Decline of public transportation

Baltimore Glimpses

December 08, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

THE quality of life in a a city depends at least in part on its public transportation system. If it's easy (and inexpensive) to get around, it's a better city.

Although by no means up there with the likes of San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago, Baltimore was, until recently, high on the list of cities with decent public transportation systems, particularly with the recent additions of subway and light rail. But the recent Mass Transit Administration decision to eliminate certain bus lines has to cost Baltimore a piece of that reputation.

According to Charles Lloyd, superintendent of transportation of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, public transportation in Baltimore (in the form of buses and streetcars) through the 1950s served 25 to 30 percent of the population. Now it's down to half that percentage.

In those glory days, streetcar tracks ran through the city in every direction. They reached out to such suburban areas as Ellicott City, Catonsville, Woodlawn, Towson, Cheswold, Lake Roland. Parkville, Overlea, Reisterstown, Glyndon, Pikesville, Halethorpe and Sparrows Point. Baltimoreans of every class and income had the feeling that they could go anywhere, any time, day or night in good weather and in bad.

In the 1930s on Harford Road, a streetcar ran every 30 seconds during the peak commuting period! You could get on at the beginning of any line, leading anywhere in or out of the city, and get to the end of that line within the hour.

Of course, at about this time Americans were falling in love with automobiles. This affair came about for a number of reasons: the image of the car as presented by Madison Avenue, its convenience and comparative comfort. But one of the major factors in the rise of the car as America's dominant mode of transportation was a host of federal policies that favored the development of suburbs and the roads to take people there.

It didn't help matters when Baltimore's system switched from streetcars to buses. Streetcars have long been held to be more )) efficient, more environmentally sound and user-friendly.

Two events brought about the end of streetcars in Baltimore -- sooner rather than later.

In 1945 the Baltimore Transit Company (which owned and operated the streetcars and buses) came under control of the Chicago-based National City Lines, a bus-minded holding company which specialized in modernizing ailing trolley operations. The company immediately went to work replacing streetcars with buses.

Second, in 1953, Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. hired Henry Barnes, the controversial traffic commissioner from Denver, to unclog the city's snarled streets. Barnes' one-way streets, expanded traffic lanes and free-flow concepts were incompatible with streetcars. Buses, to Barnes and to National City Lines, were the answer.

On June 27, 1947, the first large displacement of streetcars by buses began. Eleven years later only two streetcar lines remained. In 1963 they, too, were replaced by bus lines. Students of Baltimore's public transportation history think the decline of the city's public transportation system was greatly hastened at that point.

It didn't help that public transportation became increasingly inconvenient, not to say slovenly, as the years went by. It was plagued by poor service, poor maintenance and arrogant attitudes.

Baltimore is trying hard to be the "City That Reads." It ought to trying hard, too, to be the city that's convenient, safe and inexpensive to get around in.

Eliminating more bus lines isn't going to contribute.

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