One year of BaltimoreLink bus system: Ridership bounces back, reliability still falls short

Sheila Ballard stepped down from the CityLink Navy bus at Mondawmin Metro Station and waited for a LocalLink 91 bus to take her the rest of the way to her job at Sinai Hospital.

Until a year ago, the 49-year-old cook could get to work on one bus. Then the Maryland Transit Administration overhauled the Baltimore region’s bus system, shortening routes to make the lines quicker and more reliable, but complicating some riders’ commutes.

Gov. Larry Hogan launched the $135 million BaltimoreLink bus system — redesigned with new routes, buses, bus-only lanes and more — last June. The system was intended to improve public transit in and around the city after the Republican governor canceled the Red Line light rail project.

A year later, Maryland Transit Administrator Kevin Quinn says, reliability is up and complaints have been halved.

“We’ve seen great improvements,” he said.

Ridership on the system fell by nearly 23 percent — or 1.4 million trips — in the month following the overhaul, according to data MTA reported to the federal government. It has since bounced back: Monthly ridership in May was down less than 1 percent compared to May 2017.

Riders took 5.9 million trips on the system last month, according to the MTA. The system averaged 226,102 trips per weekday, 125,332 trips per Saturday, and 81,817 trips per Sunday or holiday in May.

But BaltimoreLink remains well short of its top goal: Buses arriving when they’re supposed to 80 percent of the time. Nearly a third of the LocalLink buses and more than a quarter of the high-frequency CityLink buses still don’t show up on time, according to MTA data. So transferring carries the risk of being left waiting at the bus stop.

“The route was longer” before the change, Ballard said. “But it was more convenient.”

LocalLink buses have arrived and departed on time about 68 percent of the time, Quinn said, an improvement from last year. CityLink buses arrive within their promised 10- to 15-minute intervals 73 percent of the time, he said.

More enhancements are planned in the coming year. They include mobile ticketing and real-time GPS tracking to better manage the system and allow riders to see where their bus is in real time.

“We’re always looking to have continuous improvement, but think we’ve seen some signs of success,” Quinn said.

Officials say they expected a temporary drop in ridership after the overhaul, as was seen in other cities following significant changes. The MTA also blamed the rise in popularity in ride-share services and low gasoline prices last year. Transit systems nationwide reported a 5 percent drop in ridership over the last year.

What’s not clear is whether riders are getting to work more quickly.

The MTA said before the launch that the average trip time with BaltimoreLink would be 52 minutes. Asked for the average since the launch, agency spokeswoman Veronica Battisti said, “MDOT MTA does not measure average trip time.”

When BaltimoreLink launched, the agency expanded its definition of “on time” from within five minutes of the scheduled time to within seven minutes — the standard used by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Using the new definition, the MTA calculated that its previous rate had been 59.5 percent, Battisti said.

Both changes troubled Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a rider advocacy group. O’Malley, who is not related to former Gov. Martin O’Malley, has long argued that the MTA needs to improve its transparency.

“They were initially measuring the average transit time on the system, and they stopped because it wasn’t favorable,” he said.

He said the improved reliability “sounds good — if true.”

“But my confidence in the number they’re reporting has been shaken by the series of changes they’ve made in how they measure and report the number,” he said, “especially because the changes have always been convenient for making BaltimoreLink come out looking like an improvement.”

He said the only way to show that the system actually is improving is to make more data public, he said.

“They say it’s gotten better, but we don’t know whether to believe them,” he said. “We can’t confirm or deny it.”

Dashawn Wilson takes the LocalLink 22 and CityLink Orange buses. The 17-year-old Essex youth has noticed cleaner, bigger and more reliable buses on those routes.

But he doesn’t think it’s fair to riders to consider a bus that’s seven minutes late “on-time.”

“The time it says it’s coming, it should come,” Wilson said. “If it says 8:15, it should come at 8:15.”

Danielle Sweeney, a writer and transit activist who lives in Riverside, created the Facebook group “Where’s the Bus, Baltimore?” as a platform for riders to discuss the service, and for MTA officials to respond to questions.

The group, which asks members to keep their comments civil and focused on service and reliability, has amassed 523 members, including MTA officials and bus drivers.

“The MTA does not have a public-facing feedback mechanism,” Sweeney said. “You call the call center and somebody takes down your complaint. I’m not sure you hear back.”

Sweeney said she doesn’t consider the new system “transformational,” as Hogan promised when announcing the new service.

“After a year — and I’ve been following this pretty closely — I’m not seeing reliability that was promised,” she said. “It doesn’t live up to Hogan’s hype.”

Sweeney analyzed the rate of “cut runs” during the first six months after the launch. These are trips that are canceled, usually because a bus operator has failed to show up for work.

Sweeney found 20,000 such bus runs, which the MTA said represented 1.2 percent of service.

Quinn says new policies and better communication have reduced driver absenteeism from 20 percent to 12 percent in the last year.

“We’re measuring things better,” he said. “There’s generally been a culture shift in the agency, a real culture change toward data-driven accountability.”

Quinn oversaw the design of BaltimoreLink as the MTA’s director of planning and then took over as the agency’s administrator two weeks before its launch.

He pointed out several indicators of system-wide improvement: A 20 percent decline in bus accidents and a 49 percent drop in bus-related complaints.

Bus-mounted traffic signal sensors, which extend green lights and shorten red ones as buses approach, reduced travel times on the Loch Raven Boulevard and York Road corridors by up to 22 percent, he said. They’ve now been installed on all the buses and will debut on the Liberty Heights Avenue and Belair Road corridors later this year.

The red, bus-only lanes through some of the busiest downtown streets have helped buses avoid congestion, he said. Travel time on the Pratt Street corridor improved by 7 percent on weekdays, and 17 percent during the evening rush hour, Quinn said. Times on Lombard Street improved by 25 percent.

“Taken together, we are certainly headed in the right direction,” he said.

Quinn said the MTA has increased its use of data and technology.

In one long-requested update, the agency will soon introduce a mobile ticketing app, which can be used to buy daily or monthly tickets for the buses, Metro Subway, Light Rail and the commuter bus.

The MTA has outfitted buses with GPS trackers and is sharing the signals with the Transit mobile app to more accurately reflect buses’ real-time locations on their routes, he said.

He called the GPS system an “eye in the sky” that will help MTA address the persistent problem of bus “bunching,” in which buses come right after the other, leaving longer gaps in service after both leave.

“That’s going to be a really key piece,” Quinn said. “We’re changing the way we use data as an agency.”

Noah Tyson, 42, of East Baltimore, said he sees results: The buses come more frequently. He catches the CityLink Pink, Brown and Gold buses and the LocalLink 56 to work and church.

“I remember what it used to be,” Tyson said. “I used to ride those buses a lot, and I see the change.”

Not all riders are happy.

Donna Thomas says some fellow bus riders lost jobs for tardiness after the new bus routes lengthened their commutes.

Before BaltimoreLink, the 60-year-old East Baltimore woman rode the No. 15 bus from North Avenue and Gay Street to Walbrook Junction. Now she takes the CityLink Brown to Johns Hopkins, catches the Metro Subway to Lexington Market, and picks up the LocalLink 80 to Walbrook.

Her old commute took 30 to 45 minutes, Thomas said.

“Now it might take an hour and a half,” she said. “It’s worse than what it used to be.”

Charles Lee is one of the 27,000 Baltimore students who take the MTA bus to school every day. He takes the CityLink Gold and the LocalLink 54 buses a little over an hour each way between his home in West Baltimore and Friendship Academy of Engineering And Technology in Hamilton Hills.

The 18-year-old junior says he has seen some improvement in the service since last summer.

“The bus sometimes is a little slow,” he said. “But it is better.”

Still, with so many riders relying on the bus to get to work or school, Lee doesn’t see any reason the city shouldn’t have the best system in the country.

“Baltimore should be No. 1,” he said.

Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, says the fact that so many riders don’t have any other option is what has allowed the service to lag for so long.

Jordan pointed to a study by SmartAsset, a financial advising firm, that showed the Baltimore transit system serves a disproportionately poor population.

Riders of the Washington transit system have an average income 4 percent lower than that of the general population, SmartAsset reported. For riders in Baltimore, the income disparity is 35 percent.

He said the removal of the LocalLinks 102, 106 and 107, three low-ridership, county-to-county lines, show the MTA’s failure to entice wealthier, whiter riders to the BaltimoreLink system.

With a majority-black, low-income clientele, he said, a bus system “will never be operated or managed in the way you would operate a system for rich, white people.”

The fleet needs more investment to run as well as the MTA promises, he said.

“Part of the problem is the fleet isn’t large enough,” he said.

The MTA bus drivers’ union in Baltimore opposed BaltimoreLink before its launch. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300 argued that drivers weren’t adequately trained on the new routes in time for the launch, and the overhaul didn’t fully address the system’s problems.

Some parts of the service are performing OK, President David McClure says. But overcrowding remains a problem, and operators want to see more service added on the heaviest lines, he said.

“A majority of people out there don’t like it,” McClure said. “Operators are complaining about the way the service is as well.”

City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, an advocate of biking and transit, says buses are hamstrung by Baltimore’s road design, which prioritizes cars. Dorsey introduced legislation this year requiring the city transportation department to consider all modes of transportation in road projects.

“The reality is that buses trying to compete with cars will always lose,” he said. “We have little to no capacity to expand and improve bus service without prioritizing them on our roads over cars.”

Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College and director of the Goucher Poll, says BaltimoreLink is likely to come up in this year’s gubernatorial election.

Public opinion toward public transportation projects tends to be highly localized, she says. In Baltimore, transit investment tends to be more popular than in rural counties, where fewer people ride buses.

“Democrats are going to want to position themselves as the public transportation party and make the case for public transportation,” Kromer said. “Hogan will talk about his record investment in transportation infrastructure.”

Hogan’s re-election campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Quinn said it had been “an exciting year.” He praised the bus drivers and other MTA employees for working to continually improve Baltimore’s bus system.

“Our operators, mechanics, MTA police — they should really be recognized for the great work they’re doing,” he said.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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