It's Memorial Day weekend! And the transportation issues that will be getting the most attention this weekend will all center around airports - long lines at the TSA, air travel security, and airport crowding. This is true with any major holiday weekend.
But what about the majority of Americans who will not be flying this weekend? They will most likely stay grounded with their car, a train, or a bus. The third method deserves particularly close attention because of the sad state of bus systems in many major metropolitan areas, and how they have become the transit equivalent of prisons and poorhouses.
Bus routes in Baltimore take a significantly longer period of time transporting riders from point A to point B compared to driving routes. The discrepancy is so pronounced that it makes taking the bus detrimental to the personal lives of riders, which leads to a disparate impact on lower-income Baltimoreans, as they are typically unable to afford a car and must rely on the bus to get them to and from work. When public buses experience overlong and inefficient routes, frequent delays, and unreliable schedules, the vulnerable populations more likely to ride the bus suffer a number of consequences that should concern public health officials.
The bus routes highlighted in green spotlight the efficient routes of Baltimore’s bus system, getting riders to their destination in an amount of time where driving time would consist of 60 percent of the time period or longer. On the other side of the spectrum, those routes highlighted in red are those where driving time comprises of 40 percent of the total bus trip length or shorter. This table clearly shows that bus routes are significantly longer than the average time it would take to drive between the same places.
If the a, b, c, system being used here to distinguish the differences in numbered routes seems confusing to you, it is even more confusing for riders, as the routes are not distinguished at all in real life. Some routes that share the same number begin and end at the same stops, but take different routes between the endpoints, meaning that riders will have to ask the driver if the bus is going to a certain stop every time they board. A first-time rider may not know this and end up getting completely lost on the MTA, and frequent riders often get flummoxed about this route variation as well. In addition, a number of routes at certain hours of the day will include one or two more stops that are not included at other parts of the day.
An example of this is MTA Route 16, which runs from the Mondawmin Metro Station to the Brooklyn Homes neighborhood. Route 16 runs southbound 46 times per day, and the route is the same for most of the trips, except for eight total that stop at Violetville in the middle of the route between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. If a mother who works near the Violetville stop has a family emergency and must get on the bus home at 1 p.m., there will not be many affordable options available to her, as calling a taxi or an Uber would be well over $20 if she is going back to Baltimore City. Another example of a very uncommon destination is the Baymeadow Industrial stop, which only has two southbound buses pick up at it, with zero northbound. Also, the southbound stop times for Baymeadow are only separated by 38 minutes. This means that if a person is dropped off at this stop for an errand that would take longer than 40 minutes, they will have to catch the bus at another stop in order to get home on the same day.
Logically, bus routes should be longer time-wise than the average trip by car because buses stop frequently and cars access roads that public buses do not typically use, like highways. However, the question is how much longer should taking the bus be when compared to driving. As one can see from the table above, the vast majority of riders of the first 35 MTA routes would get to their destination in less than 40 percent of the time if they switched their primary mode of transportation to driving. This is problematic because it discourages upper, upper-middle, and middle class Baltimoreans from taking the bus, as a study from the University of California at Berkeley found that the top reason people give for not taking public transit is that it takes significantly longer than driving. This means that those that can afford cars are likely to make that purchase, while the poorer citizens who do not have that option are forced to simply accept the long commute times. The problem of inefficient routes has turned MTA buses into transportation poorhouses, as the ridership of Baltimore’s bus system has homogenized in terms of socio-economic class. Buses in Baltimore are mired by traffic and congestion more than any other form of transportation in the city, and this is setting lower-income families further behind their wealthier counterparts.
Not all of the problems of Baltimore’s bus system are displayable in the table. Frequent delays add to the overall length of trip, and riders have noticed an increase in unreliable bus schedules throwing off their own schedules. Part of this is due to the sheer length of the routes, as longer routes in periods of high traffic are likely to accumulate into longer and longer delays towards the later stops. Another problem is that many people, especially lower-income individuals, take more than one route to get to work, therefore compounding the problem of delays and inefficient and roundabout routes with each time he or she has to switch to a new bus. Qualitative research from Baltimore and Chicago showed that many in public housing and bus to work often have two hour commutes one-way. This amounts to four hours on the bus every work day, which can take a toll on familial stability in the inner city. When a parent can potentially spend up to four hours on a bus each day on top of the amount of time they spend at work, they have little extra time to spend with their children during the week. This leads to a plethora of negative side effects for their children, including an increased risk in behavioral problems, childhood obesity, contact with the justice system, suspension from school, and poor academic performance. Therefore, this problem of the sheer amount of time that many low-income Baltimoreans spend on the bus have percolating effects that impact more than just regular riders.
These problems have not gone unnoticed by city and state officials. Governor Larry Hogan has described the current bus routes as “poorly integrated” and “nonsensical." In response, the Hogan administration announced that it would address this problem with a complete overhaul of the city’s transit. The new system, which will be known as the BaltimoreLink, is set to go into effect in June 2017 and is the most dramatic change to public transportation in Baltimore in several decades.
The BaltimoreLink plan fixes a lot of the structural problems with the current system, with a major advantage being its easy navigability. Instead of routes that go to different places even if they share the same number, the new system will be based on clear color-coded lines that run on a definite route. The route map is laid out in a way resembling that of a typical rail service. Like the Washington D.C. region’s Metro system, which is also color coded, the new bus lines will not have stops that are only attended to a few times a day. The buses will instead stop at the same stops for each time the route is run, which is how most transit systems typically operate. This means that twice-a-day bus stops like Baymeadow Industrial will no longer take the buses off their normal route. The clarity of the proposed system is a major improvement, because any good transit system should make it easily known to riders where each bus goes and how often.
A priority of BaltimoreLink is to correct many of the typical complaints about the city’s bus service, one of which is the problem of many buses running several minutes off schedule. The color-coded routes are designed in a way that reduces bus congestion around the busiest parts of the city, as well as making the routes shorter in the middle sections and more direct. BaltimoreLink plans to have a ten minute on-peak and 15 minute off-peak frequency, which is an improvement over the 30-plus minutes between each arrival (not taking into account the likely event that the buses are delayed) that is characteristic of the current system. This will be achieved through transit signal priority and dedicated bus lanes in downtown Baltimore, as traffic is the single biggest cause of the delays that makes the current system unreliable.
Along with reducing bus delays, the new system also addresses the primary problem – the stress caused to riders due to the length of the current commute, even before traffic and delays are taken into account. The problem of having to transfer at several points to get to their destination that many riders endure is addressed by this proposal, as each line is linked to each other line at one point on the route (explaining why the word “link” is in the proposal’s title). This will make it easier for those who have to take multiple bus routes to their job or home, meaning that only one transfer at most will be necessary instead of two or three that lengthen the commute of many current riders. The length of the routes themselves are also addressed, which is accomplished without eliminating significant segments of the population served by the current system. The is achieved by the proposed system’s link-ability as well as the modeling of the routes as more direct versions of the routes that the current riders are accustomed to.
For example, MTA Route 14, which runs from the Patapsco light rail stop to the state capitol offices in Annapolis, is currently the longest line distance-wise in the entire system and takes 94 minutes for riders taking the entire route one-way. Notably, this takes over 30 minutes longer than it does to take the MTA commuter bus Route 201 from BWI Airport to the Shady Grove Metro Station in Montgomery County, stops that are further apart than Patapsco and Annapolis. BaltimoreLink replaces MTA Route 14 with the yellow line, which takes a more direct route to Annapolis, adding downtown to the route while still going through Glen Burnie. Based on a visual estimate alone, this route would save commuters going from the beginning of the line to the end of the line about 40 to 60 minutes round trip. This means extra time for commuters that can be spent on sleep, taking the kids to school, taking them to soccer practice, grocery shopping, or even having breakfast. Also, a bus route that goes from downtown to Annapolis in only about 15 to 20 minutes longer than driving would logically encourage more middle and upper-middle class Baltimoreans to take the bus instead of driving.
The politics surrounding BaltimoreLink have been heated because it was born out of Governor Hogan’s controversial decision to cancel the Red Line rail project, the proposed second line of the Baltimore subway system which was planned to run east to west from Bayview to Woodlawn. Hogan’s reason for cancelling the project was that his administration evaluated it as too costly to be worth the investment. Because of this, a number of local politicians and transportation advocates have been critical of BaltimoreLink because they see it as a consolation prize. However, Hogan has defended his administration’s proposal on the basis that it saves a significant amount of taxpayer money, with BaltimoreLink costing $135 million compared to the Red Line’s price tag of $2.9 billion. However, the Baltimore transportation sector is wary about the Red Line cancellation because $288 million of that $2.9 billion was slated to come from federal funds, meaning that if a future governor were to revive the project, that funding may likely no longer be guaranteed. On the other hand, other Baltimore politicians and transportation officials have been supportive of Hogan’s plan because the construction necessary for BaltimoreLink’s bus routes are far less disruptive than the years-long construction that would be necessary for a subway. In fact, many describe the “fatal flaw” of the Red Line being the tunnel that was to be built under downtown, Harbor East, and Fells Point, which are popular parts of the city among middle and higher income residents and tourists. This disruption that Red Line construction would have caused these areas would likely impact the local economy, affecting tourism and housing values.
The erratic state of the current system arose from admirable intentions of politicians, who have understandably placed pressure on the Maryland Department of Transportation to provide transit service to the neighborhoods and communities that they represent. Any stop that is on a current MTA bus route is there because a citizen or a community requested it either to the MTA directly or to their state representative or city councilperson. The basic facets of local politics, as well as the need for geographical equity, have led to a transportation policy more focused on checking off the boxes for each area than it does on getting people to their destinations. This makes an overhaul the scale of BaltimoreLink politically difficult because taking stops off of the routes to speed them up and make them more direct will anger those who initially requested or are currently served by moved or eliminated stops. BaltimoreLink does take away some of the stops that exist under the current system, including the Violetville and Baymeadow Industrial stops mentioned earlier. Riders getting off or on at these stops are unlikely to be happy with the newly unveiled system, unless there is another stop that is close enough to their home or work that it will be an acceptable substitute for them.
Little documentation has been made of frequent riders’ opinions on the BaltimoreLink proposal. However, any transit reform that saves them time is likely to be met with positive reception among the riders, but it they would have to take some time to get used to the system. The transition process may be initially met with mixed reception due to many riders having to catch buses at new stops. In addition, natural resistance to change will be inevitable, as a system that has been in place for several decades will be overhauled, changing years-old routines. One mother interviewed said that it would be “very hard,” for her to get used to a new system since she has been riding the bus since she was a little girl. However, once the system is in place and if it runs as smoothly as planned, the health benefits that accumulate over time will likely be noticed. Those who have round-trip commutes north of four hours per day due to having to catch multiple buses frequently have to wake up before sunrise, often at around 4 or 5 a.m. A system that reduces their length of commute will be appreciated by those that gain an hour of sleep. Reducing the afternoon commute for these same stakeholders will allow them additional time to spend with their families and children. As mentioned earlier, research has linked more time spent with children to a number of social and physical health benefits. If these benefits can materialize, then the riders and architects of BaltimoreLink would view it as a success.
Since BaltimoreLink is not scheduled to launch until June 2017, it is too early to say for sure whether the response to these problems was adequate. On paper, it appears to be a more effective and less costly response to the myriad of problems of Baltimore’s bus system than the proposed Red Line, which would have left the current bus system largely intact. Because the Maryland Department of Transportation has yet to release estimates has to how long it will take for each route to go from the first stop to the last stop, it is impossible to say for sure how much time riders will save on the new routes compared to each of their predecessors. Despite this, simply by looking at BaltimoreLink’s route maps compared to the current maps, the routes appear to be more direct, which would logically save riders time compared to the current system. Exactly how much time will be saved is yet to be seen. The fact that each route meets each other route at one point will also reduce the need to take more than two buses one way, in turn minimizing the number of people with four hour round-trip commutes.
The current bus system became the way it is due to prioritizing the number of areas served by the system instead of efficiency, drawing and redrawing routes to include places that have been requested. This burdens any proposed changes to the system because any plan that ignores areas served by the current system would be unacceptable both politically and in terms of fairness. At the same time, the ridership of the Baltimore bus system has become poorer as the wealthier riders have abandoned the inefficient system in favor of the shorter commutes that come with the purchase of a car. This leads to the children of parents who drive to work reaping the health, social, and educational benefits that come with more family time. When parents who ride the bus are stuck on these inefficient routes, their children do not see these benefits and instead experience more behavioral, health, and educational problems. This exacerbates the already rampant inequality that plagues the city of Baltimore. BaltimoreLink, with more direct routes, has the potential to make transportation more equitable among socio-economic classes. This is impressive considering it largely satisfies the difficult prerequisite that it effectively serves all the areas that the current system reaches. However, even though BaltimoreLink looks good on paper, it is impossible to know for sure whether it is the improvement that Baltimore has needed until it is implemented next year.