Sun, 12 Jun 2005

The Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative

The MTA recently announced a Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative. They are planning to restructure most of the bus routes in the Baltimore system, in what I believe is that first major overhaul the system has ever undergone.

On looking at the proposal for the first time, the initial impression I got was one of reduction. Four lines will be added (the 9, 28, 40, and 41) while 18 will be discontinued (the 2, 7, 10, 27, 31, 36, 61, 65, 86, 91, 98 (Hampden Neighborhood Shuttle), 102, 103, 104, 105, 150, 160, M6, and M12). (In most cases, each of the areas served by the discontinued lines will be served by a different line after the reorganization.) The reduction has both good and bad aspects. On the good side, it will simplify the routes significantly. As I've written before, the current routes are somewhat baroque, with lots of branches and optional sections. The new plan looks like it eliminates most of those, leading to simpler and more understandable routes, at the cost of convenience--many places will be farther from the buses than they are now, though the limit seems to be between four and eight city blocks.

On the other hand, there are several places where the MTA is simply cutting service completely, largely to the north and northeast of the city. The 83 corridor will remain accessible, but that service will stop at Hunt Valley Mall. Along the rest of the north and northeast portion of the current service area, service will stop at or barely outside the Beltway. The 8 will no longer go to Stella Maris; the 15 will stop short of the Beltway, no longer going to Rutherford Business Park, Windsor Hills, Ingleside Avenue, and Forest Park Avenue; the 19 will no longer go to Cub Hill or Joppa Heights; the 23 will not go to Hawthorne and Wilson Point; the M10's entire route north of Smith Road, which currently goes up to Greenspring Station, will be removed; and the M12's service will be dropped completely, eliminating access outside the Beltway along Stevenson Road, Park Heights Avenue, and Greenspring Valley Road, the latter of which renders Villa Julie College inaccessible. I know people who use some of those removed routes, and I have occasionally made use of some of them myself. Losing them makes Baltimore's public transit system much worse.

I'd say that the changes proposed are more bad than good. The "good" parts are mostly that the bus routes have been simplified and bus frequency increased in heavily-used areas. The simplification is not without its downside, though, since it leaves many people walking much farther to get to a bus. The bad part is that large sections of service are simply being removed, causing serious problems for anyone who uses those sections.

The MTA is holding community meetings this week and public hearings next week to solicit feedback on the proposal. (I have no idea what the difference between a "community meeting" and "public hearing" is.) The public hearings all start at 4pm on weekdays, with the exception of the one that starts at noon on a weekday. Needless to say, they're not terribly convenient for people who work. The community meetings, at least, all start at 6pm.

The Baltimore Sun has an article about the proposed changes.

Mon, 07 Mar 2005

MTA Plans New Management System

The MTA announced a few days ago that they would be implementing a new system to track and report on the state of their vehicle fleet. The Baltimore Sun has an article, and the Department of Transportation has some details. They say they'll be done by 2006; no indication on when they'll start putting things in.

It looks like this could be very nice and should address a few of my complaints about the MTA. The Next Train Arrival signs should nicely handle my complaints about not being notified when things go wrong and trains get delayed, while the Next Vehicle Arrival signs will do the same thing for the buses, a feat that's currently pretty much impossible.

They tout a public announcement system that "will provide audio announcements at Light Rail, Metro & MARC passenger stations." Of course, they already have this, at least at Light Rail and MARC stations--the MARC system even gets used. Perhaps they're just indicating that they'll begin to use the ones at Light Rail stops, too.

With the buses being tracked in real time, they'll be providing real-time trip planning, which will also be a nice added feature. This will be available via the MTA's website; with any luck, it'll be simple enough that I will be able to write a program to get an overview of my trips to and from work right before I leave.

The Automatic Passenger Counter should be nice for redistributing routes and schedules based on actual ridership.

And finally, they mention that the buses will be controlled via wireless LAN. I hope they've got good safeguards on those.

SO the new system looks good. It's at least got the potential to make public transit in Baltimore a little better. Just how much of that potential will be realized remains to be seen.

MTA Proposes Route Changes

I recently discovered that the MTA is considering shortening several of its bus routes, including that of the 31, the one I use most often. Unfortunately, I didn't hear about it via the MTA's email announcement system, nor is it listed anywhere on their web site that I can find. I read about it in an article in the Baltimore Sun.

For the 31, they're planning to eliminate the portion of the route that runs between the Inner Harbor and Penn Station. I have an issue with this because I use that portion. I do things at night along Charles Street (which is one of the city's more active regions). Having a single bus to catch only a block away from my location is something I consider a good thing. Without the 31 running through there, I would have to catch a different bus down to the Inner Harbor (and have to worry about inter-bus timing late at night) or walk several blocks (through Baltimore late at night) to the Light Rail (and then worry about train-to-bus timing).

I will admit that, at that time of night, the bus isn't heavily used, but I'm never the only person that gets on in that segment of its route, either. There are also generally a good number of people on the bus in the mornings when it passes the Convention Center and starts heading north. That portion of the route is used, and cutting it out will only cause additional hassle for the many people that use it.

I have sent a message to the MTA regarding this. I'll have to see what sort of response I get.

MTA Reacts Poorly to Problems

This evening, a pickup truck ended up on the Light Rail tracks around Northern Parkway. To say that the MTA didn't handle it well would be an understatement.

I left work at about 5:20 and arrived at the Light Rail stop a little before 5:30. There was already a train there, sitting with its doors open. I asked people what the wait was and was told there was some accident. I waited a while and eventually the driver announced that he would go to the Lutherville stop. No word on what was going on, just, "I'm going to Lutherville." When we got there (two stops down the line), the driver announced that he had to stop until he was told he could go. I considered taking the 8 bus from there, but figured that whatever shuttle system the MTA had set up would still be faster than the 8. Eventually, we got moving again, traveled to the next station, Falls Road, and the driver said we all had to get out. That was the extent of the communication from the driver. He was minimally informative and gave no indication of what the MTA was doing to cope with the situation.

At the Falls Road stop, I looked around for any MTA personnel so I could see what was going on. There were none. I pulled out my system map, figured out what buses I needed to take, and set out. On my way out I passed an MTA supervisor's car driving in, so I went back to see what was up. The woman assured me that there were shuttle buses on the way; she'd left at the same time they had, but she'd taken back roads impassable to buses. I was told that the buses would take us to the North Avenue Light Rail stop, at which point we could board a train and continue south. Replacement Light Rail drivers got out of her car, switched places with the drivers of the trains at the stop, and she and the old drivers drove off.

Roughly fifteen minutes later a bus arrived, disgorged its passengers and then closed its doors. When someone went to ask the driver what was going on, they discovered that the driver had been told to take people from North Avenue to Falls Road, but hadn't been told anything about bringing people back. She called her supervisor (a different person than I had talked with), who also didn't know anything about it, but told her to bring us down to North Avenue. On the way back I talked with the driver a little. She had been given only the roughest of directions on how to get to the Falls Road stop, and those had been given verbally; a passenger had supplied her with the necessary details.

By the time we got to the North Avenue stop, the tracks appeared to have been reopened; the first train to go by was northbound and went north past us. I waited about 15 minutes more before a southbound train arrived.

All told, I got home two hours later than normal. Given the circumstances, I could have understood some delay, but the MTA's mishandling of the situation led to even worse conditions.

A distilled version of this tale will be filed with the MTA as a complaint, not that I expect them to do anything about it.

MTA Needs More Coordination

The Light Rail was fun this morning. Got on at the Convention Center stop as normal, then drowsed until reaching North Avenue. At that stop, we were informed by the driver that we would have to get off and take buses further north. There were two buses waiting and an MTA supervisor directing people onto them. I said I was going to Timonium and he pointed me at the first bus of the pair.

I was a little annoyed at this point because the service update board they'd put up were blank--this was not an announced outage. Upon reading the Light Rail service status page the MTA provides, I learned that this was unplanned. Still, they could have been more prepared, especially since they're planning to do this sort of thing regularly in the future.

It turned out that the bus I was on went directly to the Timonium area, skipping the more southerly Light Rail stops. This makes sense, since buses are slower than the trains. The driver, however, was unfamiliar with the area and had not been given driving directions. I had to direct her from the Lutherville stop to the Timonium Business Park and Timonium Fairgrounds stops. I only realized after going past it that she'd been told to only stop at the Lutherville, Timonium Fairgrounds, and Hunt Valley stops, so the Timonium Business Park one was a waste of time. I then gave her directions from the Timonium Fairgrounds stop to the Hunt Valley stop.

Neither she nor the supervisor communicated adequately to the riders what exactly was going on. It wouldn't have taken too long to say, "This bus is going to the Lutherville, Timonium, and Hunt Valley Light Rail stops," and that would have made things go a little more smoothley, I think. Several people (including me, though I was less affected) were confused by the stops the bus skipped.

Mostly Bike-Related

Bikes are a popular way to get around, and should compliment public transportation. A recent Baltimore Sun article about Critical Mass has some rather discouraging comments about bike riding in Baltimore. Amy wrote a rather scorching response.

In other news, the Light Rail has reopened the segment between Camden Yards and Linthicum. The Convention Center stop (at least) still has posted notices saying that everything south of Camden Yards is closed. It also still displays a schedule from before the double tracking started.

Appropriate Error Messages

I spent some quality time with several MTA ticket vending machines today, much to my sorrow. You see, I wanted to buy a $64 monthly ticket. I pushed the appropriate button, fed in each of my four $20 bills, watched the amount remaining as displayed on the machine decrease by 20 for each bill, then, after I fed it the last bill, watched it display "Money Returned" and spit all the bills back out. Useful error message, no? I eventually determined that it didn't want to give me change form $80. Fortunately, a local bar had a bartender who was willing to give me change for a $20. Upon being given exact change, the machine happily supplied me with a ticket.

Then I proceeded to wait an hour for the bus. In that span of time, three different buses from the 19 route were scheduled to go by. Not one did. Thanks again, MTA.


Phil! Gold