View from the MARC Penn Line by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Baltimore and surrounding localities are working on a plan to radically improve how people get around with the Regional Transit Plan for Central Maryland. With an undertaking that ambitious, it helps to get advice from people who have experience with that kind of visionary work.

The regional transportation plan is a 25-year effort to improve mobility in Baltimore City and County, and in the surrounding Anne Arundel County, Harford County, and Howard County as well. It aims to improve the experience of using transit, to embrace changes in transportion technology like scooter share and ride-hailing, and much more. The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Maryland Transit Agency (MTA) are leading the initiative, and looping in a variety of partners.

The areas included in the regional transportation plan. Image by MDOT MTA.

That’s why the Greater Washington Partnership and the Greater Baltimore Committee, along with several other partners in the transit coalition Get Maryland Moving, invited two experts to weigh in on the project. Christof Spieler, who helped push for and oversee Houston’s widely acclaimed bus system redesign, and Monica Tibbits-Nutt, Executive Director of the Boston-area 128 Business Council, shared their thoughts with a standing room-only crowd at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore on July 24.

For better mobility, focus on the people

The event, entitled “Improving Mobility: A Visionary Plan for Central Maryland,” began with some brief introductory remarks by Greater Washington Partnership CEO Jason Miller and MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn. Immediately afterwards, Spieler presented some of the major findings from his 2018 book Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit.

Key among those findings: Focus on the users and service, not the infrastructure. That includes reliability—and not just within the context of traditional 9-to-5 jobs, which Spieler believes too many transit planners and officials over-prioritize.

“Many of the trips we make are not home-to-work trips,” Spieler said. “If you want somebody to be able to depend on transit, they need to be able to get to the grocery store, they need to be able to get to church, they need that transit to be there on a Sunday to go shopping. And guess what? If they’re shopping on Sunday, somebody has to work on Sunday. And we forget that we don’t live in a 9-to-5 world, that service jobs in particular, our evening jobs, our weekend jobs (exist). And if transit doesn’t serve those jobs, people have to get a car.”

Tibbits-Nutt, whose organization oversees shuttle services throughout the Boston area’s Route 128 West corridor and who also sits on the MBTA Advisory Board, echoed Spieler’s criticisms. She says much of American transit planning is out of touch with everyday users’ concerns.

“We do not start with people,” Tibbits-Nutt said. “We very rarely ever start with people. A lot of times it’s ‘OK, we’re talking about the state of good repair, we’re talking about capital investment’…. At no point do we actually talk about people. A lot of my colleagues who are unbelievable civil servants, people who really want to do this job, what they say is ‘OK, we need more money to buy more buses’, ‘We need more money because we need to change out the rails.’ At no point is someone like, ‘OK, well where do people actually want to go?’

Lots of people want to make transit better

Both experts agreed that Baltimore is actually fairly well-positioned to be able to improve on its transit network. “Ultimately, we know how to make a much better transit network here,” Spieler said during a discussion moderated by Scot Spencer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “We have a city here that is actually really well-suited to it.”

Part of the reason for this optimism, according to Spieler and Tibbits-Nutt, is the sheer number of people who are committed to improving Baltimore’s transit. That number was on full display at the event. Several members of the Maryland House of Delegates, such as Robbyn Lewis, Melissa Wells, Brooke Lierman, and Tony Bridges, were there, as were officials from the Anne Arundel, Howard, Baltimore City, and Baltimore County Transportation Departments and WMATA, plus other public officials and citizens.

“The turnout was really good in terms of numbers but also in terms of representation,” said Brian O’Malley, the President and CEO of one of the organizations which participated in the event, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. “You had director-level people from multiple counties in the area in attendance: the Director of Planning of Harford County, the Director of Transportation of Anne Arundel County, Director of Transportation of Howard County. And it’s so important; the local governments have a really critical role to play in whether transportation succeeds or fails. And it’s so important that they be at the table and not assuming the state MTA is going to take care of everything.”

People who care about transit chat at the "Improving Mobility" event. Image by Greater Washington Partnership used with permission.

The Greater Washington Partnership has already come up with a Blueprint for Regional Mobility with transportation and transit goals for DC, Richmond, and Baltimore. Joe McAndrew, the Partnership’s Director of Transportation Policy, says the Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan and events that help shape it like “Improving Mobility” are a key part of actually bringing the blueprint to fruition.

“What we do know is that we can’t do this alone,” McAndrew said. “It takes many people, it takes lots and lots of stakeholders to come together to push forward on some of these big things. The Transit Plan is one of those big things or big initiatives that we need to get right and that we need to work together to implement. So we held an event largely to raise the profile and to raise the interest level of a broad swath of stakeholders.”

The conversation about regional mobility continues

McAndrew says the Partnership is excited about the conversations sparked by the event, but he considers it just the start of the process of coming up with a more effective transit plan for the Greater Baltimore Region. That process was already jump-started with a series of “town halls” Get Maryland Moving and the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance organized earlier in the spring.

If you missed these events, don’t fret—there will be a few more opportunities to learn about the regional mobility project in the coming months. The Partnership is hosting a second conversation later in the fall with yet-to-be-named regional leaders building off of previous discussions like the one on July 24. MTA is also hosting several pop-up events about the project in August.