What happened to Baltimore’s bus redesign?

June 18 marked the first anniversary of BaltimoreLink, the Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) complete redesign of every bus route in its system. A year into the updated system, our evidence shows the massive project hasn’t delivered on its promise to transform the way people commute in the region.

The organization where I work, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, used performance measures to evaluate whether or not riders in the MTA service area have benefitted from the changes. In a report titled Are We Better Off?, we assessed whether BaltimoreLink made the bus system faster, more frequent, more reliable, more connected to places people want to go, and more walkable at the beginning and end of the trip.

The results are underwhelming

The most encouraging result we found was that BaltimoreLink has increased the proportion of the region’s residents who have access to full-day, high-frequency transit from about 13% to about 20% (using before/after data from AllTransit). This is based on scheduled, as opposed to actual, bus runs.

This finding may be somewhat counteracted by what is perhaps the most discouraging result we found: in our observations at bus stops, the buses that are scheduled to run with high frequency only arrived close to their scheduled frequencies about a third of the time. Instead of a steady arrival of buses every 10, 12, or 15 minutes as advertised, we observed long gaps between buses, bus bunching, and no-shows.

Most of our findings were that BaltimoreLink produced only slight changes. For example, there was a slight uptick in the number of the region’s jobs and the number of Baltimore City high schools the average person can reach in 45 minutes or less by riding transit and walking.

Baltimore isn’t the only city scrapping its old bus routes

BaltimoreLink is an example of a bus network redesign. Transit agencies around the US are increasingly opting to wipe the slate clean and design a new network of bus routes from scratch. The idea is that as the locations of jobs and other destinations have shifted, the periodic tweaks to bus routes have not been sufficient to connect people efficiently with places they want to go.

By erasing old routes and redeploying resources to corridors where demand is highest, agencies aim to attract more riders and improve access to jobs. Houston and Omaha were among the first large US systems to redesign their bus network.

On June 18, 2017, it was greater Baltimore’s turn. People in the region awakened to find that bus routes that had operated for decades — for entire lifetimes — no longer existed. In their place was a new system branded BaltimoreLink. It included twelve routes identified by colors such as Lime, Gold, and Navy, and had more than 40 routes identified by numbers such as 33 and 51.

The MTA had conducted extensive public outreach to prepare riders for the change, but nevertheless during the first weeks there were many curious, confused, and disgruntled conversations among riders (and between riders and operators) as hundreds of thousands of people learned to navigate the new routes.

On board a Baltimore City Link bus by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), and the MTA made grand promises about the benefits that the change would bring.

“The people of Baltimore and surrounding jurisdictions will finally be able to travel conveniently, efficiently and affordably from where they live to where they work,” said the governor’s press release when the plan was announced in 2015.

MTA isn't making it easy to assess the new system

The frequent transit network had been one of the MTA’s selling points of BaltimoreLink. The agency referred to it as “a historic, game-changing introduction to the region.” Variable message signs controlled by MDOT advertised the changes as bringing “faster, more reliable” bus service.

However, MTA has made it difficult to measure whether or not BaltimoreLink delivered on the promises. When it launched the new routes the agency switched to a more forgiving definition of how early or late a bus can be and still be counted as on time.

MTA also changed the technology it uses to track bus arrival times to a technology that appears to be more accurate, but led to revised historic data for buses that lowered the bar set by past performance from around 85% on time to around 60% on time.

Governor Larry Hogan and Mayor Catherine Pugh announce BaltimoreLink in 2017. BaltimoreLink announcement by Maryland GovPics licensed under Creative Commons.

After initially reporting that modelling of the new system showed no change in the average travel time of 52 minutes, the MTA stopped reporting on that performance measure, stating “MDOT MTA does not measure average trip time.” It shut down Rate Your Ride, a tool for collecting feedback from riders, in the months leading up to the BaltimoreLink launch, only to bring it back with all of the open data features removed after the launch.

Our own findings of only marginal change on most indicators are not surprising, given the lack of new resources. The MTA’s operating budget averaged only a 2.5% increase over the past four years, which is not enough to keep up with the rising costs in the transportation sector, let alone to produce dramatic change.

These things could help BaltimoreLink succeed

Over time, ridership will be a key indicator of whether BaltimoreLink is successful. Based on the experience in Houston, we expected the MTA’s ridership to go down in the early months of the new system as people got used to it. That is what happened.

Ridership was down 23% in the first month compared to the same month one year prior, but the MTA reports that in May 2018, ridership was only 1% below the May 2017 level. That is a sign that ridership is bouncing back, particularly given the national downward trend in bus ridership.

In our report, we make five recommendations for the MTA to build on BaltimoreLink and deliver more positive results. As WMATA prepares to redesign its entire network of DC bus routes, riders and planners should draw lessons from our overhaul.

Our suggestions include publishing performance measure data and measurement methods, reversing plans to cut the MTA’s capital budget, and providing priority lanes and transit signal prioritization in highly-traveled corridors.

What do you think of Baltimore's redesigned bus system?

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