A photo of people waiting for a bus in Baltimore, MD.
In Baltimore, a better bus could be a big boost. J.M. Giordano/CityLab

Hard Lessons From Baltimore’s Bus Redesign

After losing a $2.9 billion light-rail project, the transit-dependent city got a rebooted bus system. But ridership and reliability has barely budged.

Soon after he took office in 2015, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan nixed Baltimore’s Red Line project, a $2.9 billion light rail that would have served as a critical connector for the city’s east and west sides. But for the city’s beleaguered transit users, he also offered up a sort of consolation prize: a $135 million bus system reboot.

Dubbed BaltimoreLink, this would be the first substantial change in Baltimore’s bus system in 50 years; its rollout was heavy on hype, promising a high-frequency grid, dedicated bus lanes, and transit signal priority corridors that would dramatically improve service. The revamped system was supposed to give more Baltimoreans access to jobs and better connect residents of this high-poverty city to opportunities. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh promised that BaltimoreLink would play a key role in the city’s future economic growth. And for Maryland’s new Republican governor, the reboot had a symbolic role to play in mollifying the state’s heavily Democratic largest city: “BaltimoreLink signifies the state’s long-term commitment to the future of this city,” Hogan said.

Long bus routes were broken up to be more efficient. A dozen color-coded routes replaced numbered buses that had been running for generations. And for the first time, the city would have a true high-frequency transit network, with some buses arriving as often as every 9 minutes during weekday peak hours. “Forget about carrying schedules around,” MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn told local officials and politicians. “These buses show up every ten minutes.

For riders like me, the prospect of a dramatically improved system was a big deal: I’m a regular bus user, and I write about and advocate for public transportation in Baltimore. Just before the bus reboot launched in June 2017, I started a Facebook group where riders could document their experiences with the new system. Before I archived it, after 15 months of comments, my group, “Where’s the Bus, Baltimore?” had more than 500 members, including MTA operators, management, and elected officials.

Overall, reviews of the new reboot have been less-than-stellar. Service quality has been all over the road, ridership is flat, and on-time improvements mixed. If you visit Charm City today, you’re likely to experience poorly enforced dedicated bus lanes, buses blamed for the city’s traffic problems, and riders complaining about no-show buses. Many of the dedicated lanes themselves are so faded they are almost invisible, and the MTA and Baltimore’s City’s Department of Transportation have yet to hammer out an agreement for maintaining them. So far, the so-called “transformative” bus system itself has few enthusiasts.

“Public opinion about the revamping isn’t great,” says Klaus Philipsen, an architect, author, and transit planner who has consulted to the MTA. “Transit coverage and access to jobs are about the same as before the reboot, and reliability isn’t much better either, in spite of new transit signal priority and dedicated bus lanes.”

Philipsen does, however, think BaltimoreLink provides a better “undercarriage” for the city’s transit network. “I believe that the system is more robust now, with the shorter runs and adjusted alignments. And MTA has a dedicated team working on fixing bunching and skipped runs, so incremental improvements are very likely. However, the hyped original promises have not been met.”

Tafadzwa (Taffy) Gwitira has a good perspective on the revamp’s impact; she’s been following public transportation issues in Baltimore for years and co-chairs the regional transportation board’s public advisory committee. She also works as a nurse and commutes to Baltimore County by bus and subway. “16 months later, I would say there has been little to no real improvement in service, ” she says of the BaltimoreLink bus overhaul.

In particular, her experiences on the popular CityLink Gold route, which travels from West Baltimore to the Canton waterfront on the east side, leave much to be desired. “That Gold is a hot mess,” she says. “Lots of buses bunching up together. A lot of confusion.”

So, what makes a bus network redesign a success—and how does Baltimore’s stack up?

One key, if obvious, metric: more riders. Several other cities with recent bus system reboots of the same generation are now seeing ridership increases, says Jon Orcutt of New York’s TransitCenter. “They are starting to see upticks in Columbus, Austin, and Richmond. The frequent transit routes are attracting people.”

Columbus, Austin, and Richmond added additional service to their systems. Columbus upped Saturday and Sunday service. Richmond added a rapid transit line and new bus routes (and low cost fares for people under 18). Austin added more service, lowered some fares, and gave all students free transit over the summer.

While BaltimoreLink promised efficiency and better connections that would give more people having access to high-frequency service, it didn’t necessarily promise more coverage or additional service. In fact, more than half of MTA service is still delivered by low-frequency buses that arrive every 30 to 60 minutes. The reboot added only one new local bus route—it serves Tradepoint Atlantic, an industrial and logistics facility in Baltimore County that includes big employers like Under Armour and FedEx as tenants.

Ridership numbers reflect that lack of emphasis on adding service. In fact, ridership was down from about 6.1 million rides per month in June 2017 (pre-revamp) to 5.8 million rides per month a year later, with September coming in at 5.5 million.   

After a bus system relaunch in June 2017, ridership has remained stubbornly low. (MTA/Madison McVeigh)

While overall ridership has not increased, some high-frequency lines are seeing an uptick in passengers. Weekday ridership on two of most popular CityLink routes—CityLink Red, which connects downtown to the northern suburb of Towson, and CityLink Gold was up 3 percent year-over-year for August.

Another measure of a successful bus redesign is better on-time performance, and on this front BaltimoreLink looks better. Quinn recently told the Baltimore City Council that system-wide bus reliability increased from about 60 percent before the overhaul to around 67 percent over the last 15 months. It’s clearly an improvement—but also one that needs a bit of unpacking.

For the last seven years, MTA had reported bus reliability in the 80 to 85 percent range—a figure that many riders found unbelievable. (One MTA document on the Federal Transit Administration website claims a wildly impressive bus on-time performance rate of 87 percent for 2016.) In November 2017, five months after the BaltimoreLink launch, Quinn was telling reporters the same thing—that about 80 percent of MTA buses showed up on time, and the bus revamp improved on-time performance 9 percent in five months.

But at a hearing in January, Quinn told officials that MTA had been measuring on time performance inaccurately for years: The agency was counting buses that were unreachable as 100 percent on-time. Not surprisingly, that methodology inflated performance numbers substantially.

So MTA corrected the historic numbers, dropping them from 80 to about 60 percent on time. Quinn called this “pressing the reset button.” He also backed away from the 80 percent figure he first told the Baltimore Sun. By December, he told the paper systemwide reliability was closer to 70 percent.

Local transit advocates appreciated the MTA’s “Come to Jesus” moment. But those changes also make it hard to do a before-and-after comparison of the bus system, says Brian O’Malley, director of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (CMTA), a transit advocacy organization. That correction also effectively lowered the bar by which the future performance of BaltimoreLink would be evaluated. His organization evaluated BaltimoreLink before and after the relaunch and found it made very little difference for most bus riders in Baltimore.

O’Malley and CMTA have urged MTA to be more transparent with their data by using a tool such as the Massachusetts Bay Area Transit dashboard, where riders can see, among other indicators, route-specific reliability. While Quinn told the Sun this year that MTA has experienced “a real culture change toward data-driven accountability,” so far the agency has only released detailed BaltimoreLink data to the public when compelled to by the state legislature.

But according to figures posted on MTA’s performance improvement web site, high-frequency CityLink buses kept their headways (the black line on the chart below) an average of 67 percent of the time in September.

On-time performance hasn’t gotten much better since the June 20017 reboot. (MTA/Madison McVeigh)

After 18 months, MTA hasn’t published route-by-route performance data, but they shared it with me with me after months of Public Information Act Requests. Turns out, reliability is in the 65 percent range for 10 out of the 12 high-frequency routes, based on a September sample. That’s nothing to brag about when you consider the goal is 80 percent, and buses can be up to seven minutes late and still be considered “on time.”

The Purple line, which connects Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore to Catonsville in Baltimore County, had the lowest reliability, maintaining its headways only 61 percent of time. CityLink Blue, which connects two major employment centers, the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, hit 66 percent on-time performance, while CityLink Orange, a popular east-west route that connects residents to the West Baltimore MARC commuter train station, was only 65 percent on schedule. CityLink Red topped the list, with 72 percent.

How well is BaltimoreLink delivering on its other key promises— namely, getting urban residents to jobs out in the city’s more economically healthy suburbs faster? On-time performance for most of the routes designed to do that has been equally underwhelming: The new #63 bus to Tradepoint Atlantic was only 62 percent on schedule in June, as was a route serving the business district near Baltimore-Washington International Airport in nearby Anne Arundel Country. One positive: the #65 buses to an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Baltimore County were 74 percent on time in September—a substantial improvement over June’s 68 percent.

One thing to keep in mind when looking at these reliability numbers is that no-show buses don’t count toward on-time performance. And no-shows are all too common in Baltimore because of driver absenteeism or equipment shortages. What’s more, MTA doesn’t alert riders when trips are cancelled: They find out the hard way, when they get stranded. (It happens to me, too: A few weeks ago, my scheduled #94 bus was never on the road to begin with. I paid $20 for a Lyft.)

If anything has improved for Baltimore bus riders, Gwitira says, it’s MTA’s use of technology, and I’d have to agree. MTA just launched a cashless boarding app this fall, which is supposed to help reduce “dwell time” at stops and make boarding faster. And this year, the agency installed GPS equipment on the entire bus fleet and partnered with the app Transit, which allows users track the progress of their bus on a map on their phones. Unfortunately, the new technology doesn’t always track buses that get diverted because of traffic or emergencies, nor does it tell riders when service is cancelled. But most riders see it as a positive.

The biggest problem with BaltimoreLink, say critics like Gwitira, Philipsen, and O’Malley, is simple: money. The phrase “limited resources” comes up a lot in discussions with MTA at community meetings when riders complain about reliability and coverage. Planners say that if they want to add more service to one route, they have to take it away from another. A bill passed in the Maryland legislature in 2018 gives MTA a small increase in its operating budget for the next few years, but the agency’s capital budget is slated for sharp reductions.

Underfunding is a problem for transit agencies around the country, but it especially stings for Baltimore—a city where 30 percent of the population doesn’t have access to a car, affordable housing tends to be far from job centers, and where public schools rely on the MTA to transport 27,000 students to school every day.

That’s why the cancellation of the Red Line rail project—forfeiting $900 million in federal funds set aside for construction, not to mention the $290 million already spent planning it—remains such a sore point for some in Baltimore. While Democratic lawmakers sometimes pledge to resurrect the Red Line, the Maryland Department of Transportation just released a report to the legislature saying that not only is that impossible, but that no significant east-west public transportation is likely come to the city in the next 20 years.

So for better or worse, the bus will remain Baltimore’s best hope for delivering the city to a more economically vibrant future. And MTA’s Quinn says more improvements are coming—including new schedules based on real-time data that are set to start in February. Here’s hoping that it’s not too late for this still-young new system to fulfill more of its early hype.

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