore and Fells Point to Montgomery Park, and northward to Morgan State, a highly visible streetcar network may the be ideal medium upon which transit can be built. The streets of Fells Point, in particular, are much more suited to streetcars than to block-long light rail trains as proposed for the regional Red Line.

This vision is highly compatible with the area's pedestrian-scaled one-way streets which serve the area, or at least should serve the area, rather than huge, grossly out-of-scale boulevards such as has been proposed for Pratt Street. The bad reputation of one-way streets in Baltimore is due to ill-suited signal timing which encourages speeding, red light running, jaywalking, and causes excessive queues and delays. Traffic signal timing on one-way streets which gives priority to transit will also make the streets safer and more pedestrian friendly.
A regional transit system needs to be fast with great connections. A streetcar system needs to be tailored to smaller human-scaled streets. That just about covers everything.