To boost falling ridership, many cities are following the lead of Houston, which completely revised its bus system three years ago to provide high-frequency service along the busiest corridors. It’s shown results, with ridership growth in 2016 and 2017. Metro Baltimore advanced its own aspirations with the "LINK" initiative. BaltimoreLINK shifted the region’s focus on a bus revamp, and away from more capital-intensive projects, such as the canceled Red Line light rail proposal. The administration of Maryland governor Larry Hogan touted it as a more fiscally-responsible and realistic measure, along with some in the market urbanist sphere who hoped that here, as in Houston, low-cost measures would result in high impact. Unfortunately, according to a report by a transit advocacy group, Houston’s success has not been replicated in Baltimore.
One year into the program, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance panned the redesigned bus network. It evaluated the new system against five benchmarks, most of which were based on the stated goals of BaltimoreLINK: speed, frequency, reliability, total network connectivity, and improvement of walkability…and found that it failed or underperformed on all counts.
Reliability was of particular concern: the report notes that one year in, the “LocalLink” routes achieved an unacceptably low on-time rate of 64%. If riders cannot rely on transit to reach their destinations on time, a system will be useless and, worse, those who depend on the buses risk losing work. CMTA observes that it's difficult to determine whether this was an improvement, because of the Maryland Transportation Authority’s changed and relatively non-transparent metric for on-time performance. This indicates that BaltimoreLINK didn't pay sufficient attention to the interaction between buses and general traffic, or common delays in boarding (such as riders paying cash). The plan did include bus-only lanes; it is possible that enforcement of these lanes is lacking.
It’s not all bad. The report notes that following the revamp, more individuals have access to high-frequency transit. Yet if ridership is declining - in this case by 9.6% - it may signal that buses aren’t running as frequently as they should, or, worse, aren’t serving the destinations that riders want to reach. Indeed, “the top reason given by Baltimore area residents for not using public transportation more often” prior to the BaltimoreLINK initiative was poor access to destinations of demand. CMTA posits that the change to job access has been negative, dropping by 6% on weekdays and more so on Sunday mornings; the latter is of particular concern, as work hours in this time slot are dominated by lower-wage employment.
CMTA offers sensible solutions such as boosting bus frequencies and giving buses signal priority. These are appropriate – transit needs to be fast and accessible in order to be effective. Yet the region should consider allowing the private sector to participate as well, in part as a way to identify high-demand routes. Baltimore should experiment with deregulating taxi and bus licenses to allow for entrepreneurial approaches like New York’s dollar vans. Or the city could look at the busy shuttle service surrounding Johns Hopkins University for cues on how to run its transit. With limited finances available to the public sector, allowing private operators to identify busy routes may be useful to enhancing mobility in Charm City.
Ultimately, the decision to cancel the Red Line should be reconsidered. Baltimore is a legacy city, and has sufficient density to make rail transit work. It’s troubling that the state is building light rail in the suburbs, in the form of the circumferential Purple Line, while canceling it in the inner city. But in order to decrease traffic congestion and improve access to jobs and activity quickly, it may well be worth opening the mobility market up to competition. In any case, it is likely that Maryland policymakers need to look at the bigger picture to make transit investments work: to stop subsidizing single-occupancy vehicle trips that cause congestion and decrease reliability.