Monday, June 19, 2017

Shock and awe in Baltimore's bus world

Just like on Christmas Day Baltimore residents woke up this Sunday morning to check out what was in their stockings. But Santa was the MTA, it is steaming hot outside and there is more trepidation than joy in the hearts of those who rely on transit. Many could probably do with less shock and awe. In hindsight, one can wonder if it would have been better to display the old and new bus stop signs for several months together instead of aiming for the overnight reveal. If the electric on-bus displays would show the new route designation and old one in sequence, that would be helpful, too, but it wouldn't work in all cases and require adjustments during the trip. So the MTA went for the "immersion" method of learning.

In an impressive display of what Santa can do in one night the bags covering up 5,000 bus stop signs have all disappeared overnight and people see for the first time the entirely unfamiliar routes on display on their neighborhood stop.Those new signs glistened in the morning sun and made those surprisingly many that have to head out to work early on a Sunday morning scratch their head.
New signs: More information, more clutter
(Photo: Philipsen)

"Why did they do it?" was a common refrain among a clutch of would be riders standing on Edmondson Avenue at Wildwood Parkway. The MTA had installed a new shelter there in recent months but that didn't improve the mood since the new Blue Line hadn't shown up in a while. When a bus finally showed up it was a #77 (which replaces the western leg of the #23) and just before getting to the stop on Edmondson it turned north to circle by the Wildwood apartments to then come back to Edmondson bypassing the folks at the stop.
Finally a Blue bus showed up and everybody climbed on, except one lady who needed to be at work somewhere on York Road by 10am and was now late. She either didn't trust the bus system or couldn't figure out how to get to her destination and after a phone call resolved to get to her destination some other way.

The 77 stopped then stopped just east of Wildwood although that stop was labeled as discontinued. The Blue bus found throngs of people at each stop on the way to West Baltimore MARC. Blue is still going to Bayview like the QB 40 but no longer goes all the way to Essex as the QB 40 had done. That can be achieved with the Orange line that can be picked up at West Baltimore or at Bayview.

At West Baltimore the MTA has created a brand-new bus hub, the biggest MTA present in the Link stocking. Sunday it carried buses for the first time having been finished just in time in a by MTA standards incredible speed. The Blue doesn't go into it but stops across the street on Mulberry Street. Folks going to the train, the #77, #78, Orange, Pink or Green line can cross at Smallwood on a new pedestrian crosswalk. When they enter the new hub they only see the standard bus stop signs  from behind and have no easy way to figure out which of the bays are for what route. The operators seem to be equally confused about where to stop for letting folks out, where to lay over and where to pick new riders up. As a result, even on a Sunday there is congestion at the bays nearest the entry forcing the OR bus to find another spot and its riders to scurry across the tarmac, something designers had tried to prevent with fences on the center island but leaving a gap where operators can reach their lay-over restroom. That little gap continued to be the favorite shortcut for all to get to their connection.
All the buses clustering at the entry with pedestrians cutting across
the bus loop. (Photo: Philipsen)

The contingent of MTA helpers in yellow vests which advised riders where to go and tepidly gave tips to bus operators, although they always added that they were not authorized to do so had swelled to a full army on Monday morning. At times there were more MTA assistants than there were riders.

Acting Administrator Kevin Quinn was among the observers, and so was Suhair Alkhatib, Senior Deputy Administrator. Both had only slept two hours during the last two nights to be everywhere to ensure a launch that was as smooth as possible. Quinn who is a born optimist gave a very careful assessment of success on Monday morning. "We will get there", he said hopefully cheering every time a bus pulled into a correct position in the hub area without having to be told. He hopped onto the buses greeting the operators, "Hello, how are you? I am Kevin". In between he gave an interview to a SUN reporter who roamed around getting printable quotes from riders.
MTA Acting Administrator Kevin Quinn talks with a rider
at the West Baltimore MARC transit hub with Suhair
Alkhatib in the background.
 (Photo: Philipsen)

Several of the buses showed up and departed on time, although some passengers clutching their paper route schedules were clearly unsure where they would be taken. "Who designed this", one customer wondered aloud on Sunday. The #77 sat in his bay for what seemed like forever ignoring the inside layover spots along the island. Some buses arrived with signs stating "not in service". All buses idled their engines, even though I recall a MTA statement to the West Baltimore community that engines would be turned off during layovers.

There are a couple of fancy new electronic sign boards which are supposed to list all pending departures but they were not activated yet and just displayed a message that "all lines have changed".

The time on display was about three hours off, not exactly instilling trust in an agency relying on punctual service. "The signs should be on tomorrow, MTA's planner Michael Helta monitoring the situation informed me on Sunday, but they were still off on Monday. The new satellite based AVL (automatic vehicle locators) installation is complete on the 250 CityLink buses but not on the LocalLink buses, according to Alkhatib and it will
Transit hub Eutaw Street at Lexington: Wrong time and
less than helpful information
 (Photo: Philipsen)
take another 18 months until the new real time bus information system will be completely operational, he said. New buses have small monitors which then should be able to display several next stops and upcoming connections at once.

Word that LINK would offer free rides during the first few weeks got out much faster than information about the new routes. Almost no boarding rider tried to pay or show a fare card.

Monday morning conversations on the bus center around being late. "I have been for 20 minutes at West Baltimore MARC" a resident of the area complained when the CityLink OR bus failed to immediately start up. "I need to be at the VA hospital in 20 minutes". (He made it). The reporter from the SUN took note. On another bus the driver made announcements from the front and also picked riders up at stops where he wasn't supposed to stop. He couldn't fully answer how many lines had replaced the #23 bus. (Answer: LocalLink 77 and CityLink Orange). "Good question" he said, "this is all new for me, too".

The success or failure of Baltimore LINK is not a trivial matter in a city on edge in which 225,000 people use the bus on a typical workday and where tens of thousands have no other means of getting around. reliable transportation is repeatedly named as the most important factor in reducing systemic poverty.
Helpers in yellow jackets help riders at the transit hub
at Eutaw and Saratoga Streets  (Photo: Philipsen)
Plenty of ride choices at West Baltimore, even\
on a Sunday morning
 (Photo: Philipsen)

MTA ad in the Sunday print edition of the SUN
Monday's SUN paper carries an Op-Ed by Brian O'Malley and Eric Norton of the Central Baltimore Transit Alliance. In it the two ask the all important question: How will we know if  the overhaul delivered what it promised? When and how will we know if it was a success?
Last winter, the MTA’s public presentations no longer included information on the performance measures it had reported in the summer.
In the absence of transparency we’re going to be really hard pressed to assess whether this is working.
Now that the planning is behind us and BaltimoreLink is a reality, we remember the promises regarding reliable, timely transit that will provide more efficient access to jobs.
In October 2015, Governor Hogan said BaltimoreLink will be “transformative.” And as recently as February, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said “it will be a huge leap forward in transportation for Baltimore.”
Our response: Prove it. Show the public the results. (Brian O'Malley, Eric Norton).
As stated in previous articles on this blog, the MTA bent over backwards to respond to rider complaints and adjusted the Link plans many times. But many questions need to be answered:

  • Is the new system now too much like the old or will it still be able to realize the efficiencies that were assumed and which were to result in a more reliable service? 
  • Will the transfers be smooth or add additional time to the trips that require them?
  • Will more people get to their jobs on time, will the trip times to work become faster? 
  • Will more jobs be served by transit, more households?  
  • Will the new service save money or be more costly to operate?

The MTA will have to provide precise facts on all of these counts in the next few months. Baltimore's future will depend on it.

Baltimore LINK will be also the topic of Monday's WYPR Midday show with Kevin Quinn, Brian O'Malley, Sam Jordan and me. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN report about the launch night.
Baltimore SUN report about the first work day
WYPR report about Link

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