December 4, 2008

MLK/Franklin-Mulberry


THE INTERCHANGE THAT NEEDS TO BE MADE INTO A NEIGHBORHOOD
The biggest problem with planning in Baltimore is that people are always obsessing and fighting over the same old pieces of land while huge swaths remain unclaimed wastelands. We’re still trying to get things exactly right in places like the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Roland Park, constantly revisiting plans that were realized decades ago, instead of moving on to other places that are quietly crying for attention.

The transit Red Line, billed as Baltimore’s biggest project ever, typifies this. The biggest and most expensive fights are brewing in the established areas of Fells Point and Edmondson Avenue, while the forlorn Franklin-Mulberry corridor is merely seen as the “easy” part - the path of least resistance.

November 5, 2008

Gas Tax

RESLICE THE AMERICAN PIE -
(BUT MAKE IT NUTRITIOUS PIE)


Now that all that endless election foolishness is finally over, we can finally attempt to focus our attention beyond all the indulgent campaign promises and onto what's best for the country, the world, and Baltimore. President-elect Obama won on the most far-left platform in American history, and has emerged as a master in telling voters what they want to hear, but audaciously and hopefully, he can channel his prodigious political talents in a productive direction.

October 1, 2008

Owings Mills


OWINGS MILLS:
TRANSIT DIS-ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT

Owings Mills is precisely the wrong way to conduct development planning around a transit station.
The photo above tells the story. It shows the large fence that separates the Owings Mills Metro station in the background, just to the left of the huge new 2900 car parking garage, from the Owings Mills Town Center shopping mall. The sign informs you after walking through the oceans of parking that surround the mall, that you cannot get to the Metro station. You must turn around and walk back to a bus stop in the parking lot to catch a bus instead. You must do this in spite of the fact that when you see the sign, you are about as close to the Metro station (as the crow flies) as you are to the bus stop. The bus must take an extremely circuitous path around the fence onto the wayward suburban street system which then only eventually gets you back to the Metro station.

September 13, 2008

Pratt Street


PRATT STREET ANTI-BOULEVARD

Two-way or one-way? Boulevard grand apres les Champs Elysees or intimate Elfreth's Alley? The City leaders don't seem to know what they want to do with Pratt Street, and their recent pronouncements have run the entire gamut.

The original plan for the Inner Harbor four decades ago called for Pratt Street to be a grand boulevard in the manner of memorable grand boulevards in other world-class cities. But it was never grand enough. The grandest aspect of Pratt Street were the super-wide sidewalks, comfortably separated from the traffic by wide ivy beds. But pedestrians never really liked the super-wide sidewalks. They preferred to walk on the very narrow sidewalks wedged between the ivy beds and the traffic lanes.

It just so happened that back in those days, one-way streets were still in fashion, which was considered just as well because that left more room for the super-wide sidewalks and ivy beds. Traffic volumes were also still sufficiently low in Downtown Baltimore that only four travel lanes were needed in most places, which was also just as well because it was already standard ideology that automotive intrusion was the root of most if not all urban evil. So Pratt was built with essentially the same number of lanes as on most of Charles, St. Paul, Calvert and many of Baltimore's other traditional downtown streets - hardly comparable to the Champs Elysees.

More recently, the City decided to change all that when they chose the firm of Ayers Saint Gross as the winner of a Pratt Street design competition for Pratt Street. When the ASG plan was first unveiled to a room full of architects and urbanists, it received a standing ovation largely on the strength of their proposal to convert Pratt into a grand two-way street at nearly double its current width.

ASG won the design battle, but two-way traffic eventually lost the war. After choosing ASG as winner of the design competition with its much widened two-way street, the City then proceeded to revise the ASG plan to a much narrower one-way street. More drastically, the City then went on to narrow the street right-of-way itself by calling for extensions for many of the buildings flanking Pratt Street, to create more active street-level retail frontage.

So as the plan stands now, the new Pratt Street would not only NOT be widened into a grand boulevard, it will be significantly narrowed from building line to building line. Forget all thoughts of Champs Elysees grandiosity.

Based on my previous pronouncements here in Baltimore InnerSpace, I could now resoundingly say, "I told you so..." Except that making Pratt Street narrower is not the answer any more than making it wider is the answer. More street-level retail is also a nice idea, but there have already been many opportunities to add street level retail, and the market has not responded very much. Harborplace turns its back on Pratt and Light Streets. On most of the rest of the frontage, the building landlords would love to lease their street level space to high-powered world-class retail tenants if they could.

As I have previously stated here, before the City figured it out, two-way flow on Pratt Street would not have worked. Eventually, the City decided not to convert Pratt to two-way flow, overruling ASG after leading them on. Two-way traffic flow would have just been a waste of road concrete, and Inner Harbor real estate is far too valuable to waste.

But the real answer isn't to give up on two-way flow and turn Pratt Street into just another narrow Baltimore street with attempted street level retail. We've already tried plenty of that.


WHAT IS IT ABOUT TWO-WAY TRAFFIC ANYWAY?

Why do designers and urbanists love two-way traffic so much? And why do fawning urban groupies continue to give standing ovations to two-way plans that won't work?

Why do urban designers in places like the Inner Harbor care so much which direction the traffic is coming from? After all, most of the Inner Harbor through traffic is just trying to cut through the harbor area on their way to somewhere else. Drivers do like to gawk at the tourists and joggers, but the pedestrians prefer to gawk at other pedestrians, not drivers. Everyone knows that having a ton and a half of steel armour behind the steering wheel can turn most drivers into raving lunatics. We should move as many of those lunatic drivers away from the Inner Harbor up to Lombard Street or somewhere else as we can.

But urbanists have a love-hate relationship with traffic. Should we blame it on the musical car horns of George Gershwin's "American in Paris"? Or maybe listening to "the music of the traffic in the city" in Petula Clark's "Downtown"?

You'd think the urbanists could get beyond all that. Please, people, get out and smell the traffic !!!

The answer is that we should promote two-way traffic among the people who are actually using the Inner Harbor - not the crazy teeming motorists who are harassing them.

There was a meager attempt to do that back in the 1980s. A big orange railing (see picture below) was installed separating the southernmost lane of Pratt and Light Streets from the others, and this lane was designated for traffic moving in the opposite direction of the big predominate clockwise one-way flow. Originally, it was designated for use by special shuttle trolleys between the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and other destinations - the same local destinations people have been trying to link seemingly forever with some decent people-oriented mass transit.


Pratt Street is already two-way, if you count the lane on the left separated by that orange railing, which is available to bicyclists and other brave souls willing to expose themselves to the abuse of anyone who wants to invade the space.

The transit vehicles were those tacky fake streetcars with the hard church-pew seats and no air conditioning, and this little transit system was run by the City in a seemingly erratic bureaucratic and unprofessional manner. But some old timers still have warm memories of this valiant attempt at localized mass transit. (Someday I need to write an account of the zillions of downtown-oriented transit systems that have been attempted in Baltimore, but for the sake of my own sanity, I've pushed most of them out of my mind.)

This railed-off contra-flow transit lane has since been used for traveling against the grain of traffic flow by vehicles of all sorts: bicycles, police, delivery vans, those bike-powered rickshaws, and all manner of local traffic. Everyone except that darn raging through traffic. Of course, all of these vehicles conflict with one another and there has never been any effective enforcement. But there has never been a lack of people trying to use this lane - it serves an extremely valuable purpose and example of the type of two-way traffic which could be instrumental in making Inner Harbor circulation actually work.

There are several unique aspects of this railed-off contra-flow lane:

1. It's English. That is, the traffic keeps to the left of the opposing predominate flow, not to the right as we normally do here in red-blooded America. That sets it apart, so that the predominate direction of traffic could be inhibited from using it

2. It's closer to the harbor itself than the predominate traffic flow, so that the local flow is closer to the heart of Inner Harbor activity - the waterfront promenade - than is the raging through traffic.

3. It's away from most of the intersecting downtown streets, so there is less worry about nasty traffic conflicts with turning vehicles.

These three factors are the key to designing a traffic flow plan for Pratt Street that will actually make two-way flow WORK for the traffic that needs it most - the LOCAL traffic, especially including transit and bicycles.

A TWO-WAY PRATT STREET THAT WORKS

The latest ASG/City plan for Pratt Street includes a single designated lane for buses and bikers. What's with that? Why put the biggest and smallest vehicles together to battle it out in the same space, and then let all the middle sized vehicles like cars and SUVs have the rest of the street.

Bikes and buses don't mix, unless it's a matter of consolidating all the huge and tiny vehicles that collectively show concern for the environment, and then letting the gas hogs run rampant over the rest of the space.

What's more, this proposed designated enviro-conscious lane runs in the same direction as the gas hog lanes, which means it is exposed to all sorts of abuse any time someone feels that their business is more important than yours, such as for Inner Harbor "special events" which seem to be scheduled for an average of about 30 days per month.

Most fatally, it means that bikes and buses traveling in the opposite direction must be banished to the dreaded Lombard Street along with all the other wrong-direction traffic, which is a fate worse than death.

The solution for Pratt Street in the Inner Harbor is to design individual bike and bus lanes traveling in the opposite direction of the predominate traffic flow, to safely separate this flow from the conflicted masses. This can easily be done as long as we are redesigning Pratt Street from the ground up. (It can also be done on Light Street as well, on the west side of the Inner Harbor.) Here's how:

1. The special bike and bus lanes should be contained WITHIN a median strip on Pratt Street that separates the predominate automobile lanes to the north adjacent to the downtown street grid, and the service and access uses to the south adjacent to the Inner Harbor itself - Harborplace, the Aquarium, the Power Plant, etc.

2. This median strip should be continuous - without any breaks - from Light Street to Pier 5 and Market Place, to ensure that there are no traffic conflicts and no ambiguities about who should be using these lanes.

3. There should be direct links at the east end between these special lanes and the connection through Pier 5 to Eastern Avenue, to create continuity around the Inner Harbor to the east. The special lanes should not be carried eastward on Pratt Street to the President Street intersection, because that intersection is just too complex and scary for efficient bicycle and transit access.

Exactly how these special contra-flow lanes should be laid out will have to be figured out by someone who has better maps than I have. Pratt Street will have to be wider than under the latest City/ASG one-way scheme, meaning there will be less room to shrink the street right-of-way to accommodate new development. In some respects, Pratt will retain that "grand boulevard" feel that the most recent City/ASG plan has abandoned. However, much if not most of Pratt Street will be devoted to the bike, bus and service lanes rather than the type of free-wheeling traffic that George Gershwin and Petula Clark spoke of. This means that the street itself can be designed to look and feel much smaller from curb to curb than it really is, although from building to building it will still be very much grander. Optimizing the look and feel of the streetscape is where good design enters in.

There are many open issues, but all of them raise opportunities rather than just constraints. One issue is how to handle the same-direction bike and bus flows. Lanes for these movements can be placed adjacent to the contra-flow lanes, creating small "streets within the street" or they can be kept with the predominate Pratt Street flow. This is in the realm of details to be worked out.

It is also very feasible to place the proposed Red Line in this new Pratt Street median strip, which would be an absolutely ideal way to put the best possible transit in the most convenient, user-oriented and dominating location possible. Burying the Red Line underground (as the City proposes) is merely a way to bury hundreds of millions of dollars. This makes no sense when there are new and exciting opportunities such as this to place transit directly out in the open and in the middle of the action.

Another important question is how to facilitate the increase in street-level retail space. There is no question that Harborplace needs to be redesigned to create much more of a street-level orientation on both Pratt and Light Streets, regardless of the plan that is implemented. In addition, vacuous open spaces such as the huge base of the Legg Mason/USF&G tower need to be activated by street level retail development.

All of the buildings fronting on Pratt Street need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, including the Verizon, IBM, Examiner, Lockwood Place and Candler Buildings. Often, it is simply a matter of tenant selection. The defunct Fuddruckers Restaurant, in the base of the Candler Building at the corner of Pratt and Market, has just been replaced by yet another cell phone store. This would have been an ideal space for the kind of fashionable world-class retail boutiques that planners, urbanists and yuppies drool over.

It all starts with creating the right street environment. Pratt Street needs to be made two-way, not for the teeming thousands of through cars and trucks skirting the harbor, but for the most important groups - the transit riders, the bike riders and for the actual people using the Inner Harbor.

July 15, 2008

Baltimore Country Club


Hillside Road in Roland Park, across the street from the Baltimore Country Club site, with anti-development signs on the lawn.

LAND WAR IN ROLAND PARK

The battle between the Roland Park community and the Baltimore Country Club over their intention to sell part of their land to create the Keswick Center for senior living has all the classic earmarks. In terms of the rhetoric of both the community and the developers, this is the last piece of land that matters. "Keep the Park in Roland Park" is the community's battle cry, as if the elimination of this open space would involuntarily change the name of the neighborhood from Roland Park to just plain Roland. To hear the developers, there is no other place in the entire city in which a comparable senior housing complex could be located.

When a battle line is drawn in the sand, or in a gorgeous verdant hillside, it always helps to create the illusion of scarcity.

But there is no scarcity of great development sites within spitting distance of Roland Park and the Baltimore Country Club, most of the land for which is owned by the City. There are no small sites. There are only small minds.

June 3, 2008

Transit Hierarchy


Graphic from the MTA's 2002 Regional Rail System Plan

AGREEING ON OUR RAIL TRANSIT SYSTEM OUGHT TO BE EASY

The MTA created a very difficult goal for a rail transit system when they developed their 2002 plan. They already seem to have thrown up their hands and given up on most of it.

Really now, it shouldn't be that hard to come up with a comprehensive system plan that can be built quickly and effectively.

Here's a status report on where the MTA's long range plan is right now:

MARC Commuter Rail - In the 2002 plan, the MTA wanted to create a kind of "Mini-MARC" system that would use the Amtrak and CSX mainline railroads for a more localized kind of crosstown transit, shuttling passengers between new stations tucked along the tracks in old fashioned whistle stops like Sandtown-Winchester, Rossville, Landsdowne and about four or so others, rather than emphasizing the long distance commutes to Washington's Union Station or Downtown Baltimore. How these little whistle stops could be made to coexist with the superfast Amtrak trains, especially Acela, was never figured out. As the need for better interregional transit to serve the employment and military base expansions in Aberdeen, Fort Meade and the DC Metro area and the overall need to cut traffic growth in the I-95 corridor gets more crucial, this idea for downgrading MARC into a new kind of localized crosstown service looks increasingly absurd. It appears to have been quietly scuttled in favor of a more conventional upgrade of existing MARC service.
Heavy Rail Extension - The 2002 plan looked to have a huge role for expansion of the heavy rail Metro, calling for a multi-billion dollar extension of the existing line to Morgan State University, Hamilton, Perry Hall, White Marsh, Middle River, Martin Airport, and along I-95. The rhetoric of the plan also strongly implied that other legs of the system would be built to high heavy rail standards as well, if not actually as heavy rail, with maximum segregation of traffic and transit. However, ever since, the MTA seems to have done everything possible to disown the idea of heavy rail expansion.

Light Rail - Filling the void left by the rejection of heavy rail and Mini-MARC is light rail. As such, the MTA has fully embraced light rail not because of any inherent advantages that it might have, but simply because of its flexibility as a "default" mode that can be built just about anywhere, even where it really does not fit. This is the same mentality that led to the debacle of light rail on Howard Street, where it overwhelms the streetscape but is still painfully slow.

Bus Rapid Transit - On paper, this is the best mode, with the lowest cost and the highest ridership. In accordance with federal regulations, the MTA must study it. However, nobody who is still anybody has expressed any enthusiasm for it. The relative positive attributes of BRT seem to be mostly due to the poor performance of the MTA's other alternatives.

In sum, in the six years since the 2002 plan was completed, there is practically nothing coming out of the MTA rail transit planning to be enthusiastic about. The MTA is pretending that the current Red Line planning is still on track as an outgrowth of the 2002 plan, but the foundation of that plan has been totally eaten away.

The MTA is still pretending that they can build a comprehensive rail transit system in the Baltimore area, based on using all-purpose light rail, but they have provided no evidence that they can. When they finally release their long-awaited Red Line Draft Environmental Impact Statement, we can find out for sure.

But let's not wait for that. It's actually a rather simple matter to envision the replacement of the MTA's all-purpose "one size fits all" light rail planning with something that can really work.

It's all a matter of respecting the hierarchy between the various transit modes.


NEEDED: A HIERARCHICAL RAIL TRANSIT SYSTEM

Once the transit needs are broken down into a hierarchy, everyone should easily agree on what should be done.
LEVEL ONE: INTERREGIONAL COMMUTER RAIL

We should all agree that a new East Baltimore MARC commuter rail station needs to be built very quickly, and the West Baltimore MARC Station needs to be upgraded in a big way. These two stations need to be tied into the MTA's comprehensive system to the maximum extent possible, so that Baltimore is an integral part of the new interregional transit system.


The way in which MARC ties into the Washington Metro system is a perfect model for this. Union Station has a MARC/Metro transfer. New Carrollton is a comprehensive MARC/Metro/WMATA bus transit hub, and Silver Spring and Greenbelt also perform these functions. Baltimore needs as much.

MARC is by far the MTA's most successful transit system, in ridership growth and in winning the hearts and minds of the mainstream traveling public that wonders what the MTA can do for them. MARC travels from Washington, DC to the Baltimore region, and then on to Perryville in Cecil County, and eventually (we should all agree) onward to (at least) Wilmington, Delaware.
This is the rail network that accommodates the very longest transit trips in the larger super-region of which Baltimore is now an integral part, extending far beyond the traditional five county definition of the Baltimore region. We should all agree that the boundaries between the Baltimore and Washington region are becoming increasingly blurry.

While it still may be controversial to say that Baltimore is now a suburb of Washington, it's also beside the point, since Baltimore and Washington are both now part of a larger mega-metropolitan area that transcends traditional urban boundaries.
Instead of subverting the natural hierarchical transit order by concocting a "Mini-MARC" system that seems to behave like a lower level in the hierarchical transit chain, we must make the MARC system serve this larger interregional corridor as well as possible. The MARC plan should thus not obsess over a trips from, say, the Sandtown-Winchester to Madison Park neighborhoods, and thereby clog up the network that is trying to accommodate the longer interregional trips.

In any event, the whole "Mini-MARC" concept has gotten scant attention since the 2002 plan was created, so good riddance. MARC and Amtrak need lots of attention, but not that kind of attention.
And most obviously, the Level One Interregional Rail system needs to tie much more effectively into the Level Two Regional Rail system.
LEVEL TWO: REGIONAL RAIL
We should all agree that the connection between the Red Line and the West Baltimore MARC Station should be as high quality as possible. The New Carrollton and Union Station DC Metro Stations are good models. Red Line service between West MARC and Downtown should be at least as good, which it can be because of the opportunities of the Franklin-Mulberry Corridor.
The proposed Red Line connection to an East Baltimore MARC Station at Bayview in the MTA's current Red Line plan has been somewhat of an afterthought, and was not incorporated into that plan until relatively recently last year.
The MTA has also proposed a second East Baltimore MARC Station along the Green Line extension near Hopkins Hospital at Madison Park.
The MTA needs to determine the best and most expeditious place to build a comprehensive MARC/regional rail/bus transit hub in East Baltimore, and make its regional rail line the highest priority project. The candidates are Bayview along the Red Line, Madison Park along the Green Line, or in between at Edison/Monument along a realigned Green Line.
A Madison Park MARC station would be a 4 to 5 minute transit ride to downtown on the Green Line Metro. An Edison/Monument MARC station would be a 6 to 7 minute transit ride to downtown along the Green Line Metro. A Bayview MARC station would be something like a 20 to 25 minute ride to downtown along the Red Line light rail, and would also be the most expensive.
It seems rather obvious that the MTA's Red Line plan is the worst.

LEVEL THREE: LOCAL URBAN RAIL
We should all agree that streetcars can provide rail transit service in localized urban areas that regional rail simply can't.
The MTA currently has no official role in any streetcar planning. Their 2002 plan doesn't even acknowledge the idea.

But the Charles Street Development Corporation is taking a very proactive stance on getting a streetcar line in the north corridor. They are not waiting around for the MTA to build the Yellow Line contained in their "official" rail transit plan. The CSDC rightly does not want to wait that long, which could be forever.
A very modest but highly visible streetcar network would allow Baltimore to create a comprehensive rail transit system very quickly - especially compared with the multi-decade snail's pace of the MTA's "one size fits all" planning process.
Streetcars have tremendous advantages over regional rail in established urban corridors. Streetcars can coexist with parking and pedestrian patterns and have reasonably walkable station spacing. Streetcars do not conflict with travel and circulation patterns that have evolved over many decades and would only be upset by the introduction of regional rail. Just look at what happened with light rail on Howard Street.
At the same time, streetcars do not need to be fast because they are oriented to short distance trips where comfort, user-friendliness, community compatibility, and reliability are much more important than speed.
The MTA's Red Line does not connect directly to the heavy rail Metro. It also does not directly serve the Inner Harbor. Everyone should immediately recognize that these two failings are simply unacceptable.
Mayor Shiela Dixon's transition team report stated that rail transit on Pratt Street, the front door of the Inner Harbor, should be a priority. The MTA rejected this, but Mayor Dixon's advisors were correct.
So we should all agree that as soon as possible:
  • Baltimore's transit system needs ARTERIES - to be intimately tied into the MARC commuter rail system serving the larger "super-region" extending from Washington, DC toward Delaware.
  • Baltimore's transit system needs BONES AND MUSCLES - to be intimately fused together with a network of comprehensive intermodal transit hubs.
  • Baltimore's transit system needs AN ATTRACTIVE SKIN - to have the best and most attractive possible "urban face" provided by streetcars in the high visibility corridors of the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Charles Street and other special locations that give the city its unique signature.

May 26, 2008

Red Line Portal


THE PORTAL TO A RED LINE THAT WOULD ACTUALLY WORK EFFECTIVELY
If the Maryland Transit Administration would listen to just one of my recommendations for the Red Line, let it be this one: Put the tunnel portal in the proper place, just south of the Charles Center Metro Station.

Here is what a proper Red Line portal location could accomplish:
  • A huge cost savings from the avoidance of tunneling south and east of Charles Center and through Fells Point.

  • Full integration between the Red Line and the existing subway at the Charles Center Metro Station.

  • The ability to branch the Red Line into as many as four directions south of Charles Center - toward Harbor East and Fells Point to the east, toward Federal Hill to the south, toward Mount Clare to the west and connecting into the existing light rail line at Camden Yards to the southwest.

  • Full integration with the proposed Charles Street streetcar line to the north toward Penn Station and Charles Village, by way of an additional portal at Preston Gardens (St. Paul Street near Saratoga).

  • Connections at the Charles Center Metro Station to ALL rail transit lines, even the existing light rail line from Downtown to BWI-M Airport, although not light rail to the north toward Hunt Valley.

  • Red Line service directly to the Inner Harbor along Pratt Street.

  • The flexibility to design and operate the Red Line as a single vehicle streetcar line in mixed traffic where streetcars are appropriate, and as multi-car light rail trains where light rail is deemed appropriate, as dictated by specific local street and neighborhood conditions.
The MTA Red Line alternatives provide none of these things. The MTA Red Line alternatives avoid the Charles Center Metro Station completely, with a potential connection at the end of a cave-like pedestrian passageway of a block or two in length.

In effect, putting the Red Line portal in the proper place would allow the MTA to create a full eight or nine legged rail transit system with a centrally integrated hub for about the same price as that strange disconnected concoction that they're currently contemplating.
A great portal location would be as shown in the above photo, along Light Street near Redwood Street, one block south of the Charles Center Metro Station under Baltimore Street. A portal here would then allow the Red Line to be fully integrated into the Metro Station, then come out of the ground immediately south of it, so that the rest of the line to the east can be fully integrated into the city itself. There should not be any more expensive, disruptive, wasteful, remote and anti-urban tunneling than absolutely necessary.
None of the MTA Red Line alternatives has the eastern portal located anywhere near downtown. This means a lot of very expensive additional tunneling in the area in and east of downtown. What's worse is that it means that the Red Line will be isolated from all the other transit lines on and under the downtown streets, including the existing Metro subway and light rail, as well as the proposed Charles Street trolley line.
The most commonly cited problem with the existing MTA rail transit system is that the lines don't connect to each other - and the MTA is ready to make exactly the same mistake again with the Red Line. The only other alternative the MTA has left is to run the Red Line entirely on surface streets through downtown, with no portal at all. This would repeat the second most commonly cited problem with the existing light rail line on Howard Street - that it gets bogged down in traffic and is too slow.

The MTA has been planning the Red Line with the kind of schizophrenia that comes from desperation. They want to build a great regionally-oriented transit line that goes from one end of the city to the other. They want it to embrace new urbanism in Fells Point and Canton, encourage workforce housing (which is the code name for affordable) in West Baltimore, and serve suburbia in the Woodlawn/Security area. They realize that they have to somehow squeeze it into a lot of tight spaces and give it some advantages over clogged congested cars. They are somehow trying to give the Red Line the speed and widespread geographic coverage of a heavy rail system, the design flexibility of a light rail system, and the charm of a streetcar system.

The MTA has even discovered a suitable vehicle to try to achieve all that: The Skoda from the Czech Republic, which is about 30 feet shorter than the current light rail vehicles, but can be formed into trains that are as long as the hopefully strong ridership requires. If you buy the stripped down standard equipment motor, the Skoda is woefully underpowered to achieve the MTA's objectives, but they should be able to spring for some kind of extra-cost optional supercharged performance package. Unfortunately, speed is precisely what urbanites don't like along their local streets. The Skoda is also as cute as a streetcar, although again, if you hook three of them together they will create an excessively imposing 200 foot long train which will totally overwhelm any finely-grained urban streetscape.

So the result is an almost impossible balancing act between charm without harm and the need for speed.
All of that makes the location of subway-to-surface portal east of downtown extremely crucial.
What is needed is a Red Line that creates the kind of comprehensive center city transit hub which is the hallmark of any modern decent rail transit system, while also providing a strong surface presence that intimately enhances the most important, vital and livable urban streets.

The key to curing Red Line schizophrenia is to keep the multiple personalities as distinct as possible, which means putting the portal in the proper place.
UNDERGROUND AND ABOVE GROUND WHERE IT SHOULD BE


The mezzanine level of the existing Charles Center Metro Station has a huge amount of wasted space which could be well used by the Red Line - and by transfers between all the heavy rail, light rail and streetcar lines.

The Red Line needs to be underground from the east end of the fast Franklin-Mulberry corridor to the Charles Center Metro Station. By doing this, Charles Center Metro station will finally become the kind of comprehensive rail transit hub that was originally envisioned when it was designed in the early 1970s. It would also assure that the western leg of the Red Line out to Franklin-Mulberry, the West MARC Station and beyond will be the kind of fast efficient regionally-oriented transit line that the MTA wants it to be.
Then the Red Line needs to be on the surface of Pratt Street through the Inner Harbor, centerpiece of the iconic modern Baltimore. Mayor Dixon's original transition team tried to get the MTA to locate the Red Line on Pratt Street through the Inner Harbor for this reason, which the MTA rejected.

Until now, however, just east of downtown toward Fells Point has been the place where Red Line schizophrenia has most reared its ugly head. The line either had to be an expensive, disruptive tunnel or a slow out-of-place surface alignment gobbling up precious parking spaces and even more precious urban charm. Or the worst of all worlds: A Red Line that attempts to be fast but fails, and is just a beached whale.
So as much as possible of the Red Line should be above ground - to be built at reasonable cost, to avoid Boston big-dig style disruptions, disasters and surprises, and to be weaved into the urban fabric with a presence that becomes an integral part of the urban lifestyle.

The perfect portal place is anywhere just south of the Charles Center Metro Station, so the Red Line can be integrated there. Everything northwest of that point will be fast, regional and underground - almost like heavy rail- and everything south and east of that point will be local and intimate - like a streetcar.


This operating diagram shows the Charles Center Metro Station as the transfer point between the Green and Red Lines, and for all the lines in the entire system, except half the light rail. On this plan, the line to Harbor East and Fells Point is called the Purple Line because it is streetcars, while the Red Line connects to the light rail line to BWI-M Airport. But they would share the same tracks and use the same Skoda vehicles and are thus interchangeable.
This will also make it easy to create branches to the Red Line in any direction - east through the Inner Harbor, Harbor east and Fells Point, south through Federal Hill and west and southwest too.

This is important not only because it maximizes connectivity, which is something in extremely short supply in the MTA plans. But to reinforce this, it also creates maximum operating flexibility. The Skoda vehicles can be operated as single streetcars and as light rail trains in whatever proportion, to whatever destinations on whatever routes are appropriate.

The "Down Under" alignment concept (discussed in a previous blog article) fully supports this, but there should be other alternative portal locations that work as well.

The MTA should get their engineers to be creative and identify alternative portal locations that will accomplish this.

One location that should work would be right in the middle of Light Street in the vicinity of Redwood and Lombard Street, one block south of the Charles Center Metro Station. This will work with the topography of the area. The Metro Station is under a ridge that has its high point just north of Baltimore Street. The portal would be downhill from this point, so that it could be built into the hill.


This hill on St. Paul at Saratoga Street in Preston Gardens which is now used as a traffic slalom could be another portal between the Charles Center Metro Station and the Charles Street Trolley (Yellow Line)

This plan would also be fully compatible with a Charles Street Trolley (Yellow Line) on St. Paul Street going into a Preston Gardens portal. The amount of additional tunneling would be minimal.

In sum, the MTA could put the Red Line on whatever streets they want to the east and west of this point. To the west of the Charles Center Terminal, it would be a fast regional line. To the south and east, it could start with the Red Line and then fan out into an entire network of routes.

The Red Line would no longer exude schizophrenia. Its multiple personalities would no longer conflict, but would instead be a single complex personality that adapts to each area it serves, the way a true transit network should perform.

May 5, 2008

The Baltimore InnerSpace Transit Plan



THE FULLY INTEGRATED METRO/LIGHT RAIL/STREETCAR PLAN

Every transit system worth its salt needs an "icon map" that should be plastered everywhere in the system, like pictures of Chairman Mao in China. My first attempt at such a map is the crudely drawn amateur graphics version shown above. You can get almost anywhere in this system from either the Charles Center or Lexington Market Metro Stations, and anywhere at all from one station or the other.

This system relies on the heavy rail Metro Green Line and the almost-heavy rail Red Line to do all the heavy lifting. The Blue and Orange lines are the existing quasi-regional light rail lines.

The Yellow, Brown , Purple and Gray lines are for streetcars, which serve all inner city destinations in a manner that is in harmony with their streetscapes, but which fully connect to the system inside the two major downtown Metro subway stations.

The key to a successful transit system is downtown connectivity, and the key to this connectivity is a comprehensive downtown transit hub built into the "Down Under" parking garage.

The "Down Under" parking garage puts the comprehensive downtown transit hub right where it should be - underneath the middle of downtown, where it can connect to everything. It also allows the portals that bring the transit lines from underground up to the surface to be located as close to the hub as possible.

This maximizes the advantages of an underground transit hub which serves the existing Metro, while allowing the maximum amount of the rail transit system to be built on the urban surface. This saves a huge amount of money on tunneling, while linking the transit lines as intimitely as possible with the surface street activities.

The portals would be located at:

1. South, East and West: Lombard at Hanover Street - just south of Charles Center at an existing parking garage entrance.

2. West: MLK Boulevard at the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway - just west of downtown where it would connect directly to the 16 block Franklin-Mulberry "Edge City" development.

3. North: St. Paul Street near Saratoga - built into a southern extension of the wall that defines Preston Gardens.

To make this comprehensive "Down Under" transit hub as fully functional as possible, it simply needs to be built as part of a relatively inexpensive rail transit system which includes:

1. A short Red Line westward through the Franklin-Mulberry corridor to the existing West MARC Station - approximately two miles.

2. A short Green Line Metro extension east of Hopkins Hospital to a new East MARC Station - approximately two miles.

3. A streetcar system that serves the inner city in all directions -

(a) northward toward Charles Village and possibly Northwood/Morgan State
(b) southward toward Federal Hill and possibly Port Covington
(c) eastward toward Fells Point and possibly Canton
(d) westward toward the Mount Clare B&O Museum and possibly Montgomery Park.

4. New bus transit hubs located at three key locations:

(a) West MARC Station - Franklin at Pulaski Street
(b) East MARC Station - Edison Highway at Monument Street
(c) Lexington Market Metro Station - Eutaw at Saratoga Street

Many intermediate destinations would also be served as well as possible by this arrangement, on the street surfaces and not underground. These most notably include the Inner Harbor along the sections of both Pratt and Light Streets which are to be rebuilt in a manner which is optimum for streetcars, as well as Harbor East, Camden Station and Penn Station.

There are several other keys to making this plan work in the most flexible possible manner: The Red Line should be built to work with either light rail or streetcar vehicles between Downtown and the West MARC station. South of Downtown, the Red Line should then connect to the existing central light rail line toward Camden Station and beyond.

It may also be worthwhile to make the streetcars and the central light rail line compatible, at least in key inner city locations.

Both of the downtown hubs under this plan, at Charles Center and Lexington Market, would provide direct connections between the Metro, light rail and streetcar systems. The Lexington Market hub would also connect directly to the bus system. The Metro would provide connections to the west and east MARC stations, while the light rail and streetcar lines would connect to the Camden and Penn MARC Stations.

CHARLES CENTER "DOWN UNDER" RAIL TRANSIT HUB

This hub would operate on two levels crossing at a right angle, connected by escalators, similarly to the way most modern downtown rail transit terminals operate, such as MetroCenter, Gallery Place and L'Enfant Plaza in Washington DC.

The existing Metro line running east-west under Baltimore Street would be on one level. The other level would incorporate both the light rail Red Line and the various streetcar lines running north-south approximately under what was once Hanover Street in the "Down Under" garage.

The light rail Red Line would extend through this station from under Lexington Street to the west to the Lombard/Hanover portal to the south.

The streetcar lines would make the same connections as the Red Line, and would also run eastward under Lexington Street to the Preston Gardens portal where it would proceed northward along St. Paul Street.

LEXINGTON MARKET RAIL/BUS TRANSIT HUB


The Red Line, which would accommodate both light rail and streetcars, would be built under Lexington Street through the Lexington Market Rail/Bus Transit Hub. The east end of the station would be under the intersection of Howard Street, and would incorporate escalators up to the surface of Howard Street to connect directly to the existing central light rail line.

Accommodations should also be made for a future connection to the Howard Street CSX tunnel, in the event that this freight tunnel is ever to converted to passenger use.

The west end of the new Red Line station would be under Eutaw Street for a connection to the existing Lexington Market Metro Station, either at the mezzanine level of that station, or via a new escalator linkage.

The north end of the existing Metro station, along Eutaw between Saratoga and Mulberry Streets, would be a new bus transit terminal. This would be on State-owned land immediately adjacent to the existing Metro escalators. The Red Line station under Lexington would be accessible via the existing mezzanine under Eutaw. Thus, the Lexington Market Rail/Bus Transit Hub would be shaped like an "L" under Eutaw Street (Metro) and Lexington Street (Red Line). The top (north end) of the "L" would be the bus terminal, linking directly to the existing Metro. The bottom (south end) of the "L" would be the Red Line, linking directly to the existing Howard Street light rail line.




A SAMPLE OPERATING PLAN



To illustrate the high degree of connectivity which this plan offers, here is one of the many ways that such a system could be operated.

I have not included the extension of the Red Line westward from the West MARC Station to Social Security, because I have not seen a way in which it can really work. (I don't like to discuss ideas unless I believe they are do-able). When a viable Red Line plan for Edmondson Avenue and Cooks Lane, or anywhere else, is presented by the MTA or whomever, I will jump on board.

In any event, a westward Red Line extension to Security can be built as a later stage.

For similar reasons, an eastward Green Line Metro extension to Middle River is also possible, but not shown here.

However, an additional Green Line Metro extension southeastward along the Haven Street corridor to Bayview, Highlandtown, Greektown, Brewers Hill and Canton Crossing is included, because it appears to be inexpensive and emminently feasible as the first subsequent extension to the basic plan.

The sample operating plan is as follows. Not all stations are listed.

METRO GREEN LINE

Owings Mills
State Center
Lexington Market - bus terminal - transfer to Red, Purple, Blue and Orange Lines
Charles Center - transfer to Red, Purple, Yellow and Brown Lines
Hopkins Hospital
Berea/Biotech Park
East MARC Station - bus terminal
Bayview
Highlandtown/Greektown
Brewers Hill
Canton Crossing

LIGHT RAIL RED LINE

BWI-M Airport
Camden Station - MARC - transfer to Blue and Orange Lines
Convention Center - transfer to Gray and Brown Lines
Charles Center - transfer to Green, Purple, Brown and Yellow Lines
Lexington Market - bus terminal and transfer to Green, Blue and Orange Lines
Heritage Crossing
Franklin Square
West MARC Station - bus terminal

LIGHT RAIL BLUE LINE

Glen Burnie/Cromwell
Camden Station - MARC - transfer to Orange and Red Lines
Baltimore Arena
Lexington Market - bus terminal and transfer to Green, Red, Orange and Purple Lines
Centre Street
State Center
University of Baltimore
Hunt Valley

LIGHT RAIL ORANGE LINE

BWI-M Airport
Camden Station - MARC - transfer to Red and Blue Lines
Baltimore Arena
Lexington Market - bus terminal and transfer to Red, Green, Blue and Purple Lines
Centre Street
State Center
University of Baltimore
Penn Station - MARC - transfer to Brown and Yellow Lines



STREETCAR YELLOW LINE

Northwood/Morgan State
Memorial Stadium
Waverly
Charles Village
Penn Station - MARC - transfer to Orange Line
Mount Vernon
Preston Gardens
Charles Center - transfer to Green, Red, Brown and Purple Lines
Inner Harbor/Light Street
Federal Hill
South Baltimore
Port Covington



STREETCAR PURPLE LINE

West MARC - bus terminal
Franklin Square
Heritage Crossing
Lexington Market - bus terminal and transfer to Green, Red, Blue and Orange Lines
Charles Center - transfer to Green, Red, Brown and Yellow Lines
Inner Harbor/Pratt Street
Harbor East
Fells Point



STREETCAR GRAY LINE

Montgomery Park
Mount Clare
University of Maryland
Camden Yards - transfer to Red, Blue and Orange Lines
Convention Center
Inner Harbor/Pratt Street - transfer to Purple and Yellow Lines
Harbor East
Fells Point

STREETCAR BROWN LINE

Northwood/Morgan State
Memorial Stadium
Waverly
Charles Village
Penn Station - MARC - transfer to Orange Line
Mount Vernon
Preston Gardens
Charles Center - transfer to Green, Red, Yellow and Purple Line
Convention Center - transfer to Red, Orange, Gray and Blue Line
Camden Yards

University of Maryland
Mount Clare
Montgomery Park



And I think I've run out of colors so I'll quit now...

April 23, 2008

Charles Street Trolley Extension


A STREETCAR NAMED ASPIRE

For the proposed Charles Street Trolley line to truly fit into its own distinct place in the region's transit system, it should be extended eastward along 33rd Street to Baltimore City College, then northward on Loch Raven Boulevard to Northwood Shopping Center near Morgan State University.

This would be a modest expansion to a modest project, but it would increase its scope dramatically, and transform the trolley from being a community-based initiative to one with truly regional significance. It would elevate the trolley into a vehicle for the transformation of the transit system and its aspiration for excellence.

Operationally, it would simply allow the current #3 bus line, which also serves Northwood Shopping Center along Loch Raven Boulevard, to make a much quicker trip to Downtown, allowing it to bypass the more urban Charles Village corridor and let the trolley serve that area instead.

Such a trolley line would serve an expanded "Uptown" corridor that would include not only Charles Village, but Waverly and the Memorial Stadium area, as well as Northwood and Morgan State University. Trolleys are much more suited to serve this type of medium and high density multi-use urban corridor. This would allow the #3 bus line, and also the major #8 bus line on Greenmount and the more meandering #36 bus line, to focus on what they can do better - linking more suburban areas to downtown, while also serving as feeders to the trolley line.

A daunting problem of the current Charles Street trolley proposal is that it provides redundant service to the MTA bus lines that are already in the corridor. This redundancy would no doubt be exacerbated if the trolley line were run by a separate independent entity and not the MTA. Would the MTA work closely with the Charles Street Development Corporation and its trolley offspring to ensure that all transit modes function in concert as a cohesive system? There's not much chance of that happening, since the MTA hasn't even had a proactive role in the streetcar planning, much less in its implementation. They have virtually no stake in the trolley's success. They also have enough trouble running their own shop, much less trying to ensure the success of another independent operator.

The scope of the Charles Street Trolley project needs to be expanded so it is just big enough to make a big impact, and to demand that the MTA adopt it and work to make it work.

EXPANDING THE TROLLEY INTO THE 33RD STREET- NORTHWOOD CORRIDOR

Turning the trolley line eastward onto 33rd Street from the Charles/St. Paul Corridor at Hopkins University is a very natural thing to do, both physically and operationally. Physically, 33rd Street has a very wide median framed by trees that could form an organic canopy for the streetcars to travel under. Operationally, 33rd Street is already a major link for the high-volume #3 bus line between the northeast Loch Raven corridor and the north central Charles/St. Paul Corridor.


The tree canopy of the 33rd Street median would be an ideal place for the Charles Street Trolley line in the Waverly Business District looking west toward Greenmount Avenue.

It seems rather odd, however, for the #3 bus line to make this diversionary shift from one corridor to another on its way downtown. The fact that this shift adds many riders to the #3 line is a strong suggestion that this route would be more appropriate for a streetcar line, which is a transit mode specifically tailored to the needs of a multi-use urban environment, than for the #3 bus line which could then focus on the traditional suburb to downtown radial function. This would be accomplished by running the #3 bus line all the way down Loch Raven instead of making the detour to Charles Village, as would some major improvements to expedite traffic in this area (see blog article on the Jones Falls/Belvidere connection). The #3 line could also then be converted into an express-style "QuickBus" like the recently instituted #40 east-west line.

The Northwood Shopping Center on Loch Raven Boulevard would be a perfect location for a transit terminal to connect the end of the trolley line to the #3 bus line. Located at the southern end of Morgan State University, this shopping center could be re-fashioned into a "college-town" commercial district in the same way as is being done in the district at Johns Hopkins University (also along the trolley line) in a very vibrant and successful way.


Northwood Shopping Center looking toward the big empty former Hecht Company department store, with Morgan State University dorms hovering overhead in the background. This parking lot could be made into a campus main street business district at the end of the streetcar line.

The Northwood Shopping Center has suffered from the same kind of obsolescence as many other old suburban style retail centers. But the surrounding neighborhood is extremely solid, so a redesign that integrates the retail into both the community and the campus could create a sense of ownership and identity among residents and students, instead of allowing the shopping center to be an isolated island of blight and abandonment.

From this point, the trolley line would proceed southward on Loch Raven Boulevard and The Alameda to 33rd Street. All three of these streets have wide attractive medians that are tailor-made for streetcar lines. One of the great things about streetcar tracks is that grass can still grow between the rails, and trees can readily hover over the top to blend into the sylvan setting. This portion of the Northwood and Lakeside neighborhoods could become Baltimore's version of Cleveland's Shaker Heights, conjuring up a lifestyle of gracious trolleys traversing amid gracious mid-century homes.

Loch Raven Boulevard just south of Northwood Shopping Center could become Baltimore's Shaker Heights.

From The Alameda, the trolley line would turn into 33rd Street, thus becoming another part of an educational district of vast potential. Just south of 33rd Street is one of the city's select few truly monumental edifices, the Baltimore City College - also known as the "Castle on the Hill".

The "Castle on the Hill" - Baltimore City College seen on the distant horizon from Loch Raven Boulevard.

This building represents Baltimore's fleeting brush with greatness as a world-class urban center. Baltimore City College is actually a high school, not a college. It's a high school that was referred to as a college, because when it was built in the 1920s, it was part of a lofty ambition to treat high school students as if they were college students.

While nowadays, the image of the Baltimore City school system gets constantly trashed by almost everyone, suffering an even worse reputation than the MTA, this magnificent building is a gigantic symbol of everything that this city could and once did aspire to - not just in education but in everything. Just compare the ambitions represented by this cathedral of learning to the school system's current educational goal of attempting to get the citywide high school drop-out rate below 60 percent. And even worse, Baltimoreans are often now literally scared out of their wits by city high school students marauding on MTA buses.

Linking City College to the trolley line would put it directly in the educational chain from Morgan State University, the city's leading historically black college, to Hopkins University, the city's historically almost-Ivy League college, to the midtown University of Baltimore, Maryland Institute College of Art, and Peabody Conservatory.

Across the street from City College, Johns Hopkins has already taken over a vacant city high school and turned it into an adjunct to their campus a mile to the west. What is needed here, again, is to create a seamless physical integration of Johns Hopkins at Eastern with Baltimore City College - to link the architectural glory of the City College high school with the educational aspirations of Johns Hopkins University. Instead of parking lots and vacuous spaces between athletic fields, there needs to be a true campus environment.


Baltimore City College (left) and Johns Hopkins at Eastern seen from the former Memorial Stadium site.

There is plenty of room for links to economic aspiration as well - for new business development to bring the "real world" into this educational nexus. This site was formerly occupied by Memorial Stadium, home of the Orioles and Colts for half a century. When it was torn down in the 90s, there was, of course, talk of lofty ambitions of what could take its place, but the only new construction has been an old-folks housing complex and a YMCA recreational center. Yes, these are great for the community, but they hardly fill the huge acreage or the tremendous potential of this area. The streetcar line could be just the construction project needed to get those ambitions stirring again.


The partially completed but mostly vacant Memorial Stadium redevelopment site, seen from Johns Hopkins at Eastern. The white rowhouses in the background used to be the backdrop behind centerfield (the trees were smaller then), making this one of the American League's toughest places to hit a white ball coming out of the pitcher's hand.

Further west along 33rd Street is the Waverly community, an area that took the role as the local "host" to the Orioles and Colts fans during their long reign. Since the fans left for Camden Yards in the 1990s, the entire Waverly community has felt like aging empty-nest parents whose kids have flown the coop, leaving the big Waverly house disturbingly quiet. Many Waverly folks miss the attention and the hub-bub, while many others have just taken it in with quiet resignation or have left for the old folks housing. The streetcar line would be a stimulating injection for Waverly.

A BRIEF RECENT HISTORY OF BALTIMORE'S TRANSIT ASPIRATIONS

Baltimore seems to veer schizophrenically between super grand visions and modest little gestures. The regional rail transit plan released in 2002 was a grand vision of ridiculous proportions. The City Paper called it "pornography" because it was designed for transit geeks to drool all over it in their wet dreams.

That plan had pretty much the same central corridor rapid transit line from Downtown to Towson that was contained in the 1966 plan. That would have cost a cool few billion in current dollars if it was all built underground as everyone hoped, dreamed and anticipated.

Eventually in the 1990s, Baltimore settled for building the Central Light Rail cheap choo-choo in the Jones Falls Valley, well away from the population centers that would have been served by the previous and subsequent proposals.

The grandiose 2002 plan was supposed to compensate for the shortcomings of the 1990s light rail line, but now in 2008 comes the Charles Street Trolley plan, which is another excursion back to the reality of modest proposals.

Meanwhile, in the northeast corridor, the old 1966 plan called for a major heavy rail DC-Metro style subway line to the suburb of Overlea, which is just outside the city line but was then near the outer edge of suburbia. By the 1980s, this line was scaled back to only go to Memorial Stadium, about four miles north of downtown. At that time, Memorial Stadium was already being contemplated for demolition, but it was widely felt that even in that case, it would be replaced with something suitably ambitious and befitting of the end of a transit line.

By the '90s, that plan was scaled back even more, and the Metro line was extended only to Hopkins Hospital just east of downtown. Ambition again took a back seat.

But the 2002 regional rail plan revived the full-fledged dream and then some. The Metro line was identified for extension to Morgan State University as a high priority project (equal in priority to the Red Line now being studied) as the first phase of a line that would subsequently to extended further northeast to Hamilton, then way out into the suburbs to White Marsh and then looping back southward to the Martin section of Middle River.

Please note that because this would be an extension of the existing line, all built as DC-Metro style fully grade separated heavy rail, and much of it would have to be built underground. It would probably match the mega-billion dollar Boston Big Dig for sheer ridiculous unadulterated balls to even contemplate building such a thing. Needless to say, this insane project has whimpered away into the transit annals of obscurity and slow death.

So now, since heavy rail is no longer in the cards, we are left with no rail transit plan to Morgan State.

STREETCARS: A NEW KIND OF TRANSIT ASPIRATION

The thing that really bugs people about the dismantling of streetcar systems such as Baltimore's in the 1950s and 1960s is that nothing decent took its place. Yes, the streetcar lines were already rotting from neglect at that time, but this went far beyond mere physical neglect to include the entire mismanagement of our cities.
Modern streetcar plans such as on Charles Street are nothing more and nothing less than a new way to look at the city.

The Charles Street Trolley is designed without pretensions to simply fit into the street as attractively as possible, so that people can travel in style along Baltimore's foremost four-mile corridor from Downtown to Midtown to Uptown. The allusions to Manhattan are not a coincidence, so OK - the pretensions are here after all.

What it amounts to is the same as if you're remodeling an entire house, you can't afford to install marble floors and rare Brazilian rainforest paneling in every room. But if you're just re-doing the little powder room under the back stairs, then to heck with it... Go ahead and splurge on the marble tile.

The Charles Street trolley should be expanded slightly from a community project to a new kind of linkage between principal points in Baltimore's urban chain, and so that buses - those vehicles of expedience - can serve the regional and downtown network more efficiently.
It's the same reason that in its heyday, the City of Baltimore built an incredible temple to learning in the Baltimore City College. Can ostentatious Gothic architecture and streetcars be vehicles for aspiration and learning? Yes, they can.

April 2, 2008

Light St. Paul St.


LIGHT ST. PAUL ST.: BALTIMORE'S MAIN STREET FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

"Main Street U.S.A." conjures up an image of olde-tyme Americana where everything came together in one place. Mythical Main Street handled the most traffic, the most transit and most importantly, was the front door for everything important.

Charles Street was Baltimore's traditional Main Street, but its role was greatly diminished by the emergence of the Inner Harbor as the new focal point in the 1970s. In the six blocks adjacent to the Inner Harbor south of Pratt Street, Charles Street became the back alley behind the big buildings facing the waterfront. This dead space subsequently diminished the rest of Charles Street, since anything not associated with the Inner Harbor became second string, hidden from view and attention.

Beyond that, the fall of Charles Street was commonly blamed on its conversion to one-way traffic flow in the 1950s. Obviously, any street that carries traffic in only one direction loses some of its geographic importance, at least as far as vehicles are concerned (although there's no law about which direction pedestrians must walk in.)

With the advent of the Inner Harbor, Pratt Street (also one-way) was supposed to replace Charles as the city's new Main Street. But Pratt has suffered from its own design flaws, and simply does not have the length and continuity to assume an expanded role as Main Street, commensurate with the scale of Baltimore's new expanded downtown. East of President Street and west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, Pratt is just another local street. Pratt also skirts the historic center of downtown to the north, so any focus on Pratt remains at the expense of the traditional downtown. The Inner Harbor portion of Pratt Street is now slated for redesign, but that will do nothing to expand its geographic significance.

Baltimore needs a new Main Street that can serve as a focal point for both the Inner Harbor and for the historic downtown center. There is but one street that fills the bill; unfortunately, it has two names - Light and Saint Paul Streets. But this is the street that is poised to assume the mantel of Baltimore's Main Street.

If U2 had been from Baltimore instead of Ireland, they would have probably written a song called "Where the Streets Have Two Names". Such streetzophrenia happens all too frequently in around here, where everything seems to be caused by historic happenstance. But while Light and St. Paul St. suffer from a multiple personality crisis and almost criminally bad urban design, the street has built-in geographic advantages that no other street in Baltimore can match.

Light Saint Paul Street sees it all. It runs right to the front door of the Inner Harbor. It continues northward as the widest north-south street through most of downtown. It traverses the base of Mount Vernon Place. It serves Penn Station directly. It is at the center of the new Charles Village/Johns Hopkins University business district, and then proceeds northward through Guilford, Baltimore's premier neighborhood of fine old free-standing mansions.

South of the Inner Harbor, Light St. Paul St. is a central spine for the Federal Hill Business District and leads right up to the huge proposed Port Covington Edge City between Interstate 95 and the banks of the Middle Branch, which would make a great southern anchor.

Light St. Paul St. should be the street where Baltimore holds its parades. You know, those events attended by civic-minded folks trying to cling to the last shreds of our shared heritage - St. Patrick's Day, Flag Day, Cinco de Mayo, Gay Pride, This 'n' That - while everyone else just curses at the consequent traffic jams. The traffic jams wouldn't be as bad on a redesigned Light St. Paul as they are on Pratt or Charles Street, and Preston Gardens would add a multi-level experience, taking advantage of the retaining wall that topographically bisects it. Who knows? Light St. Paul Street just might turn parades into a mainstream activity again.

THE KEY TO BEING MAIN STREET:
MAKING LIGHT ST. PAUL STREET TWO-WAY

The biggest problem with Light St. Paul is that most of it carries oppressively huge amounts of traffic, but unlike most other such streets, this traffic problem can be rather easily solved.
The width of Light St. Paul varies wildly. It is extremely distgustingly wide in the Inner Harbor, then it remains fairly wide by Baltimore standards for a few blocks on either side, then it gets very narrow for two blocks in the heart of downtown, then it gets extremely wide again through Preston Gardens to Centre Street.
To create a unified, consistently functioning street, it needs to be made two-way throughout this area between the Inner Harbor and Preston Gardens, and slightly beyond. There actually is a service drive along the upper portion of Preston Gardens that flows in the opposite, or "wrong" direction, but this is rather meaningless and deadening in the context of the entire street. Since the overwhelming flood of traffic is southbound, it still feels like a one-way street.
I'm normally against creating two-way traffic flow merely for its own sake, because of the way it often arbitrarily and capriciously screws up traffic flow, but Light St. Paul could really take advantage of it - to bring the street together in a geographically transparent way to create Baltimore's new Main Street. Since it is possible to disperse much of the through traffic that currently plagues Light St. Paul Street, it should be feasible to make it a happy ceremonial two-way street of the type that urban designers drool over and delude themselves into thinking would spontaneously happen if not for the evil intentions of traffic engineers.
The impact of two-way traffic on transit is mixed. Transit riders benefit greatly by the "geographic transparency" of two-way traffic, to be able to get off and on a transit vehicle at the same place. On the other hand, transit usually suffers much more than automobiles from the congestion created by two-way traffic. Transit vehicles must follow a fixed route and cannot escape to avoid congestion. They also often have great difficulty maneuvering in and out of bottlenecks and lanes blocked by stalled or parked vehicles.
Until just a few years ago, there was a substantial political movement to convert Charles to a two-way street, despite the traffic nightmares this would have caused. It was only when the Charles Street Trolley project got serious that the two-way proposal for Charles got scuttled, because two-way traffic flow on Charles would have been even more difficult for streetcars than it would have been for cars. Yes, there were streetcars on two-way Charles back in the olden days, but despite hazy memories of PCC streetcars, Model T Fords, old codgers and Roger Rabbit, modern people would never have put up with how crappy transit really was back then, or how ill-suited it would be to modern society.
Light Street has also been proposed for conversion to two-way flow south of Baltimore Street in the Inner Harbor planning process now being conducted by Ayers Saint Gross and the streetcar planning process now being conducted by Kittelson & Associates. This segment of Light Street is sufficiently wide that the physical constraints of conversion to two-way flow which afflict most downtown streets can be avoided.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it was ASG that had proposed that Pratt Street be widened into a two-way boulevard in the Inner Harbor - a plan which initially received the blessing of the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, the Downtown Partnership and the Baltimore Development Corporation. Fortunately, they all later realized they were wrong, and that Baltimore InnerSpace was right - Pratt Street should not be made two-way. (Maybe someday they will all realize that this blog is virtually always right about such things.)
So what do we do with Charles Street? We're pretty much stuck with one-way traffic flow on the most important parts of Charles Street, south of 26th Street. There is irony in even calling it the "Charles Street Trolley" if Charles is to remain a one-way street. Obviously, the streetcars will only be on Charles in one direction (northbound) and will be forced to use other streets in the southbound direction.
As currently proposed, the southbound trolley route would use St. Paul north of Mount Royal, and then turn onto a street with quintuple identities - a.k.a. Maryland, Cathedral, Liberty, Hopkins Place and Sharp Street.
This would result in rail transit on four successive non-connecting streets (heavy rail under Eutaw, light rail on Howard, southbound trolleys on Hopkins Place et al, and northbound trolleys on Charles. Combined with the proposed non-connections of the Red Line, these perversions would result in sheer confusion. Most people already curse the lack of a connection between Baltimore's heavy and light rail lines, but this would be even worse.
The best solution to this problem is to instead put the trolleys on as much of the proposed two-way Light St. Paul St. as practicable, and then lend this geographic continuity to one-way Charles Street, one short block away.
Everyone seems to agree that Light Street is the obvious best location for the trolley in the Inner Harbor, where Charles suffers from its "back alley" image. Extending the trolley in both directions on the proposed two-way Light St. Paul St. northward through Preston Gardens would create the clearest possible linkage, and avoid the very narrow and congested portion of Charles Street between Saratoga and Mulberry. Keeping the trolley line on Light St. Paul slightly north of Preston Gardens also would bypass the sensitive issues of running trolleys around the Washington Monument at Mount Vernon Place.


The topography of Preston Gardens would also make it the ideal location for a tunnel portal to run the trolley line into the proposed rail transit center in the Charles Center "Down Under" parking garage (see previous blog article). The trolley line would run along the lower side of Preston Gardens, then into a tunnel which would proceed under Lexington Street westward for one block to Charles Street and then into the "Down Under" Garage. At this point, it would meet all the other rail transit lines in an integrated underground transit terminal - the Red Line, the existing subway, the light rail line (which would connect to the Red Line at Lombard Street) and any and all other trolley lines. An impossible Baltimore transit dream would come true, and our nightmare of unconnectedness would end.
The "Down Under" transit terminal would allow the Charles Street Trolley to serve Charles Street in an ideal way, taking advantage of various access points throughout Charles Center, just as with the existing parking garage. The trolley line would also essentially have no conflicts with cars all the way from Centre Street southward to Lombard Street, encompassing nine of the most congested blocks of the entire corridor.
The "Down Under" transit terminal would offer such tremendous benefits that it must be considered the only alternative - until somebody somehow proves that it won't work.

PUSHING THE THRU TRAFFIC ELSEWHERE
The key traffic issues to making Light St. Paul Street two-way are: (a) preventing as much through traffic as possible from getting to St. Paul Street, and (b) getting as much through traffic as possible that remains on St. Paul. to get off before it gets downtown.
There are four major extraneous sources of through traffic on St. Paul:
  • CHARLES STREET - St. Paul Street originates as a branch off of Charles Street just south of Cold Spring Lane. Ironically, St. Paul and Charles both have more traffic capacity downstream from this point than Charles can feed from upstream at Cold Spring, which is a very congested intersection. Motorists are largely indifferent to whether they use Charles or St. Paul south of the branch. They can go either way.
  • THE JONES FALLS EXPRESSWAY - The very poorly designed ramp from the southbound JFX to St. Paul at Mount Royal Avenue can be closed to prevent a huge infusion of traffic onto St. Paul. There are enough other exits - Maryland Avenue, Guilford Avenue, Pleasant Street and Fayette Street - to handle this traffic. This measure alone would alter traffic volumes and patterns sufficiently to reduce the required traffic capacity on St. Paul Street from three lanes to two.
  • PLEASANT STREET - This westbound street, an extension of the Harford Road corridor, ends at St. Paul, where it dumps all its traffic in the middle of the Mercy Hospital complex. This traffic can be squeezed so that most of it will turn onto Guilford Avenue instead.
  • LOCH RAVEN BOULEVARD CORRIDOR - This major northeast Baltimore arterial ends in the vicinity of 25th Street and Greenmount Avenue. As a result, much of its downtown-bound traffic ends up on St. Paul Street, via Argonne Drive (39th Street), 33rd Street, 29th Street or various other routes. A Greenmount to Jones Falls connector should be built as a powerful alternative route into downtown (see Belvidere blog article).
There are also two major connections that could be used to siphon off through traffic after it gets on St. Paul Street:
  • MOUNT ROYAL AVENUE - St. Paul is wide enough approaching Mount Royal from the north so that a left-turn only lane could be striped to funnel traffic onto eastbound Mount Royal Avenue and then onto southbound Guilford Avenue.
  • EAGER STREET - A mandatory left turn only lane should be designated on St. Paul Street at his intersection to siphon off traffic and lead it to the Eager Street ramp onto the Jones Falls Expressway.
These six alternative routes would have the cumulative effect of diverting traffic away from St. Paul Street such that, south of Eager Street, it could be reduced to merely one lane's worth of traffic as it approaches downtown. This would make it feasible to convert St. Paul to two-way flow approximately as far north as Eager Street (or perhaps Madison or Reed Street in order to achieve a smooth transition.)
The primary route for most of the diverted traffic would be the Jones Falls Expressway corridor. It is therefore incumbent that the traffic flow there be handled in a most efficient manner, and not fall prey to some kind of Champs Elysees Faux Boulevard des Prisons.
REDESIGNING LIGHT ST. PAUL TO BE WORTHY OF ITS NAMES
Once the decision is made to make Light St. Paul Street two-way north of the Inner Harbor, and to divert away the excess through traffic, the next issue is how it should be redesigned to take advantage of this. Here are some guidelines:


1. South of Pratt Street - Light Street in the Inner Harbor needs to be drastically narrowed from its current ultra-bloated ten lane width to a more human scale, to take advantage of its direct and immediate proximity to the Inner Harbor. Between Conway Street and Key Highway, this narrowing should be particularly drastic because the volume which is siphoned off onto Conway is so great that there simply isn't that much traffic left. The photo above shows how hopelessly out of scale this portion of Light Street is now.


2. Between Pratt and Baltimore Street - The new design motif for Light Street south of Pratt should be extended northward to Baltimore Street. This is the best way to finally achieve a long-time urban design goal - to bring the feel of the Inner Harbor into the heart of downtown. This segment of Light Street is sufficiently wide to afford the street designers' much latitude to achieve this goal.
3. Between Baltimore and Lexington Street - In the two blocks north of Baltimore Street to Lexington, Light St. Paul is too narrow to provide a lot of options, but some kind of linkage needs to be made.


4. North of Lexington Street - Here, St. Paul widens again into Preston Gardens. The first and southernmost block must be drastically redesigned as the gateway to Preston Gardens from the center of Downtown and to be a real people magnet. Currently, the traffic islands in this area look superficially nice with green grass and seasonal flowers, but the area is totally devoid of any human-scale activity, a scandalously inexcusable urban design nightmare no-man's land (see blog article on Preston Gardens).


5. Lexington to Centre Street - In the five blocks of Preston Gardens, there must be complete continuity. The traffic islands, loop ramps, and the Orleans Street Viaduct should no longer be allowed to cut off pedestrians. There should also be some kind of urban design motif on the north end of Preston Gardens at Centre Street which establishes unity with the all-important south end at Lexington Street. (These photos show the massive excavation for the Mercy Hospital expansion.)


6. North of Preston Gardens - The photo above shows the north end of Preston Gardens at Centre Street, with the Washington Monument peaking over the tops of the buildings in the upper left corner. At Monument Street, one block north of Centre Street, there should be some kind of design motif which creates a direct linkage between St. Paul Street and Mount Vernon Place. This should also create a unity between St. Paul and Charles Streets - creating a sort of parity between Charles, Baltimore's Main Street of old, and St. Paul - the new Main Street upstart.
7. North of Mount Vernon Place - Here, the distinction between the old and new Main Streets will become blurred as Charles and St. Paul will remain as a one-way traffic couplet.
In sum, all this should make it perfectly clear that Main Street-edness is not a zero-sum game, and that every street can benefit from optimizing the traffic patterns. While most of the attention until now has been lavished on trying to restore Charles Street's past pre-eminence, and while the environment of Light St. Paul St. has a vast potential for improvement, both streets can benefit greatly by each doing what each can do best.