Shortly before an abrupt two-week shutdown for safety reasons, the Baltimore region’s light rail service experienced something novel — the single largest month-to-month jump in ridership since 2019.

But it wasn’t because droves of people suddenly decided to hop on board last November. The Maryland Transit Administration had just changed how it counted ridership on the single north-south line starting that month, believing the previous method led to significant undercounting.

Based on the new approach, the MTA says more than 413,000 rides were recorded in November, up from 300,000 in October. The figures are posted on a new customer experience dashboard that debuted Thursday. The new data reporting platform — which tracks on-time performance, ridership levels and new data metrics not previously reported publicly — will replace the MTA’s performance improvement page.

“I’ve been pushing on every level to increase our transparency because it helps to build trust with our riders,” MTA Administrator Holly Arnold told The Baltimore Banner. “It also helps us to have a better conversation and not hide behind terms.”

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MTA Administrator Holly Arnold speaks to a crowd gathered at the opening of a newly constructed train platform at Penn Station on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

The MTA began sharing ridership and on-time performance metrics before the pandemic, partly in response to a push from local transit advocates for more transparency. The agency became more organized in collecting data after changes to Baltimore’s bus routes seven years ago — the genesis of the BaltimoreLink branding — were ushered in under former Gov. Larry Hogan.

The now “old” performance improvement page will still be available online but will not be updated, Arnold explained.

“This many years later, we feel like we’re in a much better spot to mature our approach to the data,” Arnold said, adding that better data transparency is part of an effort to improve rider experience. “We’re still not there yet, but this is the beginning of more of a directed approach toward customer experience.”

Light rail wasn’t the only mode of travel that went underreported, Arnold said.

Between November 2022 and October 2023, Baltimore’s Metro subway system never reached 200,000 riders a month, dipping as low as 58,000 in July amid a multiday shutdown. Then, last November, it logged almost 378,000 rides.

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The agency had relied on automated counters attached to subway fare gates that had gotten faulty with age. Now, her team sends experts out to stations at certain times to do manual counts and use data modeling to extrapolate overall ridership. Arnold said the manual counting measure, which started in November, is an industry standard.

Though they’re confident in the accuracy of manual counts for the subway, they are nixing the practice for the light rail.

The MTA had relied on manual counting that included the number of daily tickets purchased at station kiosks. Lax ticket enforcement on the light rail has been an open secret for years, leading some to assume that many riders jump on board without paying and thus go uncounted.

The doors of light rail cars are now being outfitted with automated passenger counters — the same way that the agency counts ridership on its buses — as part of the overdue midlife overhaul of its rail cars. Problems associated with the rehabilitation project being led by multinational rail company Alstom, which surfaced after a fire broke out on a refurbished rail car, caused the recent two-week shutdown of the system in December.

Measuring service delivery

Canceled or no-show buses — which Arnold and other officials have largely attributed to operator shortages — have left transit riders waiting at stops longer than anticipated for years. A grayed-out line on Transit — the bus- and train-tracking mobile application — could mean a missed medical appointment or a student arriving to school late.

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The 8:40 and 9:30 QuickLink 40 buses were canceled on the morning of Aug. 28, 2023, according to the Transit mobile app. (Daniel Zawodny/The Baltimore Banner)

The MTA had not previously reported publicly what percentage of scheduled buses and trains actually run. The Service Delivery section on the new dashboard changes that; users can toggle between each MTA transit mode, including all Baltimore-area bus routes, to see how many had been canceled.

The new data dashboard also includes job vacancy rates at the MTA and the accuracy of the Transit mobile application at tracking MTA vehicles — both firsts.

Between December 2022 and December 2023, the MTA canceled 8.3% of scheduled bus routes in the Baltimore area, according to the new dashboard. Major CityLink bus lines — the routes denoted with colors instead of numbers — fared worse, with cancelation rates typically between 10% and 15% through the same timeframe.

Service delivery has long been a sticking point for local advocates, who say that Baltimore transit does not run frequently enough to be considered reliable. In November, three organizations, including Strong Towns Baltimore and the Labor Network for Sustainability, launched their #BetterTransitNOW campaign calling for more frequent service and increased accountability from the MTA.

MTA shuttle buses line up at Camden Yards to transport Ravens fans to a game during a two-week light rail shutdown in December 2023. (John-John Williams IV)

“Greater Baltimore residents who rely on transit are frequently left behind while prospective riders are discouraged from using a system they know is not reliable,” the campaign announcement reads.

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Data reporting has been a point of friction between the MTA and advocates, as well. The ARIES for Transit page, which contends that on-time performance is worse than what MTA has been reporting, helped inform the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance’s D+ reliability grade for the MTA on its most recent transportation report card.

ARIES uses public-facing GPS data emitted by transit vehicles to collect performance data for multiple regional transit agencies, including the MTA and the District of Columbia’s Metro system. The data feed is the same one used by the Transit mobile application, provided by a third party, that the MTA recommends riders use to track when their bus will arrive.

Buses and trains that are canceled are not factored into the MTA’s on-time performance calculation reports. While Arnold said this methodology is the industry standard and helps officials better compare the MTA’s service and performance with those of other transit agencies, advocates argue that a canceled route should count against an on-time record.

Arnold said that her agency has more data than is publicly available through the feed used by the Transit app and ARIES. Circumstances such as faulty GPS trackers not emitting a signal further complicate their accuracy, she said.

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues. 

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