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January 18, 2011

MTA rider has bus service blues

Baltimore resident Eric Stull is a hard-working guy with two jobs and a rough commute from Northeast Baltimore to Timonium via two bus routes. But lately the Maryland Transit Administration hasn't been making it any easier. Here's his story:

  1.  I thought I’d give you an account of my experience riding MTA buses in Baltimore in recent days.  I live in northeast Baltimore, near the intersection of Old Harford Road and Northern Parkway, which is where I get off and on the #55 bus.  From the #55, I connect at the Towson Town Center to the #8 bus, which takes me to or from the Lutherville Station, where I walk to or from my work in Timonium.  The length of the journey is eight miles, and on most days, I do this only one-way, usually homeward in the evening, catching a ride to work with my wife in the morning.  When I commuted regularly by bicycle to work, as I have often done over the last four years for many months at a time, most recently from last April until the middle of November, at which point I had to stop because of cycling-induced pain, pedaling took forty-five or fifty minutes on average.  After first attempting to read the schedules and plot my own course, I started using the MTA website’s Trip Planner to plan my bus-riding time most efficiently.  Both before and since beginning to use the Trip Planner, my journey routinely takes an hour and a half or more.  The chief reason for this seems to be that some scheduled buses simply do not come.  

Last week, on Wednesday the 5th, I left work a few minutes after 5PM to walk to Lutherville Station to catch the 5:26 #8 bus, so as to make the transfer to the #55 at 5:42.  The #55 was thence to set me down at Northern Parkway and Old Harford Road at 6:08.  A few minutes later, as I imagined, I would be joining my wife and four boys, who had prepared a birthday dinner for me.  Following this schedule was one of the options the Trip Planner had recommended when I put in my information.  I arrived a few minutes beforehand, caught the #8, made it to the transfer point a few minutes ahead, watched expectantly as a #55 arrived a couple of minutes later – only to go immediately out of service.  By the time I actually got on a #55 more than forty-five minutes later at 6:26, I had seen three or four #48’s stop in front of me, two or three #11’s, and at least two #19’s.  I asked the drivers of the #11’s if they were about to run the #55 route, which sometimes happens, since the Town Center is their switch-point, but neither was about to change from the #11 route.  The clock was about to strike 7 when I arrived home that evening. 
Two nights ago, on Tuesday the 11th, the 6:16 arrived at the Town Center sometime well after 6:30, which meant that, having left work at about 5:30, I arrived home at 7.  Last night, Wednesday the 12th, both buses were on-time: I caught the 6:54 #8, made the transfer to the 7:07 #55 (not the #48 which would shortly turn into the #55, as the Trip Planner advised),  got off the bus at 7:30, and walked home.  This was the best of my last four rides: one hour from door to door.  This morning, fresh off last night’s success, I attempted to take the bus to work, because my wife had to take two of our boys to an appointment at 8:45.  I checked the Trip Planner, picked the 8:49 #55, which would get me to the #8 in time to make it to Lutherville by 9:30.  So, I walked to the stop at 8:45, then waited until 9:15 without seeing a single westbound bus (and only one eastbound) on Northern Parkway.  At this point, likely to be horribly late for work if I waited much longer, I decided to walk to the office on Harford Road where I expected my wife still to be.  On the way there, I decided to call the MTA to complain, as I had done last Friday to complain of last Wednesday’s fiasco.  As I finished giving an earful to a nice lady on the other end, my wife walked out of the building with our sons and drove me to work, where I arrived at 10, about a half-hour later than I had hoped. 
Fortunately, I do good work and have an understanding boss, but like many people with families, I have to work two jobs to support mine (rather meagerly); like other people who stake a claim on at least nominal sanity, I value my free time.  Does the MTA value it?  Does it care if I get to work, for that matter?  I have gotten on nearly all the buses I have taken these two months during or just after what most people would call rush hour, i.e., between 8 and 9:30 in the morning and 5 and 6:30 in the evening.  If the MTA doesn’t care about ordinary people’s work or free time, I can’t imagine why it operates a bus system.

So what about it, MTA? What's the problem wiith the No. 55 bus?


Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:18 PM | | Comments (12)
Categories: MTA bus system


It's more than the #55. The #27 has been an atrocity recently, and I've also waited through no-shows on the #8 and #36.

There's either a bus, driver, or funding shortage. They have to be cutting runs. It's the only way to explain constant no-shows.

MTA has been very nice to me when I (frequently) complain, but nothing's changing.

Last month my monthly pass wasn't worth the money invested in it.

Could it be that the #48 quick bus might be causing some issues with the number of #55 buses that are available? The #48 starts its last trip at 6:45 downtown. The MTA might be holding out until some of those #48's change over to the #55.

I personally think the two permanent quick bus routes (#40 and #48) should run until 11 p.m. I take the #40 to Oriole games but the games usually last just late enough so that I am unable to take it back home. This means I need a friend to drop me off.

"It's more than the #55. The #27 has been an atrocity recently, and I've also waited through no-shows on the #8 and #36.

There's either a bus, driver, or funding shortage. They have to be cutting runs. It's the only way to explain constant no-shows."

According to a number of postings found at a web forum frequented by MTA employees there is indeed a shortage of both drivers and funding. In particular, the MTA has had to cutback on overtime.

I think this is unacceptable. I recognize that the MTA cannot do much about its funding situation, but it should at least implement service cuts so that riders are not left left waiting an hour for a bus that never comes. We all know that if this were the MARC train such an inordinate number of no-shows would not be tolerated. An investigation as to what is going on would be a good idea for a news story.

No, I don't believe the MTA cares that some of its riders need to get to work at a certain time. The few times I've been forced to ride it, I've been left waiting at bus stops for an hour or more.

There's a printed schedule for a reason. If the MTA doesn't care to follow that schedule, they need to revise it.

Sean - I'm all for the #48 running later, but just take the #8 home from O's games. It's slower, but not so bad that late in the evening.

On the subject of the bus service, I've waited around an hour for the #1 bus twice in the last two weeks. I ride at peak time (when there are supposedly 15 minutes headways) and get on at First Mariner Area so it's incredibly frustrating watching multiple other buses go by several times while I'm waiting.

I am Eric Stull's wife. In addition to the usual thoughts about how long we have to wait for Dad to get home for dinner, I have been curious to know why most of MTA ridership puts up with this without a complaint. Is it the difference in class and/or enfranchisment?

As a family that has other transportation options if absolutely necessary, we are lucky not to have to rely on MTA to get to, and keep, a job. My husband waits at the bus with senior citizens and mothers with young children. How long do other riders wait on a regular basis? How much feedback is there from the ridership that absolutely depends on the bus? Has it been better in the past, and just changing now?

Who else needs the bus, just to survive, and what are their rides like? These are questions I would like to have answered, Mr. Dresser. Perhaps other readers of the Sun are cruious, as well.

In response to the blog from Mr. Eric Stull, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) is researching his specific complaints regarding service on the No. 55 line on January 5, 11 and 13. Our records show there were no buses cut, or pulled from service, that could have affected the hours of service he rode between Northern Parkway and Old Harford Road and the Towson Town Center. The impacts of rush hour on a major cross town bus can often cause delays in the schedule. The MTA does its best to put together realistic schedules, however breakdowns and traffic may create delays, whereby an accident in Middle River may result in service delays in Towson.

The MTA cares about its passengers and will continue to work to create realistic schedules, although we can never guarantee every bus will run as scheduled. For the No. 55 line, next week our coordinators will observe the operation of this line and report any problems to our Service Quality Department. With this information we will be able to determine if the schedule needs to be adjusted either between stops or during specific time frames.

We appreciate the constructive comments from riders as Mr. Stull, as this allows us the opportunity to target specific lines that the riding public observes as needing adjustments. We hope Mr. Stull will see service improvements in the near future.

It's reassuring to see Elaine Jones's comments. I am an occasional MTA bus rider; I take the #11 to work. Sometimes it's reliable, sometimes not.
My understanding is that some European bus lines have GPS systems, and notify the users in real time of bus wait times either via signs or online (see for example Obviously the MTA can't implement this next week or maybe even next year, but it would be a great long-term project which would add considerable value to bus lines.

Do not believe what Ms Jones writes as to what happened with the 55 bus. I have called MTA on several instances when I waited through two sequential no-shows of buses or light rail only to be written back and told that must be imagining it. I am not a newbie who doesnt understand how the buses or light rail work either. The MTA will blatently lie to you to get you off the phone or cover their own butts. I called MTA tuesday evening to complain about a no show 61 bus and find out what was happening and was told repeatedly that it wasnt even late because they suspend the 20 min late categorization in cases of extreme weather. I asked them to double check and see if something else might be going on and they insisted that everything was late because of the weather. When I pointed out that there were no more iced over roads as the days rain and higher temps melted it all, the MTA customer rep got rather upset and accused me of lieing. I asked to speak to a manager and 45 min later got it confirmed that they actually had pulled the 61 bus to use on the brunswick and camden bus bridges (which never ended up happening).
You just cant trust their explanations.

I track the #19 line from Harford and Northern to downtown and it's scheduling as well is a mess. As for the #55, if you can jump on a #19 from it (if it goes out of service again), take that to your destination. The biggest problem with the #55 is that it only runs every hour after the evening rush. I once waited from and hour and a half in late evening at Franklin Square Hospital hoping to catch the #55 but it broke down so had to wait the extra hour for the next one, the last one to run for the evening.

I am caught between thanking Ms. Jones for her well-meaning promise and calling her response the boilerplate PR that it is. The likelihood that delays caused all three of those long waits on different days when roads were in good condition is minimal. I am less interested in what the MTA's records show than in whether what the records show is true. She has all the access to the records, and we the public have none, except (in my case) the record lodged in my memory of the half-frozen fingers with which I typed the second message to Mr. Dresser the night of the last long wait when I received his reply offering to run my e-mail on the blog; of the double layer of gloves covering those fingers; of the elderly woman sitting next to me at the stop, singing all the while, no doubt to keep her mind off her misery; of the young man with her who wore a hooded sweatshirt for a coat. The MTA is not responsible for clothing the population of our city, but I believe it is obliged by its own published schedules to operate a bus system that keeps even inadequately dressed persons from shivering for forty-five minutes routinely during the evening rush. Ms. Jones calls the #55 "a major cross town bus." One wonders how "a major cross town bus" can run so seldom during rush hour. Ms. Jones says that the MTA is looking into my complaint. I hope it is. I'm surprised that it has taken this long for it to do so, since I was promised a reply after I made the first of my two recent complaints two weeks ago and have yet to receive a reply to that one or the second one. But I shouldn't be surprised, I guess: in the last five and a half years, I have made four complaints to the MTA; I was promised a reply in each case and received a reply in one. So, in making return calls, the MTA is batting .250, an average that in my experience roughly correlaties with its buses' on-time reliability. I guess I have to go on Mike Dresser's blog to get minimal courtesy from the state's transportation system. No, the problem with the #55, and probably with the system in general, must be structural rather than accidental.

The problem is that the drivers have no incentive to keep schedule. They have golden ticket jobs. They can't be removed.

Some couldn't care less. If anyone at the Sun rode buses, I think it could shed some more light on this fact.

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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