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.