The MTA finally gets its maps right - now let's talk about those buses ...

August 23, 2008|By Jacques Kelly

I was caught off guard, pleasantly, on a recent visit to the Maryland Transit Administration's downtown office.

I picked up a new bus schedule for a line that serves my home. The new schedule was easier to read than the old one and contained a logical, much improved map. It also clearly listed the neighborhoods served. This is probably the best schedule, in terms of information presented, I've seen in 50 years of dealing with these folded paper rectangles.

There's also a new, free fold-out map of the Maryland system, including commuter trains. This is also a revelation, one of the most helpful system maps I've inspected. It's the right size, not too big, and it's loaded with well-designed graphic information. Again, it did a very good job of explaining city bus routes - and Baltimore itself.

I've complained often about the condition of transit service in Baltimore as I watched it deteriorate over the past three decades. I'll hope the maps and schedule are steps in a new, improved direction. But when I used the schedule to attempt to depart from the Towson Courthouse stop a few weeks ago, the bus never arrived. I wound up hailing a cab.

I can't say that I've seen much citizen complaint about this situation. Baltimoreans seem pretty much to like their cars. That said, I enjoy observing as transit patronage picks up this year, presumably because of gas prices and parking fees.

Perhaps more encouraging than the new map have been some new riders on the buses I often take. When you catch a bus with frequency, you see who's on it and how many seats are vacant or occupied. In the past six months, the state transit planners have been tinkering with routes and service times on the lines I use. I've been noticing younger riders take the bus to downtown and Harbor East jobs.

In an allied public transportation field, I've noticed that Amtrak is selling trips on some of its Northeast trains under the name of regional "R" service. I found out it's possible to go to New York and back from Baltimore for $99, Saturdays only, when you buy three days in advance. We ought to have more of this as an alternative to driving.

I mention this because the state's commuter trains operate on Amtrak (and CSX) rails and constitute a huge part of train travel in Maryland. I'd like to see Maryland transit officials think more about running our state's trains through to Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia for additional regional service.

Amtrak's fares between Baltimore and other cities are often expensive. I paid $48 for a round-trip to Washington and $234 to New York this summer on Amtrak regional trains. All the trains I rode were at full capacity, suggesting high demand.

The reduced-price Saturday service seems like a good way for the railroad to fight the cut-price, New York-bound buses that now operate from Charles and 20th streets, as well as other city and suburban locations. Let's hear it for competition.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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Find Jacques Kelly's previous columns at baltimoresun.com/kelly

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