Photo by Danielle Sweeney

One year after Gov. Larry Hogan’s much-heralded $135 million bus system redesign, BaltimoreLink bus ridership is down and on-time performance for both LocalLink and CityLink high-frequency buses is below MTA goals.

BaltimoreLink, which includes 12 high-frequency routes, 43 lower-frequency routes and nine ExpressLink routes, was proposed by Hogan as a “transformational” reboot for Baltimore after he nixed the east-west Red Line rail project.

Maryland Transportation Administration administrator Kevin Quinn says that, like bus systems around the country, BaltimoreLink is experiencing ridership declines. “Overall ridership is down 9.6 percent”–from the period of July 2016 to April 2017 to the period of July 2017 to April 2018–“but the declines have leveled out over the last few months.”

That leveling off has seen “April 2018 weekday ridership increase of .2 percent and May 2018 ridership only a .9 percent decrease,” the agency says in a statement.

MTA attributes dwindling ridership to national trends affecting public transportation use, such as more cycling and ride sharing, aging riders transitioning away from bus to mobility and taxi service, higher median incomes and lower gas prices.

Brian O’Malley, an urban planner and director of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a transit advocacy organization, says other cities that have created high frequency systems, like Baltimore’s, have actually seen ridership increase.

“Our expectation is that ridership would dip for the first few months, but after one year, we should see some ridership gains for BaltimoreLink,” he says. “Transit ridership nationwide has been down, but Seattle, after running heavily used routes more frequently, has seen significant ridership gains. Seattle fed the demand on popular routes, and Houston and Phoenix also experienced gains after a redesign.”

Better Buses or Moving the Goal Posts?

MTA says that BaltimoreLink has improved bus service compared to its much-maligned and notoriously unreliable predecessor.

In a statement, the agency claims “on-time performance has dramatically improved,” from 59.5 percent of buses on time in Fall 2016 to 68 percent of buses on time in May 2018, “a 14 percent improvement.”

O’Malley, whose organization commissioned a report (to be published this week) about whether the BaltimoreLink redesign improved service and access in Baltimore, has his doubts.

Reliability was one main promise of BaltimoreLink, he says, but his confidence in MTA data has been shaken because the state agency has continually moved the performance goalposts.

“Since the launch, MTA has changed both its definition of ‘on-time’ and its baseline data. That makes it hard for me to evaluate whether BaltimoreLink is an improvement,” he says.

At a hearing in Annapolis in March, MTA admitted that pre-BaltimoreLink, buses’ on-time performance in 2016 was actually 59.5 percent, instead of the reported average of nearly 80 percent.

Quinn, accompanied by Deputy Transportation Secretary Jim Ports, testified that the previous way MTA measured on-time performance “inflated” their numbers, and the new system is more accurate and more reflective of the riders’ experience. He added that with BaltimoreLink, MTA decided to “press the reset” button on its on-time performance numbers.

MTA’s owning up to the data inflation was good, O’Malley says, but it makes evaluating BaltimoreLink’s impact that much harder.

“The numbers they were using before didn’t pass the smell test. I’m glad they fixed that,” he says. “This came to light in front of the Public Safety, Transportation and Environment Subcommittee. They were basically told that they had been fed bogus numbers for years. I’m surprised it wasn’t a bigger issue among elected officials.”

This announcement was not covered by local media.

Another issue for O’Malley is that MTA has recently changed its definition of on-time performance for LocalLink and ExpressLink buses–and not telling the public.

“Previously, a bus was considered on-time if it was no more than one minute early or five minutes late, but sometime around the BaltimoreLink launch, MTA changed its definition of on time. Now, MTA says it considers ‘on time’ is up to two minutes early or seven minutes late,” says O’Malley, who found out about the change a few months ago.

While noting this is the same standard used by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for Washington D.C.’s bus system, O’Malley says the changed definition makes it harder to gauge performance.

“The MTA claiming that reliability has improved is good, if it’s true,” he says, “but we’re essentially being asked to take MTA’s word for it that BaltimoreLink is better.”

Citylink Blue at President and Baltimore streets in the fall. Photo by Danielle Sweeney.

Better Connections?

Improved reliability was a key selling point of BaltmoreLink. But after a year, LocalLinks, the lower-frequency numbered buses that provide 55 percent of Baltimore bus service, are only 68 percent on time–12 percentage points below their performance goal of 80 percent.

For riders, that has meant inconsistencies in getting where they need to go.

Alvin Green, who has been riding the bus in Baltimore for 30 years, says the system change is better on weekdays, but not on Sunday. Green, who lives near Security Boulevard but travels to Oliver, says it takes him an hour and a half each way to get to his job at a church on Sundays via the CityLink Blue.

“The old #15 bus, the Blue’s predecessor, had more Sunday morning service. CityLink Blue doesn’t leave until after 8 a.m. Who wants to show up late for church?” Green asks. “If you go to church, it’s important to arrive on time. That’s the part about BaltimoreLink service that disappoints me.”

Gina Rozier, who works in Towson but lives in Forest Park, says of BaltimoreLink, “overall it takes me less time to get to work, but more time to get home.”

“And the #34 is a mess,” Rozier says of the route that connects the Falls Road Light Rail stop to Westview Mall in Catonsville. “It runs once an hour with frequent misses and lates.”

Another issue among BaltimoreLink riders is service reductions.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents Baltimore’s 14th district, says that while MTA has been responsive to her constituents’ concerns about the new system, her district lost the former #36 line that provided direct service downtown and its replacement, the #53, requires transfers.

“To add insult to injury,” she adds, “[MTA] is now proposing to extend this #53 route to the far north reaches of Baltimore County.”

Better Customer Service?

Brian Seel, who lives in Butchers Hill and rides the CityLink Navy, addresses another issue: operators passing up riders. It speaks to the BaltimoreLink promise of “world class customer service.”

“It does concern me the level of system knowledge you have to have to ride. As in, you have to watch for your bus and wave them down or they pass you,” Seel says.

Hampdenite Laurel Mendes, who uses a wheelchair, reports that the buses she rides are largely unpredictable. Pass-ups are common, as are bus stops blocked by cars in Hampden.

Some days, Mendes can’t get on the bus because delivery trucks block her access.

“That’s a regular occurrence on 36th Street,” she says.

According to posts on social media, MTA is working on addressing the blocked bus stops in Hampden and elsewhere in the city.

“Balancing this, though,” Mendes adds, “are a couple of really kind and polite bus drivers Sunday morning on the LocalLink 21.”

How Reliable are High-Frequency Buses?

CityLinks, the 12 color-coded routes that make up the backbone of the system and have promised service about every 15 minutes, aren’t meeting their performance targets, either.

Currently, an average of 73 percent of CityLink buses meet their arrival windows. MTA’s goal is 80 percent. This 73 percent figure represents a decline from an average of 76 percent reported to the legislature in February.

How reliable are individual CityLink routes, which MTA described as “show and go”–running so frequently that riders don’t need schedules?

That’s still an unknown.

Quinn says there’s no reliability data for individual CityLink routes. The agency is still transitioning from using observational data (staff at bus stops with clipboards) to GPS. MTA installed GPS on its bus fleet earlier this year and is still working on “quality control” issues. Data on individual routes, Quinn’s office has said, would likely be available within the next few months. In the meantime, MTA announced yesterday that it will allow riders to track buses in real time using a transit app.

But riders have other concerns.

ShaiVaughn Crawley, a college student who lives in Ellwood Park, says he was pretty “annoyed” with BaltimoreLink when it first rolled out last year, but since then he has made peace with most of it.

His biggest beef: shift change delays.

“I’m a CityLink Blue, Orange and Silver guy, and one thing I have to say is that you need to improve shift change. Not all the drivers get to the bus stop on time to switch out. When this happens, the bus stops and the passengers wait five or 10 or more minutes for their replacement–if they even show up. That holds up the whole line. Shift change is not smooth–it is not smooth at all,” says Crawley.

Melissa Schober, who rode the CityLink Red frequently this year, says for her, BaltimoreLink is not necessarily an improvement over the old system.

Service is reduced and so is convenience.

“I was an old #48 rider. Now Greenmount [Avenue] has a single line, the CityLink Red, rather than the #8 and #48,” she says. “The Red bus comes frequently eight times out of 10 but–and it’s a large but–it is slow and very crowded all the time.”

Schober boards W. Baltimore and Eutaw streets and says the bus is full by the time it gets to the other side of downtown, and the route drags because it takes so long to get passengers on and off.

She also wonders why Charles and St. Paul streets get more service than Greenmount Avenue.

“Charles and St. Paul get the Silver and the LocalLink 95 (and the Charm City Circulator) but Greenmount Avenue,” Schober says, “which is hugely crowded, has a single line?”

The CityLink Red is the most popular route in the system, averaging more than 12,000 boardings every weekday, and traveling from downtown to Lutherville.

But it is so crowded that Schober, who lives in Harwood, has all but given up riding it.

“I take the Silver now, mostly,” she says. “Then I walk the rest of the way.”