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Hi MTA! What’s Up? Light Rail Should Be Faster Than Walking

Light Rail Speed Through Downtown

Faster Than Light Rail Through Downtown

Time for my monthly transit rant. This weekend I took the light rail to BWI, where I caught the B30 to Greenbelt and then the Washington Metro to Verizon Center to meet friends for lunch. Afterward I stopped at the Building Museum (check out the Palladio exhibit) and the Portrait Gallery. The 1950s photo exhibit of Elvis makes me want to slick my hair back and give up my bike for a Bel Air.

On the way back, I took Amtrak from Union to Penn Station. Since I locked my bike at the convention center, I took the light rail to Camden Yards, where service stopped for pretty much every. single. red. light. between Penn and Pratt. And this was 10:30pm on a Saturday with no traffic.  Sitting at a traffic light on a train is a slap in the face and does more to hurt the perception of transit efficiency than anything else. It’s especially ludicrous during off-peak hours when the train is stopped with no cross traffic moving through the signal.

MTA and the city made some modifications to the Howard St. light rail segment a few years ago to improve speeds through downtown. It’s not enough. Complete traffic signal preemption between Penn and Camden Yards is needed – at least for intersections north of Fayette St.  While the previous signal changes may have cut travel times marginally, improving the perception of transit quality and selling light rail to choice riders will require that transit vehicles never get a red traffic signal.

A study from the University of Virginia by Chad Chandler and Dr. Lester A. Hoel shows that while signal preemption may cause some traffic delay, additional green time given during non-transit phases can actually mitigate these delays. Cross street volumes would be factored into any preemption model – but even leaving the Pratt/Lombard intersections alone and preempting everything from Fayette to Mt. Royal would be a huge improvement.

This is America, where the car is king. Transit has to be twice as comfortable and twice as fast as driving just to get people to consider alternatives. While I doubt MTA will splurge on sleek, modern light rail vehicles, getting transit riders through traffic signals is the least we can do.

Hi MTA, What’s Up?: Light Rail Connections

While the state has identified 14 transit stations for large scale transit-oriented development projects, my journeys on the light rail system show a far more insidious issue on a much smaller scale – the original designers of the system overlooked the connection between the stations and the neighborhoods. I’ll explain with two examples involving two very different Baltimore neighborhoods.

Cold Spring Light Rail Station: Roland Park is further from the station than it appears.

Exhibit A: Cold Spring Lane Light Rail Station. Just for kicks, I tried walking from the station to Roland Park. Bad move. You know that scene in Being John Malkcovich when the people who go through Malkcovich’s head get dumped on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike? Yea, it’s like that (I’ll assume you’ve all seen the movie otherwise what I wrote sounds crazy).  On/off ramps to the JFX, narrow sidewalks abutting the street and 6 lanes of speeding traffic, plants that look like something from Little Shop of Horrors overtaking the already narrow sidewalks. Maybe the original engineers plopped down the sidewalks in AutoCAD and said, ” Yes, now there are sidewalks. Mission Accomplished“. Not so fast. The experience of actually walking on Cold Spring Lane is a thrill and a bit death-defying – but it shouldn’t have to be. And yes, I’m fully aware that this is mostly a city issue and not an MTA issue, but when agencies support each other’s infrastructure and look at the “big picture” of making transit access intuitive and a real alternative to driving, everybody wins.

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The new Roland Park Master Plan has some recommendations for improving the pedestrian/bike connection between the neighborhood and light rail station.  Though I haven’t analyzed the street in a professional capacity, just from my walk I would say there is the potential for adding maybe 4 to 6 feet of sidewalk/greenspace width on this section of Cold Spring Lane. This would narrow traffic lanes, slow down traffic, create a buffer between pedestrians and cars, provide stormwater benefits, and beautify the corridor if trees could be added.  Cold Spring should be a much safer and more ped/bike friendly connection between Roland Park and the light rail station and less like the New Jersey Turnpike (GSP exit 154 representin’. Shout outs to my Jerszey boys Tony, Joey and Paul.)

Cherry Hill Light Rail Station: "Station" is an overstatement.

Exhibit B: Cherry Hill Light Rail Station. When you arrive here, there really is no “here”.  The adjacent property is industrial with long term plans for a mixed use development project – which is fine, but there’s not even a parking lot at the station and street parking is iffy. Why not add a lot just south of the station on city/MTA property? This would make the station more accessible to Cherry Hill residents because it’s like designing a Rube Goldberg machine trying to access the Patapsco light rail parking lot (by foot or by car) from Cherry Hill. Dedicated parking would (IMO) improve ridership at this stop as well. And just like the West Baltimore MARC area, perhaps a Cherry Hill station parking lot could serve the community in other ways beyond car storage. Though this is a “car free” blog, look, sometimes you need parking or else people won’t bother using transit.

I don’t know the details of why these station oversights happened in the early 1990s, but the teams working on the Red Line are designing the new transit line with a complete focus on neighborhood improvement and connectivity.   But while we’re waiting for big things to happen, smaller things can have just as much impact on increasing ridership and making existing stations more inviting and useful to nearby neighborhoods.