THAT YOU CAN'T AVOID
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MAP OF THE REGIONAL TRANSIT SYSTEM AS IT SHOULD BE BUILT -
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The Red Line should be built in such a way that it transforms Baltimore's odd collection of fragmented rail transit lines into a true system. The Red Line needs to intimately connect to both the surface light rail line and the underground Metro line, and it needs to do it in a way that is visible and cannot be ignored. The Red Line needs to dominate the streetscape and penetrate the psyches of as many people as possible.
So the downtown Red Line needs to be underground with an intimate congestion-free connection to the existing Metro subway. But it also needs to be above ground, so that it can connect to the existing light rail line, achieve maximum visibility, and not cost a fortune. And it needs to do all this without getting mired in traffic congestion.
The Red Line as proposed in the 2002 transit plan fails on all counts. If it is built underground, it will still be at least a block or two away from the existing subway, it will be just as invisible, and it will probably be horribly expensive. If it is a surface line, it will not connect to the existing subway and will be mired in congestion. No one is even considering an elevated line, because it would be presumably unspeakably ugly.
Believe it or not, there is a way to design the Red Line to achieve all the advantages of both a surface and an underground alignment.
The advantage of surface transit in being seen should not be underestimated. It allows transit to become an integral part of the streetscape, and thus an integral part of urban activity and travel patterns. Underground transit is out of sight, and thus out of mind. Elevated transit may be visible, but it can be hard to get to, requiring escalators and all that. Surface transit can become ingrained in the urban fabric.
Planners have gradually, and sometimes painfully, learned how crucial the dynamics of street activity are to urban success. Planners in Baltimore have made the whole gamut of mistakes. They've built elaborate elevated walkway networks in Charles Center that weren't used and had to be dismantled. And even where they were used, they simply sucked the life off the street where it is badly needed. Planners have also built and unbuilt pedestrian malls such as on Lexington Street, creating artificial car-free zones. They've done and undone the same thing on a transit mall on Howard Street, which relegated transit activity into its own segregated zone where car users were able to ignore them, and thus ignore and abandon the entire retail district.
Now the planners' pendulum has swung into an overreaction to the other extreme. Planners who once railed against the automobile as the root of all urban ills have lauded the proposed widening of Pratt Street into a huge auto-dominated boulevard. Some actually say that congestion caused by clogged traffic can be a good thing, because it creates "vitality". They say that a huge asphalt Pratt Boulevard would evoke the Champs Elysees, but it would really evoke Detroit (pronounce it: De-twah, s'il vous plait).
Conclusion: What Baltimore REALLY needs is a rail transit system that has all the advantages of an environment with a minimum of traffic conflicts and a maximum of connections, but is still right there in the center spotlight of the urban stage where no one can avoid it, where it becomes an irresistible vehicle for urban mobility.
AN INNER HARBOR RAIL TRANSIT TERMINAL
Downtown Baltimore has one street that is so excessively wide that cars cannot possibly need all of it, is so fully visible that almost everyone knows about it, and yet is so conflict-free that it has only one major intersection along a length of nearly half a mile. This is the perfect location for a Rail Transit Terminal for the Red Line.
The street is Light Street, between Pratt Street and Key Highway, immediately adjacent to the west shore of the Inner Harbor, the foremost icon and "people place" in the entire region. This segment of Light Street is ten lanes wide, but with only one major intervening intersection at Conway. It is currently utterly dysfunctional - Harborplace, the Science Center and the rest of the Inner Harbor totally turn their backs to it.
LIGHT STREET ADJACENT TO THE INNER HARBOR -
Between Pratt and Key Highway (shown here at Conway) is one of the most visible yet most oppressive environments in the entire city - the perfect place for a makeover to bring the entire regional rail transit system together so that it must be reckoned with.
Light Street is the perfect place to bring as much of the entire regional transit system as possible together to create an integrated whole. At the same time, it begs to be made into a people place, to be integrated with the west shore of the Inner Harbor which is regularly populated by thousands of touristas, oglers, scenesters and normal people too.
Part of the excessive width of Light Street should be devoted to the Red Line, in plain sight of the Inner Harbor. There should be a tunnel portal at the north end just south of Pratt Street, so the Red Line can then proceed underground north of Pratt to tie into the existing Charles Center subway station underneath Baltimore Street. North of that station, it should turn westward underneath Saratoga Street and tie into the existing Lexington Market subway station, with a new escalator portal at the intersection of Howard and Saratoga to connect to the light rail line. The Red Line should then come back out of the ground in the Franklin-Mulberry corridor west of MLK Boulevard.
Thus, the Red Line would be exposed to the world and the blue sky in all its flesh-and-blood glory on Light Street in the Inner Harbor between Pratt Street and Key Highway. And yet it would be underground away from downtown traffic as necessary to create intimate right angle connections to the existing subway line.
This Inner Harbor Rail Transit Terminal on Light Street would then become a perfect place to create intimate cheek-by-jowl connections between the Red Line and a streetcar system, including the proposed Charles Street line, the oughta-be proposed Fells Point streetcar line, and perhaps streetcars to Montgomery Park and Port Covington as well. All these lines could share the same platforms and probably even share the same tracks.
Light Street could also have a seamless connection to the existing light rail system. Another tunnel portal could be built at the south end of the Inner Harbor Rail Transit Terminal at Key Highway. The Red Line could then proceed underneath Light Street south of Key Highway, swing under Henrietta Street and come back out of the ground three blocks west at the Hamburg Street/Ravens Stadium light rail station.
Thus, the Red Line could extend all the way to BWI-M Airport and Glen Burnie, avoiding the nasty light rail bottlenecks on the surface of Howard Street. The existing south light rail line thus could actually be made into a real full-fledged regional rail line connecting with a minimum of conflicts to the Inner Harbor and the rest of the regional rail system.
Many years ago, the MTA tried to plan an Inner Harbor transit hub in this same location along Light Street, but got shot down by a pervasive case of bus bigotry. (You know: buses are smelly, declasse, etc.) Now here is an opportunity to do it the right way - redesigning the street from the ground up around the feel-good image of RAIL transit. The difference between rail and bus transit is like the difference between a Yugo and a Mercedes. They'll both get you from Point A to B, but you'd like to have one of them in your driveway alot more than the other.
Rebuilding Light Street also presents some long overdue design opportunities. All ten lanes of Light Street are absolutely NOT needed for traffic flow. And there is only one conflicting intersection to speak of, at Conway Street, to prevent the efficient flow of transit vehicles and pedestrians. This can easily be resolved by good design.
The intersection of Light and Conway is currently a hell-hole for pedestrians, who have been banned from the more popular but dangerous north leg across Light Street. The problem is that this banishment leaves the south leg of the same intersection as the ONLY place for pedestrians to cross for four long blocks. Obnoxious barrier median strips prevent crossing anywhere else.
The solution to the Conway pedestrian crossing problem is simply to create more pedestrian crossings along Light Street. Almost anywhere else would be a safer and less disruptive location for pedestrians than where they previously crossed.
The tunnel portals at either end of Light Street, at Pratt and Key Highway could be special opportunities for creative design, integrating form with function. Both of these intersections are also badly in need of pedestrian-friendly makeovers.Light Street simply cries out to be brought into the Inner Harbor environment. And transit needs to be brought into the mainstream.
In sum, an Inner Harbor Red Line Transit Terminal, in plain sight on the surface of Light Street, would be the single element that would make Downtown Baltimore a transit and pedestrian dominated environment. And it could be built without burying a fortune underground, and without creating a congestion stalemate between transit and traffic.