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Harmonizing MTA Baltimore’s Entire Bus Network to Increase Ridership: Lessons Learned

Sep 11, 2017
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Orchestra style floor plan of tranist agency with leadership, customer service & marketing, finance and scheduling & planning sections highlighted - text reads - Combat Decreasing Ridership

This is part two of a blog series on orchestrating your transit masterpiece. Catch up on part one here, which explains what transit has to do with a symphony orchestra.

When I arrived as CEO at MTA Baltimore in May of 2015, transit ridership had been on a slow five-year decline. The prior administration had completed a two-year study called the Bus Network Improvement Plan (BNIP) to gather the data necessary to update and improve the bus routes in the region. However, no work had been done to implement any changes.

When briefed on the plan by my staff, I thought we had been given a treasure trove of data that could be used as a backbone for a comprehensive re-routing of the entire bus network. 

You see, the bus routes had not been comprehensively updated in over fifty years. The routes followed the patterns of the old city trolley cars and two thirds of the routes went downtown, to the most congested part of the city. As a result, on time performance for bus was the lowest of all our modes and well below the national urban city average of 78%. Additionally, route travel times were inefficient, sometimes lasting almost two hours from end to end in long east/west routes across the city. In the central business district (CBD) of downtown Baltimore, many city blocks had multiple bus stops on them adding unnecessary route time and buses got choked in heavy traffic. Thus, some buses took longer to traverse the area than it took to walk the same distance.

While there were 145,000 jobs in the CBD, there were another 600,000 jobs in the surrounding region. Additionally, light rail, metro subway, and MARC commuter train services had been added since then but the bus routes never were tweaked to allow for real connections between these modes.

You’re Not Alone in the Declining Ridership Struggle

We weren’t alone in struggling with declining ridership. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) data shows that from 2014-2016 nearly every major transit system in America saw a decline in ridership. The national average was a loss of 4.5% of transit ridership over that time. Canadian ridership was also flat or declining in most cities.  

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, ridership on city buses around the United States was down 13% in the second quarter of 2017 compared with the same quarter in 2007, according to USDOT data. 

Is this your experience too? How has a ridership decline affected your farebox revenue? Are you now planning for more service cuts on top of the ones you have already made? What are your board members and elected officials saying now?

Why the Audience is Leaving – A.K.A Why Ridership is Declining

In transit, like in an orchestra, you need to know your audience. If their needs and tastes change and you keep offering the same product, they may stop coming, give you bad reviews or even walk out of a performance. All bad.

Lower fuel costs, the uptick of new transportation options from companies like Uber and Lyft, and an increase in telecommuting are often cited as reasons for this decline. Millennials too are moving into inner cities and getting more bike share and bike lanes offered and using that mode or walking instead of riding transit.  

At APTA’s most recent CEO Conference in San Diego, this topic was a main point of concern among the attendees when top association officials presented their findings. 

A recent ENO Transportation article noted the National Transit Database (NTD) showed an actual decline of 5.2% in the number of miles traveled by the nation’s public bus systems from 2009-2014, so this certainly has contributed to the overall ridership decline. 

As we noted above, perhaps the tastes and preferences of our audience are changing and so we need to adapt our product offerings to meet their demands. That’s what we did at MTA.

Using our Treasure Trove of Data

Our ridership was declining, but we had a treasure trove of data to help us give our passengers what they wanted – or to continue the symphony analogy, to keep our audience returning for another show.

We took the BNIP data and added to it lots of information from the Maryland Department of Planning, GIS heat maps, ridership surveys, and other recent studies. We brought in some help from a consulting group, got feedback from our riders’ advisory committee, and then the MTA planning department went into high gear to assemble some proposed route modifications that would better serve the job markets of today/tomorrow and add in high frequency transit (buses arriving at stops every 10-15 minutes) to the “heavy hauler” routes in the city.

We ended up creating a system that better linked the bus routes to the existing rail modes and created expanded express routes around the city like a bus beltway with several pick up stops on a route then a long haul and then several drop off locations, almost like a commuter bus route. 

This eliminated the requirement for folks in the suburbs to have to travel downtown and transfer buses only to go back out to the suburbs for drop offs. Some travel times were cut in half and we heard great appreciation from folks who had 90 minutes added back into their life each morning and afternoon with that change. 

We also added in several new commuter bus routes from the suburbs into the city and a reverse route from the city out to jobs at a military base called Aberdeen Proving Grounds. We also asked commercial property owners to survey their tenants’ employees on transit options and ended up extending one commuter bus route further into the city to end at a major new professional employment center in the Harbor East area of downtown Baltimore.

After the planning department put together the proposed route maps, then the service development department worked on better spacing and location of bus stops. We ended up eliminating nearly 1,000 of the 6,000 bus stops in our system, greatly improving travel time with that one change alone. We also got approval from the city to add in almost five miles of dedicated bus lanes and implemented red painted right hand lanes on four of the main east-west thoroughfares by the time the system went live. Tickets are $90 plus one point on your license if you’re caught driving your car in a bus-only lane. Bus operators love them!

The planning and implementation process included over 200 public meetings and we ended up altering many of the proposed new routes based on public feedback and that of our elected stakeholders. The system went live in June of 2017 and results are initially positive both in terms of improved on time performance of routes and reduced travel times on many routes.

Upgrading your “Work Horse” Public Bus Systems

Other cities are seeing the same thing and are reviewing their bus route networks that were laid out years ago and seeing if it is time for a system overhaul with reconfigured routes that emphasize high frequency transit (a concern often expressed by riders is the length of time they have to wait at a bus stop), more time point reliability, and real time apps. These cities, such as Houston, Seattle, and Baltimore, are setting a new trend by focusing on upgrading their “work horse” public bus systems with the latest amenities and rebooted route networks. Some systems like the one in Baltimore are also rebranding their buses with all new colorful wraps, new bus stop signs, and logos.

In another new approach to assist those in areas without regular transit service, transit agencies like the one in Pinellas County, Florida are forming partnerships with Uber and Lyft to offer subsidized rides. Many transit agencies are now too upgrading their fare payment systems to allow for mobile phone electronic payment of fares or the use of credit cards at the turnstile in an approach called contactless fare payment.

Adapt Your Approach to Today’s Audience

In order to slow the ridership decline, North America’s transit systems must adopt new approaches such as:

  • Rebooting and rebranding their bus networks
  • Bringing in new technology to make transit ridership easier and more customer friendly
  • Listening to passengers who are asking for new integrated approaches to transit that expand the traditional definition to include all forms of mobility

Understanding the preferences of your audience and being willing to adapt your current offerings is key to ensuring we keep relevant to today’s traveling public.

I like to call this “orchestrating your transit masterpiece” – if you’re coming to APTA EXPO, you’ll hear me talk more about what a transit masterpiece is and how you can make sure you have all the right players and tools in place to run a harmonious system.

As you orchestrate your transit masterpiece, knowing and playing to your audience is the most important step to keeping the house full and your coffers too.

I want to help you orchestrate your transit masterpiece! Join me at APTA to figure out the bigger picture and how to make your transit agency run as smoothly as a symphony orchestra. Learn more here

Paul Comfort is the VP, Business Development at Trapeze Group. Prior, he most recently served as CEO and GM of MTA Maryland (Baltimore’s transit agency), the 11th largest transit system in the U.S.
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