Mon, 07 Mar 2005

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.

Phil! Gold