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

The Route of the 31

Herein is contained a very oblique sort of rant, and it's boring too. Just skip over this entry. You'll feel better about yourself.

The MTA runs a number of bus routes. Each one is numbered. I regularly ride the 31.

The 31 runs from Penn Station to Halethorpe. It goes down Cathedral Street, proceeds from there to Lombard Street, to Wilkens Avenue, runs along Maiden Choice Lane, through UMBC, and along a couple of other streets to its destination. Oh, except that it doesn't always go through UMBC. Sometimes it just goes past it. Oh, and sometimes it takes Leeds Avenue instead of Maiden Choice; this also skips UMBC. The buses do have signs that indicate which way they're going, except that they rarely mention whether or not they're going through UMBC; you get to guess. And half the time, the signs are broken or so dim that they can't be read.

And did I say that the buses went to Halethorpe? Well, sometimes. Sometimes they go to Halethorpe Industrial Park, which is the same route, but goes a little further. And sometimes they go to Beltway Business Park, and sometimes they just stop at UMBC and turn around there. Mostly, this is indicated on the sign. But when they go to Beltway Business Park, sometimes they turn onto Sulphur Spring Road and sometimes they head through Halethorpe and up Washington Boulevard. The signs give no indication which of those it is.

So, the bus signs could say: "31: (UMBC|Halethorpe|Halethorpe Industrial Park|Beltway Business Park) via (UMBC|Maiden Choice|Leeds)" and they still leave out information.

Oh, and the schedules? They indicate which subroute is being used by leaving out times. Not going through UMBC? No time in that column. The bus that goes to Beltway Business Park via Leeds and Sulphur Spring has a schedule that reads: "[5 columns] <time> - - - - <time>" Yeah, all those blanks are really useful for the people catching the bus in the middle there.

And there's stuff I don't understand after over a year and a half riding the bus. I don't know what to make of the one line that has a time for UMBC, but not for Leeds and Maiden Choice. There are footnotes on some of the lines. "A - Via Goodwill" There's one line with that footnote, and it skips every column between Wilkens & Caton and Beltway Business Park. If you're on that route, better hope you catch that one bus. "F - Via DeSoto Road" Goes that way southbound in the early morning and northbound during the mid-afternoon. I don't know why. "C - Cathedral & Franklin" "D - Charles & Saratoga" Apparently, sometimes the bus doesn't go all the way to/from Penn Station. Again, I don't know why.

So that's the simple approach adopted by the MTA. I regularly see people confused by the plethora of meanderings that the buses can take, and I can't really blame them. I don't have a useful alternative, and I can only assume that there are reasons for the current setup, but neither of those stops the status quo from being just the tiniest bit sucky.

"Happy Holidays"

Dear MTA,

Putting "Happy Holidays" on the front display panels of your buses is cute and all, but could you at least cycle them with the number and destination of the bus? Thanks.

Best wishes, Phil!

Waited nearly an hour for the bus on the way home, but that's probably the fault of the traffic diversions and general congestion stemming from the Christmas tree lighting. Doesn't really get the MTA off the hook for this morning, though.

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.

Other Subways

From IRC:

    <vees> http://www.fakeisthenewreal.org/subway/index.html
<knarphie> ya know vees, I really should send the guy a one cm diagonal line to be included as the baltimore subway

Sad, but true.

Baltimore's MTA is not an option so much as a last resort.

I recently had the use of my sister's car for almost a month. During that time, I didn't rely on the MTA for my transportation needs, and I was reminded again just how inadequate Baltimore's public transportation system is.

I like the idea of public transportation. It's a more efficient method of travel, in terms of energy expended and pollution generated per person. I like the idea of settling back to read a book while someone else drives me to my destination. I even like walking from place to place, provided it's not too far. ("Too far" varies depending on my level of interest, but generally runs between 10 and 30 minutes of walking.)

In an ideal city, public transportation would be a useful way to travel around, smoothly moving you from place to place without inconveniencing you as you traveled. The city would have a subway or elevated train system with several lines that connected disparate portions of the city. Traveling within the city would generally be as simple as walking a few blocks to a subway stop, changing trains once or, at most, twice, and walking a few more blocks to your destination. Buses would fill in what gaps were left, as well as servicing the outlying areas that didn't have a subway extension or light rail nearby. Naturally, those trains and buses would have reasonable schedules that provided frequent and timely service while the organization running things would keep signs and scheduled up to date and inform riders of any problems with the service.

I don't live in that city. I live in Baltimore. Baltimore has one subway that allows people to travel between Johns Hopkins, Lexington Market, and Owings Mills. It has one set of Light Rail tracks (on which it tries to run three different lines) that will take you anywhere you want, as long as it's BWI, Linthicum, Howard Street, Timonium, or Hunt Valley. Most of the city is only accessible by bus, and those buses are frequently off-schedule. In some cases, such as the #8 route, the schedule serves only to give a rough idea of the travel time between two points; the buses are so erratic that the schedule cannot be relied upon to indicate when one will arrive.

The city is also bad at communicating with its riders. Light Rail passengers are occasionally forced to wait through several scheduled train arrivals for a vehicle, with no feedback from the MTA on what the problem was or when service would resume, despite the presence of public-address systems at every stop. (Not to mention the mailing list, where the timely and useful messages from the MARC division arrive in stark contrast to the mute silence from the Light Rail devision.) Bus routes get diverted without any effort to update the signs and schedules along the affected portion of the route. I've waited and I've seen others wait at stops that declare buses from such-and-such route will be by at so-and-so time, only to be disappointed, enraged, and disheartened when bus after bus fails to show.

I used to declare that when I got a new car I'd eschew its use for day-to-day purposes and continue to rely on public transportation, giving me time to relax and read while allowing me to spend less money per month (a monthly bus pass costs less than a month's worth of gas for me). Much as that would be a good and ecologically sound idea in an ideal city, it's one that's far too annoying in a city as inconvenient as Baltimore.

Odds and Ends

I was googling around the other day and came across this bus rider's guide. It's got a lot of useful information in it, especially for people who aren't familiar with transit systems.

The same session also netted me a set of good practices for transit web site design. Guess who falls flat on almost all of them?

The MTA's been rumbling about implementing a fare system called SmarTrip, which, I gather, is to be similar to the system DC has, where you pay varying amounts of money for the distance you travel and the services you use. The MTA's website now links to http://www.marylandsmartrip.com/, which is a completely useless website where almost every page is blank, save for the sitewide dressing and an "under construction" graphic. Completely aside from the fact that it's not 1995 any more, perhaps they should have held off on putting the site up until they could be useful with it?


Phil! Gold