BaltimoreLink Promises “High-Frequency” Transit. Can it Deliver?


Bus shelter advertisement for BaltimoreLink.

Baltimore got a new bus system on June 18, and no one knows quite what to make of it.

Four days into the rollout, feedback has been mixed on the $135 million system reboot.

Transit activists question whether the “customer-focused” network will provide markedly better service than its predecessor — and if the MTA has even established “measurable outcomes” to track BaltimoreLink’s performance.

The MTA’s own drivers’ union is already calling for a “town hall” with elected officials next week to discuss what’s wrong with the system.

Not exactly a public vote of confidence.

Riders and drivers, meanwhile, are adjusting to the route changes, and experiences have been decidedly variable.

Some passengers are impressed by the high-frequency service, while others are confused by street signage (or lack of), annoyed at MTA drivers for not knowing the new stops, or upset by overcrowded buses.

CityLink bus running with no sign on St. Paul St. during rush hour.

To compound the confusion, more than a few MTA buses have driven through the city flashing incorrect destination signs — ENTER NEW CODE, WRONG CODE— or no signs at all. (MTA says it is addressing the problem.)

To smooth the transition, the agency is providing unprecedented public outreach in the form of transit ambassadors and is offering free rides on bus, Metro subway, and Light Rail until the end of the month.

The agency claims the rollout has gone fairly smoothly despite the bumps and hiccups and that it is now tweaking the system. We will see how quickly the BaltimoreLink dust settles.

Transformational Transit

BaltimoreLink took more than two years to refine and makes some lofty promises to fix Charm City’s infamously poor and unreliable transit system — one that even the MTA described as “broken,” “crowded,” and “unclean.”

Governor Larry Hogan himself maligned the old network as outdated, calling it a “transit failure,” and recently admitted the state had ignored Baltimore’s antiquated bus system for decades.

Digital advertising praising BaltimoreLink’s power to reconnect the city.

In contrast, Hogan, who pulled the plug on the region’s widely anticipated $2.9 billion Redline rail network, heralded BaltimoreLink as “transformational,” “customer-focused,” and a step toward getting Baltimore residents to “where the jobs are.”

“With the launch of BaltimoreLink, city residents and those in surrounding jurisdictions finally can travel conveniently, efficiently and affordably from where they live to where they work,” he said in a June 18 statement.

MTA is currently collecting feedback from riders via transit ambassadors and through online comment forms.

The agency is required to present a status report on BaltimoreLink ridership, on-time performance, and customer satisfaction to the Maryland General Assembly by the end of the year.

CityLink

A passenger reading the MTA BaltimoreLink infoboxes on Lombard Street.

The centerpiece of BaltimoreLink, called CityLink, is a 12-line, color-coded network of high-frequency routes crisscrossing downtown Baltimore and radiating out to city neighborhoods. CityLinks connect with each other and the Metro subway, Light Rail, and MARC trains.

BaltimoreLink also includes 45 new LocalLink bus routes that operate on neighborhood streets between the CityLinks and form crosstown “rings.”

LocalLinks offer standard service daily — mostly with a bus arriving every 20–60 minutes — although a few LocalLinks (22, 26, 30, and others) offer some high-frequency service during peak hours.

As part of BaltimoreLink, MTA also invested in infrastructure improvements, including a new MARC hub, transit signal priority corridors, new bus shelters, and more than five miles of dedicated bus lanes to get buses through downtown Baltimore traffic more quickly.

A dedicated bus lane on Fayette Street in front of Baltimore’s City Hall.

High-Frequency Buses

CityLink routes promise buses arriving every 10–15 minutes during morning and evening peak hours (Monday through Friday), with 15–20 minute headways for most routes during midday service.

Currently, MTA bus riders typically wait 20-30 minutes for a bus — and often much longer, with little in the way of realtime arrival data.

If CityLink buses can maintain 10–15 minute headways, it will be the first time in recent memory that Baltimoreans have had high-frequency buses as part of core public transportation service.

Transit riders who live or work near the Central Business District or midtown have access to three or four high-frequency CityLink routes within a few blocks’ walk.

BaltimoreLink CityLink timetables.

So do several neighborhoods east and west of midtown: Franklin Square is close to the CityLink blue, purple, and green, while the CityLink navy, gold and lime routes intersect near Penn North and the Easterwood neighborhood in West Baltimore.

MTA claims the 12 high-frequency routes will increase transit access to 13 percent more households, 16 percent more single-vehicle households, and 13 percent more households earning less than $20,000 year.

But does access to high frequency “show-and-go” service necessarily mean a faster commute for transit-dependent riders who travel long distances?

The CityLink Silver arriving on Pennington Avenue in Curtis Bay on day two of the BaltimoreLink rollout.

For Baltimore, that’s one of the key questions.

So is whether MTA can consistently deliver high-frequency service across the entire CityLink network.

Acting MTA administrator Kevin Quinn told the Baltimore Sun yesterday that CityLink service would be so reliable that riders could “forget about carrying schedules around.”

“These buses show up every ten minutes,” he said.

To find out if Quinn is right, I will be documenting the arrival times of CityLink buses (at select timepoint stops) during the BaltimoreLink launch and throughout the summer.

I’ll compare my data to MTA’s own timetables, headways, and schedules and share my results on Medium and via Facebook groups such as “Where’s the Bus, Baltimore?”