4: Washington – Baltimore

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Heavy Rail
WMATA Metrorail
Baltimore Metro
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Light Rail
Baltimore Light Rail
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Commuter Rail
MARC
Virginia Railway Express
Streetcar
DC Streetcar

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Washington-Baltimore-Arlington, DC-MD-VA-WV-PA
population 9,331,587 (2012)
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Geographically, Washington and Baltimore are separated by less than 40 miles, or half an hour on an Acela train. Economically and culturally, they are worlds apart. A century ago, Baltimore was an industrial powerhouse, it economy driven by manufacturing and a bustling port. Washington was a sleepy capitol city half its size. But as manufacturing has declined, the national government has multiplied. Today, Washington is one of the nation’s economic centers, surrounded by the fast growing and wealthy suburban areas, while Baltimore is one of the less significant cities in the Northeast Corridor. In 2012, the DC area had 20 fortune 500 headquarters; Baltimore had one.

The two city’s transit systems have similarly diverged. Before WWII, each had a streetcar system and a few commuter rail lines. Today, Washington has the most successful and comprehensive modern rail system in the United States and an expanded commuter rail system, while Baltimore’s sporadic expansions of its rail system have left much of the region unserved and resulted in underwhelming ridership.

Washington’s METRO is the outstanding U.S. transit success story of the second half of the 20th century. With 950,000 weekday boardings, it carries more people than the entire rail systems of Boston’s MBTA, Chicago’s CTA, or Philadelphia’s SEPTA. Only the New York Subway carries more people, and no other modern rail system comes close: the second busiest postwar system carries only 402,000.

METRORail’s success has come from sustained political support. Washington is the only U.S. city that has completely built out its long term transit master plan. In 1968, the WMATA board, composed of representatives of 6 Virginia counties and cities, 2 Maryland counties, and the District of Columbia, adopted a 101-mile system plan. Over 30 years of construction and incremental openings, that system was completed with only minor modifications in 2001. No other US. city has sustained that pace of construction over that long a period.

The design of that system was foresighted. METRO stands out from its peers — heavy rail systems in San Francisco, Miami, Atlanta, and Baltimore planned in the 1960s and 1970s — in its focus on stations in dense, walkable areas. Those systems have one or two lines through the center of the city; METRO has three. It serves all of the District’s major employment areas, most of its universities and medical complexes, and many residential neighborhoods. Over half of DC residents live within half a mile of a METRORail station. Even in the suburbs, METRO is more urban than other systems. BART — a system in a metropolitan area of the same size, planned at the same time, built using the same technology, and built out to nearly the same length of line — extends twice as far into the suburbs. Its suburban alignments follow freeways and rail lines, and nearly all its suburban stations were built in low-density, car-oriented contexts, designed for park-and-ride and feeder buses. In suburban Maryland and Virginia, by contrast, Metro made extensive use of subways to place stations in the middle of suburban activity centers, and local jurisdictions focused new development around those stations. In places like Silver Spring, Crystal City, Rosslyn, Rockville, Friendship Heights, and Arlington, Metro stations are the center of walkable mixed use activity centers that have developed over the last three decades.

As Metro has grown, so has the commuter rail system, which connects to Metro at multiple urban and suburban stations. 46 MARC and 15 VRE trains arrive at Washington Union Station daily on one line from western Maryland and West Virginia, two lines from Baltimore, and two lines from northern Virginia. The Virginia lines opened in 1992, and the Maryland lines have seen considerably expanded service — and a new branch — over time.

Meanwhile, Washington’s transportation department has taken the first steps towards an ambitious network of streetcar lines than will fill in the gaps between Metro stations. That project has taken longer than expected, but the first streetcars would be running in 2014.

Thus, Washington — which by the end of the 1960s had a handful of commuter trains as its only rail transit — can now claim what only New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia can: it is possible to access all the needs of everyday life, and nearly every significant destination in the city, by rail transit. Metro has become part of the everyday life and the culture of the city.

As DC was planning a subway, so was Baltimore. A 71-mile master plan was adopted in 1968. Of that plan, only one line was built, opening in stages in 1983 and 1987 to connect Downtown to the northwestern suburbs. Once the line leaves the city center, it runs along rail lines and freeways, its stations surrounded by parking lots and low-density development. In 1995, the subway was extended another 1.5 miles on the downtown end, connecting to Johns Hopkins hospital. With that, subway expansion ended.

Meanwhile, in 1987 Baltimore mayor Donal Schaefer was elected governor, looking for a transit project to take on. The simplest opportunity was a light rail using underused freight rail corridors running north and south from Downtown Baltimore. The first segment opened in 1992, and 22.5 miles were open the following year. But that unusually fast gestation came with compromises. Running through downtown in mixed traffic, trains take 15 minutes to go 1.8 miles. Outside of downtown, the trains speed up, but the existing rail lines aren’t where the transit demand is. North of Downtown, trains are in a steep, wooded valley; the neighborhoods above — and important destinations like the main campus of Johns Hopkins University are a step walk. To keep costs down, much of the line was built as single track; it took a major project in 2004-2006, involving long shutdowns and bus replacement, to add a second track.

In 1997, three extensions added significant destinations to the light rail line: a business park at the north end, Amtrak and commuter rail service at Penn Station, and BWI airport. Even with those added destinations, though, the light rail line is an underperformer, carrying only 27,000 weekday boardings (half as many as the subway) on 30 miles (twice as long as the subway.) That’s due to the lack of density around the stations and to an unusually low level of service: BWI and Penn Station are served only every 30 minutes even during rush hour (which means that if you miss a light rail train at Penn, it’d faster to walk ton the train’s final destination than to wait for the next train), most of the line has service only every 15 minutes, and Sunday service doesn’t start until 10:00 am.

Thus, as Washington built one of the best rail transit systems in North America from scratch, Baltimore’s fits and starts have resulted in a system that misses many of the city’s key destinations, offers low level of service, and underperforms its peers. The next proposed project — the light rail Red Line, running partially in surface streets and partially in subway — looks better; it serves dense inner city neighborhoods, college campuses, and suburban employment. But, unlike Washington, Baltimore has no track record of building walkable dense development around stations. Washington is a transit city; Baltimore, so far, is not.