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

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?

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.

Light Rail Double Tracking

According to a recent announcement, the southern portion of the Light Rail will open completely on December 5th. No more shuttles, at least in that direction.

On the other hand, they're closing the northern portion (everything north of North Avenue) on January 3rd. And the shuttle bus system they have set up is confusing, to put it mildly.

From what I can tell, there will be three shuttle routes, designated 'A', 'B', and 'C'. 'A' shuttles will go to Falls Road. 'B' shuttles will go to Timonium Fairgrounds and Warren Road. 'C' shuttles will go to Lutherville, Timonium Fairgrounds, Gilroy Road, McCormick Road, Pepper Road, and Hunt Valley. No shuttles will go to Timonium Business Park, Mount Washington, Cold Spring, or Woodberry. Users of any of those latter stops are expected to use buses that run nearby. (Light Rail riders often use the trains to avoid those buses.) The Light-Rail-served terminus of the shuttle routes is not North Avenue (as one might expect), but the Cultural Center stop.

Confused yet? There's more. The 'C' route is a general service route that will run roughly the same hours as the Light Rails does: 5am to midnight on Monday through Saturday and 10am to 8pm on Sunday. The 'A' and 'B' routes are limited-time express routes: the 'A' will run from 6am to 10am and 2:30pm to 6:30pm; the 'B' will run from 6am to 9:30am and 2:30pm to 6:30pm. Both express routes will only run on weekdays.

They don't say what the more specific time constraints are. (Does "to 10am" mean that the last bus will start its last run at 10:00, or that the last bus will arrive at its final destination at 10:00?) They don't say how often the buses will be running. (Probably because there's either no set schedule or because the schedule won't be enforced at all; either would fit the behavior of the southward-running buses this year.)

Neither the MTA's website nor the Double Track Project's website has any mention yet of these changes.

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 Proposes Route Changes

I recently discovered that the MTA is considering shortening several of its bus routes, including that of the 31, the one I use most often. Unfortunately, I didn't hear about it via the MTA's email announcement system, nor is it listed anywhere on their web site that I can find. I read about it in an article in the Baltimore Sun.

For the 31, they're planning to eliminate the portion of the route that runs between the Inner Harbor and Penn Station. I have an issue with this because I use that portion. I do things at night along Charles Street (which is one of the city's more active regions). Having a single bus to catch only a block away from my location is something I consider a good thing. Without the 31 running through there, I would have to catch a different bus down to the Inner Harbor (and have to worry about inter-bus timing late at night) or walk several blocks (through Baltimore late at night) to the Light Rail (and then worry about train-to-bus timing).

I will admit that, at that time of night, the bus isn't heavily used, but I'm never the only person that gets on in that segment of its route, either. There are also generally a good number of people on the bus in the mornings when it passes the Convention Center and starts heading north. That portion of the route is used, and cutting it out will only cause additional hassle for the many people that use it.

I have sent a message to the MTA regarding this. I'll have to see what sort of response I get.

Zero for Two

Following in Friday's footsteps, the MTA gave me troubles getting to work this morning.

The bus I caught going into the city (bus #8877) was stuck on a hill for some time, because the transmission wouldn't shift into forward. (I'm not sure how long we were there, since I didn't think to check my watch, but I missed two Light Rail trains, so it was at least half an hour.) The driver tried a number of variations on "roll backwards and then gun the engine" but nothing seemed to work. Eventually, something caught and the bus crept up the hill as people held their breath.

The driver said that she had called for a replacement bus several hours previously (apparently, this had happened earlier today, too), but nothing had been forthcoming.


Phil! Gold