June 12, 2017

Skeptical of BaltimoreLink? Sarcastically shocking!

It's just so darn easy to be skeptical about the comprehensive BaltimoreLink makeover of the MTA bus system that will be put in place less than a week from now. It's so easy that the prevailing feeling has been to simply and quietly sit back and brace ourselves for the harmonic convergence of slow-motion bus and train wrecks.

It's almost a zen feeling. Even the MTA is in on it. It's no "comfort" that they just ejected their Administrator, Paul Comfort, who was the alleged orchestrator of the whole thing, as if to say that BaltimoreLink now has a mind of its own. Fly away little birdie!

New West Baltimore MARC Station bus hub at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere" looking east -
one of the underrated keys to BaltimoreLink 

Yeah, in addition to $135 million to make-over the bus system, Paul Comfort spent an unauthorized $65,000 to make-over his downtown office. But it's the coincident timing and hush-hush nature of his dismissal that is most conspicuous. They won't even call it a firing. Things just don't shake down like that here in anti-Trump Maryland.

And the MTA's transit union doesn't like BaltimoreLink either. As if the bus drivers can get any more surly than they already are. The drivers mostly want to pick their bus routes to avoid getting riders who are even more surly than they are.

The most organized advocacy organization, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, with bigtime business backing, did a massive number crunching exercise to show that the BaltimoreLink plan was misguided, but CMTA's solution was basically just (surprise!) to spend more money!

And yes, a few specific criticisms have emerged in the mainstream media that service is being cut or eliminated here or there. The Sun keeps citing (including today) the elimination of service to Green Spring Station, a small commercial hub in the affluent semi-rural Falls Road corridor north of the Beltway. The real problem with such locations is that employers want to be near the sylvan countryside but still want their low income workers from the inner city to somehow be able to get out there, ignoring the basic need for jobs to be located near the city workers.

BaltimoreLink: A beginning

All this quibbling aside, the best thing about BaltimoreLink is that there is FINALLY a serious effort to organize the bus system in a rational comprehensive way instead of just following the fate of its historic evolution.

There have been many previous attempts to do this. The most recent was the Baltimore Network Improvement Program (or BNIP) which was launched amid great fanfare a few years ago with a massive data collection effort, then slipped into a mysterious veil of secrecy and finally was simply killed right before the last gubernatorial election.

So BNIP was a monumental disastrous failure. So compared to that, BaltimoreLink is already a big success.

The basic nature of bus routes is that they are constantly tweaked instead of comprehensively crafted. Yes, all that tweaking can and often does result in a chaotic disorganized mess, but since such is the nature of bus routes, we might as well make the most of it. In other words: Do the best we can, and then fix the resultant problems. But at least start somewhere.

But BNIP didn't even get to that square one. The MTA can't fix anything if they don't even try.

Specifically, fixes tend to be limited and isolated, so to complement that, BaltimoreLink needs to start out comprehensive and encompass the big picture. And that it does.

There are two primary aspects of looking at the big picture of a transit system: It should be hierarchical. And it should be connected.

BaltimoreLink satisfies the need for hierarchy by being built upon its twelve principal high-frequency CityLink bus lines which the rest of the system feeds into. It's virtually impossible to conceive comprehensively of every bus route in the entire transit system, so the twelve CityLink lines provide an overarching structure. Just like how its impossible to think about every word in the dictionary, so our twenty-six letter alphabet gives us a structure to organize all of them.

In turn, a strong route hierarchy will increase the dependency on transfers between routes, so it becomes even more important that the system be connected.

West Baltimore Transit Hub looking west toward Amtrak/MARC tracks - MTA rendering 

Transit hubs that work

Transfers have been the next greatest topic of criticism of BaltimoreLink. Transfers take riders out of their comfort zone and plop them at bus stops in the middle of their trips. So they really need to work. The system needs strong transit hubs. BaltimoreLink provides a needed step in this direction, but again, it's only a beginning.

The key to making transit hubs work is to make sure that the services you transfer from and transfer to are better than the service would be without the transfer. The most time-honored way to do that is a bus-rail transfer rather than a bus-bus transfer. That works well at the Mondawmin Metro Station and fairly well at the Patapsco Avenue light rail station, but not at most other transfer places in the Baltimore region.

The Metro is fast and reliable. The south portion of the light rail line that serves Patapsco Avenue is also fairly fast. Both lines have high capacity. The transfer allows the bus lines that feed them to be shorter and thus more reliable and better optimized for their communities than they would be otherwise.

The longer a bus route is, the less reliable and more confusing it will be. The less frequent the service is, the more crucial it is that the route must be reliable.

BaltimoreLink does strive to increase the dependence on bus-rail transfers, most notably at the Hopkins Hospital Metro station. However, it remains to be seen how successfully these transfers can be achieved. At Hopkins, the bus lines will be dispersed onto Broadway, Fayette, Monument and Madison Streets in a fairly messy and potentially confusing arrangement with no off-street facilities. However, things were so badly dispersed before that it is bound to be an improvement. But this is simply not a good location for a major terminal Metro rail station.

A bolder effort is taking place with the new bus-to-bus transfer hub at the West Baltimore MARC station at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere". While some riders will transfer to the MARC commuter rail line toward Washington, DC, which may achieve an increasingly local orientation in the future with more stations and transit oriented development, its near-term success will depend almost completely on bus-to-bus transfers.

This hub will have a new high capacity off-street bus loop which is still in the final stages of construction. The loop will accommodate four of the twelve principal color-coded CityLink bus routes. The potential is there for this hub facility to be a major foundation for the enhanced accessibility of all of West Baltimore.

In particular, the Blue CityLink bus line will utilize the high speed "Highway to Nowhere", which will allow it get downtown in a matter of just several minutes. This is essentially the current #40 express Quick Bus line, but the new bus hub will make it accessible to a greater number of riders.   

But it will still be seen as merely a bus line, using transfers from other bus lines. There will be no getting around that if service is mediocre. There will be no aura of the perceived superiority of rail transit.

Comparison with the defunct Red Line

Interestingly, the defunct light rail Red Line was given its own bus system reorganization plan prior to the failed BNIP plan. The plan called for a light rail station at the West Baltimore MARC Station, but with very little bus transfer activity. Nothing in the subsequent BNIP study ever changed that.

Instead, the largest bus transfer point along the entire 14 mile Red Line was planned to be the next station to the west, at the Edmondson/Poplar Grove intersection in Rosemont. However, no off-street loop or other bus facilities were planned for this station location at all, making for a clearly inferior transfer experience.

The new West Baltimore MARC Station bus hub will have better transfers and will be a faster ride (at least to the west edge of downtown) than was previously planned for the Red Line. The proposed new Amtrak tunnel plan through West Baltimore will also include a completely new MARC Station which will accommodate a far better exclusive rail and/or bus right of way.

The one aspect of the Red Line which is clearly superior to buses, however, is the potential for transit oriented development, which is sorely needed in the Franklin-Mulberry "Highway to Nowhere" corridor.

It should also be noted that on the east side of the city, the bus system reorganization plan for the Red Line also included different bus hub locations as well. The two major transfer locations were to have been at the Highlandtown Station, where bus transfers would have occurred on-street near the intersection of Eastern Avenue and Haven Street, and at the Brewers Hill Station, where an off-street hub would have been provided on the north side. But since the station itself was to be located in the  Boston Street median strip, transferring patrons would have still had to cross this busy street.

In contrast, BaltimoreLink's major east side transfer points will be at the Hopkins Bayview Research Park, and at the previously discussed Hopkins Metro Station. These are superior bus transfer locations in most respects to what was planned for the Red Line. They also delineate what could become an extension of the Metro between these two major health campuses.

It all depends on how the rubber hits the road

When it comes to the MTA, skepticism is a justifiably healthy feeling. We're all just waiting to see what happens. The best that can be said about BaltimoreLink is that it is a stronger and clearer foundation for making further changes to the transit system than the series of historical evolutions which preceded it. This will be the start of a new evolutionary chain. When a problem happens, fix it.


  1. Great article. I'm really anxious and nervous to see how the Link system evolves. Being from Chicago, one thing that I really miss is being able to rely on public transit, if needed. Here I drive more, out of necessity. But, I'd love to be able to leave the car at home and head to Lexington Market or other parts of the city for the day without the fear of not being able to get back because I can't rely on the transit lines.

  2. With this kind of investment in a transit hub, it is probably safe to say that any new West Baltimore MARC station won't be built that far from the current location.

    1. Yes, I agree it's safe to say that. In the past there was speculation that the new station would need to be built farther north or south on a straight segment of track away from the curve, but the latest Environmental Impact Statement for the Amtrak tunnel project has the curve flattened out enough so that it's feasible to build the new station on the curve, with gaps between the platforms and trains that are acceptably small.