FOR GOOD reason, mass transit is transportation of last resort in the Baltimore area. But rising gas prices are making travelers take a second look at buses and rail. The Mass Transit Association has a chance here to snare some permanent users -- but only if it cleans up its act and delivers better service than regular riders endure.
Last year, the Citizens Planning and Housing Association found serious flaws with MTA service -- dirty buses, drivers who don't announce stops, broken windows and seats, too little information about routes and schedules.
That must change. Passengers deserve clean and comfortable vehicles. Customers, particularly new riders, need information. The MTA should post as much detail as possible at every bus and rail stop. And announcing stops is critical, and required by law, to serve disabled passengers.
"These are the things that determine whether people feel comfortable or not," said Amy Coggin, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association. "Everybody in the industry knows that."
This is the time to improve service. People are turning to mass transit, particularly rail transit, in Maryland, Philadelphia and even Los Angeles, where $2-per-gallon gas is converting some travelers in that car-crazy town into public transportation advocates.
MTA ridership has increased between 5 and 6 percent on Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) trains since last June. Even the sluggish light rail and Metro subway systems have gotten a boost, with ridership up 3 percent.
Can MTA afford to turn off these new customers?
The agency promises to improve transit routes if the state legislature gives it flexibility. But that's a long-range issue.
In the meantime, ensuring that service is clean, prompt and efficient is perfectly doable -- and more than that, it is absolutely necessary.