Monday, August 3, 2015

How to measure transit performance?

After the session the Assistant Secretary of Transportation (Operations) Kevin Reigrut asked, "is the purpose of transit to provide a ride to those who can afford cars or is it to get cars off the road?" He added, "well, it doesn't have to be mutually exclusive." Indeed.

The session was a one in a series of summer study efforts  to explore the performance of MTA, a debate that began when Delegate Brooke Lierman introduced a bill to create a MTA Oversight Board, a bill that was sent to further study.

So what is transit performance: Ridership, schedule adherence, fair box recovery? Opinions of the about 120 people in the room varied but there was agreement that current MTA performance is not good enough and also that the above metrics hardly describe what is on people's mind, or better, what matters to them when it comes to transit. But there was energy, not least because the new MTA Administrator communicated a high level of energy and a strong desire to change the MTA.

At a time in which the new Governor has taken transit in large part off the table by reassigning almost all the available funds to roads, people like Paul Comfort have to take the coals out of the fire.

He does it with aplomb. Although he doesn't have any additional funds at this point, he knows that once he has a plan he will also get some money.  It is widely understood that sometjing has to happen in metropolitan Baltimore to make transit a better option. And the Governor now "owns" the MTA. Thus, Comfort effortlessly says sentences like:

"Buses is where it's at. " even though Bus, LRT and Metro ridership is down from 2013 to 2014.  (There are still almost a quarter million riders a day on buses alone). Only Mobility van service and MARC show upward ridership trends.
"Transit is economic development", he adds, a sentence Red Line promoters have always used but that remains true for him anyway. And if that wasn't enough, he explains: "We must make sure that we use this transit system to lift the city." There was probably nobody in the room who disagreed with that, including the four delegates, the many City DOT representatives,  leaders from various transportation management groups at Fort Meade, BWI and other places, someone from GBC, several college bus managers as well as transit activists from CMTA, Transit Choices, CPHA and other organizations.

Ed Cohen, an old time transit stalwart who once led the Transit Rider Action Council and is a mathematician by training, explained cogently why the "fair box recovery" (the ratio stands at 26% for buses, 16% for LRT and 50% for MARC) is wrong.  "It can "never be achieved. (35% are legislated after a 50% requirement many years ago). The transit cost index rises much faster than the general cost of of living index, so if we tie ourselves to that metric, we are bound to fail" he observed and added: "Using economic measures that don't work always lead to failure". Instead he suggested to use "measures of transit delivery" as a new metric.

In the extensive question period (answers were not provided at this listening session) these were some of the other questions:

  • What about overcrowded buses (A question by someone from Sandtown)
  • What about para transit to Howard County?
  • What about other solutions than the 54 person bus?
  • What about funding your vision?
  • What about a more regional approach
  • More direct routes for Mobility?
  • Can advertisements to augment revenue?
  • How to make the bus routes faster?
  • What technologies are you looking at to make the user interface more friendly?
  • What is the vision to bring addional users to transit?
  • What can be done to integrate college and university bus services? 
  • Why can city and colleges provide free service for $2 per person when it costs the MTA so much more?
  • Are there expansion plans for MARC?

Suggestions and comments included:

  • "Transit is important. If it doesn't work we drain the talent of Baltimore by not having an effective system". 
  • Run a strong marketing campaign.  "Nobody wants to be an idiot". Regarding mass transit many don't even know where to begin. 
  • The Fells Point Community Association President suggested to catch east side commuters on the P&R lots that were planned for Red Line, build them now and have employees shuttled into downtown.
  • Somebody suggested variable fare pricing.
Paul Comfort ended the session with those words:
I have no plan yet. I want hear your ideas first. I want to align the transportation system with the land use, add suburb to suburb connections, improve amenities and bring back the adopt a stop system. 

 We will hear much more on August 10 when some major transit improvement announcements are scheduled.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

From the MDOT website about the sessions:

Ensuring that Maryland’s transit system is safe, efficient, and sustainable is a top priority for the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT). During the 2015 Session of the General Assembly, various committees discussed opportunities to improve the services offered by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). In addition to legislative proposals, budget language was included as part of the FY 2015 operating budget that directed the MTA to develop a Transit Performance Improvement Plan. To develop that plan and to ensure that the concerns and recommendations of MTA’s stakeholders are heard, understood, and implemented where appropriate, MDOT will be convening an MTA Stakeholder Work Group to hear from business and organizational interests as well as from transit users. Over the course of the summer and early fall, this group will make recommendations to improve MTA services, which will inform the Transit Performance Improvement Plan.

Transit Performance:  The Committees are concerned about the performance measures reported by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) with the fiscal 2016 budget that shows a decline in ridership in fiscal 2014, core bus on-time performance not meeting the established goal for the past three years, and farebox recovery rates below the level mandated in State law. By July 1, 2015, MTA should post in its website a transit performance improvement plan indicating how these issues are to be remedied. Further, MTA should post on its website quarterly updates beginning October 1, 2015, indicating the specific actions taken and progress made in implementing the improvement plan.

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