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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.

State DOTs: Why don’t you try walking on your own roads sometime?

PBS has a great segment on suburban transportation problems. I spent a few years living in places like the one featured in the video, and while Baltimore can do a much better job in accommodating alternate modes, the suburbs of Atlanta give new meaning to the phrase, “made for cars”.  As described in the video, a growing percentage of car-less households are living in the suburbs. Most of these places are ill-suited and down right dangerous to live in without being protected by a few thousand pounds of steel.

The bureaucracy of state DOTs is part of the problem.  There are three issues with the current system:

  • AASHTO has way too much power in directing federal transportation policy. Although they pay lip service to alternate modes, they mostly lobby for the status quo which heavily favors auto capacity expansion.
  • Rural interests are over-represented when state politicians divide up transportation money.
  • Suburban politicians, engineers and planners have to jump through hoops with state DOTs to convert their roads into more walkable, bikeable, transit friendly places. Unlike Baltimore, most suburban communities don’t have design authority over their most dangerous roads because the state, rather than municipalities, has control of these roads. Depending on the relationship between the city and the state DOT, this can either make for a good partnership, or a bitter battle which ultimately ends in the municipality caving in to a state mandated status quo.

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.