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Posts about MARC

Transit


Sorry, Metro. Iíve been seeing someone else.

I broke up with Metro last month.


Photo by Jeannette E. Spaghetti on Flickr.

I used to commute from Montgomery County to the Navy Yard area every day, typically by the Red and Green lines with a transfer at Fort Totten. SafeTrack work on my section of the Red Line sent me looking around for alternatives. Driving was never an option, so I landed on MARC's Brunswick Line plus Capital Bikeshare.

I realize I'm not comparing apples to apples and that every commuter's situation is very different. But I've found a more comfortable, less stressful, and less expensive way to get to work and back. So I decided to stick with it instead of going back to Metro after the surge is over. (Apparently, I'm not alone.)

The MARC Kensington station is a bit closer to my house by bike than Metro's Forest Glen station, which is where I used to start my commute. There's an easily legible electronic sign with train status and the current time, facing in both directions. The trains are clean, comfortable and quiet. They're nearly always on time. The conductors stop to answer questions. And I've always gotten a seat facing in the direction of travel, even though I get on just two stops before the end of the line. There's even an online lost and found service! The monthly pass is slightly cheaper than the daily Metro fare, even if I only use it four times a week.

I've added a touch of grandeur to the daily experience, arriving and departing Daniel Burnham's classic working monument to transportation, Union Station, and biking past the Capitol too. I'm also getting an extra four miles of exercise a day, which is a blessing even on the sweatiest of DC days.

I realize I'm having what amounts to a boutique travel experience. The Brunswick line draws only about 8,000 commuters on a typical weekday. That's every single train from every single station. On Metro, about that many people get on trains every day just at the Archives station. So one form of mass transit is definitely more "mass" than the other.

And not that the new commuting reality is a perfect one.

I had multiple equipment failures, bike shortages, and dock blocking on Bikeshare in just three weeks of daily commutes, and bought a new foldable bike as a result. I'm adjusting to the reality of a small number of trains that leave at fixed times, and how that affects when I come and go. The MARC train departs on a different track every day from Union Station, resulting in a large clump of people staring at a monitor and then bolting for the doors. I don't understand why this happens. Likewise, you can't count on using the same train doors to get off every day. And my bike ride home from the station is nearly all uphill. But these are little things, compared to the big things I started to notice after nearly a year of riding Metro every day.

My relationship with Metro began nearly three decades ago, and I was smitten.

I remember coming to DC as an 8th-grader and marveling at how clean, modern, and quiet the subway system was. It left an imprint on my young mind at least as great as any monument or museum we visited. Knowing nothing at the time about transit operations or the populations they served, I held Metro up as the standard for judging all others.

Nearly three decades later, having lived in and around DC since 2000, I was a daily commuter at several points in my career. I silently saluted the public-sector employees who keep the system running, unrecognized until something goes wrong. I read the excellent Great Society Subway history of Metro, now a decade old. I continued to thank my lucky stars every day to be off the roads, free to read or send email or even take a nap. But I'd also grown weary of the frequent service interruptions, unexplained delays and general lack of communication with customers.

There was the evening a year ago when a few dozen of my fellow passengers and I were literally held against our will by Metro. We arrived by train at Forest Glen only to find the elevators disabled because of a fire alarm. There are no escalators because of the station's depth. We stood in the mezzanine between platforms, hearing nothing from the lone Metro employee behind a nearby glass door. Every train after ours was bypassing the station.


That time when I couldn't use the Forest Glen elevators, nor the stairs... it wasn't one of the good ones. Photo by Dan Malouff.

A good 15 minutes later, I finally asked him if I could take the stairs and go home. (The emergency exit door was marked with a warning that a 20-story climb lay ahead, but I am a reasonably fit person who runs the occasional half marathon.) He told me no, but declined to explain why. There was nowhere we could go, no explanation about what was happening, no sense of when it would end.

Finally, another 10 minutes or so later, we were all shepherded onto a train in the other direction and told to get off at Silver Spring for a shuttle. Nobody seemed to know where the shuttle was when we got there. We found it, more than a block away, and got on a bus with a driver who seemed more annoyed than we were. We arrived at the front entrance to Forest Glen a good 45 minutes after we'd gotten off the train in the first place. No apologies, no explanations.

I lost track of the number of times I've sat or stood on a train for minutes on end, abruptly stopped in a tunnel with no cell phone service, with no idea why. Sometimes there was no explanation. Sometimes the PA system is inaudible. And sometimes it was the equally useless "train moving momentarily" announcement. Even the fantastic and comfortable new 7000-series cars have an automated announcement that there is a train on the next platform, and we'll be moving when the train clears. Why does this happen so often that we need a pre-programmed script for it?

When there were station announcements, they seemed geared toward people who work at Metro and speak the lingo, not ordinary customers. As a regular rider, transit buff, resident of the DC area and native English speaker, I still failed to understand how and why some messages went out. "We are currently experiencing residual delays in the direction of..." First of all, "currently" is nothing but a redundant word. Secondly, what is a residual delay anyway? Nobody cares if the train that's supposed to arrive at 5:03 is arriving at 5:07, if they can just get on the one before it instead. Is there going to be crowding? More time between trains? Then say it that way. With elevator outages, customers don't care that there's one set out of service for short-term repairs and another for long-term capital reconstruction. That's for the WMATA planners and budgeters to worry about. Customers just want to know that the elevator's out today and where to go instead. So why make two sets of announcements?

There were the overcrowded cars, hot cars, cars that were dark and empty because they were out of service. The trains that seemed to go missing. The lurching forward, stopping and starting multiple times on the way into multiple stations. Some trips took many, many minutes longer than others of the same distance, a variation that seemed to have nothing to do with how long we stopped at each station. It was all still orders of magnitude better than driving, but Metro was often a jarring, sweaty, unpredictable experience.

I do see signs of hope.

New general manager Paul Wiedefeld's decision to close the entire rail system for a day on short notice got the region's attention. WMATA's communication about SafeTrack has been effective, from ads in newspapers and free media outreach to the woman who stood outside my home station leafleting and announcing the next week's service reduction. The administration seems more open to conversations with the public and the press, which is a very good thing. It's a tough line to walk when you're trying to get support for improvements but also trying to convince people that you know what you're doing. I've been impressed so far.

I'm hoping instead of having a permanent breakup, Metro and I will still be able to see each other once in awhile. In fact, I took the Red Line to meet up with my wife in Dupont Circle after work just the other day. But I'll stick to MARC for my daily trips to the office and back, and will continue peddling away on my new folding bike for the first and last miles.

Transit


When a train pass gets you rides on more than just trains, it's good for the region

Did you know that a weekly or monthly ticket for MARC commuter rail and certain types of tickets for VRE commuter rail, during the time when they are valid, are also good for unlimited rides on every many other transit systems in the DC and Baltimore region except for Metrorail? It's a well-kept secret, and an example of a partnership across agencies that should happen more often.


Photo by Ryan Stavely on Flickr.

MARC, or Maryland Area Rail Commuter, is a service of the Maryland Transit Administration that operates daily between DC's Union Station Baltimore Penn Station via New Carrollton throughout the day in both directions (the Penn Line), as well as rush-hour trains on weekdays between DC and Baltimore Camden Yards via Greenbelt (the Camden Line) and DC and Frederick, Maryland/Martinsburg, West Virginia via Montgomery County (the Brunswick Line).

Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is a service of two Northern Virginia regional transit commissions that runs weekday rush-hour trains, in the peak direction of travel, between DC's Union Station and Fredericksburg and Manassas/Broad Run.

You can buy single ride, weekly, and monthly MARC passes, all for a flat fee. That obviously gets you onto a MARC train, but if you show your ticket to the driver, you owe no additional fare on all many of greater Washington's bus services, including Metrobus and RideOn DC Circulator RideOn. Your MARC ticket is also an unlimited pass to all of Baltimore's transit system, including the subway, light rail, and buses. Simply show it to the station agent when entering the subway or to a fare inspector on light rail.

Similarly, a paper VRE ticket (single ride, weekly or monthly) is valid for rides on any bus service that connects with a VRE station (including Metrobus, ART, DASH, Fairfax Connector, FRED (Fredericksburg) and PRTC/OmniLink buses) at no additional fare. VRE riders can also purchase monthly Transit Link Cards, which are like SmarTrip cards, but are good for unlimited rides on both Metrorail and VRE during the month.

These features make MARC and VRE passes a great deal not only for those who travel regularly between DC and Baltimore, but also for commuters who come into DC from places like Rockville, Gaithersburg, Kensington, College Park, Greenbelt, New Carrollton, Alexandria, Crystal City, and Franconia/Springfield. MARC and VRE riders can use buses (and VRE riders with Transit Link Cards can use Metrorail) to cover the first or last mile at either end of their train trip as well as to get around on evenings and weekends, all for no additional cost.


Photo by JanetandPhil on Flickr.

There are precious few other examples of similar interagency cooperation in our region. One notable one is the interchangeability between DC's SmarTrip (administered by WMATA) and Baltimore's Charm Card (administered by the Maryland Transit Administration); either card works on all the greater DC jurisdictions' bus systems (including regional bus passes loaded onto a SmarTrip). However, you can't use a SmarTrip or Charm Card to pay commuter rail fare on MARC or VRE, except for Transit Link Cards (many other regions' contactless fare cards can be used on commuter rail as well as local transit), and you also must have separate form of payment to use Capital Bikeshare, commuter buses, taxis, etc.

Only recently has WMATA introduced a pass that works on both rail and bus (the SelectPass), but it still costs significantly more to add a bus pass to a rail pass and vice versa. WMATA could entice more riders to buy passes and not lose significant revenue by allowing monthly Metrorail passes to also include unlimited bus rides.

VRE should offer its weekly and monthly ticket holders the same connectivity benefits as MARC does—at least for Metrobus and northern Virginia local buses, if not also for Maryland buses. MTA, Loudoun County Transit, PRTC, and other commuter bus riders could also give their monthly pass holders the same benefits as MARC and VRE.

Eventually, there should be one card that pays fare on all the DC-Baltimore region's public conveyances—Metro, local bus, commuter bus, commuter rail, ferries, taxis, bikeshare, and special buses like Washington Flyer and the YTS New Carrollton-Annapolis bus—to which weekly and monthly passes could be added that could include all these modes, either at no additional charge or at a discount, or as many of them as the user wishes to add.

The simpler it is to determine and pay the fare on transit, and the more people feel like they are getting a good deal by "buying in bulk," the more people will be attracted to use all of these forms of travel and to think of and experience them as one interconnected system. MTA and VRE obviously overcame the hurdle of administrative siloing when it made deals with WMATA and other agencies for MARC and VRE pass holders. There's no reason other agencies can't do the same.

Correction: This article originally said that MARC passes work for the DC Circulator, and omitted facts about VRE tickets working on other transit systems. It has been updated to for accuracy.

Transit


VRE's map keeps getting more diagrammatic

Last year, when Virginia's VRE commuter rail system opened a new extension to Spotyslvania, the agency completely redesigned its map. The new version follows a trend for VRE: Every iteration gets more and more like a subway diagram, and less like a true geographic map.


VRE's system map over time. Original images by VRE, compilation by the author.

The new map is at least the third completely different version VRE has tried since its launch in the 1990s. The original map was purely geographic, and oh-so '90s. The second map was a hybrid with simplified geography. The newest is a pure diagram, with equally-spaced station symbols and only the barest nods to geographic context.

It generally makes a lot of sense for transit agencies, and particularly rail providers, to use diagrams instead of geographic maps. Features like the Potomac River's many inlets, or minor curves on the rail lines, aren't information that riders need to know, but they clutter the original map, making it hard to discern the information that does matter. On the other hand, it's useful to know that the Fredericksburg line roughly parallels I-95 and that the Manassas line roughly parallels I-66.


Image from VRE.

Cameron Booth, the internet's foremost expert on transit maps and author of TransitMap.net, reviewed VRE's new map in December, calling it a "solid" but "unremarkable" effort.

Across the river in Maryland, the MARC commuter rail map remains completely geographic.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Union Station's concourse could get a big facelift

Union Station's concourse, which serves Amtrak, MARC, and VRE passengers, can get very crowded. Plans to renovate the concourse aim to use the space more efficiently, providing larger waiting areas and giving riders much more room to move around.


Union Station's concourse could look like this. All photos by the author, all renderings by KGP design studio/Grimshaw unless otherwise noted.

Union Station will soon begin construction on the "Passenger Concourse Modernization Project," an effort to relieve crowding and give customers a better experience in Claytor Concourse (the concourse's official name). The renovations are part of the station's larger 2nd Century Plan which aims to double train and passenger capacities over the next twenty years.

As it exists now, the concourse is a crowded space with waiting areas inadequately sized for the explosive growth that intercity and commuter rail ridership has seen in the last few years, reflecting the fact that the terminal is operating far beyond it's capacity and outgrowing the major renovations that were completed in 1988.


Claytor Concourse as it exists today, crowded and constrained.

The Concourse Modernization Project will make way for expanded passenger waiting areas by eliminating many structures that currently stand between the station concourse and the tracks, such as the Amtrak information desk and the Starlight Room (the MARC waiting room that encompasses Gates B, C, and D).


The Amtrak desk invites people to stand in line in the same place where others need to walk through the concourse.

Club Acela, a waiting room for Amtrak's first class passengers and premium rewards club members, will be relocated to a new, glass-enclosed second-floor location above the new waiting areas, and the women's bathroom at Gate G will be moved to the east end of the concourse. The men's bathroom and the retail space currently occupied by Sbarro and McDonalds will remain, according to a proposed concourse floor plan.

These changes will expand the floor space of the concourse by 20,000 square feet, ensuring that passengers waiting to board their trains will no longer come into conflict with foot traffic moving through the station or frequenting the numerous shops located between the trains and the main hall. The new arrangement will eliminate the fences that currently corral passengers into waiting areas in front of each gate.

These separated waiting areas fill up quickly once a train departure gate is announced, and boarding lines often spill over into the constrained walkway in front of the concourse shops. Of course, this problem may still persist if, after the renovations are complete, Amtrak retains its current inefficient boarding proceduresright now, instead of boarding by track number and allowing passengers to wait on the train platforms, the "gate" process at Union Station includes an unnecessary ticket-checking step before passengers are allowed to board their train, causing long lines to form in the crowded concourse area.

Amtrak has emphasized Union Station's status as a major multimodal hub when discussing the planned renovations. The adjacent Metro station serves over 30,000 passengers a day, making it WMATA's busiest station. Long-term WMATA plans include relocating the station's First Street NE entrance and adding extra escalators and elevators to the passenger concourse.

Union Station also ranks highly in intercity and commuter rail passenger numbers: the station annually serves 1 million VRE customers (the third-busiest in that system), 5 million Amtrak passengers (second in the nation), and 8.5 million MARC customers (the busiest in that system). Amtrak claims that 75% of Capitol Hill employees pass through the station each day. A renovation of Claytor Concourse will be enormously beneficial to the tens of thousands of passengers who pass through the station daily.

Preliminary construction and relocation work for the project is expected to start before the end of this year, while full construction will begin in Winter 2017/2018. Amtrak expects the work to be completed in 2020.

What do you think of the Passenger Concourse Modernization Project? Do you think it improve your experience using Amtrak, MARC, and VRE?


Bicycling


Friday is Bike to Work Day. Here's where to find a pit stop.

Friday is the DC region's 16th annual Bike to Work Day. It's a great opportunity to build a few extra minutes into your commute to stop at one of over 80 commuting "pit stops" on your way to (or from) work.


An interactive map of the Bike to Work Day 2016 pit stops.

The pit stops offer refreshments, raffles, and free t-shirts to those who register. Each pit stop has something a little different: elected officials and entertainment will be at some, and some will be open in the afternoon for your commute home.

Bike to Work Day also encompasses commuter convoys, biking buddies, and other resources for first-time riders. Plus, MARC will be running its bike car for commuters that day.


BtWD 2009. Photo by Transportation for America on Flickr.

Last year's Bike to Work Day in our region attracted over 17,000 participants. With Metro's SafeTrack starting soon, bicycling will be an important commuting alternative for some people. If you'll be impacted by SafeTrack and are considering bicycling as an alternative, Friday is a great day to get out there and test your route!

Will you be joining this year? If so, don't forget to snap a photo or two and add them to the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, and the official Bike to Work Day Flickr pool, too.

Transit


Here's a closer look at what's in store for Union Station

Plans for renovating and rebuilding parts of Union Station are well underway, the aim being to better connect train, bus, pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle traffic to accommodate a surge in ridership over the next 25 years and beyond. On Wednesday, the public got a closer look at some of the possibilities.


Photo by David Jones on Flickr.

Union Station houses DC's busiest Metro station, is the hub for both of the region's commuter rail systems, MARC and VRE, and is both the second-busiest intercity train station in the country and the second-busiest station in Amtrak's system. In anticipation of rising demand, planning started last year for a $10 billion, four-year expansion project that could triple station capacity.

Several hundred people attended a Wednesday night meeting to hear what the Federal Railroad Administration, which owns Union Station, has in mind for the overhaul. While plans for expanding the area where passengers wait to board trains surfaced Wednesday morning, this meeting was about telling the public about the need for renovating and rebuilding virtually the entire complex, from parking areas, bus terminals, taxi stands, and train platforms to the original station building and the space above the tracks just north of the station.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

With Union Station being in its 109th year of service, some of the project's literature refers to the project as the "Second Century Plan."

Here are some of the functional features the project team said it's looking to bring to Union Station:

  • A more efficient way for taxis and car services (including ridesharing programs) to pick up and drop off passengers. Taxi drivers typically have a 30-45 minute wait in the taxi queue at the station today.

  • A more bike-friendly environment. There's currently too little capacity for both bicycle parking and bike sharing to meet even current demand.

  • Wider train platforms, as the ones there now aren't compliant with ADA standards, and also do not meet standards for an emergency evacuation. Widening the platforms will actually mean a decrease in the number of tracks at the station, from 20 to 19. But planners also emphasized that intercity rail capacity will increase because the platforms will be significantly longer-- nearly a quarter mile in some cases.

  • Larger, more open concourses that can handle the expected tripling of passenger demand by 2040.

  • A safer bus terminal, where there's less of a chance that people and buses will need to use the same space. Also, a more visually appealing bus terminal.

  • A complex that meshes well with the H Street Bridge, which will be rebuilt in the next several years.

Architecture, parking, and air space

One thing the FRA is putting significant emphasis on is the aesthetic appeal of the new station. The current building is on both the National and Washington DC Register of Historical Places, and its key features, such as the great hall, will remain unchanged. Presenter Paul Moyer reviewed examples of other stations around the world that are both functional and attractive, to use as an example.

While demand is maxing out for just about every mode of transportation that passes through Union Station, there's one mode where it's not: driving. Usually, only 70-90% of the parking spaces Union Station's garage are full at peak times, and nearly a quarter of those are leased out on a monthly basis, meaning they're likely used by workers in surrounding offices not directly tied to the station.

Rather than increasing the number of parking spaces, the planners are simply looking to make a more visually appealing parking facility. An architecturally renowned garage in Miami was cited as a possible inspiration.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Also, having empty railyard just blocks from the US Capitol is not the most economically stimulating use of space. Therefore, the air rights over the tracks were sold to Akridge, who will develop a project called Burnham Place, a mix of offices, retail, hotel, and residential that will sit above the tracks. Because the air rights begin at the current height of the H Street Bridge, designers will not be limited to a claustrophobic experience like what travelers experience at New York's Penn Station.

As you can see in the graphic above, the Federal Railroad Administration (and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation), Amtrak, Akridge, DDOT, WMATA, and the National Park Service all own different portions of the affected site, and will need to sign off on the plan, as will various historical review boards and federal interests.

Community engagement

While at least some of what was presented is very likely to happen, nothing is a done deal yet. The official purpose of the meeting was to solicit input from the community before developing formal proposals.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Community members were shown a scale map of the study area (roughly, the current station footprint, including the parking garage, plus the tracks as far north as L Street), and asked to place cardboard templates representing possible concourses, bus terminals, and other features in various places on the map, to gather feedback on possibilities.


Photo by the author.

The strongest sentiments at both this meeting and the last one, which was in December, were about how the Union Station project will affect surrounding neighborhoods.

The business community is looking for better intermodal connections (between Metro, Amtrak, bus, and streetcar), and local residents is looking for better connections to the neighborhood itself, such as through the long neglected entrance off of H Street, and to have many of the nearby Metrobus routes actually stop at the station, rather than blocks away.

Because the projects are dependent on one another, both local residents and the business community asked that the required environmental reviews for Burnham Place and the rest of Union Station will be done at the same time. This is not guaranteed, because the process for each project is different.

If you would like to view the presentation from the FRA, it is posted here, and comments are still being accepted on the site. The next public meeting, where project alternatives will be presented, is scheduled for this summer. Once the project is approved, construction is expected to last about four years.

Transit


How can our commuter railroads be better? DC wants your input

Should MARC service run to L'Enfant Plaza? Should resources go toward more weekend commuter rail service? Every state in the US (including DC) has to create a plan for how to use its railways, these are some of the questions the District Department of Transportation is asking as it crafts its plan for passenger, commuter, and freight rail.


Railroads in and around DC. Image from DDOT.

In a survey asking residents what its goals for rail should be, DDOT lists a number of possibilities, including:

  • MARC service extending to L'Enfant Plaza
  • More reverse commuting options
  • More weekend commuter rail service
  • Commuter rail seeing expanded hours and frequency
Also, Union Station is getting a makeover, and DDOT is considering ways to shorten the walk from train drop off areas, make it easier to connect to Metro, integrate the station with the neighborhood, add space for waiting, and add parking.

More generally, DDOT is deciding where to put its effort when it comes to more general matters, including better connections at stations and faster trip times and on-time service. The survey also asks what people are concerned about when it comes to railroads in DC: Terrorism? The environment? Trains disrupting the neighborhood?

Some plans are already going into place. DDOT is currently looking at options for rehabilitating or rebuilding Long Bridge across the Potomac, and CSX is working on rebuilding the Virginia Avenue Tunnel.

Finally, you can put in your own ideas about what DDOT should be doing when it comes to the district's railroads and supporting infrastructure.

One thing that's important to remember: While there are some choices that could be seen as pitting passenger rail against freight, better rail corridors are typically good for both.

The survey will be open here until March 1st.

Preservation


Baltimore will tear down whole blocks of row houses to fight blight. Is that wise?

In DC, housing is so scarce that prices are skyrocketing, especially for charming, historic row houses. Just up in Baltimore, however, they can't give many dilapidated row houses away, and Larry Hogan recently announced a plan to tear many of them down. Is that a good idea?


Image from @MayorSRB.

Baltimore officials think so; its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano think this is something the city needs. Some advocates aren't as sanguine.

In the short run, parks will replace the tear-downs, but Hogan also announced a loan program to encourage developers to build new housing in the same neighborhoods.

What's the point of knocking down housing just to build other housing? Our contributors discussed this issue.

Canaan Merchant articulated the concern:

There is a sense that these neighborhoods will just never recover (at least in our lifetimes) and until then the abandoned houses just make things more dangerous.

But if the "plan" (vague as it is) is to build parks and affordable housing then I have a hard time separating that logic from what we said about so many neighborhoods (like Southwest Waterfront).

Meanwhile, one of Baltimore's best resources are these old row houses and tearing them down is a big opportunity cost that can never be replaced. That's why we have historic districts and why historic districts are valued today.


Photo by urbanfeel on Flickr.

Payton Chung explained the economics:

There is such a thing as property with a negative value. Think about if a smelly, flea-ridden old couch materialized in your living room—you'd pay to get rid of it, right? That's negative value.

Given the high housing prices in DC, we can sometimes forget that the capital cost of rehabilitating (or even maintaining) buildings can be so high that those buildings have negative value. Gut-rehabbing an old rowhouse just to meet code can easily cost over $100,000.

Given that move-in condition rowhouses in West Baltimore can cost $50,000, there's little economic incentive to rehab the houses unless you're comfortable throwing lots of money away. Nor can you just rehab a few of them: vacant properties really drag down the value of entire blocks, and selective demolition isn't an option since rowhouses depend on their neighbors for structural support.

What's more, even good houses at low prices won't be enough to stimulate demand for new housing. It's easy to think "oh, housing prices are cheap, therefore it's a bargain." As new arrivals to Detroit can attest, though, that's not always the case.

Not all rowhouses are created equal. The houses that are being targeted are quite different from DC rowhouses: whereas ours are typically 16-18' wide, Baltimore's rowhouses are just 12-16' wide in most cases. (It's not just a matter of platting—rowhouses have beams across their entire width, and the price of solid-wood beams doesn't scale linearly.) Those extra few feet make a huge difference in livability, especially in the ability to have hallways next to habitably-sized rooms.

Richard Layman, a historic preservation supporter, posted some thoughts on an email list and gave permission to print them.
There is a difference in what people can do in weak markets as opposed to strong markets. In a city like DC, there is demand for property, whereas in Baltimore, my sense in talking with planners over the years is that they are beaten down by the sheer volume of the problem, that they have so many vacant properties and lots, that they see demolition as a reasonable step.

The weak market problem there is stoked by too much capacity for development in Howard, Baltimore, Harford, and Anne Arundel Counties. There isn't enough demand for all those places to be successful, and the success of the counties comes at Baltimore City's expense.

But the reality in a place like Baltimore is that a demolished empty building becomes a vacant lot, no easier to revitalize, and merely a different form of blight, an exchange of one blight for another.


Photo by John Perivolaris on Flickr.

Jeff La Noue lives in Baltimore and gave a perspective from up there:

As a Baltimorean, I appreciate our rowhouse architectural character. However, there have been so many public policy decisions, including poor transit as well as the preponderance of crime and poor schools, that make many row house neighborhoods lose their favorability/marketability. As a result, many shells can't be given away and there is no market to spend any money to redevelop.

We all dream of a time when the conditions change for many desolate row house neighborhoods. However, while we wait, the rot continues. In addition, Baltimore remains relatively affordable and we continue to build lots of new housing in the booming southeast part of the city and suburbs. The oldest and least desirable housing then goes vacant as people move up to better housing and "better" neighborhoods whether they be in the city limits or not.

I certainly would love to see a nuanced demolition plan that does not knock down the most charming and viable. However, I think we need to cull of the weakest of the rowhouse herd. It is hard to leave 20 to 30,000 vacant houses just sit for another decade or more. There is not enough demand for traditional row house living right now, especially with poor transit and little neighborhood retail, to make a massive rowhouse renovation plan financially viable anytime soon.


View from the West Baltimore MARC station. Photo by Adam Moss on Flickr.

Could Baltimore be DC's next bedroom community?

So, there's negative demand for housing in Baltimore, and overflowing demand in DC. If Baltimore were adjacent to DC, we'd be talking about how it's the next hot area, but it's about 40 miles away. Could faster, better transit whisk Baltimoreans down to jobs in DC?

(Maybe that's what Hogan has in mind with his $10 billion maglev, except he doesn't want to pay for it, it wouldn't go to the distressed neighborhoods, and Hogan just cut a transit line that would have.)

What if Maryland improved MARC speeds and frequencies to make the trains Metro-like. Would Washington-area housing demand flow into Baltimore? Richard Layman doesn't think so.

If it were that simple, it would already have happened. I reverse commuted to Baltimore for a time, and yes, Baltimore markets itself as a cheaper alternative for people working in DC, but it really stinks to spend a couple hours each way each day commuting, especially if one does it by sustainable means (bike/walk/transit).

As I wrote previously, Baltimore is undercut by massive overcapacity of development opportunity in the suburban counties, and great poverty and financial needs within the city, which outstrip its financial capacity. It lacks a transit network which would recenter demand on the center city, for both commercial and residential location.

Plus, while it has cool neighborhoods, the city is large and isn't so walkable between neighborhoods as much as it is within neighborhoods. EYA has a trademark, "Life within walking distance." Baltimore isn't set up that way.

Other contributors said that there might be a few spots where this could work, but they're nowhere near where Baltimore is tearing down blocks. Jeff La Noue:
From a Washington perspective, there are tons of super cheap and good looking row houses within walking distance of the West Baltimore MARC Station. That is a place that could seemingly develop market viability, but it needs some initial investment to get it going.

Photo by Ian Freimuth on Flickr.

Payton Chung:

Yes, the property surrounding the West Baltimore MARC station is surprisingly undervalued. However, Sandtown-Winchester won't be improved by transit anytime soon, since it opens a peculiar can of worms: Winchester Street runs atop the Penn Line's B&P tunnel, halfway between Baltimore Penn and West Baltimore, and which is the subject of multibillion-dollar replacement proposals.

Commuting from Baltimore to DC would be much easier if the last-mile transit connections were better. The transit connections and densities surrounding Baltimore Penn and Camden stations leave much to be desired, and Washington Union Station isn't convenient to most workplaces in DC.

Through-routing MARC trains down to L'Enfant Plaza and Crystal City would help, as will the streetcar and [potential] future Metro Loop. So will new office developments within walking distance to Union Station, in areas like NoMa and Capitol Crossing.

It seems Baltimore faces such a mountain of problems that these demolitions may be necessary. One can't help wonder if things would have been different if Baltimore had gotten a full subway system like the Metro, which was proposed around the same time.


The originally-proposed Baltimore Metro network.

And while the presence of the federal government kept Washington in better shape than Baltimore during the worst of times, the Metro elevated the value of downtown DC. Had it never been built, perhaps Washington would still be a "donut" of attractive suburbs around a continually decaying core with rising crime and insurmountable vacancy rates.

Transit


Is Baltimore's train station in the middle of nowhere? Is DC's?

Our contributors recently got to comparing and contrasting Baltimore's Penn Station with Union Station in DC. Some people say Penn Station is "in the middle of nowhere," but the truth is that it's closer to its respective downtown than Union Station. The difference is that Penn Station has fewer neighborhoods and tourist attractions nearby.


Penn Station in Baltimore. Photo by Forsaken Fotos on Flickr.

First, some details

Baltimore's Penn Stations serves Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor, MARC trains on the Penn Line, and MTA Light Rail. The station station lies in between the neighborhoods of Mount Vernon, south of the station, and Station North, which is designated as Baltimore's Arts and Entertainment District with venues such as The Charles Theatre nearby.

Union Station, Washington DC's rail transportation hub, also serves Amtrak trains as the terminus of the Northeast Corridor, along with serving MARC, VRE, and Metro. It's also a leisure destination with retail functions and eateries.

Is one of these stations "in the middle of nowhere?," In this context, what does "middle of nowhere" even mean?

"Far" is all about perception

Penn Station isn't in the middle of nowhere, says Matt Johnson. "It certainly isn't more in the middle of nowhere than Union Station. I think it's just a perception of how difficult is to get to 'somewhere' from Penn Station as compared to Union Station."

"Baltimore Penn Station is 1.24 miles from Charles Center, the center of downtown Baltimore," Matt adds. "Union Station, on the other hand, is 1.78 miles from Farragut Square, generally considered to be the centroid of downtown DC."

But what people immediately see often shapes what they think. "From my perspective," says Claire Jaffe, Penn Station seems to be in the middle of nowhere because it is almost completely surrounded by large roads and highways and very few buildings. When you come out of the station and do not go directly into a car, it's hard to figure out where to go. Union Station, on the other hand, is much more bustling and is close to not only a tourist destination but lots of jobs."


Photo by catharine robertson on Flickr.

"Even when Penn Station was also called Union Station, both railroads that used it had more central stations to the south for terminal trains," says David Edmonson. "It's not a new perception. That said, I think the subway messes with the perception of distance. It's a very short ride through dark tunnels to Farragut, but a slow ride through the city to Charles Center. With the cityscape, it just feels longer."

Union Station is more woven in with its surroundings

Canaan Merchant says Union Station feels like it's better-located because "being next to the Capitol and Supreme Court helps. Though I kind of put those institutions and the Mall in general in kind of a separate category from Downtown where most workers are."


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

"Union Station may be farther from Farragut Square than Penn Station is from Charles Center," says Dan Malouff, "but downtown DC extends east all the way to Union Station. Functionally, Union Station is on the edge of downtown. Penn Station is not on the edge of downtown Baltimore. There is a neighborhood in between. Baltimore's situation is analogous to if Union Station were in Columbia Heights or at RFK. Not 'nowhere,' but definitely not the center of town."

"I think this has a lot to do with Capitol Hill," says Neil Flanagan. "Since the 80s, Union Station been a destination unto itself as a festival marketplace. So, there's a lot to be said about vibrancy creating the sense that one neighborhood is connected to another."

While Union Station is close to many of DC's tourist attractions, Tracey Johnstone notes that Penn Station station is three miles from Camden Yards, the Inner Harbor and Aquarium, and Fells Point, Baltimore's three primary tourist attractions that weekend travelers most often would like to visit:

"Penn Station is not nowhere, but its relatively hard to get downtown from there, or to the action and jobs in south and southeast Baltimore, or to the stadiums," Jeff La Noue says. "The Red Line would have had a speedy connection to all of these from the West Baltimore MARC Station two miles west from Downtown. The West Baltimore MARC is 5-10 minutes shorter time than Penn Station if coming from DC on the MARC. Without the Red Line, the west Baltimore MARC station is very isolated."

Do you have a question? We'll pose it to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

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