December 14, 2011

Mount Vernon vs. Jones Falls Bikeway

Desolate Jones Falls Bikeway blows opportunity to create a livable Mount Vernon neighborhood
Bikeway now under construction is wedged between the desolation of the Prison District (left) and the Jones Falls Expressway. (The MTA hasn't bothered to move their bus stop out of the way yet.) 

Trying to make the city safer for cyclists sounds like a laudable goal, but the city has once again shown that it is oblivious to its most important priority - neighborhoods.

 Mount Vernon has been clamoring for decades for relief from traffic. Simply, it cannot become a normal cohesive neighborhood as long as many tens of thousands of cars descend daily upon its tight residential streets. Bicyclists have been among the greatest victims. Bikes should be an ideal transportation mode for the historic high density neighborhood, except that the streets are overwhelmed by cars.

The solution is straightforward: Divert as much traffic as possible into the underutilized Jones Falls corridor just to the east, to free up the local residential streets for humans, bikes, and above all, peace and quiet. But the city has never seen fit to do any of that.

The city's latest solution is to move the bikes out of the community, not the cars. The community will continue to suffer while their potential two-wheeled allies flee. Mount Vernon will continue to be squeezed as monster parking garages increasingly become the primary transportation option, even for so-called "transit-oriented development" serving the University of Baltimore, which ought to be a natural ally for bikes and livability.

Residential St. Paul Street in Mount Vernon is taken over by noisy obnoxious traffic, which is why the city is putting the new bikeway in the "solitude" next to the prison and expressway.

If the Jones Falls corridor was any kind of decent environment for bikes, maybe it would justify pushing them out of the community. But this is the Prison District, in the shadow of the imposing Jones Falls Expressway, not a place with urban charm. And while the traffic volume is low, it also tends to move as fast as possible, taking advantage of the desolation as cars weave on and off the expressway or dodge the other traffic doing so.

And the bikeway now under construction combines the worst aspects of bikes on sidewalks and on exclusive bike lanes. It separates the bikes as much as possible, but not at the inevitable intersection conflict points where there are strong opportunities for cars to hook in front of bikes, and for bikes to intimidate the few pedestrians who must walk in this forbidding environment. This can have tragic results.

Car turning right in conflict with the bikeway at Fallsway/Eager next to the prison. The new cobblestone barrier forces turning vehicles to cross over the bikeway, mostly at excessive speed. 

Conditions will be even worse beyond the exclusive bikeway segments now under construction. One of the reasons this bike route has never been established up until now is that there are some truly horrible intersections as the expressway transitions into downtown. Right now, one can only imagine the bastardized intersection configurations that will emerge as the bike route is completed to the Inner Harbor in the next year or two.

Beyond that, the city has a more "permanent" longer range plan for Pratt Street adjacent to the Inner Harbor which includes a truly dangerous bike lane segregated from traffic except at the driveways and intersections, where it would be a death trap. The worst of these locations is at Pratt and President Streets, where the segregated Pratt Street bike lane is proposed as just dumping unceremoniously into the southwest quadrant of the intersection at the point of the extremely heavy eastbound to southbound right turn movement heading to Harbor East and Fells Point. Here's the plan, including a pretty picture labeled "Pratt & President 'after" which conveniently cuts off the deadly intersection.

It is unlikely that this more extensive long-range Inner Harbor street plan (including Light Street) will be done anytime soon, however, due to its cost, but more importantly due to the city's preoccupation with the struggling Baltimore Grand Prix. Bikes may be higher on the city's current pecking order than people and communities, but 175 mph Grand Prix racers trump all. The race course does not extend this far east, but does include Light Street and its intersection with Pratt just to the west.

Without livable neighborhoods, all the city's other goals fade into insignificance. If urban communities like Mount Vernon are not made attractive as places to live, the city's lofty plans for downtown, the Inner Harbor, and an extensive bikeway system will only isolated elements for hype with little potential for long term growth.

St. Paul Street trafficway in Mount Vernon neighborhood. Penn Station is two blocks away in the background.

The city should concentrate as much heavy traffic as possible into corridors like the Jones Falls - on the expressway as well as next to it. Then the city should focus on creating calm, normal, livable environments in its neighborhoods and "people places" like around the Inner Harbor. This is best for traffic, best for bikes and best for people. If this is not done, all will become increasingly dysfunctional.

Isn't it better to ride a bike through a calm, healthy urban neighborhood than on a bike lane sandwiched between a prison and an expressway?

November 7, 2011

Ripley's Believe It or Harborplace

Ripley in Harborplace? Believe it or Not!
Put it in Camden Yards instead
An illustration of a proposed Ripley’s Believe it or Not! facade at Harborplace.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was right after all: Baltimore's recent Grand Prix was a "game changer". Or more accurately, the game has changed, and that crazy spectacle of 180 mph racecars careening around the Inner Harbor is now the Inner Harbor norm. Anything goes. And as the game changes, other incongruous scenes like a proposed Ferris Wheel, a billion dollar mega-arena convention center or a tent city encampment "occupying" McKeldin Square should be expected as opportunities present themselves.

In such an environment, a giant cartoon Chessie Monster adorning Harborplace would be consistent. Believe it or not, that is the question. Ripley's "Believe it or Not" Odditorium is the latest prospective client being wooed to Harborplace, Baltimore's front-and-center imagemaker.

October 31, 2011

Downtown Racetrack

A downtown racetrack:
An incredibly stupid idea that refuses to die
Google Earth image of Pimlico Racetrack superimposed over industrial community between Carroll Park (left) and Camden Yards (right), south of Ostend Street 

The idea of building a downtown Baltimore horse racing track has been bandied around by the usual suspects, our so-called business leaders, for almost a decade now, so it's time to put an end to it once and for all.

It takes only a tiny bit of scrutiny to expose this as totally absurd. It's so ridiculous, it would seem to be able to just die on its own, but it keeps crawling back like a cockroach you thought was dead.

The idea was recently raised again on September 28th in the back of a front page Sun article on "Maryland's Gambling Future", by a "longtime member" of the Maryland Racing Commission, John Fanzone, who said "he hopes the Stronach involvement with the Baltimore casino improves the prospect for a downtown racetrack."

Of course, Frank Stronach has long preached for replacing the venerable historic Pimlico Racetrack, while at the same time presiding over the steady deterioration of the Maryland horse racing industry. The Sun article also reminds us that Greg Avioli, who runs Stronach's track business, says that "downtown Baltimore is a strong possibility for a new racetrack."

In order to maintain at least a shred of plausibility for this idea, proponents avoid speaking of details. But back in 2004, Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman Carl A.J. Wright said "the best spot would be on 100 acres west of Russell Street and south of Ostend Street in the vicinity of the stadiums that are home to the city's two major professional sports teams", according to an article in the Daily Record from May 13, 2005.

So I prepared a quick Google Earth image showing how 100 acres of Pimlico racetrack would look as superimposed over such a site south of Ostend Street, which can just barely be squeezed between Carroll Park to the west and the CSX mainline train tracks to the east.

One hundred acres is a huge amount of land in such an urban setting. A racetrack on such a site would absolutely dominate southwest Baltimore, and displace a huge number of present businesses as well as preclude future businesses. Quite a bit of the Pigtown residential community would also be wiped off the face of the earth.

Here is a small sample of some of what would have to be eliminated, a residential block of Cleveland Street, an historic industrial building, and the Washington Boulevard frontage on Carroll Park:

Three Pigtown places that represent a small part of the 100 acres which would have to be wiped out to accommodate a proposed racetrack.

These are exactly the kinds of places that ought to represent Baltimore at its best, and that the city should be trying to nurture and cultivate, rather than threatening with a crazy racetrack scheme. No wonder Carroll Park and Pigtown have been unable to achieve their vast potential as an urban park and community, with things like this hanging over their head.  

Of course, the so-called business leaders always portray their schemes in a cloak of rationality. The Daily Record article has Donald Fry, Greater Baltimore Committee President and perennial purveyor of mega-schemes (such as the all-in-one Convention/Hotel/Arena and the multi-billion dollar transit Red Line) assuring us that while he favors a new government-sponsored racetrack, it would have to get a good return on investment - at least on paper, in the terms of one of their feasibility studies.

Somehow, these people seem to think that these schemes are the future of Baltimore - or at least downtown, or at least the part between downtown and Interstate 95 that allows people to escape without interacting with the vast rest of the city.

Wouldn't it be nice if these so-called business leaders could focus all their energies on actually improving business?

Please - once and for all - let's just kill the idea of a Pigtown Racetrack, doo-dah, doo-dah.

August 26, 2011

Hopkins Hospital North

Scorched-earth renewal north of Hopkins Hospital shows the problem with mega-projects
To Hopkins Hospital and the developers, the drastic multi-billion dollar 2002 plan wasn't working well enough. In an area that was supposed to get 1500 to 2000 new housing units, market rate housing sales have been virtually nil. That's why they did a new plan.

But to the community, the "old plan" worked all too well. It has wiped out virtually everything in a swath of about 25 square blocks between Hopkins, Broadway, the Amtrak tracks and Patterson Park Avenue. 

On the surface, it sounds like the same old classic conflicts of gentrification - the new and affluent pricing out the old. But this is not old-style incremental gentrification where a few bohemian pioneers move in, followed by yuppies and then finally bigtime developers. Here the big money was there from the start, with an upfront investment of hundreds of millions that have been judiciously spread around as necessary to deal with whatever and whoever stood in its path.

The fundamental problem is that the original plan did not add enough inherent new value to drive the redevelopment. The new development, basically institutional looking buildings and giant parking garages, have not lit the spark. So they've come up with a revised plan, complete with pretty pictures of the new buildings flanking green space and populated by shiny happy racially-neutral people. A decade later, that which pushes the trendy focus group-fueled buttons is somewhat different - more green space, farmers markets, and the whole livable, sustainable thing which has now entered the mainstream lexicon.

Everything and nothing changes

It's still very easy to paint this as a class conflict of rich versus poor, black versus white, and old versus new residents. But those are the same old issues which have been around for many years. The more recent question is why development has not taken off, even though most of the promises and investment were made well before the economy tanked in the past few years, and the health business has been the most recession-proof anyway.

The simple answer is that not enough new inherent value has been created. The old buildings have been demolished but the underlying urban dysfunction is still there. Being next to world-class Hopkins Hospital is simply not enough.

There is a clear lesson in this for all of Baltimore. Even the city's most absolutely attractive areas, with the most inherent value, have demanded redevelopment subsidies. Even Harbor East, located at the perfect confluence of the Inner Harbor and "gold coast", demanded subsidies. The Power Plant has demanded subsidies to attract new tenants. Harborplace is now in trouble. The Greater Baltimore Committee now cites the entire Inner Harbor and Convention Center as needing drastic new interventions to keep moving forward. Baltimoreans have been led to believe that these were our long-term success stories which were supposed to catalyze success elsewhere, but now even the helpers need help. Meanwhile, the rescue calls for Howard and Charles Street never seem to end. The Howard Street "superblock" lacks superpowers.

The loudest warning cry should be heard at State Center. Two major rail transit lines costing well over a billion dollars were supposed to be the spark to ignite "transit oriented development", and indeed two developments spurred by the state and dominated by massive parking garages (not by transit) have been built in Symphony Center and The Fitzgerald. Now the State wants to pour more billions into subsidizing a complete redevelopment.

But obviously if such subsidies are still needed after nothing has happened over the decades on its own, and State Center becomes a ghost town after the bureaucrats go home at 5 PM, the inherent value to drive development just isn't there. If it hasn't even worked around the Inner Harbor, how can it possibly work at State Center, Howard Street or Hopkins Hospital? As the opponents keep saying, massive State Center subsidies will merely drive down whatever dwindling downtown demand there might still be.

From the perspective of the poor, the great hope was supposed to be "Inclusionary Zoning". This stipulates that lower income housing must be incorporated into any new higher income project. It has been obvious to almost everyone that this makes no inherent economic sense, when it's already so difficult to build anything anyway, so a large house of economic cards has been set up around the law to try to make it work. But it hasn't.

The key is to create new added value

So what Baltimore needs is to create more inherent value - a reason to rebuild - beyond all the money being thrown at these areas. There are various aspects to this - economic, physical and social. Economically, our tax system is totally out of whack and must be fixed. Our leaders are painfully aware of this, even when they claim otherwise. This is demonstrated by the way they concoct massive subsidies, which merely bypass the onerous tax structure that otherwise kills new investment. 

Socially, we must recognize that the only institutions that are working well at all are those that revolve around real communities. Yes, hopelessly dysfunctional communities such as many low income housing projects needed to be destroyed. And yes, there have been some success stories where the poor escaped from the ghetto and assimilated with yuppies in high income communities. But Baltimore's best hope is to strengthen existing communities where they still exist, because that is where people have already invested themselves.
This area north of Hopkins Hospital was once a real rowhouse neighborhood

Baltimore already has many wonderful physical assets which are not fully being taken advantage of - such as parks, institutions, geographic features and irreplaceable historic architecture. Not one of these can work alone. Even mighty Hopkins Hospital can't save its surrounding community. Historic buildings can provide the spice and the visual focus, but not all the substance. The overhypedovermatched against the surrounding tide of decay.

It's a matter of making every dollar count, making it all visible and making it work. Baltimore can't keep rebuilding what we've already built until we get it exactly right, as with the Convention Center and hotel demolition. We must use our assets as they are.

Similarly, our heavy rail subway works fairly well, but there was a huge overreaction to its limitations when light rail was built a decade later. Now with the proposed Red Line, the MTA is still overreacting and overhyping - combining the disadvantages of heavy rail (cost and overdesign) with the disadvantages of light rail (lack of connections and rider "catchment" area, and underdesign). Instead, we need to make the most of what we already have.

The city's billion dollar plan to knock down the lower Jones Falls Expressway east of Mount Vernon is another example. The JFX works fairly well as-is and the surrounding area (including the prison district) has adapted to it. Why does the city want to knock down the JFX but still insists on preserving the cancerous west side "Highway to Nowhere"?

In sum, mega-projects simply don't work. We're finally realizing that even Charles Center and the Inner Harbor, whose legacy of breathless hype we have long believed, have their limitations. And that the response to these limitations should not be yet another mega-project.

They haven't saved the rest of the city. Baltimore needs to be smarter than that.

August 22, 2011

Camden Yards

Oriole Park at Camden Yards: 20 Year anniversary

The ballpark was revolutionary and the thousand foot long warehouse created a unique urban signature, but the rest of Camden Yards has still not fulfilled its potential as an urban space.

This month's Press Box magazine presents a nice twenty year retrospective of the "good old days" when Oriole Park at Camden Yards first opened. Yes, the design of Baltimore's ballpark really was as revolutionary as everyone has said. But just like the Orioles themselves, it's much nicer to remember Oriole Park's past then to contemplate its present of shrinking attendance and interest.

Camden Yards is no longer a sports leader

Let's face it: Since its 1992 opening, Baltimore has been left in the dust by many other major league cities, not just on the field but in terms of development surrounding the field. To name several, the new waterfront stadium settings in Pittsburgh and San Francisco embrace their cities' images even more than does our B&O Warehouse. And Baltimore's only major new nearby development has been the plain-Jane Hilton Hotel built by the city itself, which blocks much of the inside view, particularly of our wonderful historic Bromo Seltzer Tower. Among the others, Coors Field in Denver's LoDo neighborhood has sparked much more downtown and Platte riverfront revitalization than has Camden Yards.

Worse yet, Baltimore has since turned its back on building this kind of fine grained urban development, of the style that has demonstrated to be in complete harmony with urban ballparks as long ago as Boston's Fenway and Chicago's Wrigley built nearly a century ago. Twenty years ago, Baltimore proved it again when the high density Ridgely's Delight neighborhood continued to prosper directly across Russell Street from Oriole Park.

Baltimore started losing its way with new development when the Ravens' M&T Bank stadium was plopped down on the Camden Yards south parking lot a few years later, in the same kind of contextual vacuum that characterized 1960s-style "ashtray" stadiums built around the country such as Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. But yes, football is different from baseball, so perhaps this is excusable. Baltimore's football stadium works well enough even though no legends have grown up around it.
Proposed new Baltimore arena and hotel at Conway (foreground) and Charles streets, with expanded convetion center behind it (with grass roof.)
The proposed billion dollar convention center/arena/hotel/retail mega-complex
 is the present-day  equivalent of the multi-purpose "ashtray" stadium monstrosities
 built before Oriole Park at Camden Yards revolutionized stadium design.

Look at what they're pushing now

More distressing is what has been happening lately, with the Greater Baltimore Committee pushing their massive billion dollar combination arena, convention center, hotel, retail complex between Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor. This proposed mega-complex is so hopelessly way out of scale with everything around it, just like the proverbial million pound gorilla which promises to eat up everything in sight. This is a suburban fortress mentality. It's easy to compare such a facility to those 1960s-style combination baseball-football "ash tray" stadiums that were the bane of sports until Oriole Park came along.

It's also easy to detect the city's increasing desperation, in its efforts to build a slots casino just south of Camden Yards, no matter what kind of monstrosity might ultimately be proposed. Recently, city leaders have been banking more and more of the city's economic future on the slots project.

When you want a casino in the worst way, that's probably what you're going to get - the worst way. It looks increasingly like the city will not be able to say "no" to any design demand or shortcut proposed by a prospective slots developer. It cold easily end up as just another alien mega-barn plopped down south of the football stadium, built to maximize immediate payoffs and minimize costs, rather than being an element that will intelligently fit into a plan for urbanizing the entire area around Camden Yards.

Just look at the way the city has allowed the Grand Prix preparation to run roughshod over the Inner Harbor's streets and trees in preparing for the Labor Day weekend race, and that is a hint at how future plans promise to be dealt with.

Another recent proposal is for a branch of "Seacrets", a six acre mega-bar from Ocean City that has been talking to Westport developer Patrick Turner. Seacrets could become either a wonderful and compatible urban attraction, or just another loud, tacky community disruption. It's a strong signal of danger that a recent front page Sun article on Seacrets cited Westport, where it would be very difficult to assimilate into Turner's plan which has already won neighborhood approval, but did not mention the Gateway South casino area. Seacrets could certainly fit in better near the casino, if not for all the unspoken promises the city should be expected to make to the casino developer.

As the hype of economic justification of mega-projects because more and more convoluted and strident, without firm numbers of course, the future looks increasingly at risk.

A concept plan to urbanize Camden Yards prepared in 2010
 for an article in with new development on parking lots
 and air rights oriented around a new urban street. 

Promoting true urbanization

This type of development desperation is needless. A casino, an arena, a convention center expansion, new hotels and other new urban development and amenities can easily be accommodated as part of a plan that integrates them into downtown and the city, and allows the entire private sector, large and small businesses alike, to maximize opportunities on an equal footing.

Camden Yards' expansive parking lots and highway and railroad "air rights" have tremendous potential for new development that could enable Baltimore to retake the leadership away from Pittsburgh, Denver, San Francisco and other cities as the best possible stadium environment. Furthermore, Gateway South and Westport, the areas south of Camden Yards along the Middle Branch waterfront, also have tremendous potential if the city doesn't blow it.

One of the impressions of the PressBox article is that stadium architect HOK breezed into Baltimore back in the 1980s and immediately presented its vision for what became Oriole Park at Camden Yards, dazzling everyone with its brilliance. But in reality, HOK had been architects for many of those "ashtray" stadiums built around the country, and they originally tried to sell the same thing to Baltimore.

But making Camden Yards a unique and valuable part of Baltimore was a local effort, not HOK's. This kind of local initiative is still needed now more than ever to ensure that Camden Yards, downtown, the Inner Harbor, Gateway South, Westport, and indeed the entire city is planned in a way that allows it to freely grow and prosper instead of merely catering to those who make demands on our will and resources.

August 20, 2011

North Avenue

Coppin campus planners weren't dumb. They put a pedestrian bridge over North Avenue even though urban designers hate those things. They didn't want to deal with the typical squalid, boarded-up failures of North Avenue

The key to fixing North Avenue:
De-emphasize it

Lou Fields, head of the African American Tourism Council of Maryland, wants to spearhead a revitalization movement for North Avenue, Baltimore's widest, straightest, most continuous and most troubled east-west artery, as chronicled in yesterday's Sun.

But he's way off-base in suggesting Pratt Street as role model.

August 2, 2011

Grand Prix

Despite Grand Prix glorification,
Baltimoreans are NOT adrenaline junkies
This is what the Inner Harbor will look like in a few weeks, as all the frantic preparation of the past year finally comes to culmination - Planners talk about "livability" and "sustainability", then give us 180 mph race cars. And that's just the latest in what they want.

This city's sad plight seems to boil down to one thing. Our civic leaders seem to think we're all a bunch of adrenaline junkies. Most of the crazy schemes they've concocted to "save the city" are based on their assumption that the citizenry needs ever increasing jolts of stimulation to keep us going.

July 31, 2011

Power of Home

Baltimore's untapped strategy:
The power of HOME
Two homes hanging on, next to two boarded-up wrecks. This might be a result of bad planning, but the residents can cope anyway, invoking the "power of home". 

Many people won't touch Baltimore with a ten mile pole. Many others cling to their personal comfort zone, wherever in the city that might be. Meanwhile, our city leaders seem to be intent to constantly pour more and more money into a few key high-visibility institutions like the Convention Center, Inner Harbor and Howard Street retail district until they finally get them right, which they insist are "critical" to saving Baltimore, while claiming their diversion of attention from elsewhere is only temporary.

June 17, 2011

How to fix Old Town

Old Town is perfectly poised to be the neighborhood to bring out the most urbanely scaled side of the Hopkins Hospital campus. The key is to extend McElderry Street (shown in yellow) from the foot of the iconic Hopkins Dome Building (background) to the center of Old Town at Gay Street (foreground), then continue it westward to Mount Vernon and Downtown.

Old Town is currently one of Baltimore's saddest and most forsaken neighborhoods. It is most infamous as the scene of a 1968 race riot, then was completely rebuilt to much fanfare in the mid-'70s. But almost as quickly, it started to deteriorate again, until by now it has suffered far more damage and abandonment than was ever inflicted by the riot.

April 18, 2011

Franklin-Mulberry Gateway

Here are some more Google Earth images showing how the interchange of the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway and MLK Boulevard should be downsized and transformed into a new gateway between Downtown and West Baltimore, with the Heritage Crossing community and the Metro West Social Security complex as the linchpins.

Read the whole story at The Baltimore Brew:
The Franklin-Mulberry Expressway is shown downsized to a single overpass over MLK Boulevard, to expand Heritage Crossing.

The "plan view" shows the new roads in yellow. The new east-west street is Franklin Street, relocated as a neighborhood street. The north-south street is an extension of Pine Street from the University of Maryland campus (toward the south, bottom) to Heritage Crossing (to the north, top, at the end of the "hook"). To  the east (right end) is a new connector from Franklin Street onto the downsized expressway.

This drawing eliminates the direct connector road between Heritage Crossing, MLK Boulevard and Pine Street. I then realized a better solution if it is feared such a link would attract too much traffic would be to design the MLK median opening so that only bikes and pedestrians can use it.

Looking west from downtown.

Looking north from the University of Maryland.

Heritage Crossing looks like it's a downtown neighborhood, with the Social Security tower as a pleasant backdrop...

But the "highway to nowhere" and MLK Boulevard underneath it stand rudely in the way. That expressway overpass needs to go, and new urban "people places" put in its place.

January 28, 2011

Red Line from the Brew

This April '10 Baltimore Brew story, which was written as the MTA was jacking up its Red Line cost and ridership projections yet again, shows what a house-of-cards it is. Construction funding has now been put off indefinitely - at least until well after our current  Governor, a champion of the project, is out of office. 

MTA manipulates the future again to sell its Baltimore Red Line

The Red Line will be a hard sell at the First Mariner tower in Canton, where folks are accustomed to ample parking
Text and photos by GERALD NEILY
Last year, the Maryland Transit Administration cut its proposed Red Line tunnel under Cooks Lane down to a single reversible track to make the project more “cost-effective.” The image of two trains speeding toward each other on a single track and doing a do-si-do at the last minute did not go over well. Yesterday, the MTA’s Henry Kay said in The Baltimore Sun, “Having the two tracks would increase the reliability and it also would be more cost-effective.”
What makes the Red Line appear cost-effective are their wishful-thinking guesstimates of future “transit-oriented-development.” Without the most important requirement for  a cost-effective transit project — a design that integrates it into the system as a whole — you end up with under-utilized transit and “transit-oriented-developments”  populated by people who never get out of their cars. 
It all boils down to the MTA’s bizarro math. They juiced the ridership projection upward by 28% last year in order to reach the federal cost-effectiveness standard. The need to meet the standard is also the reason they reduced the tunnel to a single track. Yesterday, they announced ridership numbers that have been bumped up by another 14% over the original projection. This allowed them enough of a cushion to restore some of the other accoutrements that one would expect on a modern transit line . . . like a track in each direction.
In addition to deciding that two tracks are a good idea after all, the MTA has also now decided to provide full safety signalization, along with an underground crossover track which can actually be driven at faster than walking speed, yard and shop improvements and enough vehicles to allow for more spares, driving the cost up to $1.8 billion.
None of these changes, in themselves, added more riders to their projection. They merely restored things that are normally taken for granted in transit. But the MTA waited until they could juice the ridership before they agreed to provide them.
The new ridership projection is based on yet another revised population and employment estimate for twenty years into the future, and on the assumption that the new development to fulfill these numbers will be “transit-oriented.” That is, users of the new development will rely on the Red Line as a primary source of access.

Proposed west terminus of Red Line at the federal medicare “fortress” which would be totally disoriented from transit for security reasons
Transit-Oriented-Development flops
Until now, transit-oriented-development has been a spectacular failure in Baltimore, even while other cities have achieved significant success. This failure is well documented on Howard Street, once considered the linchpin of the city’s transit system. But elsewhere as well, in the Baltimore region, new development has been almost inversely related to transit proximity.
Owings Mills has boomed everywhere except near the Metro station. Canton, Fells Point, Key Highway and Locust Point — all with poor-to-non-existent bus service — have also boomed. Legg Mason has moved out of the tallest building in town, at the confluence of the transit system, to a Harbor East waterfront promontory. The landlord of that soon to be largely vacant building has built yet another large new parking garage on Lombard Street to try to attract new office tenants.
Alleged transit-oriented Symphony Center on Howard Street – dominated by its huge parking garage.
The MTA’s whole idea with the Red Line is to avoid relying on integration with the transit system as a whole to attract the necessary riders, and rely on future transit-oriented-development instead. That is why their Red Line hugs the waterfront instead of being built inland where it can be fed by the entire transit system. That is why it stays two blocks away from the existing subway at Charles Center. That is also why it stays in a single corridor in West Baltimore, where it is geographically isolated from potential feeder bus routes.
If you build it, will they come?
Transit-oriented-development relies on circular reasoning. Development will be attracted because of the transit line, and users will use it because that is why they located there. But the southeast leg of the Red Line has already been developed in an almost totally auto-oriented manner.
The new First Mariner tower in Canton and Morgan Stanley building in Fells Point have been built with large surface parking lots. These parking lots are presumed to be future development sites, but once users are oriented to their cars, history tells us they will not move over to transit. Other new buildings may look transit-oriented, but that is only because designers have become more adept at hiding their massive parking garages. Occupants may someday switch to 50 mpg hybrid cars in response to $5 gas, but transit would require an implausibly sudden lifestyle change which the isolation of the Red Line would not facilitate.
Back in the Day
Transit planning was not always done this way. Back in the mid 1970s, the ridership projection for the original eight-mile subway line to Reisterstown Plaza was based on what the MTAMondawmin and other stations)  along with large parking lots that would attract patrons from a large surrounding area and “kiss and ride” access from spouses driving each other to the station. This lifestyle never caught on.
Back then, future transit-oriented-development was being planned for the large parking lots, but it was not relied upon for the ridership numbers. The line was promised to be cost-effective as soon as it opened and not off in some vaguely promised era, twenty years in the future. That proved to be prudent, as transit-oriented-development has still not materialized. At Mondawmin, a brand new supermarket and Target big box store still totally turn their backs to the transit station. At State Center, a grandiose new plan is still on the drawing board, and activity on Howard Street has been in reverse mode for the past thirty years.
So the MTA promised 83,000 riders a day for its first eight-mile line in its first year, and another 16,000 riders upon completion of a short extension to Milford Mill and Old Court (for a total of about 100,000). But three decades later, the ridership currently still hovers around 47,000, even after the completion of additional extensions to Owings Mills and Hopkins Hospital, as well as a light rail system that it almost but does not quite connect with.
Learning from the MTA’s Mistakes
The biggest mistake made by the MTA, then and now, is not planning transit lines that are integrated into the system as a whole.
The fatal flaw of the existing subway is that it has no feeder terminal on its east end. At its Hopkins Hospital terminus, a feeder hub was originally planned and was the basis of the justification for the ridership numbers that got federal approval, but then it was scrapped, and there has been virtually no coordination between the Metro and bus systems ever since. So the #5 bus line must chug along a parallel route to the Metro from Hopkins Hospital to Mondawmin along surface streets that can take up to 50 minutes — meanwhile the subway can do it in 12 minutes. Overall, the MTA’s rail system has taken very few buses off our surface streets.
So the MTA has largely given up on integration, in favor of promises of future development. They want to build a Red Line that hugs the waterfront and stays two blocks from the existing subway instead of tying the system together, and they want to rely on new possible transit-oriented-development in an area that is already close to its full auto-oriented build-out, instead of trying to fix their dysfunctional system to attract riders. Transit-oriented-development needs a true transit system.

January 26, 2011

Fort McHenry Promenade

There's been a lot of talk lately in Baltimore about creating more vibrant parks. The key to vibrant parks is creating vibrant street edges, and one of the best opportunities to do that is along Fort Avenue between the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry. From my June '09 story in the Baltimore Brew, here's how:

January 25, 2011

Inner City Bus Plan

I've decided to reprint some of my articles from The Baltimore Brew that have gotten buried in the Brew archives, but are still relevant. Planning issues in Baltimore are notoriously cyclical - mostly never really resolved but just buried when we've gotten tired of talking about them or we've settled on some half-baked solution which will only satisfy the need to do something but not the issue itself. Transit offers many prime examples, of which this is one:

Expand Baltimore’s free Charm City Circulator buses to cover the whole inner city


January 17, 2011

Transportation Funding

Transportation funding should not be isolated from everything else we want from government

Let's cut the sanctimony about transportation funding. Our government raises money from all sorts of sources - all eventually coming from our pockets - and then spends it on all sorts of things as well. Our politicians should not evade their role by leaning on artifices such as the "transportation trust fund".It is their difficult and important job to decide how much money to raise and what to spend it on.

Any dollar spent on transportation is one less dollar spent on education, public safety, health, social services, aid to the poor or any of countless other things government spends money on.