Friday, June 16, 2017

On the eve of the Link launch

On the eve of the biggest change that Baltimore transit has ever seen and which ranks as one of the largest overhauls of any system in the country, the mood among Baltimore's transit users is one of trepidation. Riders may be gripped by bouts of fear about how this will all work out when starting the work week on Monday. All riders will have get used to new bus stop signs, some to new stop locations, new route names and numbers. In addition  many will find that their bus will take a different route than their bus did for decades until this Sunday night.

Bus Wrap CityLink

 These color-coded, high-frequency routes offer frequent, 24-hour service, form a downtown grid, and radiate out from the city on major streets.
Bus Wrap LocalLink
LocalLink: These operate on neighborhood streets between the CityLinks and form crosstown “rings”.
Bus Wrap Express BusLink
Express BusLink: These offer limited-stop service from suburb-to-suburb, and suburb-to-downtown. In June 2016 an express beltway “ring” was created for the first time ever!

As it is typical when big change is imminent, people take notice and many still ask the question: Why? As much as hardly anybody considered the existing bus service satisfactory, it never looked as good as in light of the drastic disruption that is in store this weekend. The MTA has talked incessantly about their big undertaking, but they have broad public attention only now, 2 minutes before high noon (the schedule change will actually take place at night).
Count-down clock on MTA website

The MTA website provides route by route information showing the old and the new lines in one route diagram. The example for the #23 bus is provided in a graphic in this article. It illustrates the desire by MTA transit planners to break overly long lines up into shorter more reliable segments. However, a #23 rider who would have used the route from its beginning at the Giant on Rolling Road in Catonsville all the way to Essex would now have to use two lines: The new LocalLink #77 to go to West Baltimore MARC and then the Orange CityLink to Essex. The website allows you to enter departure and arrival addresses and you will get a route map and schedule.
The new Baltimore bus system is also trying out this innovative
abstracted system map

Riders who want to find out what their bus will do on Monday can also use the "Transit" App available for I-phones and other smart phones and map their current route with today's date. They can then move the date forward to Monday's date and see how their destination will be reached with the new lines. This will also tell the transit rider whether the new ride is faster, the same or slower, assuming the schedule times are realistic.

Doing this for a trip on the #23 from Saratoga and Eutaw Street (downtown) to the Giant Plaza at Rolling Road will take Friday morning 47 minutes from stop to stop with 61 stops in between.
Doing this trip on Monday would involve a 6 minute ride on CityLink Blue (15 stops) to Edmondson Village, a 12 minute wait  and then a 17 minute ride on the #77 (14 stops). The total trip time would be 35 minutes, i.e. a 12 minute time saving in spite of the wait at the transfer.  It appears that the ride on the Blue line is underestimated on the Transit app.
The MTA website provides a more realistic 13 minute trip time on Blue, 18 min on the #77 and 4 minutes for transfer for a total of also 35 minutes.

The full set of schedules can be found here.
The #23 as an example of information available on the MTA website
showing the routes before and after Link launches

Assessing the 18 months of comments one distill a few findings and observations even before the results of the actual experience are in:
  • an overhaul of the bus system was overdue since the current system had grown ever more convoluted and isn't performing well. The deliberation for this go years back and BaltimoreLink could utilize a lot of groundwork from the previously aborted BNIP effort.
  • the introduction of all new line numbers and replacing numbers with 12 route colors causes more confusion than clarity. A simple new numbering system that maintains the old numbers for those routes that stay largely identical would have been less menacing and more appreciative of the cultural history of some of the lines which date back far into the streetcar dates.
  • the distinction between City Link and Local Link isn't strong enough or easy to understand. The 12 CityLink routes will be slower than the current QB buses but faster than the current local buses. The expedited QB service will likely be missed
  • The popular Express Link buses will essentially perform as they do today but their number was expanded which is good for regional connectivity.
  • The total number of routes has been reduced from 64 to 54.
  • the promise of heightened efficiency and reliability through shorter routes, dedicated bus lanes and signal priority is plausible and logical but needs to be born out in reality
  • the prospect of added transfers instills fear on those who have to do them, even if in the aggregate the additional transfer are said to affect only a small percentage of rides as the MTA claims and reliable service would make transfers less perilous than today.
  • Fewer bus stops, more bus lanes and signal priority will speed up the bus and a faster bus can adhere better to the schedule which should avoid bunching and missed connections
  • The MTA responded to hundreds of rider suggestions and has revised their proposed routes four times based on input from over 200 meetings. As a result the system is now more like the old one than it is first version. 
  • the MTA Link team and their consultant Josh Diamond  are highly dedicated, innovative good listeners and have high professional standards and the very best intentions. They promise to continue refinements as needed
  • City and MTA collaborated in a previously unknown intensity 
  • Prewparations such as the new bus colors, the new signs, new bus pads and shelters as well as the all new West Baltimore hub were completed within a very tight schedule, a good sign that MTA seems to perform as planned.
  • If the system will still show problems it is because it may still be stressed too much. The $135 million funds for Link over 5 years are likely not enough to provide the extra cushion of buses and operators needed to avoid all the current stress points.
  • The MTA installed new shelters, made real time bus detection possible, paid for additional bike-share stations and paid for signal priority on a good number of signals on the CityLink routes. All of this should make the rider experience better. 
  • Methods of speeding up buses used elsewhere such as all door boarding and more pre-paid tickets are not part  of the reform, neither are innvovative last mile solutions involving demand based small "transit" or taxi service.

New MTA Administrator: Kevin Quinn
A tremor of a special kind went through all the tension and anticipation in the last two weeks before the system launch when MDOT Secretary Rahn fired MTA Administrator Paul Comfort who had been the chief promoter and salesman of the new bus system and attached his name and reputation to the success like no other. He would also have been identified as responsible for failure. Paul Comfort, has pushed this reform as necessary ever since he was put in office by the current Hogan administration. His high energy and open style was a welcome change from the past when MTA administrators were all but invisible and agency morale was low. Kevin Quinn, the young and dynamic Acting Administrator has excellent people skills and has been the technical force behind the Link effort to date. He should be able to see this project to success if MDOT has his back. Quinn will be missed as MTA Planning Director, though, an important position.

The exact reasons of this abrupt and entirely unexpected change of guard so shortly before the system goes into effect has caused a lot of head-scratching and remain a mystery. It may indicate that the previous hyperactive MTA administrator didn't have all the wiggle room under DOT Secretary Rahn that he wanted or needed. Quinn may have to watch his back.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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