Last October I joined the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of people who, over the last four decades, moved out of the city of Baltimore. I now read city news from the sidelines in my new home in Dallas, but for the past six years I was a Baltimore resident and a planner at the city Department of Transportation. I was involved in long-range transportation planning and the design of many of the transportation projects you may have read about.
I also wrote articles on sustainable development and transportation at Car Free Baltimore. Practicing what I preached, I lived car-free in the city from 2010 to 2013. The experience changed my life and gave me a new perspective on transportation planning.
Because Baltimore was a significant chapter of my life, I feel obliged to offer some parting words of advice on how to make the city work better. During my time here, I saw a city with great promise that has survived a lot of challenges, but whose comeback is still uncertain. What I say may be direct, but I say it with love.
Incremental Changes Are Important
The Inner Harbor, Grand Prix, Harbor Point, the Super Block, Charles Center. Baltimore is known for its big projects, but I’ve often questioned the value of putting such large investments of time and money into such small areas of the city, especially a city with as much need as Baltimore.
Projects like Harbor Point are great – if they happen. Often, they don’t. That’s why smaller, incremental changes are so important to a city that’s in the transition between losing population and becoming an attractive, livable place. This is by no means an original idea. I’ve read versions of it from the who’s who of Baltimore glitterati, but working for a city agency made me see the issue up close. A decade was spent planning the West Side Superblock to no avail. Needed multi-million dollar transportation projects were sometimes delayed for years due to funding cuts or engineering issues.
While these things aren’t unique to Baltimore, it’s important to put low-cost, fast-turn-around stuff out on the streets that shows Baltimore is making progress and cares about neighborhood livability.
Small things like striping bike lanes, creating 20 mph speed zones for safer streets and installing new pedestrian street lights make a difference and contribute to neighborhood livability at a fraction of the cost of major reconstruction projects. For what we spend to build less than a mile of highway, we can stripe a full network of downtown bike lanes and cycle-tracks.
For large development projects, splitting the project up among multiple developers creates redundancy and shorter timelines. Had the Superblock been based solely on historic preservation principles and divided among many smaller developers, we’d likely see substantial progress by now. I understand big projects get people big recognition, but small, nimble and cheaper gets things done.
Sometimes there’s a single silver bullet that will change everything. But usually, it’s small, incremental acts multiplied a thousand times that have more power and which create the ripple effects that turn the tide.
Transit and Planning Policies
World class cities take transit and city planning seriously. This is one of the factors that drew me to Dallas. It not only has an extensive light rail system, but the transit stations have spurred billions in nearby real estate development projects which support ridership. Dallas’ transit system and recent neighborhood-oriented smart growth policies are a result of several major planning studies which were supported and implemented by city leadership.
Baltimore’s issue is that it loves big plans, but the plans often remain unfunded, unsupported, or are inappropriate to the city’s context. Baltimore’s recent Pratt Street Plan is a fine example of a beautiful grand vision, but an unfunded vision meant for a more perfect city where neighborhoods like Station North, Seton Hill, or Greenmount West didn’t have as much need as they do. Having been part of the planning team involved in the creation of Seton Hill’s Master Plan several years ago, implementing that plan would cost orders of magnitude less than rebuilding Pratt Street while stabilizing a historic neighborhood which lies on the edge of blight.
Trickle-down planning, where big plans and projects (ballparks, convention centers) serve as catalysts for neighborhood and city-wide revitalization, works in some cities. For reasons too complex to go into here, Baltimore is not one of those cities. This means funding and implementing smaller neighborhood plans should be a priority.
While Baltimore waits for the much needed Red Line, other ideas can fill in some of the transit gaps. MTA’s Howard Street upgrades are a step in the right direction. The Charles Street Streetcar idea should also be taken seriously by the administration. Portland’s streetcar network has spurred hundreds of millions of dollars of new investment, and there’s no reason to think a similar system in Baltimore wouldn’t do the same. Baltimore once had the crown jewel of streetcar systems, and it can again.
Making the bus network, metro and light rail lines more efficient could also attract more choice riders. While I was living without a car in Baltimore, riding the bus was a continuous source of frustration. Rethinking and simplifying routes, making the maps more readable, and providing smart phone arrival information are key to making bus service a viable compliment to fixed rail.
Of course we should audit city agencies – I said this even when I worked for one. The quality of city services is directly related to transparency and accountability. If agency staff know they can be sloppy with the numbers with no consequences, paperwork begins to fall through the cracks. Audits are common sense and should have been in place years ago.
Hiring and keeping qualified staff at every level of the organization should be another priority. I was lucky to work with exceptional individuals during my time at Baltimore DOT, however, my agency lost several well qualified staff simply because public sector salaries are often far less than the private sector. Yes, public pensions are generous, but pensions usually don’t attract movers and shakers. Merit raises do. I’d agree pension reform is needed in cities throughout the country, but at the same time, city policies should make it easier for middle managers to reward staff who do exceptional work.
At the director level, focus should be given to finding and promoting visionaries who can inspire and lead. Baltimore needs a Janette Sadik-Khan, a Gabe Klein or a Cory Booker (yes, I know he was a mayor, but he’s still a good leadership example). Managing a bureaucracy is important, but finding individuals who can speak truth to power and lead by example can transform a city.
It would be dishonest to talk about my experience in Baltimore without mentioning the crime issue. When people ask me why I left Baltimore, I find it difficult to give a single reason. A great job offer was the primary factor. But what led me to begin looking for work outside of Baltimore was crime. During my relatively short time in Baltimore, my apartment was broken into twice, my car window (when I had a car) was knocked out several times, and I was one of the guys who was randomly attacked by a group of teens during the rash of cyclist assaults last spring. I’ve also witnessed several phone thefts on buses, open air drug deals, and other quality of life crimes. And by the way, 90% of what I mentioned in this paragraph happened in “good” neighborhoods.
Baltimore’s crime issue is complex and often misunderstood. I don’t pretend to understand it myself. Murder statistics say if you’re not part of a certain demographic (young, black) you’ll probably be okay. But we have to care about those homicides and not lose sight of the entire spectrum of crimes which affect residents across socioeconomic groups. Almost every single person I’ve met in Baltimore who has lived in the city longer than three years has been affected by crime in some way or another. This is unacceptable, and residents should not be silent about it. City leaders should deal with the decades-long crime epidemic with all of their worldly powers, as if it were a humanitarian crises. Because it is.”
I understand the police department recently completed a strategic plan to improve their operations. One of the recommendations was to have officers walk a beat. More cops being seen in the neighborhoods, outside of their squad cars, is what the city needs. The perception of safety is just as important as crime statistics. Residents need to know the cops are looking out for them. Criminals need to know there are police officers involved at the neighborhood level, in every neighborhood, potentially just a block away from where a crime might occur.
The importance of reducing crime in the city cannot be overstated. Half measures are not enough. Hundreds of millions of dollars invested in a neighborhood where residents still don’t feel safe to walk their own streets at night – that’s an investment that’s for nothing. Baltimore will be won, lost, and won again on how it deals with crime.
Role of Private Investment
Dallas is in the process of converting a major bridge over the Trinity River into a pedestrian-only public space which will be on par with the High Line in New York City. This $11 million dollar project would not have happened if it weren’t for a private $8 million donation. Likewise, several major parks in downtown Dallas were funded with millions of dollars of private money.
The public sector cannot do everything, and while Baltimore’s major institutions have given substantially over the years, the city needs increased private investment if it hopes to see continued improvement.
World-class cities are funded not only through tax revenue and parking fees, but through philanthropic organizations that are interested in creating a legacy beyond their front door. The legacy of the city, its people, and its institutions are tied together, and all three have equal roles in creating a better place.
An Optimistic End
Despite all of this, I’m still optimistic about Baltimore.
I wouldn’t have bothered to write this article if I didn’t care about the city’s future and the people who made the last six years the most educational and interesting chapter of my adult life so far. It was a wild ride. I look forward to visiting in the coming years and riding the Red Line, seeing shows at new theaters in Station North, and riding a bike downtown again, but this time on a brand new network of cycletracks.
In the meantime, you can still find me on a bike or taking a bus somewhere, but in a completely different landscape, deep in the heart of Texas.
This commentary was written for The Brew by Dallas city planner Mark R. Brown, AICP, PTP.