Baltimore’s New No-Frills Bus System Is Public Transport at Its Best


EspañolMass transit options vary wildly across US cities. Some rely heavily on rail lines, like subways or commuter service to suburbs, or light-rail lines, which run along the ground. Some employ ferries to move people across bays and rivers, and others might even use more exotic forms of transit, like inclined planes and monorails.

Yet in nearly every city, the most important form of transit for many riders is the public bus. Research makes clear that buses are both widely used and unpopular among riders, especially among middle-class citizens with the financial capability of trading the bus for a car. But we also know that, of all mass transit options, buses are the most flexible and cost-effective way to move people around cities.

For transit planners, then, the key is to make bus services both efficient and appealing.

Not long ago, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced plans to dramatically recreate the transit system in Baltimore, the state’s largest city. Baltimore is a troubled city, to say the least. Last year, violent riots erupted during protests against police violence, and a large portion of the city’s residents are poor.

Getting transit right matters to these citizens, who often cannot afford to own cars. Still, Governor Hogan decided that the state would not build the much anticipated Red Line light-rail project, due to its high cost.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan took a bold step in moving away from a flashy rail-line project and opting for a far cheaper, much more efficient bus system.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan took a bold step in moving away from a flashy rail-line project and opting for a far cheaper, much more efficient bus system. (Maryland Transit Administration)

Instead, Maryland will introduce a US$135 million plan that is far cheaper than the previous scheme and will provide better services to a wider swath of the city.

More importantly, the new plan sticks far closer to the principles of sound transit economics, which dictate that cities should choose the lowest-cost option which provides the best service for the most people. This cost-benefit analysis is not typical of transit lines, which are often built not according to the plans of transit planners, but rather as a result of lobbying by powerful local groups.

Traditionally, politically motivated interest groups pressure governments to finance the transport services that benefit them, regardless of the interests of the public at large. These interest groups often prefer higher costs and a higher quality of service for some over a cheaper, less sophisticated service for a broader cross section of the city.

This is why cities build expensive streetcars instead of strengthening the bus service they already have, making it more robust and efficient.

The new Baltimore plan avoids these mistakes. Instead of a new rail line, it expands bus service in nine high-frequency corridors, many of which will run in dedicated bus lanes in downtown Baltimore. The city will also use technology to make the buses more reliable.

Moreover, the plan will link bus routes to major suburbs with job centers, and the buses will run all day on reasonable frequencies. Beyond this, Baltimore will emulate Houston in completely redesigning its standard bus service.

All told, the redesign should make it easier for ordinary people to plan their lives around transit use. If the state is to subsidize mass transit, as is the case in almost every city of notable size in the United States, then the transit should be planned for those with no other options. Mass transit should connect the most frequented destinations with centers of employment and high-density residences.

The system should be reliable, so that people can arrive at their work at any time, not just during the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule which suits most office workers. Above all, people should not be in fear of losing their job if a single bus fails to show up on time.

Mass transit should have few, if any frills. Rail lines may make urban planners jump for joy, but when building a single light-rail line costs over 21 times the cost of a totally rebuilt bus system, they need to reassess their priorities. The key is for planners not to design systems that they want to ride, but systems that people who have no other option actually will ride.

This is where the Baltimore plan excels. It is not transit designed for planners. It’s designed for the minimum-wage worker with a job across the city, or for people trekking to jobs in distant suburbs. And that’s where this plan succeeds, especially when compared to the alternative.

Bus-based transit may not be flashy, but it works, and working people in Baltimore will benefit the most from the new system. In the future, I hope other cities will look to Baltimore as a model for sound mass transit policy. They’d be better for it.

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