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Visualize, if you can, a bus system that operates like a subway in a smaller city such as Boston or Washington. Baltimore does not currently have the resources to construct such a subway but innovative cities make the best of what they have.

Baltimore should think outside the box of conventional mass transit much the way that Bogota, Colombia did. In Bogota, on several of the city’s larger avenues, medians have been converted into rapid transit bus lanes with stations and platforms much like those on a subway allowing people to prepay rather than wait in line and pay individually. The system, known as the TransMilenio, not only removes buses from the traffic pattern but also moves people around the city quickly and efficiently, as buses run on their own right of way. The advantages of such a system include many of the efficiencies of a mass transit line without much of the expensive infrastructure.

Commuters entering and exiting TransMilenio buses - More photos including the one shown here can be found in the New York Times' Slide Show: Bogota's New Transit System

There are, of course, criticisms of Rapid Bus Transit; for example, without linking a new line to a larger, more cohesive system, it may not make sense for Baltimore’s commuters to leave their cars at home. In fact, Baltimore’s population may not even be dense enough to support such a system. Of course the paradox is that, in order to make such density a possibility, infrastructure must be built to support it.

A map of Bogota's TransMilenio System. The TransMilenio's many connecting and far-reaching lines resemble those of a subway system and increase the system's overall effectiveness.

If Baltimore intends to increase its population and make increased density a part of that plan, perhaps rapid bus lines are the cheapest way to go about that. The City could plan routes in order to target certain areas for redevelopment and strengthen the efforts of some struggling neighborhoods to stay competitive with the rest of the City. Of course, the longer term advantages are that if the routes are successful, the rights of way used for bus transit can be converted into light rail or streetcar routes or the buses can be electrified in order to remove emissions from the equation.

The question becomes, if this is something Baltimore should consider where should these routes go? Baltimore is an old city with narrow streets few of which can accommodate the traffic they currently carry let alone a bus only lane. However, one possibility is a route that parallels the future Red Line. This option would allow Baltimore and the State of Maryland to get a sense of daily ridership potential and work out some of the kinks prior to initiating a large-scale construction project. And, if funding falls through for the Red Line, at least Baltimore would be left with an east-west transit option. If all goes well, maybe we could see more rapid bus lines put in place along other important corridors.

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