Fall service changes from the Maryland Transit Administration went into effect recently, adjusting certain bus routes. Most notable was the addition of QuickLink 40 — a tweaked and rebranded version of the old QuickBus 40 — that connects Westgate and Essex through downtown.
With plans for the Red Line — a future east-west transit line that Gov. Wes Moore officially resurrected in June — still unknown and years away, the express bus line will serve as the crosstown answer for the time being.
“With more buses making fewer stops, QuickLink 40 is expected to eliminate about 25 minutes of travel time for riders who currently use the CityLink Blue and Orange lines,” the MTA said in an Aug 16 news release about the service changes. The Blue and Orange lines, in combination, serve more or less the same route but make more stops.
As The Banner’s new transportation reporter, I decided to put that claim to the test. It had me waiting on Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore on a recent Monday morning, ready to write down timestamps and compare notes from the previous Friday morning, when I rode the same distance on the Blue and Orange lines.
Here’s what I found:
Aug 25 — Blue to Orange
I arrived at the bus stop where Cooks Lane intersects with Briarclift Road at 11:14 am. The handy Transit mobile app said a CityLink Blue bus would be zooming by in five minutes, and at 11:18 I stepped on board.
Farther out from the city center, it moved fast and wasn’t crowded. I plopped down, even made a friend with a fellow photographer who noticed the Sony strapped around my neck and shares the same first name. Riding the Blue was fun!
Until we got off the “Highway to Nowhere,” the short stretch of U.S. 40 built in the 1970s that was to connect two interstate highways but mostly just tore a community apart, and into downtown. Easy midday traffic can’t speed you through red lights. We rolled by Lexington Market at 11:39, and I stepped off just over President Street at 11:49 — I could see a CityLink Orange coming on the Transit app, so it seemed as good a spot as any to make the transfer.
A bus load of passengers greeted me on the CityLink Orange at 11:55 — enough to keep me standing. But it was a bus load of what makes Baltimore great — Hopkins employees mixing with old ladies running errands, and small talk with a dad taking his recently graduated daughter across town for a movie matinee while I eavesdrop on a conversation in Spanish (lo siento).
At 12:42, I stepped off at Old Eastern Avenue and Essex Boulevard, clocking my final travel time at one hour and 28 minutes from when I started my wait on Cooks Lane.
I walked down the street to a nearby restaurant, then waited for another City Link Orange going the other way — the next bus would be … the same bus that took me out there! I checked Google Maps, and found the drive around Interstate 695 would be 36 minutes (or 30 minutes with tolls).
Covering roughly 16 miles in an hour and 28 minutes (including stop wait times), that puts the average speed of the combined Blue-Orange ride at 10.9 (call it 11) mph. The two bus lines made a a total of 60 stops while I was on board.
Aug 28 — QuickLink 40
I arrived at the intersection of Edmondson and North Bend by 8:30 a.m., 10 minutes before a scheduled departure. But the quick bus wasn’t off to a quick start — the 8:40 was canceled (and so was the 9:30), which left me waiting half an hour for the 9 a.m. bus.
I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place at first — there was a more official-looking bus stop down the block, but the Transit app’s blinking dot said I was there. I was hoping for a bus shelter, or even just a bench, but all I got was an ornamental stone structure lining the entrance to a driveway next to the stop. The menacing message of the jagged rocks to my backside was Don’t sit here.
When the 9 a.m. bus showed up, I took the opportunity to ask the driver a couple of burning questions, including why she thought I was the only one waiting that morning.
“Nobody knows about it yet,” she said.
And it was apparent. As we rolled east on Edmondson (riding over the bike lane, I might add) and along Route 40, more people saw the bus, put one foot in the door and asked the driver what it was and where it was going, and then ultimately stepped off, than actually got on the bus. Each stop brought a similar song and dance — I even stepped in to interpret for two separate Spanish speakers that got on board as the driver tried to ensure she could take them where they wanted to go. One stayed on, the other not.
“MTA has not done a very good job of telling the public about the new service, and that’s troubling,” said Danielle Sweeney, an organizer with the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. She also took the new express bus this past week, hoping to see QuickLink maps, signage or other information sources at some of the busier stops to get the word out. She didn’t.
“The agency [MTA] will continue to promote the QuickLink 40 on social media and through our e-alert system,” an MTA spokesperson wrote in an email Friday, adding that the agency has printed physical route brochures it plans to hand to riders on buses.
“People need to know where it stops and where it doesn’t stop — otherwise its useless and people are afraid to get on,” she said.
It didn’t stop James Bell, 74, who struck up a conversation from the seat behind me while we headed east on Route 150 by Eastpoint Mall. He used to ride the old No. 40 bus before it got phased out in the 2017 restructuring of bus routes. CityLink Orange has been his main ride ever since.
“I just get up extra early to get where I’m going,” said Bell.
It was Bell’s first time on the QuickLink 40 after he took the CityLink Orange into downtown that morning. He was pleased to see it moving faster than the Orange line.
I made sure to ask Bell if he was following developments with the future Red Line, to which he responded, “It’s almost something like the light rail?” I told him that MTA was still studying what the best mode of transportation would be for it, rapid bus with dedicated lanes or light rail.
“It would be faster if they make it a light rail. I do go up there to Timonium and Hunt Valley, and it is faster,” Bell said, referring to the city’s north-south light rail line.
When we made the final stop right by Old Eastern Avenue, Bell seemed a bit confused. The old No. 40 bus, he said, stopped closer to his Essex home, and he was hoping the QuickLink 40 would take him there, too. Instead, he was left waiting for his new normal transfer, the No. 62 or the No. 59. The Transit app showed a half-hour wait for one, and a roughly 50-minute wait for the other.
He wasn’t the only one confused about the stops. My driver on the return leg going back toward downtown wasn’t sure where he was supposed to be stopping. He had a paper printout of the stops, but only for the eastbound leg. And he said that some of the stops had been changed around since he trained on the route.
In an emailed statement Friday, the MTA rebutted that, saying that no stops have been changed since the QuickLink 40 was announced in June.
Sweeney thinks it’s a shame that more people don’t know about the new express bus because it is pretty quick. “I thought it made good time on my trip,” said Sweeney, who took the bus from Charles Center in downtown out to Bayview. “It’s a good service that will save riders time.”
Compared to the one-two Orange-Blue crosstown punch, QuickLink 40 was saving me some time, too. From my 9:03 start on Edmondson, I made it to the West Baltimore MARC station in just 15 minutes, rolled into Charles Center in another 14, and arrived at Bayview 20 minutes after that. Buses are only as fast as the traffic around them, of course, and I admittedly waited out the worst of rush hour to make my run both mornings. At 10:06, I stepped off in Essex, clocking my total on-board time at one hour and three minutes — exactly 25 minutes quicker than my Blue-Orange excursion.
That, however, is not counting the 30-minute morning wait that resulted from the canceled 8:40 bus. Should that count? I’ll let you be the judge.
Benefit of the doubt granted, the one-hour, three-minute trip covering roughly 16 miles with 21 stops averaged just over 15 mph.
So is the new express bus faster? Yes.
Will it have a substantial, lasting impact on east-west commuters and make their lives easier? The transit-dependent among us may have a familiar response — let’s wait and see.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.