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

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.

Trainsched Schedules

In order to use trainsched with the MTA's schedules, I had to write my own programs to parse the MTA's HTML schedule pages. The results of that work are now on this website. Share and Enjoy.

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.

More messed up MTA with no communication.

I haven't had problems with mass transit in a week or two. So I was about due, right? Right.

Went to catch the Light Rail on my way home from work. Based on the timing, I figured I'd catch the 6:24 scheduled train from Timonium Fairgrounds. From a distance, I watched a train go through at 6:19. Based on the track signals and the fact that trains are almost never that early, I figured it was just really late and that another would be through shortly.

This turned out to be true; another one ran by a 6:34, presumably the 6:24 scheduled one. I was assisting a couple of out-of-town women with directions and they hadn't finished buying their tickets, so I said, "Oh, there should be another one in ten to twenty minutes." (Reasoning that the next scheduled train (6:44) probably wouldn't be more then ten minutes late itself. More the fool I.)

Over the next twenty minutes, three trains went by heading north. At 6:57, another one same by going south. It drove right through the station without stopping while sporting a sign that said "not in service". Another train went by heading north at 7:12. Finally, at 7:18, almost an hour since I'd gotten there and running 45 minutes behind the last train, another train finally came by to pick us up.

At no point was there any use made of the loudspeakers at the stop, nor does there appear to have been any announcement made via the MTA's website or mailing lists. The transit police officer at the station didn't know what was going on. (Though the delays didn't stop her from doing a fare check once the train was underway.)

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.


Phil! Gold