Friday, March 25, 2016

Why Does Mass Transit Get a Bad Rap?

This is something that is unique to Baltimore, instead of embracing the expansion of Rail Transit, they fear it. Instead of getting excited that their commute may be shorter and they're going to save a fortune on gas and perhaps even sell their car because they don't need it, they say "there goes the Neighborhood." This is something that has confused and angered me since I first became aware of this problem. So I set out to see why Mass Transit gets a bad rap and how that can be remedied.
Before such a large portion of the Greater Baltimore population lived in suburbs, City Residents relied on streetcars. The flight to the suburbs and the mass production of the personal automobile became the death of streetcars and therefore rail transit in the City and surrounding suburbs. Pretty early on, it was painfully obvious that roads new and old weren't prepared for the vehicular traffic a City without rail transit would bring. Planners set out to change that.
In 1984 the MARC Lines opened using the right of way of existing train lines. They're much more focused on DC Commuters but they have benefited Baltimore's commuters who work elsewhere. The Camden line runs from Camden Station to DC's Union Station with a few stops in between. Same is true with the Penn Line running from Union Station to Perryville via Baltimore's Penn Station. These lines are not like the old streetcars that ran through every Neighborhood in the City. Their goal is to get to and from their regional destinations quickly without a multitude of stops. And they do just that.
Later in the 1980s, Planners got the idea that Baltimore needed localized transit not unlike the streetcars that were killed all those years ago. With that the Metro Subway (Green Line) opened running from Owings Mills to Charles Center with an extension to Hopkins following some years later. In the early '90s, the Light Rail (Blue Line) opened from Hunt Valley to Cromwell Station. The following years will see a spur to BWI and another spur to Penn Station. This was to be the beginning of a comprehensive Rail Transit for Baltimore and its surrounding suburbs but nothing more has been built.
So why hasn't progress continued on giving a Baltimore a truly comprehensive Rail Transit System? In order to answer that question lets look at what's already been built; People just don't like it. This is especially true in the suburbs that are served by the existing lines. I think I can trace that negative sentiment towards Rail Transit back to one incident. The Owings Mills Metro Stop which is actually the terminus of that line had no real connection between itself and the Owings Mills Mall. A Lady working at the Mall was walking on a dirt path that "connected" the Mall to the Metro late at night and was robbed and killed. This tragedy was blamed on Mass Transit entirely.
After that, whenever a crime occurred in areas near Rail Transit stations outside the City, it was because of the fact that the Rail Lines go through bad areas of the City and Residents of those bad areas would ride the Rails with the soul purpose of robbing County Residents and getting back on the trains before the Police can be notified. In fact, evolution of Retail has been more to blame for the death of both Owings Mills Mall and Hunt Valley Mall than the Rail Transit that serves them. Case in point, Hunt Valley Mall didn't start to lose tenants until new White Marsh Mall opened and when Towson Town Centre secured a Nordstrom. Owings Mills Mall also had anchor tenants that lasted for a short amount of time. This is because those stores were closing multiple stores in a down economy and the Owings Mills locations made that list. This was blamed on Mass Transit as well.
So that's what gives Mass Transit a bad rap; crime and Retail evolution. But how does that solve anything? Well the bad rap seems to come almost exclusively from the suburbs. Indeed, City dwellers are happy not to have to use their cars if point a and point b are easily accessible via Rail Transit. So what's the difference between urban and suburban? I've found that the urban stops tend to be much more developed and built out. Many of them don't have or need any type of parking facilities their ridership is almost exclusively on foot. The suburbs on the other hand are less likely to be so accessible. They tend to have sprawling surface lots and a lot less activity going on next to them. Mass transit stops were never meant to be in the middle of nowhere.
Since Mass Transit stops were never meant to be in the middle of nowhere, the concept of transit oriented development (TOD) came into existence. Well designed cities are essentially one gigantic TOD so that concept has a lot less to do with them as it does for suburbs. Owings Mills is just that suburb. Being that it's the terminus of the Subway, it draws City commuters into its station from points northwest. TOD known as the "Metro Centre at Owings Mills" is being constructed as we speak which when completed will contain hundreds of Apartments with Retail, Offices, A Library, and a Community College Branch. This created a mini city at the transit stop that puts more and more people in the area at any given time thereby reducing vulnerability and crime as a result.
As construction on Metro Centre continues, time will tell whether it will be successful in increasing ridership and increasing the sense of safety and security a critical mass like that creates. If successful more TOD developments in suburban rail station areas thereby severely the imagined crime element of mass transit and they can finally lose their bad rap.

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