Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Seeing Red

The proposed route for Baltimore's Red Line. Click here for a bigger picture.

I like to use public transportation. I like the freedom of leaving my car at home or in a parking lot far from the hectic downtown area and taking a train or bus into a city and roaming its streets, hopping on and off the train, and soaking up everything a city has to offer. This is largely why I love traveling to Europe, where you can get around major cities with ease. Most European cities have comprehensive subway systems, street trams, and buses that are easily laid out, cheap and simple to use. And getting from city to city in Europe is also cheap and easy, compared to America where Amtrak has a monopoly and can charge expensive prices for tickets.

So it sucks for me that I live in Baltimore, where the mass transit options are limited. Even worse, there seems to be a bias against mass transit in Baltimore. People here in Maryland love their cars, which explains why Maryland is currently the fifth worst state for traffic gridlock in America according to UrbanTrekker. The light rail is commonly referred to as the "loot rail" and it seems like the local bus has been left to the bottom rung of society according to the middle class.

That said, the light rail and subway are crowded on Sundays when the Ravens are in town. If the light rail does one thing well, it ushers thousands of fans to M&T Bank Stadium with ease. But during weekdays, ridership drops to 34,000 a day. The subway has 57,000 riders a day, making the total ridership of rail-based mass transit in Baltimore approximately 91,000 for a city with 600,000 residents and a metro area of more than 2.6 million people, meaning that only 3% of the Baltimore metro population regularly uses rail-based mass transit in Baltimore.

The Maryland Mass Transit Bias (I shall dub this the MMTB) is probably the biggest reason for the low ridership, but there are other factors to consider as well. The light rail only serves suburbs north and southwest the city leaving the entire eastern side of Baltimore County without a rail-based line to get downtown. The subway serves only the upper-west side of Baltimore County (Owings Mills), and terminates at Johns Hopkins University, which is centrally located in Baltimore. If the subway continued east down the Route 40 corridor to Rosedale or Essex, it would open a much needed line to and from the east side of the city.

Another inconvenience: the light rail makes frequent stops as it travels through the downtown area of Baltimore. And although traffic lights are programmed to turn red for the train as it gets close, riders can still wait at traffic lights on the light rail as if they were sitting in their car. After Ravens games, I've seen traffic police holding up trains while cars and pedestrians cross over Howard Street. This is unacceptable. The common rule of thumb is for mass transit to have right of way over everything -- especially cars. This is just another reminder of where mass transit is in the Baltimore pecking order.

And while the subway doesn't have to deal with the city traffic, it does suffer from long waits between trains on weekends. On weekdays it looks like both the light rail and the subway run on 10-15 minute schedules, which is common for a city the size of Baltimore. It would be nice to see the city recognize the increased demand for trains after major sporting events, however. Waits for subway and light rail trains can take longer than 20 minutes.

All of this brings me to the meaning of this article (sorry for taking so long to get to it) -- the Red Line. The Red Line is a proposed east-west light rail track that starts at Security Square Mall on the west side of the city and runs through the city on the Route 40 corridor, including the center median on the infamous "Road to Nowhere" -- a section of Route 70 that was built before the extension of Route 70 to I-95 near Caton Avenue was halted back in the early 1980's. The Red Line would then travel underground through downtown Baltimore and return to street level as it traveled through Fells Point and Canton where it would either terminate in Canton or continue east to Dundalk.

In short, the Red Line would bring Baltimore mass transit options up to where it should be for a city this size. It would give residents who live west of the city in Howard and Carroll Counties a way to get downtown via a station at the Route 70 park and ride and open that much needed line to the east side of Baltimore County.

Right now, I use the light rail for Ravens and Oriole games. If the Red Line were built, I would be able to drive down from New Market on Route 70, park at the lot at the end of the highway (where the current park and ride lot is located) and hop onto a train for easy access to the downtown area. I'd never have to get off Route 70. And neither would many other people who come down the Route 70 corridor for Ravens games or work, which would go a long way in alleviating traffic on the congested 695 Beltway.

The problem is this: people don't want the Red Line built, namely people in Edmonson Village and Canton, who don't want a train running through their neighborhoods. These people are referred to as NIMBY's (Not In My Back Yard), and they are the biggest obstacle in getting most mass transit lines built, whether in Baltimore or Budapest. As with most mass transit opposition, crime, noise and inconvenience are the biggest concerns.

According to the Red Line's Facebook page, the Red Line would bring 10,000 jobs to Baltimore. There is also a link to a short video about Seattle's most recent light rail line, and how it's been a major part of helping the redevelopment of some of the city's isolated neighborhoods. This is commonly referred to as "Smart Growth", connecting isolated communities to the downtown area and building new communities around mass transit stations. Common examples of Smart Growth are only a short ride from Baltimore, in Bethesda, MD and Rosslyn, VA. Yet in Baltimore, Smart Growth is mocked and shunned while mass transit is commonly linked to crime and the decline of neighborhoods.

The link between crime and mass transit is commonly used by detractors of mass transit, but never officially proven. And in the cases of Edmonson Village and Canton, neighborhoods where crime is the number one reason against the Red Line, mass transit already exists -- it's called the local bus.

So ironically, the Red Line has gotten caught up in red tape. With the economic downturn, the Red Line has been put on the back burner for the time being, along with other civic improvement plans, such as a new arena. It's disappointing, really, to see a city fail to take advantage of options and strategies that could transform it into something better. It costs money, sure, but the long-term payoff is always worth it.

In the meantime, I'll cross my fingers and hope that some real progress on the Red Line takes place. Until then, this fan of public transit is seeing red.

No comments: