Redrawing lines to create a true mass transit system


FOR YEARS, city planners and business leaders have labored with ideas to create a shuttle system to get people around downtown. Many projects have been tried, including a "trolley" bus, but all have failed for one reason or another, generally relating to money, management or misconception.

In launching these shuttle schemes, planners have overlooked a potential downtown transportation system already in place -- hidden in plain sight -- the hundreds of buses that bring people in and out of the city every day.

These buses run about as quickly as light rail, but their routes are confusing and no single route has enough buses to make them worth waiting for. Shelters are inadequate, and most stops fail to offer posted schedules.

These buses are operated by the state-owned Mass Transit Administration, and there's the rub. The MTA has never embraced a mission of providing coherent service within downtown. Baltimore, which does not operate buses, has had no recourse but to wring its hands in frustration.

The city, however, is regrouping its transportation forces under the direction of hard-marching Mayor Martin O'Malley. And the MTA is demonstrating a refreshing willingness to sit down with planners and citizen-advocates to consider new ideas.

To see how difficult the system is for people who do not regularly ride the buses, including conventioneers and other visitors, look no further that the smartly designed, four-color Visitor Ride Guide produced by MTA and handed out at hotels and information centers.

This guide clearly shows the light rail line in green ink and the Metro subway in red. But the bus routes are depicted simply by numbers crowded onto the map, decipherable only by spending many minutes trying mentally to "connect the dots." The reason MTA doesn't connect the dots itself is that the downtown bus lines run in such a helter-skelter manner that they can't be neatly displayed as a system.

These bus lines were derived from old streetcar and horsecar lines and have changed little since, despite massive shifts of commerce such as the southward move of shopping from Howard Street to the Inner Harbor. Even the construction of a billion dollars of complementary subway and light rail transit service to take over portions of transit service has not led to the revamping of bus routes downtown to integrate them with the rail lines.

For example, it takes the No. 5 bus about 45 minutes to get from Hopkins Hospital to Mondawmin in good traffic, while the Metro subway does it in 12 minutes, regardless of traffic. Above the subway tunnel, Baltimore Street carries more than a bus per minute in peak periods, but the buses go to such a staggering array of destinations that figuring out which to board can be risky and intimidating.

You may watch a dozen buses go by before you see one that goes where you're going. Meanwhile, Pratt Street, gateway to the Inner Harbor, does not have a single through bus route. There's no good reason for downtown-bound passengers on the No. 23 line from Catonsville or Middle River to be discharged on Saratoga Street, but like it or not, that's where the bus takes them.

The solution to this forced distribution pattern is not rocket science: Feed the radial bus lines into transportation hubs, where passengers can switch buses or change to the subway or light rail.

The Shot Tower Metro station should anchor one hub. Once bus lines share stops at Shot Tower, riders would be able to reach downtown destinations on Saratoga, Fayette or Lombard streets or transfer to the subway. A Shot Tower hub could also be a stimulus for the nearby Brokerage, Port Discovery and the coming African-American history museum. But east-side planners have yet consider it in their plans.

Transit hubs should have enclosed areas where riders can find route information and wait for buses in a secure, comfortable and weather-protected environment. Bus riders often have nothing to protect them but a cryptic transit sign that may or may not show route numbers. Transit hubs could also supply state-of-the-art electronic information.

Improved hub connections would do wonders for the vastly under-utilized subway. They could become an east-west "people mover" through the heart of the city. And, as patrons discover the advantages of transferring between bus and subway, the subway would absorb more of the daily passenger load, freeing buses to accommodate the ridership growth.

Another essential reform is lower fares for short trips within downtown. People simply aren't going to pay a full $1.35 one-way fare to ride five blocks. Other cities do this in a variety of ways. Failing to offer a reasonable short-trip fare -- and thus excluding potential riders -- is folly.

Many services are proposed for downtown -- bus, rail, "people mover" and streetcar. But these new services should not simply be layered over the vast amount of existing public transportation.

When the services are combined with the other relatively easy and inexpensive route changes, the MTA will have the makings of a cracker-jack downtown system that can actually be portrayed on a map -- and can serve commuters and visitors alike.

Gerald P. Neily is a former transportation planner for Baltimore City. Robert C. Keith follows transportation issues from his home in Fells Point. Both participate in the regional Transportation Steering Committee's Citizens Advisory Committee, which is a public forum for citizen input.

Getting nowhere

Yesterday: Bringing Baltimore's transit system from a jumbled mess to a coordinated system.

Tomorrow: Who makes the call for the state on federally funded projects, and why have leaders been so quiet?

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