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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.


Phil! Gold