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Charlie Amiot lives about 15 minutes away from work by car, but it takes her about three times as long to get home. The journey to her destination should be swift, smooth and sensible — and yet, it’s a regular headache.
A law librarian at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Amiot lives just outside the Morgan State University campus in Northeast Baltimore. She and her wife share one car, and Amiot, who works closer to home, often opts for the bus.
The couple moved to Baltimore last March, and Amiot has tried, and failed, to acclimate to the local bus system ever since. She assumed Baltimore would have a robust public transportation network for those without cars. Now she looks back on that assumption with chagrin.
“I love riding a bus; there are just no good routes, and no direct routes, for me,” Amiot said. “I’ve had a hard time.”
Baltimore’s bus system — and its broader, regional public transportation network — has for years come under fire for its lack of efficiency, accessibility and reliability. And data from University of Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins University show Baltimore’s transit system has become even more inequitable in the last decade, especially for people who live in the eastern and western cores, Park Heights and south of the Middle Branch of the Patapsco.
In a guest piece last week for The Banner, newly installed Gov. Wes Moore specifically mentioned Maryland Transit Administration bus service as a key piece of state infrastructure in need of rebuilding, calling it “chronically unreliable.”
An analysis of city mobility and connectivity by researchers at the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute found that over the 2010 to 2020 period, a majority of city communities saw increases in the percentage of employed residents with public transit commutes longer than 45 minutes.
The researchers also found that a majority of communities saw decreases in the percentage of households without private cars, which might indicate less inclination among city residents to use public transit altogether.
State transit officials said in a statement that the agency aims to provide a “safe, frequent and reliable” bus service but is challenged by a labor shortfall and a “dramatic” increase in the rate of staff retirements. The agency is developing a new collective bargaining agreement with its union partners and implementing a new ratified contract aimed at increasing wages and benefits, according to the statement.
The statement also said buses operate on streets maintained by local jurisdictions; in other words, reroutes and diversions can happen for reasons out of their control. The agency is working to improve communication with riders, upgrade its fleet and increase service reliability, the administration said.
For some riders, change can’t come soon enough.
On a chilly night in January, a little after 6 p.m., Amiot raced from her office to catch the route 51 bus outside Baltimore Penn Station. As she approached the stop, an app on her phone alerted her of a delay.
Once aboard, Amiot realized the bus’s destination board was out of service; without that or a physical map, Amiot, who is neurodivergent, has trouble knowing where on the route she is.
Luckily, Amiot pays a $25 fee for the premium version of the city’s transit app. She opened her cellphone to track her whereabouts; the streets are dark, making it difficult to follow the route without the phone. And even the premium app doesn’t always account for the rerouting of buses for traffic, construction or road repair work. Amiot’s route, for example, has previously veered so far off course to avoid construction that she’s ended up in unfamiliar neighborhoods nowhere near home.
The remainder of the ride, Amiot is glued to her phone screen, tracking her movement on Google Maps, which she finds more reliable than the transit app she pays to use. She would rather be catching up on reading for her master’s degree courses, but she’s scared of getting stranded again.
The bus drops Amiot off near Loyola University Maryland, where she now must wait for the second bus ― delayed, again — to shuttle her the rest of the way home. She waits alone — without a covered bus shelter, on a poorly lit sidewalk — until another rider joins her in the darkness.
Transit advocates say riders’ problems may have a better chance of resolution over the next four years under the Moore administration, which on its first full day in office proposed budgeting a chunk of state surplus dollars — $500 million — to fund transportation projects.
The money is welcomed, said Jed Weeks, interim executive director of Bikemore, a nonprofit advocacy group in Baltimore. But transit improvements also will require strong leadership, strategic planning and a focus on equity to have real impact.
Weeks said the local bus no longer suits his needs, either. “It’s not a great system right now, and if you’re trying to get to work on time, get home quickly, pick up your kid — it can be a nightmare.”
He faulted state leaders’ lack of “political will” over the last eight years to champion significant reform, particularly the previous Republican administration.
Weeks now is pushing for state legislation to study creating a regional transit authority to give more stakeholders a voice in public transportation matters, according to a nonpartisan outline of the bill.
“From a city standpoint, we don’t control our transit system; MTA [the Maryland Transit Administration] is a state agency,” said Weeks. “We have a deferred maintenance problem, few employees per capita and overall, we have significant hiring challenges because we [the state] pay worse than most peer systems. As a result, we’re understaffed, underfunded and under-resourced.”
Moore’s budget could “potentially” help move the state’s transit needs forward, Weeks said, especially if it’s combined with federal match dollars that could help pay for upgrades to bus routes or new equipment. States are now competing for funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the roughly $1 trillion White House-backed funding initiative that pledges investment in transit, climate and safe drinking water, among other needs.
“There’s a lot more money available, and it’s competitive, and a factor of that is having a local match,” said Brian O’Malley, president and CEO at the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. “Having a surplus to make local match funds available was smart, and we also have such good projects.”
O’Malley said he hopes to see more covered bus shelters and more bus stops comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a priority he thinks could be buoyed with help from the influx of city COVID-19 relief aid, of which only a fraction remains uncommitted. But those priorities also must be weighed against ongoing labor shortages, equipment breakdowns and too few bus routes.
Despite its problems, Baltimore’s bus system remains a vital resource for those who use it, O’Malley said. “But unfortunately, we’re losing population and ridership, and we need to reverse the trend.”
Around 7 p.m. that January night, Amiot stepped off the final bus and braced for the last leg of the trip — the cold walk home from the bus stop. By the time she makes it to her door, Amiot has spent almost a full hour commuting.