Friday, September 23, 2016

Baltimore Bus Reform Under Fire

When Governor Hogan announced a comprehensive overhaul of the Baltimore bus system some took issue with the underlying notion that this reform is a substitute for the dramatic cancellation of the Red Line into which an entire region had invested 12 years of planning and design.  Transit advocates still don't think that Baltimore should simply be a "bus town" or that it shouldn't have any additional rail service. This tension still carries over into any debate about MTA.
From MTA community presentation

But nobody questioned the need for a bus reform and when Secretary Rahn assessed what was wrong with current service it resonated with the experience of many riders. In Paul Comfort the MTA had  a new administrator who showed a much higher public profile than his predecessors. He began the reform of MTA's service with urgency, enthusiasm and optimism. The entire overhaul is scheduled to be done by June 2017, a project that his predecessor had given an up to 18 year time-frame. Comfort acknowledged the bus analysis work that had been done before under the acronym BNIP, but he added new reform goals such as a "high frequency network" and took Houston's radical overhaul as a model. Baltimore will go to bed with the old bus system one night and would wake up with a system in place by the next morning in which hardly any bus route would be like it was before.

The boldness of the approach, the successful Houston model, and the fact that additional buses, drivers and investments in bus lanes and signal priority were part of the plan ($135 in six years) convinced many transit advocates to participate in the process and engage in a constructive manner in the reform project called BaltimoreLink, no matter what ill feelings they had in regards to the missed rail transit opportunity.
Transfers and trip times remain about the same as today. (MTA)

But as it is, honeymoons are followed by rougher stretches. Or, when theory meets practice, adjustments have to be made. Transit riders studying the reform plan version 1.0  tried to imagine their daily trips under the new system and expressed many concerns about eliminated lines, service that was too far away, or required multiple buses and transfers for trips that can currently be taken with "one seat". As a result of 1,280 comments from communities made in 67 outreach meetings (MTA numbers) version 2.0 of the bus plan was unveiled this July. It reinstated many routes and looked more similar to the old system than the first incarnation.

One could say that the initial version was a robust but limited high frequency network which was augmented by local buses and transfers at hubs. In version 2.0 the plan morphed into a much more hybrid model in which the distinction between high frequency and local bus was blurred and coverage was increased at the cost of frequency. Riders look at frequency in terms of all buses in the corridor, transit planners define it per route.
MTA numbers based on their own modelling

Reduction of redundancy of multiple bus lines piling on top of each other on the same route (typical today especially in the core area) is a stated goal of the reform. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke's bus working group soon found out that many corridors in their northwest quadrant had actually less frequent overall service than before, comparing the sum of all parallel lines with the one line that was left in version 2.0. In a meeting with the advocacy group Transit Choices with the councilwoman and the MTA, the MTA representative countered the criticism with the statement that one line that would show up reliably and on schedule would still be an improvement over multiple lines that all run unreliably.
This is a chart from the transit union ATA based on the obsolete version 1.0
of the Link Plan. The chart is still on the ATU website 

Transit experts began to analyze the proposed plan by numbers: The transit union ATU calls the Link bus proposal "a charade" and posted a detailed article on their website under the title "Why Baltimore Link is not Enough". The criticism focuses on transfer points resulting from shortened routes (another stated goal of the reform) and provided a chart of some reduced corridor frequencies. The analysis seems outdated and based on version 1.0. ATU wants a BRT system for Baltimore.

The transit advocacy group CMTA hired Transportation for America to conduct an independent analysis of the version 2.0 of the Link project using a modeling approach similar to MTA's own approach. The report was released this week and found that the radical reform yielded only tepid improvements. The report provoked a harsh response from the Governor's office:
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer called the report "complete nonsense." He said the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance "is extremely biased at best." (Baltimore SUN)
Considering that CMTA's findings differ only marginally from MTA's own analysis the words "complete nonsense" seem to express more political anger than an actual argument. Both models show modest improvements overall with increases in frequency in some areas and some decreases in others. One difference comes from the way CMTA breaks down job access.
The CMTA analysis by Transportation for America has a host of
charts measuring the trip times and the access of low income
neighborhoods to jobs and grocery stores

Ultimately, the biggest difference comes from a part that can't be measured yet. MTA puts a lot of stock into the benefit of having a reliable system where buses show up on time and get riders where they want on time. According to MTA this new reliability is the result of shorter routes and a more efficient spread of the bus fleet over the service area. Whether this effect will actually happen can only be verified after the new system is in place.

Currently test buses are dispatched on the proposed routes to measure actual run-times, but the new stops are not yet finalized and results also don't include the anticipated signal prioritization for buses at certain intersections or additional dedicated bus lanes other than the existing ones on Pratt and Lombard.

CMTA's analysis takes MTA's own schedule assumptions and even assumes 100% schedule adherence in its model. It finds that the increase in jobs that can be accessed in 45 minutes is too small to be relevant although the results for specific communities vary hugely. But trip time comparisons suffer from the fact that current actual trip times are guesswork since most current schedules are pure theory and the real trips times vary excessively, in part because MTA's system is too stressed, in part because Baltimore's traffic conditions are unpredictable, in often because of ongoing utility construction popping up everywhere.

CMTA also takes issue with Sunday service. More frequent service 24/7 is a stated BaltimoreLink goal. Extended service times late in the evening and on the weekend are costly but important to many low income earners who are shift workers or otherwise have odd work hours. The early Sunday light rail service in MTA's original proposal still needs to be reconciled with the necessary down-times in which tracks are maintained. As for late night or weekend buses: CMTA is probably right, that for this to happen sustainably, additional operations money may be needed. MTA is also still working on solutions that involve on demand Micro Transit service such as vans or Uber to solve last mile issues.

Personally, I envision a transit future in which bus coverage is reduced in favor of frequency and where the last mile distance between the bus stop and the place where the rider starts or ends the trip is covered with smaller automated electric fleet vehicles. But that future is a bit further off than June 2017.

Meanwhile, MTA's idea is to begin with a conservative schedule that can be reliably adhered to and adjust it after the system opens in June 2017. The MTA accepts comments on the current version of the plan until September 30th.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
ArchPlan is an ancillary consultant on the MTA Link project advising on some urban design issues related to transit hubs


Assessing the Benefits of the Baltimore Link Plan. CMTA Report

MTA link to presentations made at community meetings