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Hi MTA! What’s Up? Light Rail Should Be Faster Than Walking

Light Rail Speed Through Downtown

Faster Than Light Rail Through Downtown

Time for my monthly transit rant. This weekend I took the light rail to BWI, where I caught the B30 to Greenbelt and then the Washington Metro to Verizon Center to meet friends for lunch. Afterward I stopped at the Building Museum (check out the Palladio exhibit) and the Portrait Gallery. The 1950s photo exhibit of Elvis makes me want to slick my hair back and give up my bike for a Bel Air.

On the way back, I took Amtrak from Union to Penn Station. Since I locked my bike at the convention center, I took the light rail to Camden Yards, where service stopped for pretty much every. single. red. light. between Penn and Pratt. And this was 10:30pm on a Saturday with no traffic.  Sitting at a traffic light on a train is a slap in the face and does more to hurt the perception of transit efficiency than anything else. It’s especially ludicrous during off-peak hours when the train is stopped with no cross traffic moving through the signal.

MTA and the city made some modifications to the Howard St. light rail segment a few years ago to improve speeds through downtown. It’s not enough. Complete traffic signal preemption between Penn and Camden Yards is needed – at least for intersections north of Fayette St.  While the previous signal changes may have cut travel times marginally, improving the perception of transit quality and selling light rail to choice riders will require that transit vehicles never get a red traffic signal.

A study from the University of Virginia by Chad Chandler and Dr. Lester A. Hoel shows that while signal preemption may cause some traffic delay, additional green time given during non-transit phases can actually mitigate these delays. Cross street volumes would be factored into any preemption model – but even leaving the Pratt/Lombard intersections alone and preempting everything from Fayette to Mt. Royal would be a huge improvement.

This is America, where the car is king. Transit has to be twice as comfortable and twice as fast as driving just to get people to consider alternatives. While I doubt MTA will splurge on sleek, modern light rail vehicles, getting transit riders through traffic signals is the least we can do.


  • Anonymous

    Why is the MTA, and Baltimore’s politicians, so indifferent to the speed of the light rail through downtown? Reducing the number of stops, and increasing train speed through downturn could transform the light rail from a mildly useful option for getting to downtown Baltimore/BWI to the spine of a transit system. Closing part of Howard St. off to cars (I think it could be a neat bike highway), and reducing east-west traffic (or putting onto a few key streets) could help too.

    Why do you think the city is so reluctant to mess with light rail? The improvements you describe can’t cost that much, and reducing the time it takes to get from the new Fitzgerald Apartments to Camden Yards could make a big difference in the effectiveness of the system as a whole.

  • Crboyle1

    Have you ever looked to see how long it takes the train to go between the Convention Center and Camden Yards? The trains have to stop at both Camden Street and Conway where there is nearly no cross traffic. I don’t understand why MTA refuses to fix these problems. It was signficantly improve travel along the corridor.

  • http://www.BaltimoreSpokes.org Barry Childress

    MTA is a State run agency dedicated to keeping costs down. And absolutely noting in their mission statement is about working closely with the City of Baltimore.

    Absolutely nuts that the soonest I can get my kids down to the BWI trail on a Sunday is something like 2 PM. First flipping train!

    My kids have worked for concession at the stadium on Sunday and they cannot get there on time by train.

  • Mark

    Without antagonizing the powers that be, I’ll just say the reasons for slow light rail speeds are a combination of funding issues, engineering difficulties, and lack of focus on service quality.

  • Jessica

    ok, ok, ok….can i put the onus on The City for this? Mark is correct, the City made modifications a few years back but it is also the City who has the ability to grant complete signal preemption. I am certain the MTA would LOVE to get complete preemption.

    What would “the people” say if the State made the City do this? No doubt the State would be painted as the bad guy.

    I’d like to see the Lexington or University Center/Baltimore station eliminated – not necessary to have 2 stations within a block of one another.

  • http://www.BaltimoreSpokes.org Barry Childress

    Jessica, I’ll note that years back the City invested money for detectors for the Light Rail to interface with the City’s light control computer for the purposes of signal preemption. After it was purchased it was then discovered even more hardware/software was required to make the thing work. The additional costs were exorbitantly expensive.

    I have no info on fault or blame why we bought a system that was supposed to work but didn’t But at least there has been some effort toward that goal and it might be time to push again.

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