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

"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 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.

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.

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.


The MTA's New Website

The MTA recently launched a new website, one with which I'm quite happy. It addresses many of the complaints I had about the old site, and is, in general, much more usefully laid out.

The most obvious change is the new layout of the front page. They've replaced the old static navigation with a table showing the current status of each area of service: bus, subway, light rail, MARC, commuter bus, and paratransit. For each of those, there's a color-coded button indicating the general health of the service, followed by a brief line of text giving an overview. If additional detail is available, there's a link to the full description. (And that link is a normal one--no opening in a new window and no javascript. I'm pleased with that.)

Finally, the table has links down the righthand side to the schedules for each service area. The schedules are arranged nicely, with HTML and PDF available for everything.

Also of note is the removal of the trip planner from the site, a move that was long overdue. They say they'll put it back up if they can get it to work. (The MTA used nicer wording than that, of course.)

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.

Phil! Gold