Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How do Link buses really perform?

The several hundred angry bus riders who assembled Monday night at the War Memorial Hall certainly didn't think the buses do well. Organized by the transit union ATU this was an early venting session, presumably to take rider anger away from operators. The assembled MTA customers didn't like the new route names, the transfers and the confusion from all that change. Specific complaints ranged from buses not arriving to missed appearance at work and dangerous late night transfers, especially for women. The biggest applause line was the request to bring the old routes back.
"Ask your grandmother to use the pink bus", this woman
shouted, apparently assuming that this was too much to ask

Kevin Quinn, who totally unexpectedly got catapulted into MTA's driver seat less than two weeks before the Baltimore Link launch, took the shouting in stride. "Baltimore deserves better", he promised. In another meeting with business people at the Greater Business Committee earlier after the launch the atmosphere had been friendlier and Quinn had cautiously allowed that the roll-out had gone pretty smoothly. Now he proposed additional early morning buses and other tweaks.

What are the facts? Is the new bus system better than the old one? This is hard to assess for observers or riders. Riding the bus to work gives snapshot information about buses being late or bunched, about wait times at transfers and the overall duration of the trip, but one cannot extrapolate from one trip to the route performance or from one route to. A city like Baltimore with its 740 buses and now 55 routes is hard to assess within a few days unless a precise measuring system has been put in place up front. No such system analysis is available yet and it isn't entirely clear whether the MTA has set such performance measures already in place.
Panelists included Kevin Quinn, MTA Administrator, ATU members and
Transit Equity Coalition member Sam Jordan (with hat)

Another method is observing a particular hub and time all buses comparing actual times with the schedule. That provides info for several routes at once but only in one location and for a particular time slot.

I did this on the morning after the hearing in a very limited way at West Baltimore MARC observing 6 routes for an hour, followed by a shorter observation of the Gold Line at Penn and North which is also served by the #85 and the Lime. I saw only one Lime going north in 30 minutes and none south. I observed two #85 buses going north but those observations may have been incomplete.

Overall, out of 46 scheduled departures and 9 routes 4 bus runs seemed to be missing, four buses were more than 5 minutes late (max 10 minutes)  and all the the others were within the 5 minute window of being "on time". All routes had 10-15 minute headways except one (#77). This doesn't sound too bad, really, but again, its only a snapshot.

Essentially riders and transit advocates need the MTA for a systematic assessment of performance, they have all the tools such as on-board vehicle locators, a command center and many on the ground transit observers.

As Brian O'Malley of the CMTA observed on last week's Midday show, an assessment would be much easier if the MTA had established clear performance metrics that could be used to compare the old system with the new and gauge progress on the new over the initial weeks. Obvious performance measures are # of households served within a 1/4 mile of any regularly served bus stop before and after, # of jobs before/after , trip times on important high ridership routes (Like comparing a trip on the #13 with one on the Gold Line) and schedule or headway adherence.
Applause for those who demand reinstating the old routes

A few conclusions can be drawn after the first ten days:

1. The local link routes which often run like short trip shuttles to the City Link color routes perform pretty reliable but don't get most people to their destination, instead they drop riders off  to catch a connecting bus on one of the color-coded "high frequency" routes.

2. People don't like the color coding of the CityLink buses because they require a total re-learn even if a bus largely runs on a familiar route. 12 colors are too many to be easily memorable or easily distinguishable The Blue, for example, mimics the old QB 40 pretty well except it has more stops and doesn't extend from CMS to Essex but only to Bayview.
Palatable anger in the hall

3. The high frequency CityLink lines are still exhibiting the same weaknesses the longer old routes showed, namely bunching, i.e. clustering in packs instead of adhering to the 10 minute head-ways that many lines promise during peak hours. It isn't clear what measures MTA has in place against bunching. It is especially surprising to see two OR buses start their route at WB MARC within 1 minute right from the onset in spite of several bus supervisors being in place observing the procedings.
Protest makes headlines: WBAL news on Tuesday morning

4. Initially operators were less sure about their routes than desirable. Stops were skipped or wrong information was given to riders who take their bus driver as the most obvious source for information. It didn't help that the operator union, the ATU continues to shout from the sidelines instead of doing everything to make the system a success.

5. Key new tools like the large real time multi-line arrival signs were not operational at the start and are still in test mode.

Here the details from the West Baltimore MARC bus hub:

The hub is serving the Blue, Pink, Green, and Orange City Link lines and the #77 and #78 Local Link Lines. The #26 runs on nearby Pulaski, the #80 bus on Edmondson. Both were not observed. The #150 Express bus serves the hub with three runs each morning and evening. The color lines are supposed to run in the morning peak at 10 minute headways, The OR line changes at 8:30 to 15 minutes. The #77 runs on 20 minute headways and the #78 on 15 minutes.
New bus hub at West Baltimore

In 60 minutes 32 buses departed from the new hub, i.e. slightly more than a bus every two minutes, a pretty strong presence of transit at this particular interchange where folks can transfer to the MARC commuter trains to BWI, Odenton, New Carrollton and DC, all job centers.

Of course, many riders jump from one bus to another and have to find their connection, something that previously didn't happen here since there wasn't a bus hub at West Baltimore, just MARC parking lots.

In spite of the amenities, riders may not consider this need for transfer an improvement. There is still some confusion about where the various colors have their departure bay, especially when the hub is congested and the assigned bay is blocked by a delayed bus.

The hub itself features a ticket machine like a LRT station (one still can't MARC tickets there), a covered bike rack, artwork and three electronic display-boards able to list all departing buses for at least the next 30 minutes, all features previously unknown in MTA's bus system. For operators there are even bathrooms.

The results for the one hour of observation:

BL eastbound (Bayview): The 8 am bus was not seen and either was early, never came or all subsequent buses were 10 minutes offset. The other 5 buses of the hour showed up 7, 3, 4, 4 and 0 minutes late.
The westbound BL used to stop at the old Ice House but
is now directed through Smallwood Street to stop along
the curb, then loop backwards via Mulberry and
Pulaski out to Franklin Street. This maneuver costs
valuable minutes

BL westbound (CMS): The 8am bus was seen pulling out at 7:57 but it could have been the earlier one. The next buses for the hour were 10 minutes late, 1 minute late (i.e those two were bunched), and 6 minutes late. The last bus at 9am was not observed before I left.

PK buses originate here (Destination: Cedonia). No 7:56 bus was seen. The following buses at 8:06, 8:16, 8:26, 8:36, 8:45 and 8:56 were all on time.

OR buses originate here. (Destination: Essex): The 7:55 left at 8;59, the 8:05 at 8:10, the 8:15 left at 8:11!), the 8:25 at 8:29, the 8:35 left at 8:32, and for the 8:45 and the 8:55 there was only one departure at 8:58.

The #77 ran on time and the #78 left 6, 3, and 3 minutes late until it skipped the 8:39 and then had again a departure 3 min late at 8:57

It is possible that I overlooked a bus, but I also noted all the arrival times as a cross check and am pretty sure that the missing blocks actually didn't show up.

To round it out, I also checked on the Gold line on North Ave at Penn Ave.  for 30 minutes from 9:05 to 9:35. The schedule mentions vaguely "10-15" minute headways for the time after 9am.
New displays are placed at the hubs

The eastbound Gold (Berea or Canton Crossing) left at 9:08, 9:13 and two buses at 9:35 and 9:36 leaving a 22 minute gap.
The westbound Gold (Walbrook Junction) at left at 9;15, 9:25 and 9:35, pretty good compared to how badly the #13 usually did.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

I apologize for any reporting errors in this unscientific sampling

A peak into my notes taken on site

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