Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Riding (while I can) around in my automobile...

An important element of the master plan for Town Center will be transportation. Many are concerned about possible gridlock that will accompany the up to 5,000 residential units included in the plan. I’m concerned, but significantly less so than many others. It seems to me that a little traffic is a good thing insofar as it forces cars to slow down and affords pedestrians an elevated priority in the grand scheme of intra-city movement.

However, my quickie analysis isn’t going pass legal muster. Thankfully, others—the Transportation Advocates in particular—are keeping an eye on things. From the story about their meeting yesterday:

As the county works on creating a master plan that will bring more homes and businesses to downtown Columbia, residents and leaders are grappling with how to efficiently move people through the suburb’s network of roads. Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning, said a transportation system that would link to Baltimore and Washington would be “wonderful,” but one of the challenges is turning Columbia into a sufficiently large draw to attract an extension of public transportation system.

“It’s a huge step,” she told the group of about 25 people yesterday at the Bain Center. “My guess is that express buses would be more viable in the near future.”
As great as it would be to have effective, reliable public transportation from Columbia to Baltimore and Washington, it would be far greater if we had such a system in place within our community. Instead of waiting for empty promises to be fulfilled—plans to extend the Baltimore subway system into Howard County have been around basically forever—we should work to develop as effective a transit system as we can, which would make the eventual connection to regional systems much easier and more attractive to operators; instead of having to build a massive amount of new infrastructure, regional systems could link with Howard County's at a few key places.

Right now, Howard’s bus system stinks. It takes me an hour to get from my house to my office on the bus, but less than 10 minutes by car (and 25 minutes if I ride my bike). Plus, it costs more in bus fares than it does to operate my car (high gas prices included). And they wonder why nobody rides.

I understand the cost/benefit ratios for public transportation currently don’t justify large-scale investments by communities like ours, where most people have cars and many work outside the county. But things will change—possibly sooner than we think—and driving to D.C. or Baltimore for work may not be quite as attractive as it is today. This, coupled with the potential for Town Center to resemble a traditional city downtown, will begin to shift the economics of public transportation, making expenditures justifiable, then needed, then required, at which point they are almost always significantly higher than they would have been if investments were made earlier.

Columbia was envisioned as an “accessible” community. That is, a variety of transportation options were included in the city’s original plan, such as cars, bicycles, buses, and I think there was even a Monorail thrown in there. Much of these plans were scrapped for financial reasons. However, just looking around Columbia, one can see that creating a more efficient public transportation network wouldn’t be that difficult.

We’ve got rail lines running into eastern Columbia (off of Snowden River Parkway). All of our highways and major thoroughfares include wide, underutilized medians. We’ve got centralized locations in many of our neighborhoods—village centers—that already serve as small-scale transportation hubs (they are often the end points for bus routes). All we need now is a little bit of cash (okay, a lot of cash) and some political will, and we could have ourselves a pretty awesome transit network.

Alas, such thinking is usually characterized as wishful; and that’s unfortunate. At least the Transportation Advocates are discussing these issues and, obviously, advocating for solutions. But for all the barriers to public transportation, the biggest is one that no amount of discussing will overcome. It is our perception of Columbia.

In the debate over the Charrette and transportation and all the other related stuff, the two sides can be broken down into those who think Columbia is only a suburb and those who don’t. And as much as I’d like to open that can of worms now, I’ve…uh, um…got somewhere need to be. I promise one day I’ll write 40,000 words or so the topic, but that day is not today.

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