Despite the recently redesigned Maryland Transit Administration bus routes, Sade Johnson of Park Heights wasn't worried about getting on the wrong bus for the first day of school Tuesday morning.
The 10th-grader at Carver Vocational-Technical High School greeted friends as the Mondawmin Metro Station filled up with a crowd of jostling students reuniting with classmates in their school polo shirts.
"Everybody meets up," the 16-year-old said. "There's at least somebody who knows."
On the first day of classes in Baltimore Tuesday, about 27,000 students who take MTA buses to school encountered Gov. Larry Hogan's $135 million BaltimoreLink bus system overhaul, designed to make it more reliable.
The redesign is built around a dozen color-coded, high-frequency routes through downtown, with less frequent LocalLink and ExpressLink commuter routes radiating from them. To speed the buses' travel, the MTA cut out many underused stops, added bus-only lanes downtown and installed bus sensors on traffic lights to shorten red lights and lengthen green ones.
The state purposefully debuted the new system after schools let out in June to allow adult riders to learn the new routes without competing with the swarms of students who ride to and from school and after-school activities, officials said.
The students, in many cases, were more prepared on Tuesday for the overhaul than their adult counterparts had been in June. Some said they had taken the new routes to summer jobs, classes and other activities or tried it during the two-week grace period after the launch, when the MTA offered free service to allow people to learn the new system.
MTA administrator Kevin Quinn said he was "pleased and impressed" by the students' knowledge of the new system. He said he heard positive responses from several of the 150 transit ambassadors who were stationed around the city to help anyone confused by the new routes.
Quinn, who oversaw the launch of the system in June, spent the morning at a bus stop at St. Paul and Fayette streets downtown, where many east-west routes converge.
Of those students he met — most of them taking the CityLink Silver or LocalLink 67 to Digital Harbor High School — "99.9 percent" already knew which buses to take, he said.
"I think folks really did their homework," Quinn said. "It's a big testament to extreme amount of outreach we did."
In addition to hosting hundreds of educational sessions for adults, the MTA went to summer schools, camps, faculty meetings, back-to-school events and community groups to spread the word of the route changes, Quinn said.
The agency also sent postcards home to every city school student, and distributed a student-rider guide that outlines which routes go to which schools, he said.
"By mail, in person — we tried a lot to get the word out," Quinn said.
Most students who rode the new BaltimoreLink buses arrived on time Tuesday morning, Baltimore City Public Schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said.
"Overall, the first day went well," she said in an email. "The operation ran smoothly with a majority of buses arriving on time. There were minimal complaints about navigating the system. Our folks were satisfied with what they saw."
Frederick Elementary School is one of the first newly built schools in the city. (Baltimore Sun video)
Students offered a more mixed reaction.
Sade said the new routes are an overall improvement: "I think it's better."
Kaylah Clemons, who takes the LocalLink 22 from Mondawmin to Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical (Mervo) High School in Northeast Baltimore, was less impressed.
The 15-year-old said she tried new bus system a few times, riding it to her summer YouthWorks job at Callaway Elementary School in Dolefield.
"I don't like it," Kaylah said. "They should've kept it how it was. It's just more confusing. The buses are not always on time."
"See? Where is that 22?" she added. "We're going to be late for the first day of school."
Callia Jefferson, 16, a senior at Baltimore City College High School in Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello, said the color-coded, high-frequency buses have been more reliable than the LocalLink ones.
"The Lime bus runs when it's supposed to," she said. "But the other buses… The 82 — that bus comes every half hour. Sometimes it's late; sometimes it's too early."
Kiyea Milledge, 17, a senior at Green Street Academy in Carroll-South Hilton, said she mostly had avoided the bus route change by taking the metro subway to her Summer Academic Research Experience program at Johns Hopkins University.
Kiyea and a few of her classmates said they missed their LocalLink 29 bus because they were standing at the other end of the station, where they thought the bus picked up.
"We were at the bus stop and everything," she said.
"It's crazy," Kiyea added, referring to the redesigned system. "I don't see why we switched it. I thought it was perfectly fine how it was."
Riders work through issues on the first day of the BaltimoreLink bus route overhaul. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)
Desmond Davis, 17, a Mervo senior from East Baltimore, was ready. He spent the summer riding half a dozen of the new routes — the LocalLinks 22, 26, 53 and CityLinks Green, Red and Silver — to summer school at Frederick Douglass High School and elsewhere.
Desmond likes the new system, which he says is moves more quickly than the old one. He said naysayers just haven't put in the time to learn the routes.
"It's faster, and they be on time," Desmond said. "People are lazy nowadays."
Despite the new bus system, Dawn Weems had the same complaints she does every year on the first day of school.
The buses get so packed with students that they abandon their schedules, she says, and getting on one requires pushing and shoving, which she is unwilling to do.
Weems said she caught the 8:07 a.m. or 8:17 a.m. LocalLink 22 bus every morning to get to her 8:30 a.m. job as a financial clearance coordinator for Johns Hopkins Hospital at Keswick Rotunda all summer.
At 8:29 a.m. Tuesday, she was still standing at the Mondawmin Metro Station bus stop. The 8:07 bus left early, she said, and the 8:17 one hadn't yet arrived.
"I'm going to be late for work. These students," she added, gesturing around to those still waiting with her, "half of them should be in school already."
The 42-year-old West Baltimore woman is both a daily MTA rider and a parent of a student who rides a bus to school. Her 17-year-old son, Daron Maye, is a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in East Baltimore and rides the new CityLink Blue bus, she said.
"The MTA gets millions of dollars every year for this," Weems said. "I couldn't tell. They should be better prepared for the school year."
Quinn acknowledged that overcrowding is a problem. The MTA added extra buses to its most heavily traveled routes in anticipation of the 27,000 riders returning to the system, he said.
"We know it gets more crowded," he said. "That's why we provide additional service."
Earl Thomas said he's noticed an improvement in service since BaltimoreLink's debut. The schoolchildren, like the other riders, "just go with the flow," he said. "It's going to happen whether you like it or not."
Thomas, 51, a bus rider who lives in East Baltimore, wished the MTA had offered another week of free service just before school started, to give students a chance for a dry run, too. But he said the 150 transit ambassadors helped.