September 26, 2007

Transit Ride of the Near Future


Baltimore InnerSpace has discovered Google Earth, so we shall now apply it with the same untempered enthusiasm and prescience that we apply to everything we see about Baltimore, as in the glorious illustration generated above.

We shall have a transit system that does not make promises for the year 2100 or 2035, but one that changes the way we look at Baltimore right now, because the promises alone should be sufficient to fill our hearts with hope for the future. Great hope now is always better than dismal reality later.

So let's let the illustration above transport us to the Westport neighborhood, circa right now. Westport has a big beautiful waterfront (highlighted in purple) and a nice light rail line. Southward, it is our fast ticket to the whole world, via Baltimore-Washington International -Marshall Airport. We can get anywhere from here. After all, they named Google Earth after the entire planet and if you've used the software, you know they really meant it.

But let's ride the light rail northbound. Camden Station is only two stops away, where we could hop on a MARC train to Washington, DC - seat of power. There are two sports stadiums there too - for the Ravens (great!) and the Orioles (great if you're fans of the visiting team).

OK, it is granted that things bog down if you ride the light rail beyond Camden Yards and the Convention Center, up Howard Street. The City has never seen fit to give priority to light rail at the downtown traffic signals, and the MTA has not seen fit to connect light rail directly to the Metro, which constitutes rest of the regional rail transit system. And Howard Street itself, for all its charms, is not really perceived as being in the center of town anymore anyway. So yes, what we have in our light rail line is merely a work in progress - but let's put the emphasis on progress.

What we want is a rapid transit system that is (1) rapid, (2) really comes together in the center of town, (3) really connects to everything, and (4) creates an instant framework for rebuilding the city. This is all plain obvious stuff, right?

So there is a south line - from Downtown to Westport to Cherry Hill to the Airport to Glen Burnie. Now that the MTA has finally built a track in each direction, it's fast, once you get moving.

And there is a northwest line - heavy rail, the grandaddy of them all, with no conflicts for 14 miles all the way to Owings Mills.

But yes - north, east and west are now problems. North light rail goes a long way, all the way to Hunt Valley, and it's pretty fast, but only if you can get beyond the downtown bog on Howard Street. East is faster, but it goes less than a mile and it doesn't connect to any other transit at its terminus at Hopkins Hospital. It is unconscionable to have a rapid transit line with no transit connections at its terminus. That must change. And west we've got nothing.

We also need to do a better job of connecting our transit to people places. Building a rail transit line to Hopkins Hospital never prevented them from building a huge array of monster parking garages which undermine the promise of transit. So Hopkins Hospital, despite having a Metro terminus, is really just like all the rest of auto-dependent Baltimore.

But from now on, we're going to do it right, right? I can see it now !!!!!!!!!


So we're on that light rail train heading north from wonderful Westport (where over a billion dollars in new development is almost underway). Just after the next station for the Ravens Stadium at Hamburg Street, our alteration of current reality begins: The train immediately diverts from the existing tracks and turns right under the Interstate highway overpasses and enters a short tunnel under Henrietta Street, as shown in red above. The train then quickly comes back up to the surface on Light Street, just north of Key Highway in the heart of the Inner Harbor. To do this, Light Street can easily be narrowed into a civilized human-scale urban street to display the entire Inner Harbor in all its splendor.

Light Street will finally live up to its name - Light Rail on Light Street. The Inner Harbor tourist masses will then swarm to, instead of being repelled away from, Light Street like a beacon of light. The train stops twice for the Inner Harbor, and then dives back underground at Pratt Street to a Charles Center Station.

The Charles Center Station will finally resemble the central downtown station of any respectable modern subway system, like MetroCenter, L'Enfant Plaza, or Gallery Place in Washington, or Five Points in Atlanta. Believe it or not, Baltimore can do it too.

The next station in our journey is under Saratoga Street, called Lexington Market. The first set of escalators brings you up to Howard Street, where you can immediately board the old light rail line to go to Penn Station, Timonium or Hunt Valley. Transferring here to go north allows you to avoid the worst Howard Street bottlenecks between Pratt and Fayette Streets, and the city no longer feels like it is selling its soul to provide traffic signal priority for Howard Street light rail at its intersections with Centre, Monument, Madison, and Reed Streets. (The big traffic coupling between MLK and Howard can run at the same time and is thus not an issue).

The other end of the new Lexington Market transit platform under Saratoga Street connects directly to the existing Metro station, the north escalators of which can connect directly to a comprehensive bus transit hub on Eutaw Street north of Saratoga. So from here you can get anywhere else that the rail system won't take you.

Beyond Lexington Market, our new rail transit ride continues west. That makes sense, because as we've come up from the south, we've just completed our transfer opportunities to go east and north. Beautiful symmetry.


We emerge out of the tunnel almost immediately, just west of Martin Luther King Boulevard. On the left (south) side of the train are four lanes of traffic, two in each direction, where there were once three lanes going eastbound only. Two lanes in each direction is enough because the cars go underneath all the West Baltimore streets, just like the transit trains do.

To the right (north) side of the train, where once was the westbound traffic, there is now an extension of the idyllic Heritage Crossing development, known for its curvilinear pseudo-suburban streets, but now transformed into a truly urban transit-oriented community. We stop at the Heritage Crossing Station, located where neighborhood kids used to get their thrills dodging expressway traffic where Fremont Avenue once was before that.

We continue west from Heritage Crossing on our light rail train, now entering into the trench that for the decades of the '70s, '80s, '90s and '00s was West Baltimore's biggest scar. The trench is still there, but the highway is pushed up against it's south edge. On the north side of our train, the retaining wall for the elevation change is now used as a setting for many blocks of creative multi-level development, as shown in purple above.

Anyone complaining about the walled trench in Franklin-Mulberry will thus be as off-the-wall as someone complaining about the hills of San Francisco. The light rail will look upward at the inviting new buildings climbing the old retaining wall. Beyond that on the north side of Franklin Street are the gracious old Victorian buildings of Lafayette Square, finally being renovated after many decades of neglect.

Very quickly, we end our light rail journey at the West Baltimore MARC Station, which should now a comprehensive full service transit hub with buses to anywhere and MARC trains to Washington DC and other points between Delaware and Virginia.

The fact that this journey constitutes only a small piece of the proposed Red Line is not an issue. The buses and MARC trains at this terminal station can get you anywhere you want to go more efficiently than if the Red Line continued westward in the crowded Route 40 corridor.

More importantly, we have been able to pack so much new development and so many new travel opportunities into this small transit journey from Westport to West Baltimore that building the entire Red Line out into the suburbs hardly seems to matter anymore.


  1. Very cool. Plus, it would probably require the demolition of that big honkin' concrete waterfall wading pool on the edge of McKeldin Plaza. (And its replacement with something graceful and welcoming)

    Too bad there isn't some way of persuading the West Side Renaissance heavy hitters that a direct transit link to the Inner Harbor would be _so_ in their best interest.

  2. I too have discovered the joy of looking at our fair city the aireal photography. I prefer MapQuest myself but I occasionaly use google. It puts things in perspective without actually being there.

  3. I am just moving to Baltimore from Indianapolis and would like to use mass transit as much as possible.

    I've been trying to find a printed map of the entire system, any idea where I can go to get one?


  4. Welcome to Baltimore, Justin !!!!!

    Our illustrious Maryland Transit Administration publishes maps from time to time. The latest one I have is dated 2005-6. Their website is which may get you to someone who can get you a copy of the map.

    The graphic quality of the MTA maps is excellent, but that only makes the transit system's confusing lack of structure all the more obvious.