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 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.

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.

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.

"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.

The MTA Sucks

Public transportation is a good idea, it really is. Maryland just happens to have implemented it in a rather sucky manner. And I get to deal with it.

I was actually up earlier today, so I figured I'd stop at Baltimore Coffee and Tea for chai and a bagel to server as my breakfast/lunch. I missed the bus I was aiming at, which was my fault because I was a little late and it was on time. I caught the next one, which was three minutes late.

Got on the Light Rail in Baltimore and off next to Baltimore Coffee and Tea, ten minutes later than scheduled. Well, I still had ten minutes before the next train, and it was probably going to be late, so I went and got my food. Came back ten minutes later to see the back of the train receeding along the tracks.

Now I made my big mistake. "Oh," says I, "I can just go catch the 8, rather than waiting twenty minutes for the next train." I walked for six minutes to the bus stop, then waited for another twenty-five. In that time, two buses were supposed to have gone by. None did. From past experience, I really should have known better than to trust the 8 when I needed to have anything resembling a schedule.

I ended up walking back to the Light Rail stop and taking the next train, which was only seven minutes later than scheduled.

All told, if I'd left right after missing the first train, I could literally have walked to work and gotten there sooner than I ultimately did.

Bah.

Poor MTA Communication...

...but who's surprised?

Bus stop for the 31 at Howard St. and Lombard St. The 31 schedule was changed on February 1st, sixteen days ago. Announcements were made, new schedules drawn up, and so on. The scheduls at the stop is still the one from September of last year.

Convention Center Light Rail stop. The double tracking message board has two items. The lefthand one describes the change back to two light rail lines, effective as of February 1st, 2004. The righthand one has a diagram of the three lines. On the opposite side of the board is a schedule from 2002 that predates any of the double track changes and is, of course, wildly incorrect. Not sure whether the presence of dates on the three documents offset the fact that they all convey conflicting information, especially to readers that don't look closely enough to compare the dates.


Phil! Gold