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Why I Don’t Take The Bus in Baltimore

Sometimes it's more trouble than it's worth.

I’ll be moving soon. Since my apartment search spans the far reaches of the city, and because my bike has been having troubles lately, sometimes I take the bus. Though I’m no novice to the buses, riding them in Baltimore reminds me why I don’t ride them in Baltimore.

My favorite thing about the bus is the actual trip, provided the climate control system works. The experience of public transit is truly a stage of serendipity and human drama. For better or worse, getting on a bus in Baltimore will provide you with at least several interesting stories to tell your friends at your next noodle salad dinner party.

My least favorite thing about our bus system is actually trying to get on one. The problems? Where to begin.

  • The maps suck.  Yes, I know MTA recently revised their maps, but they’re still cluttered. If you don’t know the system well, you’ll spend at least a couple of minutes sifting through the cacophony of tangled routes overlapping on each other. Maybe I’m just impatient or illiterate, but information needs to be more intuitive.  Maybe have a separate map for all routes with 15 minute headways or less and featuring major trip attractors and tourist sites.  Not all routes are equally important. This needs to be reflected on MTA maps.
  • Lack of information. While waiting for the bus on 30th and St. Paul, there’s a bus shelter, a bus route map, but no route timetable. Not having real time arrival information is frustrating enough, but not even having a table of expected arrival times is infuriating. Even the small pole signs which only feature the route numbers could be redesigned to include expected headway times or other useful route information.
  • Routes.  I still don’t understand the logic of the meandering routes. 30 years ago Portland did a ground up overhaul of their entire bus system to reflect the way people actually commute. Their bus system also compliments and supports their fixed rail network.
  • Arrival information. I mentioned this before and I’m mentioning it again because it’s that important. This applies to bus stops, light rail and the metro. If there’s one thing MTA can do to encourage choice riders and mode shifts away from automobiles, it’s putting a little LED display on every single stop letting riders know how long they’ll be waiting. We have the technology. We have put men on the moon. I’m just asking for a clock.  As Rory Sutherland says, “Waiting seven minutes for a train with a countdown clock is less frustrating and irritating than waiting four minutes, knuckle-biting, going ‘When’s this train going to arrive?”
  • The number of stops. OK, this is a complaint with the actual ride, but stopping at every other block is also crazy time consuming, especially in deserted areas which I know are not major trip generators. TriMet in Portland has a very good bus stop guideline manual that I urge someone at MTA to read.

So, I reference Portland and DC a lot, but they’re good models for effective transit. Some of the powers that be in Baltimore may say, “Why do I care what other cities are doing?” You need to care because other cities are doing things better than we are, and if we don’t learn from them, we’ll fall further behind. Just like the #10 on my way back home.

Update: Thanks to Phil LaCombe for reminding us about MTA’s planned real time bus information system, which is mentioned in this interview with current MTA administrator Ralign Wells.

  • p johnson

    Yoiu do realize the MTA bus system is run by the state NOT Baltimore City. Also the route structure as I understand it is based on the old trolley routes. 

  • Mark

     I am acutely aware of both of those facts.

  • Nate Evans

    You should get your bike looked at

    I, on the other hand, am a big fan of my bus.  Its quiet, fast, 10/15 minutes headways, has greatly reduced stress and increased work/reading time in my life.  I’ve made some great friends on the bus and have mastered the art of power napping, which leaves me refreshed for the office or afterwork mayhem

  • Steve3939

    I get the sense you’re a suburb to city commuter – something our  outdated bus network was made for. I believe the writer is mostly commenting on city to city trips, where are more problematic.

  • Victor Miranda

    I agree with the abundant frequency of the bus stops. Here in Lisboa they have reduced the bus stops to 5 block increments, meaning you have to walk a max of 2.5 blocks along a street to reach a stop. At first, this takes you a couple of days to learn where the closest stops are, but in the long run makes your trip on the bus much quicker along the route. Especially at rush hour when all stops are being used, the bus is only stopping every 5 blocks instead of every 2.

  • Victor Miranda

    One more thing to add. The buses are tracked by MTA with GPS, but the frequency of location reports is every 1-2 minutes (as I learned in one of my investigations last year). This could still be valuable information for anyone waiting for a bus. I’m waiting for #11 at Maryland & 28th, where were all the Southbound #11′s one to two minutes ago? Come on MTA, how hard can it be? Apparently, very hard.

  • Mark

    I was thinking the exact thing.  I would gladly trade a longer walk to a bus stop for a faster ride.

  • Phil LaCombe


    Word from MTA is that they will probably get permission in November to procure a real-time bus information system. Six months later the system should go live and will be accessible from smartphones. In the next year after that, they will create an automated phone system and install 8,000 signs covering the entire bus network. Sooo basically the earliest date we’re looking at is May 2013. MTA Administrator Ralign Wells previously stated in a WYPR interview the system would be ready “by the end of the year”.

  • Jed Weeks

    I’ll believe the nextbus news when I see the signs installed and operating. We’ve been promised this every year for 5 years now, and the procurement for those signs on Light Rail and Metro was close to a decade ago and they still don’t function beyond showing the time and beeping when the train’s actually arrived.

  • Nate Evans

    The MTA doesn’t entirely suck.  The bus drivers have even learned my different bikes when I load them on the front.  

    “Hey, you got the big boy today!”
    “Yeah, that’s my 29er.  I felt like mixin’ it up today”

  • Greg

     The problem with increasing bus stop increments is that advocates for the disabled will complain. I wonder how this is dealt with in other cities?

  • Greg

    With regards to the whole route reorganization thing. The MTA did this in the early 2000s with the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative (GBBI). Unfortunately the GBBI was more a way for the Ehrlich administration to squeeze money out of the MTA than it was to improve service. The legislature actually had to come in and ban implementation of phase II of the GBBI.