The Maryland Transit Administration unveiled a searchable online database Thursday that offers bus passengers and the rest of the public the ability to view and track on-time rates of each of the agency’s bus routes, a transparency step long sought by advocates critical of the agency’s reporting.
Nearly 30% of the buses across the system did not arrive on time May 9, the most recent date for which data was available on the MTA’s “Performance Improvement” page as of Thursday. The buses can be tracked on the agency’s Transit app with real-time GPS devices, a service that will expand to the MTA’s MARC commuter trains and light rail in July and the Baltimore Metro Subway in the late fall, MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn said.
“We’re opening the doors to all the information — the good, the bad and the ugly,” Quinn said during a presentation at a crowded Baltimore Transit Choices Coalition meeting Thursday morning at the Impact Hub in Station North. “Here it is, everybody.”
The room — full of mass transit advocates often critical of the MTA — burst into applause.
“We’re not where we need to be,” added Quinn , referring to the on-time rate, “but it’s going up.”
Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, cheered the new online tool as a “positive development.
Having access to the route-by-route data will allow riders to see for themselves how well their routes are performing, whether bus-only lanes are improving on-time rates and other metrics, said O’Malley, who had been urging the release of the data for years.
“Riders want the buses to be on time,” he said. “For that to happen, we need the MTA to be transparent about the reliability of the service we have now. In business, they say what gets measured gets fixed.”
The new site, designed with a mobile interface, is part of a larger shift in the MTA toward using technology and real-time data to track buses and improve the system, the administrator said. The MTA’s Bus Operations Performance Squad [“BOPS”] gathers the data and meets for two hours every other week to discuss how to solve problems on its worst-performing routes.
About 30% of MTA passengers now track their buses’ location with the Transit app, Quinn said. More than 97,000 people have downloaded the agency’s CharmPass ticketing app that can be used for all its services and includes free transfers between services in under 90 minutes.
Brian Seel, a software engineer who lives in Upper Fells Point, used the MTA’s open-source data to build his own route-by-route database.
He noted that the agency widened its definition of “on-time” from a six-minute window (between one minute early and five minutes late) to a nine-minute window (two minutes early to seven minutes late) when it launched BaltimoreLink in 2017.
That adjustment inflates the overall on-time rates from 52.2% to 67.8% for the month of April, he wrote in his analysis.
Seel noticed a 2-3% difference in on-time rates between his database and the MTA’s, which he attributed to his measuring arrival times and the agency measuring departure times, among other technical differences between the two databases.
“I’ve been playing with this about a month now,” he said. “Every time I look at some data, there’s a new question or answer.”
When he recently saw three CityLink Brown route buses bunched on Broadway, Seel looked at the GPS data to find out why: One of them had started on a spur route and joined the other two in downtown traffic.
Dips in bus speeds on the CityLink Navy route, despite the presence of a bus-only lane, indicate delivery trucks and other violators parking in or illegally using the lanes, he said.
“Those are interesting things we can start tracking over time,” Seel said. “The change over time is going to be the most interesting story.”
The real-time location tracking on the Transit app has helped the agency pinpoint problem areas, where congestion or bus-bunching is occurring, Quinn said. The MTA Commuter Bus service was added to the app Thursday, he said.
While about 20 to 25 of the MTA buses’ GPS devices don’t work, the agency has lowered that number from 45 last summer, Quinn said.
“I don’t think the number’s ever going to be zero,” he said, then added : “We’ve got great streets in Baltimore that mess with the equipment on the buses.”
Real-time location data helps the MTA target enforcement of bus lane violations on the routes the biggest problems, and the agency is on pace to double the number of citations issued last year, Quinn said.
“We’re trying to take a more targeted approach — more scalpel than sledgehammer,” he said.
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Adding real-time tracking to the system and allowing riders and the general public a window into the data will only help the MTA by giving it the tools to identify problems and improve its service, Seel said.
“Basically, everything the MTA claims about their service, we’re able to verify,” Seel said.
This story has been updated. Real-time GPS tracking will debut on the MTA's MARC and light rail services in August, and on the Metro Subway in late fall. The number of buses with non-working GPS trackers is between 20 and 25, down from 45 last summer. Thirty percent of MTA riders use the Transit app. The Sun regrets the errors.