This is Not “Transformational”: Why High-Frequency Buses Aren’t Fixing Baltimore’s Transit Problems

Danielle Sweeney
Oct 24, 2017 · 6 min read
Bus riders waiting for the CityLink Purple and Citylink Orange at the Shot Tower Metro bus stop at President and Baltimore streets in September.

We’re one hundred and twenty days into the BaltimoreLink rollout, Governor Larry Hogan’s much-hyped overhaul of Baltimore’s antiquated transit system that would fix “decades of inefficiencies” and “connect Baltimore,” but I don’t hear many Baltimore bus riders singing its praises.

At best, riders will say BaltimoreLink— which includes 12 new high-frequency bus lines — is only slightly more reliable than its predecessor, or that their commute is unchanged.

A more typical response from frustrated riders is that BaltimoreLink service is wildly uneven, with some good days and some terrible days (no-show buses, late drivers).

That, and riders feel like they have to make more transfers than they did under the old system.

Overall, they say, not much of an improvement, and hardly what Hogan promised.

As one rider put it on Facebook: “The Link is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.”

Why is BaltimoreLink not the “transformational transit” system that Hogan and former MTA administrator Paul Comfort promised it would be?

Aside from unpredictable service that even MTA has acknowledged, I can think of three reasons.

Much of the enthusiasm for the BaltimoreLink reboot was based on the belief that merely having “access” to a high-frequency network would be a substantial benefit for bus riders all over the city.

It isn’t, necessarily.

According to the MTA, an estimated 130,000 more riders live within a quarter mile of the Frequent Transit Network — 32 percent more than under the old system, a fact that MTA’s marketing department frequently trumpets on social media.

But this claim is somewhat misleading and here’s why.

Living near the high-frequency network doesn’t necessarily mean the nearest high-frequency route will take you where you want to go, or get you there much faster. (MTA acknowledges that average trip time is 52 minutes, about the same as under the old system.)

MTA’s Frequent Transit Network includes CityLink, and six higher-frequency LocalLink routes (22, 26, 30, 54, 80, and 85). Together, they advertise buses arriving approximately every 9–30 minutes during peak and midday periods.

CityLink bus timetables.

High-frequency service, a trend among transit agencies as well as a strategy to attract new riders, is without question a net gain for Baltimore.

After all, who wants to wait longer for a bus than they have to?

High-frequency has been successful in Houston, Seattle, and other cities, and could probably be more successful here, if MTA could reduce bus bunching and improve headway management.

But here’s the rub.

Charm City is still a blue collar town with many residents who work early mornings and late nights in hotels, hospitals, factories, and the service industry.

And yet much of Citylink’s high-frequency service operates Monday through Friday, during “peak business hours” from approximately 6:30–9 a.m. and 4–6 p.m.

While some CityLink routes begin peak service around 6 a.m. or earlier (CityLink Blue, Pink, and Yellow) and end peak closer to 7 p.m. (CityLink Navy), less than half of the 12 CityLink routes run high-frequency service on Saturdays and only two do on Sundays.

Map of BaltimoreLink “Linking You To Life’s Opportunities,” outside of MTA headquarters.

Bus riders who work nights, weekends, and early or late shifts are less likely to directly benefit from “high-frequency” service, simply because the service doesn’t run during their “off peak” schedules.

To put it another way, if you are catching the 5:00 a.m. bus to your job at the nursing home, you’re probably still waiting 20–60 minutes for your bus because “peak” doesn’t start for another hour.

To MTA’s credit, the agency has responded to rider complaints and added early morning service to CityLink Orange and continues to adapt the system.

But for now, the majority of BaltimoreLink “peak” still falls within the traditional 7am–7pm workday window.

Another reason high-frequency service is not making a substantial difference for many riders in Baltimore is because many also rely on at least one LocalLink route to get to their destinations.

LocalLink buses make up 45 percent of MTA service and still run every 20–60 minutes.

A fact that gets lost in the high-frequency hype, is that overall, more than half of MTA service is still not high-frequency.

High-Frequency — Not a Game-Changer, So Far

Here is a great example of what high-frequency bus service can and cannot do.

I live six blocks from the the nearest CityLink Silver bus stop in South Baltimore, in a community that is well-served by public transit.

A Silver bus arrives at the nearest bus stop about every 15–20 minutes. If I take the Silver northbound to Johns Hopkins or midtown, I have a fifteen-minute walk to the bus, a twenty-minute wait, and a fairly straight shot to my destination. The five-mile ride to Hopkins takes 35 minutes, the midtown trip, less than 20.

But here’s a more typical MTA bus ride: I recently spent more than an hour and a half each way traveling to a grocery store 11 miles away.

I walked to the same CityLink Silver stop, waited 15 minutes, rode for another 15, got off the bus and then walked a block to transfer to the CityLink Purple, westbound to Catonsville.

The Purple arrived on time (but I later got held up 20 minutes when the driver’s relief did not show up for shift change — but that’s another blog post).

Fifty stops later (this was the most direct route I could take), I arrived at my destination.

For me, having “access” to high-frequency network was helpful, but not a game changer. Access alone didn’t have a substantial impact on my overall travel time.

I still faced another 40-minute-plus bus ride and a transfer, and a six-block walk to get back to my house— assuming the buses were running on schedule.

What might have been a game-changer for me?

A high-frequency Purple express bus with limited stops, but such a service is not part of the BaltimoreLink plan.

Not yet, anyway.

From my experiences talking to riders at bus stops, trips like mine are more typical for transit-dependent Baltimoreans, and frankly, mine was on the short end.

I recently met a rider at the Baltimore Arena who works in Glen Burnie and lives in Middle River. He spends more than two hours a day traveling to work. Forty minutes of that time is spent waiting for his LocalLink bus to Middle River, which runs every 30 minutes to every hour on the weekends, when its on schedule.

“It doesn’t make a huge difference for a lot of riders,” he said of CityLink.

“If you’re waiting an hour for your 62 to Middle River, it doesn’t matter that much that the Orange or Blue got here 15 minutes sooner.”

CityLInk Gold buses, arriving back to back on North Avenue at Greenmount.

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Danielle Sweeney

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Better Buses for Baltimore. Neighborhoods. Open data. Transit.