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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.

New Queens Public Plaza Full of People and Life

The area previously had no public seating whatsoever, which is astonishing considering the dozens of restaurants nearby. Now it is a magnet for people, especially kids, who give the place a vibe that feels different than most other pedestrian plazas. To watch parents sit calmly while their kids play would have been unheard of before the street was reclaimed from traffic and parking.

Also, Human Transit on Portland’s 1982 bus system reforms, which created an intuitive, efficient grid routing system out of a radial mess.

Sometimes, Baltimore Transit Works

Another successful trip by bus

Patrick, a loyal reader, writes in to tell us about his journey to work today. It’s a tale which would make even Odysseus weep with envy and awe.

Since I write you to complain when I have a particularly bad bus experience, I thought I should write to let you know about a pretty good one today.

For some reason this morning the drum brake on my rear wheel’s internal hub decided to freeze up at 23rd & Guilford. I’m lousy at fixing and maintaining bikes and while I’ve got a bunch of tools under my seat, I don’t have a crescent wrench there to release the brake cable. It deserves a tune-up and I’ve got a gift certificate to 20Twenty waiting for me to get over there.

 But instead of being stranded, I carried my bike over to Greenmount and caught the #8. After I got on I realized that my smart card was empty and all I had was $10 cash. But the helpful driver pointed out that I could refill my SmartTrip card and was patient while I did (after I got over thinking she wanted me to pay $10 for the $1.60 ride).

So, on behalf of all MTA patrons, I want to thank the MTA for having bike racks on all the buses, a functioning smart card system, and frequent service on Greenmount so that when one mode stops working there’s a good and convenient alternative.