A nine-month survey of Maryland Transit Administration bus and rail riders has found that the No. 1 gripe of the agency's customers — by an overwhelming margin — is that their ride doesn't show up on time.
In a final report on its "Rate Your Ride" survey of about 6,700 MTA riders, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance found that riders complained more about lateness than about rude drivers, skipped stops, dirty vehicles and all other concerns.
"There's no other issue that comes close to getting where they want to go on time," said Michele Whelley, president of the nonprofit alliance that conducted the survey.
The survey was launched last Sept. 29 as a way to measure the quality of service offered by the MTA on its local bus lines, light rail, Metro subway, MARC commuter trains, and Mobility van and cab service for the disabled.
Based on the survey, the alliance issued a series of recommendations to the transit agency, including improved communication with riders who lodge complaints and a streamlined process for fixing troubled bus routes.
MTA spokesman Terry Owens said agency officials were studying the report. "We're going to give all their recommendations serious consideration," he said Wednesday.
Whelley said the strongest response by far — 82 percent of the total — came from bus riders. And it was bus passengers, more than those using any other mode of public transit, who gave the agency its lowest marks on a survey in which a score of 4 indicated major problems and a 1 denoted excellent service.
The bus system scored 2.7, compared with 2.1 for the highest-ranked service, the subway. The light rail, MARC and Mobility all scored midway between the two but had lower response rates.
One of the key findings of the report, Whelley said, was the way riders perceive the MTA's customer service
For example, she said, the agency does not routinely notify people who have complained after action has been taken to address a problem.
Brian O'Malley, the alliance's policy and research director, said it's important that the MTA tell riders whether it can fix a problem or not.
"Even if a solution is not apparent, they want to know they've been heard," he said.
The alliance recommended that the MTA find a way to assign a tracking number to complaints — much as Baltimore's 311 system does — so customers can track the response to a particular complaint.
The report found that the MTA takes a long time — about 180 days — to investigate and develop a response to rider complaints. The alliance urged the MTA to reduce that time to 120 days.
The group noted that the MTA has difficulty tracing complaints to a specific bus, saying an identification known as the block number is posted only on a digital windshield display that cannot be seen by bus riders. It urged the MTA to find a way to display that number where passengers can see it.
Whelley said she recognized the MTA is constrained by a lack of resources. Often, fixing a problem on one route would require diverting assets from another, she said.
"The balloon cannot be enlarged, it can only be squeezed," she said.
But Whelley said budget constraints were no excuse for inaction.
"We're not going to take that defeatist attitude," she said. "It's not good enough to say right now we can't do anything because we don't have the money."
The survey identified specific bus routes that received the highest and lowest ratings from their riders. The worst-rated, primarily long routes through city streets with many stops, included Nos. 15, 3, 19, 27, 77 and 35. The best routes included the 310 and 420 commuter routes, the express No. 120, the limited-stop No. 40 and the No. 4, a lightly traveled route in eastern Baltimore County.
Whelley said that based on previously released, interim findings, the MTA has already made changes to three of the worst-rated routes — Nos. 19, 77 and 35.
She said the alliance would like to see the "Rate Your Ride" survey continue — even though the group no longer has the money to do so itself.
Owens indicated the MTA shares that goal.
"We certainly value the data and are currently exploring options to continue the program," he said.