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

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.)

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.

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?

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.

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.

"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