Only 67% of BaltimoreLink LocalLink Buses Show Up On Time — But That’s an Improvement, Says MTA

CityLink Silver bus, in Baltimore Brigade Football wrapper, at Pratt and Light streets in Baltimore last week.

BaltimoreLink, MTA’s complete overhaul and rebranding of Baltimore’s transportation system, has been on the road for more than six months now.

At this week’s Maryland General Assembly Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee briefing, we finally got to see some data on how well the much-promoted transit network is actually performing.

MTA administrator Kevin Quinn and his staff gave a five-month status update to the transportation and environment subcommittee.

Here are a few takeaways.

LocalLink Reliability

Chart compares local bus fall 2016 to LocalLink fall 2017 on-time performance.

Given the zeal with which the Hogan Administration and MTA itself hyped BaltimoreLink’s potential, so far, LocalLink bus on-time performance can only be described as a let down.

About 67 percent of LocalLink buses showed up on time during the fall of 2017. Specifically, 20 percent of LocalLinks were late and about 12 percent arrived ahead of schedule.

LocalLinks (MTA’s numbered buses) are predominately lower-frequency.

They make up about half of the bus system and depending on the route are scheduled to arrive at stops every 15–60 minutes.

This level of on-time reliability is hardly the “transformational transportation” that would fix Baltimore’s “broken system” that Governor Larry Hogan and Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn have trumpeted over the last five months.

The sad part is that according to MTA, 67 percent on-time performance is actually a significant improvement over pre-BaltimoreLink local bus reliability, when only 62 percent of buses arrived on schedule.
Chart shows how BaltimoreLink improved service to Amazon and the BWI Business District.

For example, the LocalLink 65, the only bus that goes to the Amazon Fulfillment Center on Broening Highway, was running on schedule only 64 percent of the time in the fall of 2017.

That’s nothing to write home about until you compare current service to the old route the #65 replaced (LocalLink 7), which was on schedule only 61 percent of the time in fall of 2016.

To put it another way, pre-BaltimoreLink, about 20 percent of buses going to the Amazon Fulfillment Center were late, and another 20 percent were early.

The same is true of the LocalLink 75, which transports workers to the BWI Airport Business District.

Today, the #75 runs on schedule 71 percent of the time — not exactly impressive, but a ten percent improvement over the #75’s predecessor, (LocalLink 17) which had a 61 percent on-time performance rate in the fall of 2016.

If 30–40 percent of buses are either late or early, riders can’t realistically count on the service to get them to work on time.

Quinn talked about various investments MTA is making to improve performance across the system, such as dedicated bus lanes, bus stop optimization, transit signal priority, and improved scheduling.

Chart shows how new BaltimoreLink routes have improved on-time performance.

He cited the LocalLink 51, (former #11: Inner Harbor-Towson), whose on-time performance increased from 59-67 percent, as a success story.

“Why Do the Numbers Keep Changing?”

The pre- and post- BaltimoreLink on-time performance comparison (top chart) is significant.

It shows a change in how MTA is tracking its LocalLink bus on-time performance. Previously, the agency had reported its local buses had as high as an 85 percent on time performance rate.

As recently as November, MTA claimed that around 80 percent of its BaltimoreLink buses arrived on time and credited BaltimoreLink changes with a nine percent improvement in overall bus reliability.

Delegate Brooke Lierman, who represents the 46th district in Baltimore City, noticed the change and asked Quinn for clarification.

“You were quoted in a Baltimore Sun article saying BaltimoreLink had an on-time performance of 80 percent,” she said.

“80 percent? 67 percent? Why do the numbers keep changing?” Lierman asked.

Quinn replied that there are “ lots of ways to measure on-time performance,” and that MTA had recently changed to a new reporting system.

The agency transitioned from using Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) to an Automated Passenger Counter system (APC) because AVL was not accurate enough.

Basically, MTA’s new lower on-time local bus performance numbers reflect that change.

Of AVL, Quinn said, “In my opinion, AVL did not accurately represent passengers’ experience on the system.”

He explained:

“In the past we were using a technology [AVL] and relying on a technology that essentially counted a bus that did not spit back data from a particular node as being 100% on-time,” he said. ‘That is a big assumption to make — that if the bus doesn’t spit back data because the technology on it is wrong that it counted as on-time. And so we’ve made a decision not to go with that methodology anymore.”

The APC, he said, has a higher reliability, “doesn’t make these kinds of assumptions,” and provides geo-locational data as well.

This change confirms what riders have said for years: that MTA reliability statistics were off or wildly inconsistent and didn’t match up with their real world experiences riding the bus.

I’m glad to see the MTA was willing to change its reporting system and publish more accurate data.

To put LocalLink on-time performance numbers in some context, the Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s on-time performance goal for its buses, which it has already met, is 79 percent and Metro Houston’s is 75 percent.

MTA’s goal for LocalLink is 80.

Clearly, at 67 percent, LocalLink still has a long way to go.

On a positive note, the new CityLink color-coded high-frequency buses, which run on headways not schedules, are closer to meeting MTA expectations.

They make up about 55 percent of MTA service and maintain their headways — no more than five minutes late or one minute early — about 77 percent of the time.

Worth noting: MTA has not yet released route-specific performance data for CityLink buses. The 77 percent is an average of the 12 routes.

CityLink bus reliability is tracked by geolocation hardware installed on all CityLink buses, and the entire MTA bus fleet will be equipped with the same hardware later this spring.

Ridership and Service Changes

MTA CityLink and LocalLink buses on Pratt Street this fall.

Quinn said that BaltimoreLink ridership dropped in July but has since rebounded, and that December ridership numbers were on par with last December’s levels.

He also addressed proposed winter service adjustments, which included cuts to several high-frequency routes and terminating the CityLink Green in downtown, not West Baltimore— changes that some riders and the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance objected to.

“A number of those [changes] that we proposed are not moving forward,” Quinn said, without getting into specifics.

The MTA’s about-face was due in part to rider feedback, Quinn said.

The agency is still cutting three low-performing routes and will make an official announcement about other service changes this week.

CityLink Lime bus crossing Gwynns Falls Parkway this summer.

Cuts, Competitiveness, and Reliability

At the briefing, committee members questioned MTA about its budget, future plans, and reliability.

Lierman asked Quinn about cut (cancelled) bus runs — specifically if they are included in MTA’s on-time performance data.

The MTA cut more than 2,000 runs in the last six months, due primarily to operator absenteeism, which averaged around 20 percent a day according to Quinn at the BaltimoreLink City Council hearing in November.

“Nowhere on your stats on on-time performance do you measure the cut run phenomenon. Isn’t that something that should be included in your statistics …?” Lierman asked.

“A cut run is worse for me as a consumer than a bus that’s five minutes late. That’s not even up for argument,” she said.

Quinn replied that these particular cuts (from June 18 — Nov. 24) represent only about 1 percent of service, but that the number of cuts should be zero.

“I don’t argue that it’s something we shouldn’t be tracking,” he said.

But Quinn said he didn’t think cuts belonged in on-time performance data.

He said MTA was rolling out new operator absenteeism policies — he’d previously told me MTA is in the process of a “complete review of [its] FMLA, Worker’s Compensation, and Sick Leave programs — and said the agency could look into how it factors cut runs into its other performance measures.

Next, Delegate Tawanna Gaines, committee chair who represents the 22nd district in Prince George’s County, asked what MTA was doing to be more competitive with other modes of transportation.

Quinn said it’s hard to be competitive when downtown Baltimore employers subsidize employee parking.

“If an employer gives you $150 a month to park in a garage, you probably won’t take the bus. Any effort we can [make] to get Baltimore City planning and DOT to talk to their employers, to take parking fees and instead use it as a transit fee, things like that can help us be more competitive,” he said.

Gaines replied: “I think reliability would help with that too.”

“Employers will want their employees to be on time.”

That, they will.

You can listen to the entire MTA briefing to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Transportation and the Environment Subcommittee, here. Begin at 1:25.

CityLink Silver on St. Paul Street in the Central Business District this fall.