City could keep rolling if $100 oil parked cars

March 25, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

Believe ... we could survive $100-a-barrel oil?

Baltimore would be one of the best U.S. cities to be stranded without a car during an oil crisis, partly due to its public transportation, an earth-friendly San Francisco group said in a study it released yesterday.

SustainLane, an online information provider about resource conservation, ranked Baltimore ninth, behind New York, Boston and Philadelphia in coping with $100-a-barrel oil.

Baltimore even beat Washington, ranked No. 11, which has perhaps the nation's largest circular parking lot in the Capitol Beltway but also carried 190 million riders on its Metro subway system in fiscal 2004.

Considering that Baltimore had only 12.4 million subway riders and 92 million total public transit users, SustainLane's praise may seem suspect to some transit advocates. They also note that Baltimore recently built several parking garages to accommodate commuters by car.

And Maryland listed a new highway in suburban Washington as its top transportation priority. Many local residents might not realize there is public transportation.

But Baltimore's ranking makes more sense when considering Arlington, Texas, has 300,000 people and no buses or trains, said Warren Karlenzig, chief strategy officer for SustainLane.

The study of cities coping with $100-a-barrel oil included data on commuter numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau and congestion information from the Urban Mobility Report produced at Texas A&M University.

`Relative to most'

"Relative to most cities in the United States, Baltimore is doing quite well compared to the largest U.S. cities," he said. "Does that mean the other cities are not doing well? Sure does."

Karlenzig's data and methodology will be released in June with a larger report on metropolitan resources, but he did give a positive statistic on Baltimore: 20.5 percent of people in the city use public transportation to get to work.

That's behind the nation's leader, New York, where more than 50 percent use a bus or train for work.

Also, in Baltimore 58 percent of people drive alone to work, which is not as bad as the nation's worst, Los Angeles, where 70 percent of people go solo. About 6.5 percent of Baltimoreans walk to work, a healthy number, he said.

Weighted less heavily, but also considered by the group were such things as availability of local food, traffic congestion and wireless Internet access. Baltimore was pretty good, OK and not so great, respectively, on those fronts.

"Three-dollar gas is a real possibility again this summer," Karlenzig said.

"An oil crisis is something we'd like public officials to be thinking about. It's why we did the study," he said.

Advocates of better public transit said the study results are not as surprising as they may seem at first.

Car alternatives

Baltimore has bus, light rail and subway service and there is a commuter train to nearby Washington, which is more than most cities have, said Nate Payer, spokesman for the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore.

He credited the density of the city, the relative low cost of living in Baltimore near work and the size of the transportation infrastructure for the ease of getting around.

"I'm the first one to tell you that the city frustrates me, and we need a lot of work," he said. "But history is behind the city. The way it developed helps. A lot of people don't own cars."

Payer and Henry Kay, a former state transportation planner, said most people don't realize the extent of the services because middle and high-income people have cars and don't tend to ride the bus.

Low-income people have no choice, he said. Bus riders have recently complained about overhauled bus service to the Maryland Transit Administration, the state agency overseeing much of the city's public transportation, and have won some changes.

Ridership steady

The MTA reports that ridership on all public transit has remained steady in recent years.

About 63.2 million rode buses in fiscal 2005, down from 71.5 million in 2000, the agency said.

About 6.9 million used the MARC commuter rail to Washington in fiscal 2005, up from 5.3 million five years earlier.

The "basic ingredients" are in place for better service for everyone, said Kay, a former director of planning for the MTA and the director of the Baltimore Transit Alliance, which promotes public transit.

`Improvements'

Some improvements already are being accomplished, including development around transit stations, new buses and an additional track for the light rail, he said.

The state also is studying an east-west Red Line through the city by bus or light rail.

"If you are in Washington, it's a lot harder to park and you see middle-class people on the bus with you, and in Baltimore, it's cheaper and easier to drive and getting on the bus can make you feel isolated socially," Kay said.

"We need to build something more widely appealing," he said. "A $100 barrel of oil would make a difference."

Crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange topped $64 a barrel yesterday.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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