October 23, 2015

Hogan's "Transformative Transitway"

Believe it or not, Governor Hogan's new bus plan actually has quite a bit in common with O'Malley's old dead Red Line light rail plan.

Setting aside the question of whether either of these transit plans actually makes sense, one must admit that as eye candy, Hogan's plan is pretty good. And since his predecessor Governor O'Malley sold his $3 billion Red Line plan almost exclusively on its hype value, one can't blame Hogan for also turning up the hype-meter a bit. But at a price tag of only $135 Million, it's much cheaper hype.

Hogan even copped one of the Red Line's key buzzwords - "transformative". So in looking for common ground between the two very disparate rival transit camps, finding a common element of "transformation" may be the way to do it.

Transitway Rendering
Governor Hogan's new plan released yesterday for a "transitway" with spiffy new buses

And to back up his hype, Hogan's MTA came up with a truly eye-catching "money shot" of what his plan's"transitway" would look like. It's an extremely attractive view of West Baltimore Street looking east toward Howard Street, closed to all traffic except the MTA's new spiffy looking buses with a spiffy "Link" logo, and with a pedestrian median populated by respectable relaxed denizens. I had to study this quite a while before I could even figure out that this was indeed the west side of downtown Baltimore.

Ah, but it's hype, of course. This scene would more likely end up looking like Howard Street right around the corner. Howard Street's bus mall and subsequent light rail mall look extremely ratty and even more forlorn 40 years after first being closed to auto traffic. Transformative indeed.

Moreover, Howard Street still moves very slow. Traffic signal priority for transit, another part of the Hogan plan, has so far proven to be a false promise, perhaps because the conflicting cross streets have as much transit and as much need for right-of-way as the transit priority street.

Another quibble: The median pedestrian refuge shown in Governor Hogan's "transformative" drawing is of no use to folks waiting for buses. The buses have their doors on the right, whereas the median could only access the left side. But it does look nice. And of course, one could replace all the buses with fancy models with left side doors, or replace the buses with light rail.

Around the corner from Hogan's vision for a transformative transitway on Baltimore Street
 is this moribund scene of light rail on Howard Street


The heavy rebuttal from the Red Line partisans is that Hogan's plan isn't transformative enough. Buses don't create transformations. Only rail transit creates transformations.

There's enough evidence around the country to indicate there's some validity to that. But then there's Howard Street, where rail transit has been a monumental flop at achieving a transformation.

Like Howard Street, it is extremely unlikely that the "culture" of Baltimore Street can be successfully transformed simply by closing it off to traffic and replacing it with a pedestrian and/or transit mall.

But there's a better and more foolproof catalyst for creating transformation: A great development plan with great urban design. Let's face it: As much as Baltimore needs better transit (bus or rail), most urban redevelopment has happened here in spite of having lousy transit, in places like Canton, Harbor East and Harbor Point.

Hogan's first step to the Red Line

So where is the best place in Baltimore to put a transitway? Aha! It's the west Red Line corridor! In the middle of the grossly unnecessary "Highway to Nowhere". From there it can connect into downtown in the Saratoga Street corridor adjacent to the huge abandoned Metro West complex and the Lexington Market Metro Station.

But should it be rail or buses? The Red Line light rail would have gone only 18 mph, slower than express buses, so it really doesn't matter all that much, even with traffic signal priority which is common to both plans (and would work better out in a corridor than downtown).

The real solution is providing superior urban design to foster successful "transformation".

The MTA studied "Bus Rapid Transit" as part of its Red Line federally required "Alternatives Analysis" and their conclusion was that rail was better, but that was before the price of the rail plan ballooned into the stratosphere. Buses do have more flexibility, but both rail and buses have enough flexibility that intelligent planning and design are what is really more important.

OK, rail is more attractive than buses. Although it's not $3 billion better. But buses should be "good enough" if we can dazzle with urban design. Or on the other hand, rail can certainly be built far cheaper than $3 billion without the Red Line's staggeringly expensive downtown tunnel that would contribute nothing to the surface transformation.

MTA's $3 Billion Red Line Plan in the "Highway to Nowhere" (bottom)
and a far more "transformative" alternative (on top) which could be built for buses until the rail is ready.

Look at Marc Szarkowski's "transformation" of the MTA's dreary Harlem Park Red Line station in the bowels of the "Highway to Nowhere" (I keep returning to this - Marc taught me the term, "money shot"). Now just imagine it with buses instead of rail - at least, low or non-polluting buses.

And a bus transitway could easily be designed as the first step to building a light rail Red Line.

A New Beginning

The real appeal of the Red Line is not that it's rail. It's that it is a new beginning, which is what the US 40 West Red Line corridor really needs.

The key is that it would start over with a clean slate to create an urban design environment that really works.

First, focus on the redevelopment of the vast vacant Metro West complex at the downtown end of the "Highway to Nowhere", which currently has horrendously dysfunctional urban design. The transitway could slice through the site, providing a justification to demolish the goliath of a building between Mulberry and Saratoga Street, and extend the transit way to Saratoga Street and then to the Lexington Market Metro Station and Howard Street.

Transitway from the "Highway to Nowhere" (upper left), over MLK Blvd. on the existing bridge, then slashing thru the Metro West site to Saratoga Street (lower right)

By going directly through the Metro West site, it would allow the transitway to use one of the existing highway bridges to go over MLK Boulevard, and thus would strengthen the transitway as a gateway to all of northwest Baltimore. One of the MTA's cutting criticisms of turning the Red Line directly from MLK to Saratoga is that it would cause "wheel squeal". Hmmm... the only real squeal here was the MTA's desperate attempt to try to save their dead $3 billion Red Line plan.

At the west end of the highway, the Hogan plan calls for a transit hub at the West Baltimore MARC Station, another place with great urban design potential, with or without the Red Line. The previous Red Line plan instead put most of the bus transfers at the Rosemont Station precariously along Edmondson Avenue.

Then proceeding west, not much "transformative" has been done in any plan within the constrained right of way of Edmondson Avenue, but it widens out at the historic Edmondson Village Shopping Center. The new Uplands development provides a motif that can be extended into the transitway station and across the street into the shopping center.

Station environments are always critical. What happens between the stations is less so. If really great station environments can be created, it will matter less whether they serve buses or rail.

All of this can be done in an entirely incremental manner, one piece and parcel at a time, now with the existing bus route network, then with a newly revised network, or ultimately with light rail. Planning incrementally is almost always the key. Planning is a process, not an end result.

Perhaps the very first step is for the MTA to change it's new color-coded bus routes so that its west bus line is designated "Code Red".


  1. Curious as to your thoughts on the overall system reorganization and Howard Street Improvement Plan. Also, do you know if shorter traffic light cycles would make signal preemption more effective / less disruptive?

    1. Excellent questions! And exactly what I've been asking myself, except for Howard Street, about which I've become sort of numb.

      The problem with second-guessing the MTA's system reorganization is that their BNIP study was so secret that Jim and Robert Smith should be in line to be President O'Malley's CIA and NSA Directors! (Are their names both really Smith? Hmmmm...) And the MTA supposedly collected such a huge mound of data that we would need Edward Snowden to come home from Moscow to figure it all out!

      Seriously, the MTA got the basic premise right, which is that the system needs to be set up as a HIERARCHY. However, the top of the hierarchy needs to be the Metro, which is by far the best and highest capacity link in the system. And I see little recognition of that. Then the bottom of the hierarchy - the Circulator system - needs at least some degree of detail to figure out how it fits - and they haven't done that. I discussed the Circulator in more detail in a BaltimoreBrew.com article a while ago, and I need to revisit and revise that.

      As I've said about signal pre-emption, it can be more effective in corridors than downtown. Also with shorter cycle lengths, it would be less crucial, if not more effective. Someone with more expertise than me needs to weigh-in (as long as it's not someone associated with the CIA).

  2. Gerald, you have some very good ideas about the governor's proposal. I hope you take the time to make official comments to the proposal.