As a daily commuter who rides the Maryland Transit Administration's #11 bus northbound in the morning and southbound in the evening, I have to wonder: Could there be a more unreliable organization than the MTA? I have certainly never encountered one.
The MTA must put forth a more significant effort to try to keep bus, train and light rail running on schedule than current results reflect. Two months ago, when I waited at a stop for two full hours while as many as four scheduled buses were no-shows, I called customer service — which offered absolutely no help. Their tactic, I've found after many calls, is to place the caller on hold and check in several minutes later to ask, "Has a bus come yet?" They claim to check into bus status and possible diversions, but when a customer service representative comes back on the call, rarely do they have information to share.
In this particular instance, I put up enough of a fuss that I was finally transferred to the complaints supervisor, who informed me that unless there was a pattern of no-shows for two-hour periods of time, there wasn't much she could do. Really — four scheduled buses in a row not showing up is not cause for immediate action?
During one recent week, my northbound bus ran 10 to 15 minutes late each day. The following week, it was running at least 5 minutes early. For every day that I report the bus, I have yet to see it arrive on time consistently. The driver and schedule have not changed, nor does traffic seem to be the culprit. What's more, I learned from my call with the supervisor that the MTA was missing a driver for one of the morning buses on my route, and that if a driver doesn't show or a replacement can't be found, the bus just doesn't run. Period. No notice to passengers, no adjustment of the schedule — just a bus that is frequently a no-show or runs off-schedule if a temporary driver is found.
This policy is detrimental to those who rely on public transit regularly. I, for one, do not have a car, although if I could afford one at this juncture in my life, I most certainly would jump at the opportunity over waiting for another no-show bus.
Recently, the MTA began implementing the "Rate Your Ride" program, presumably to gain customer insight and prioritize routes and transit methods that require more funding and supervision to improve. On the surface, it's a wonderful idea. However, the program has significant limitations. Its data set is based solely on text messages and responses to inadequate survey prompts to a program hosted by a survey messaging service. This overlooks passengers who use cellphones infrequently, such as the elderly or those without unlimited text plans. By not including options such as calls to customer service, feedback on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and emails and form submissions (http://mta.maryland.gov/complaints) sent to the complaints department, "Rate Your Ride" severely diminishes its pool of potential respondents, skewing the survey results. Limiting the survey pool will result in poorly reflected priorities and misuse of federal and state funding for public transportation.
For Baltimoreans relying on public transit to get to work, the level of unreliability is atrocious. During these economic hard times, when citizens are relying on public transit to save a dollar, public transit becomes all the more important. If the MTA doesn't have enough drivers, it should hire more. It should strategically remove selected stops or reroute buses to ensure that congestion on routes diminishes to prevent buses running back-to-back. The MTA should make stronger efforts to inform drivers of changes to signage so that newly assigned drivers follow the correct route.
Most importantly, the MTA must make an effort to run according to schedule and to increase transparency, because when you get down to it, what good is public transit without a reliable schedule — and how can public transit serve the public appropriately if methods of communication are not numerous and both frequently and vigorously monitored?
Catherine Goldstead lives in Baltimore and works in Towson.