Monday, September 27, 2021

A Strategic Plan for Baltimore's Transit Bureau

The history of local transit

It has been 51 years ago that the privately owned Baltimore Transit Company (BTCO) had dwindled out of existence and a State operated Baltimore Metropolitan Transit Authority took over which then became the MTA. 
It took 40 years that Baltimore City gave it a shot again to run its own transit in form of the Charm City Circulator. The new service resuscitated earlier attempts Downtown Partnership to operate a "trolley bus" for a while, until they ran out of money.
One of the new fleet of Charm City Nova buses (Photo Philipsen)

The 2010 Charm City bus, clad in purple and green, was an innovative electric bus that looked a bit like a Wienermobil and was charged with an internal gas powered micro-turbine. 

Nevertheless, excitement was great about a bus that was free, had high frequency and that boasted some "real time arrival" signs ("bus comes in 4 minutes"). For a while it looked like the City could show the MTA the way to run a bus. 

Soon the City added a bikeshare program, it too was innovative, at the time it had the largest fleet of electric assist bikes. Then came the dockless bikes and scooters and City DOT began licensing those as well. 

The water taxi, in operation in various forms since 1975, predates all of that. It too, is licensed by the City and operated privately.  In fact, all the noted modes services are planned, designed, procured and licensed by DOT but operated by private companies. This collaborative partnership is practised by many cities around the country, but it has its weak spots which contributed to the fact that each of these modes descended at one point or another into catastrophic failure, forcing DOT to regroup over and over. A full reckoning has yet to happen. A strategic forward looking plan for DOT's Transit Buerau would need to take also a hard look back to rectify what went wrong in the past.
The Transit Bureau is responsible for the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) transit programs including the Charm City Circulator, Harbor Connector, Bikeshare, Rideshare Programs and Transit & Marine Services (Dockmaster’s Office). BC-DOT website

The local mobility debacles 

The calamity came when the innovative electric bus faltered in face of  Baltimore's hot summers and steep hills. It had to be retired long before the normal 10-year lifespan of a bus which cut a big hole into the available funds. The vendor Veolia helped out with some of his own fleet vehicles which eventually descended into food-fight between City and Veolia that ended with a lawsuit Veolia's abrupt departure. The debacle proved that there hadn't been enough oversight and a contract that left too much open for interpretation. Riders were left stranded until the City stood up some emergency service with limousine operator RMA that was based on an emergency contract. When Circulator riders had to board black limousine vans allegedly operated by in part insufficiently trained drivers the charm was off and the flagship service had lost most of its fans. Today, after the City purchase 14 new buses those troubles are mostly overcome.
Short lived: Bewegen Bike share station (Photo:

The innovative electric bikes didn't fare much better. They proved less popular than thought and many bikes wound up inside the harbor or otherwise vandalized. Stung by losses and excessive repair cost the Dutch-Canadian Bewegen company stole itself out of town leaving empty bike stations.  Dockless bike sharing is supposed to fill the whole but has up to now never really taken off in Baltimore. Instead, the City seems to have banked on the latest trend: Dockless electric scooters.

The good old water taxi had its Waterloo in 2004 after one of the two operators had a catastrophic accident in a sudden thunderstorm that cost 5 lives. Subsequently services were consolidated into one remaining company, but questions about the seaworthiness of the light boats remained until the service was taken over by Kevin Plank in 2016 when Port Covington dreams ran strong. He replaced the canvas covered old summer fleet of mostly ponton boats with custom designed faster, seaworthy, year-round boats that allowed ADA compliant access, bikes on board. Plank's long-term goal: Service to the Middle Branch and his new "global headquarters". But after the Baltimore unrest of 2015 tourists stayed away and the fancy boats became a rare feature on the harbor's waters, not operating in winter at all, and in the nicer seasons only on weekends.

All this could be just bad luck or it could be a sign that Baltimore's DOT is struggling. 

Firstly it has to organize itself within the currently unfolding transportation revolution in which cities around the world rediscover that streets could be more than just container for cars by adding bike-lanes, pedestrian areas, bus lanes and a plethora of "active transportation" options, namely the beforementioned scooters and bikes. On top of that ride share by car is a thing that requires new thinking and so do the exploding delivery services that added to the old standby of pizza delivery the delivery of, well, everything. Consequently postal trucks, FedEx, UPS, Amazon, PeaPod and many others are fighting over every inch on the streets, including the bike and bus lanes. 

Secondly DOT also had been diminished by corruption and by mayors who didn't pay enough attention to transportation, saved in the wrong places, and left much of City government rudderless. With a new director and motivated new staff the department is now on the mend.

The transportation revolution blurs the border between public transit and private transportation through new operating modes such as ride-sharing, new technologies such as autonomous vehicles, and new integrated smart phone based payment platforms such as Apple Pay, CharmPass and the like. 

Meanwhile, the bulk of Baltimore's transit remains with the State run MTA which also depends via traffic signals, bus lanes and bus stops depends on how well DOT runs. MTA has its own set of troubles and it has become a popular target of local lawmakers who were stung by the Governor's killing of the $2.9 billion Baltimore Red Line and how he had given the largest city in the State the boot while he let the similarly priced companion project "Purple Line" proceed in the Washington suburbs. A Baltimore transit authority once again seems attractive. Several Baltimore legislators and transit activists prefer such a Regional Transit Authority which would give Baltimore more say in local transit.
SPIN Scooters licensed by the City are required to be also placed in the
Black Butterfly (Photo: Philipsen)

While Baltimore as a city and DOT and MTA as agencies struggled each through their own set of crisis, cities around the world were booming, giving local transit nationally a boost. 

Then came COVID. 

The pandemic did a number on transit in cities around the world. Ridership plummeted by anywhere from 40-90% (MTA). Many local shuttle services like the Detroit Streetcar or the Baltimore Circulator stopped service or ran a reduced service. The Charm City Circulator and Connector resumed regular service on June 7, 2021. They had used the disruption to receive 14 shiny new Nova buses which are still not electric, but they are proven to work. The water taxi continues to run only on weekends on two types of loops.
Failed retail downtown: After COVID downtown 
will never be the same (Photo: Philipsen)

On top of the already ongoing transportation revolution COVID added more disruptions, sometimes exacerbating trends that had been looming for some time: One is the changing function of downtown.
  • Downtown will never be the same again: demand for office work located there will remain weakened. Depending on forecasts, between 10-30% of office workers will never return.

  • This puts downtown retail and restaurants into a tail spin, further depleting transit demand there. 

  • Overall, traffic and travel patterns become more dispersed geographically and by time of day essentially turning "rush hour" into an all day event. The dispersed demand is harder to meet with transit.

The hub and spoke system of transit is no longer valid. At the same time the insight that streets are there for more than just cars has exploded globally. During Covid many cities have leapt forward with the implementation of additional bus lanes and active transportation lanes. Baltimore is far behind its peers in this. 
A strategic plan for DOT's Transit Bureau

Considering all of this history and the attractive portfolio it would be quite interesting to see how  a modern DOT transit office would position itself in the next 5-10 years and how they would differentiate themselves vis-à-vis the more traditional MTA transit. 
DOT’s Transit “Bureau” portfolio of transportation services fits quite neatly the multimodal “Mobility as a Service” (MaaS) concept that in transportation conferences is often touted as the future of transportation.Even though all of DOT's modes are being managed from the same desk, they still don't operate from the same user platforms, a key requirement of MaaS.

Obviously, a Strategic DOT Plan would not only be about the high flying issues of the transportation revolution or with the causes of past breakdowns. It would also have to deal with all the pesky questions that have never been properly answered, namely funding.

How should city transit be funded?
To answer this it is useful to recall the Circulator he water taxi was a service licensed by the city. Since then the bus service was expanded to the point it requires each year general funds to sustain it. The Connector also bleeds money. Bikeshare and the scooter services as well as the water taxi are supposed to be revenue sources helping to keep the mobility fleet afloat. The good news is, scooters seem to recover quickly after COVID in spite of a still reeling downtown. 


What is the division of labor between MTA and DOT?

BC-DOT and MTA need to closely cooperate in this environment to not cannibalize each other , to create synergy and towards an end to end menu of mobility options in the spirit of Mobility as a Service. It should help that the MTA will shortly come out with its own Strategic Plan, a fisrt for the agency. Cannibalizing of the Collegetown and apartment shuttles crisscrossing the city needs to also end and those riderships need to be consolidated into one commonly funded system

Water Taxi: New Plank designed boats. Good for winter but only
running on summer weekends (Photo: Philipsen)

How viable is the water taxi? How does it relate to the free Connector Service? What is the vision? 
The first question is closely related to the future of Baltimore and how attractive it will be for visitors. The second answer is simpler: Operationally it makes much more sense to combine these services without distinguishing the boats and branding, a requirement that comes from the City.
Free tickets can easily be arranged for workers that use the service as commuters.
The extension to the Middle Branch would offer additional utility for residents and commuters. A fast commuter line should start at a park and ride terminal at Canton Crossing and intercept some of the east west traffic overburdening Boston, Fleet/Aliceanna Streets. 

It makes no sense to exclude anybody from a boat that is running, anyway, no matter when or where. Conversely, it may make sense to operate the water taxi as a on-demand service instead of a semi-fixed schedule service.

 BC-DOT manages the water of the Inner Harbor via their Dockmaster, and wharfage fees, revenue sources that can support the water transit services. Likely there are untapped synergies. Then there is the issue of the docks, ie. the landside stop facilities for the water transit. They are as important for the experience as the boat itself and they are currently very skimpy, not unified and as far as information goes, a puzzle for potential riders.  The docks could act as pearls on the string that is "the promenade", have amenities such as shelters and benches, real time arrival info and at least some should  be hubs connecting to the Circulator and MTA services and offer bikes and scooter right there.

Free water transit: The Connector Service

Is the circulator operating optimally? What is the 5 year perspective?


The Circulator has suffered from mission creep. But a downtown with fewer employees, a future of automated fleet vehicles without a need for parking require to put the service on a new footing. Maybe as a hyper local service that is free and frequent and equitably serves residents, commuters and visitors in downtown and the adjacent neighborhoods.
A service plan should either be based on extensive stakeholder participation or the City should give up being so prescriptive.  If orescribed service and budget don't align, one option is to ask the operators how much service they can offer for a given budget and let them compete over service rather than price.  
The current routes seem to make little sense: The Purple Route is too long and duplicates too many other bus services. The Banner Route duplicates MTA bus 95 and was originally based on a time limited grant. If the service remains it should connect to the water/Connector dock at Hull Street and serve Tide Point/Under Armour. The Green Route looks very "gerrymandered". It needs a clear purpose. For example, it could become a northern east-west route connecting Middle East with Pennsylvania Avenue via Mount Vernon/Seton Hill. The current north south route portion on Broadway could be a separate second north south route and connect up to North Avenue.
The Circulator map shows that the service dominates in
the "white L" and that the green route has a chaotic
routing (website)

How can bike and scooter share be supportive of the bus and water services?
The personal mobility devices change rapidly. DOT needs to remain flexible and manage them so users and non users benefit. The dockless technology needs oversight and organized parking so these scooters are not lying across sidewalks and clutter the environment. Scooters with seats and potential cargo bikes offer new opportunities. Scooters and bikes should be deployed so they intentionally complement the bus and water services 

What does it take for DOT to truly manage this portfolio?
Lastly, the question of the know how and capacity to mange transit and new mobility technologies. The past has clearly shown that lack of oversight, abuse and capacity were issues. The transit Bureau cannot be an afterthought, it has to be a key partner in everything DOT does, including signal priority for transit and the bus and bike-lanes that makes these modes successful

DOT embarked on a Strategic Transportation Plan under Director Sharkey's predecessor Pourciau. It has been pretty quiet around the progress of that plan. A focused Strategic Plan for the Transit Bureau could be a jump-starter and model for the rest of the department.  By the way, MTA also posted its own first ever strategic plan

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

This article is based on a presentation I gave to the Advocacy group Transit Choices on 9//23/21. That presentation can be found here