Reliability: One of the Five Basics for Better Transit

Why “on-time performance” is critical and how the MTA needs to do better

The Five Basics for Better Transit

Reliability, whether or not transit vehicles arrive at a given destination close to a schedule time or headway, is critical for public transportation. For riders, an unreliable transit system means being late to work, classes or appointments. For employers, an unreliable transit system affects employee turnover and productivity.

Lateness is the most commonly cited complaint on Rate Your Ride, a rider feedback tool operated by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). In 2015, (the most recent year for which Rate Your Ride data is available) 42% of Rate Your Ride reports concerned a late transit vehicle or a vehicle that didn’t show up at all. And talking to riders on the street reveals that long waits for buses are a major concern. It’s safe to say that reliability is one of the most important elements for great transit. That’s why the Transportation Alliance highlights this element of transit in both the Transportation Report Card and How’s The Ride campaign.

Unfortunately, for riders in Baltimore it’s difficult to objectively know how well the MTA is actually performing when it comes to reliability. This is why we gave a grade of Incomplete for measuring Reliable Transit in our 2017 Transportation Report Card.

The 2017 Transportation Report Card

How do we assess reliability?

In our previous report card from 2015, we used the on-time performance data self-reported by MTA, supplemented by on-time performance issues as reported by MTA customers through the Rate Your Ride tool.

Since the 2015 report, the MTA allowed the Rate Your Ride tool and web site to lapse so the data was not available. Although MTA has somewhat revived Rate Your Ride, it is still not reporting data publicly the way the old version used to.

Additionally, questions have arisen over the accuracy of MTA’s self-reported on-time performance numbers. Every year, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) submits an Attainment Report to the Maryland General Assembly. The Attainment Report contains information about the performance of the state’s transportation system, including the MTA and on-time performance for each mode it operates (i.e. bus, light rail, metro subway, MARC, commuter bus). MTA considers a vehicle “on-time” if it arrives at a stop between 1 minute early or 5 minutes late of the scheduled time.

According to the 2017 Attainment Report, the bus was on-time 85% of the time in Fiscal Year 2016 (Fiscal Year 2016 ran from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016).

Chart from 2017 Attainment Report showing bus on time performance.

The 2017 Attainment Report was released in January 2017. During that same month at an MDOT quarterly meeting then-MTA-Administrator Paul Comfort said, “… the number’s probably less than that to be honest with you — our OTP for bus. The national average is 78%; we’re hitting it. I think it’s significantly less than that.”

He went on to say that an equipment upgrade was needed for the buses before MTA had a reliable way to calculate on-time performance. Once upgraded and collecting better data, Comfort said “we’ll probably be shocked at how low it is.”

More recent on-time performance numbers can be found in MDOT’s Excellerator Report from October 2017. These numbers appear to show a drop in bus on-time performance to an average of 77% for Fiscal Year 2017. But given Mr. Comfort’s above-referenced comments and the fact that the equipment upgrade has still not occurred, is it safe to assume that the number is actually much lower?

Chart from October 2017 MDOT Excellerator Report

What about BaltimoreLink?

Fiscal Year 2017 ended in June 2017 — just as BaltimoreLink was launching — so these most recent numbers do not reflect the new network.

However, the Baltimore Sun reported in November, “[f]ive months after the Maryland Transit Administration rerouted its entire Baltimore-area bus network, buses now arrive on time about 80 percent of the time, but ridership remains flat, according to MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn. The $135 million bus system overhaul called BaltimoreLink has increased reliability by 9 percent […]”.

An increase of reliability by 9% means that buses now arrive on time 80% of the time? Does this mean that on-time performance was actually 71% and it increased by 9 percentage points to around 80%? Or was it actually around 74% (as it seems from the October Excellerator Report) and it increased to around 80%?

What’s going on here?

To try to find out the Transportation Alliance went out into the field and collected its own data to measure on-time performance. In August, Transportation Alliance staff and volunteers recorded on-time performance data for LocalLink routes 61, 51, 95, 37, 79, 31, and 71. Those observations showed an on-time performance of just 50%. Although it was not a comprehensive measurement of the entire system, a bus showing up on-time only half of the time is what riders actually experienced during the hours observed.

The discrepancy between our observations and what MTA publicly reports, whichever number you choose, is large enough to raise some serious questions. We need a full and honest accounting of how reliable the buses really are. MTA should publish a methodology on how it defines and calculates on-time performance. Additionally, MTA should follow the example of agencies like the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and report on-time performance for each route, instead of an overall number for the entire system.

For something as basic as whether the bus shows up on-time, we need a better performance measure than MTA now provides. We hope this incomplete grade gets fixed as soon as possible.