Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Primary Transit Network: Laying the Groundwork for a "Popular" Transit System in Baltimore

In July, we began discussing what it will take to broaden the appeal of public transit to a much wider market in Baltimore than currently exists, and support a network of walkable, vibrant communities. We laid out fundamental elements which, when combined, would have a transformative effect on how transit is perceived and used:

1. Creation of a Primary Transit Network
2. Effective branding and marketing of transit
3. Dedicated transit lanes and rights of way
4. Robust use of customer information tools

While we're on the subject, let's add a fifth and very important element that was omitted in the original post:

   5. creating transit-supportive land uses and development patterns around transit stops.

For this post, however, we begin to expand on and tackle each of these, one at a time, beginning with 1. Creation of a Primary Transit Network. 

Defining the Primary Transit Network

The idea of developing and applying a Primary Transit Network in Baltimore, in order to make the system more legible and user-friendly, is a new and unique proposal There has been no previous initiative to study or implement this concept in a comprehensive manner. Primary Transit Networks are common throughout Europe and are beginning to catch on in North America. So, what is a Primary Transit Network, and why is it useful? Consider the following information, which comes from the City of Minneapolis' Primary Transit Network Report, completed in 2005:


The Primary Transit Network (PTN) is a permanent network of all transit lines — regardless of mode or agency — that operates every 15 minutes or better all day for at least 18 hours every day.  The PTN can be defined based on performance criteria for five key dimensions of transit quality as follows:

Frequency.  PTN services run all day at frequencies of 15 minutes or better.  A 15-minute headway
represents the point at which a transit rider no longer needs to consult a schedule to use the service.  It also permits transfers to be made rapidly, even without the timing of transit connections.  The threshold frequency of 15 minutes is the point at which the benefits of transit tend to grow exponentially.
Span.  The PTN runs a minimum 15-minute frequency for at least 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. 
This is important because the PTN must reduce auto dependence, allowing all types of trips to be accommodated on transit, not just commuting.  The service may operate more than 18 hours a day. Reduced frequencies beyond the 18-hour span would not preclude a line from being a PTN service.   
Speed.  PTN services have an average operating speed of no less than 30% of the speed limit. This
operating speed accounts for stops.  Thus, the service transports riders more quickly than most of the conventional transit lines in Minneapolis.   It is important that transit speed not be measured relative to average auto speeds, because if the PTN is stuck in congestion, the total person-capacity of the transportation network will decline.  To increase person capacity, it is critical that average transit travel speeds approach their theoretical maximum speed.  Speed may be the most important single  factor since travelers overwhelming tend to choose the fastest means.
Reliability. Permanence and reliability are anchors of the PTN.  Actual headways between
consecutive buses will exceed scheduled headways by a coefficient of variation not to exceed 0.30. 
Users who know the schedule can expect the PTN services to operate on schedule. 
Loading.  Standing loads are acceptable, but crush loads are not. Improved frequencies may be
required to alleviate crush loads.  Appropriate equipment is used to ensure the comfort of passengers
and the efficiency of PTN services.

Characteristics of a Primary Transit Network 
Based on the operating and performance criteria defined above, a PTN is able to accomplish 
what other transportation modes cannot.  Some of the most beneficial characteristics of a PTN 
include efficiencies and other elements that make it a very attractive means for moving people 
throughout Minneapolis.  As emphasized in the Minneapolis Plan, the city’s economic and social 
vitality are reliant on a comprehensive and balanced transportation system.   At a minimum, a 
PTN should appeal to many rider groups, reduce trips made by automobile, offer highly 
productive service, and require low passenger subsidies.   

Currently, Baltimore's public transit system have a number of fixed routes that operate according to some or all of these characteristics, including the Metro Subway, Light Rail, the four MTA "QuickBus" routes and the Charm City Circulator, shown in this map below that we developed for the 20-minute neighborhood workshop.

Yet, these routes are not structured as an integrated or unified system - either operationally, physically, or how they are marketed, branded, or perceived by the general public. This represents an enormous opportunity that, so far, has simply not been leveraged.

Other cities besides Minneapolis are beginning to identify Primary Transit Networks including Calgary, Tampa, Seattle, Spokane, Portland, and Washington DC. This week, Human Transit blog describes Spokane's approach to mapping its PTN, and Greater Greater Washington recently did a post about how WMATA, the transit agency for Washington, DC has recently published their "frequent bus map".
WMATA's New Frequent Bus Map

Next time, we'll explore the 2nd tenet of creating a popular transit system, "Effective Marketing and Branding of Transit."


  1. The only major point I would add to your excellent post is that while 15 minutes is a reasonable low-end threshold headway, there are far greater benefits to more frequent headways than that. As an ultimate example, if a route had, say, a 2 minute headway, one would normally almost always see a bus coming toward a given stop, maximizing awareness and confidence for potential riders, and making reliability problems like bunching almost moot.

    The MTA and the City have worked concertedly over the years to avoid anything like this type of Primary Transit Network. They have done this by pushing for maximum transit route redundancy, allowing them to water down the service and avoid making clear decisions about the system structure and indentity. This is also an inherent part of the City's decision to start its own redundant transit system, the Charm City Circulator.

  2. A 2 minute headway would be awesome! When I was in Europe (Poland and Germany) I noticed that most of the urban transit networks had headways of 5 minutes or less. This was transportation nirvana - you didn't even bother consulting the schedule because the buses/trams came so frequently. Missing a bus wasn't a big deal when you could already see another one coming down the street, as Gerry said.

    The amazing thing was that some *intercity* heavy rail trains had headways of 15 minutes! I remember getting on a train in the wrong direction and disembarking on a tiny rural platform. Another commuter train came rattling along back in the direction I came in about 15 minutes. If this had happened on some heartland Amtrak line (i.e.- outside of the NE Corridor) I could have been stranded for days! :-D

    But wouldn't it seem that the smaller the headways, the more drivers you'd have to hire? (I.e.- more labor expenses) But then maybe these expenses could be offset by the increased ridership. I don't know what the exact correlation would be. Anyway, the system we have now definitely isn't financially sustainable - US transit systems fall into "death spirals" by cutting frequency, which cuts utility, which cuts ridership, which cuts income, which cuts frequency, and on and on till death.

  3. The big challenge is to get more folks who have lived with well functioning PTNs in other places -- where there's no need for a train or bus schedule -- to help the doubters see what's possible. Even 15-minute headways see unimaginable to most Baltimore residents and commuters. It'll take a whole lot of marketing to give voice to the pent-up demand.

  4. Gerry, I agree that a 15 minute headway scheme is not necessarily ideal for a PTN, but I see it as a starting point for Baltimore which over time can be improved upon. A 5 to 10 minute range, depending on mode and corridor is certainly where we'd like to see things for a PTN (it's already there for Metro), but as Marc alluded to, there are serious fiscal and political constraints that make that level of service difficult to achieve for most routes (at least in the current environment). I think that there is low hanging fruit to be picked in terms of marketing and branding a "15 minute or better" PTN for Baltimore RIGHT NOW, which if done right (and that's a big "if") could be a historic game changer for Baltimore's long suffering transit image. To be sure, some up front work would need to be done to integrate, optimize, and tweak the routes to make it function as a unified system (and then develop the appropriate marketing/branding to support it as Christine mentions), but the infrastructure and operations is by and large already in place.

  5. Absolutely, Stu, I agree 100%. Headways must be ridership-driven. We can't blow the budget on a bunch of empty seats where too many vehicles are employed. The system does far too much of that already, but the MTA has also been known to pack riders in like sardines on routes that should be more frequent. We just need to restructure the system to ALLOW headways to become as frequent as possible, instead of all these watered-down routes. We need Marc's vicious "death spiral" to work the other way - more riders leading to more service to more riders to...

    And since you mention fiscal constraints - Baltimore City is in no fiscal position to give the Charm City Circulator the kind of resources required to be that kind of system. Their proposed new Fort McHenry route would have far more potential as a restructuring / rebranding of the MTA #1 bus line than as a redundant apartheid service for tourists.

  6. Too bad the tunnel portals for the Red Line would be too far west and east to thread Quickbus routes into.

  7. I'm definiltey puzzled why the 3 and 8 are not displayed on the Baltimore map, along with some others in other neighborhoods that I'm sure I'm missing (those are my two main routes). The honest truth is that the 4x "Quckbus" routes are not particularly distince. They're not BRT by any means, just buses that skip stops, and they're often not that much faster than the local bus routes they parallel -- I just took the 8 southbound today and a 48 bus remained within a block of it for several miles.

    I definitely agree that Baltimore needs its transit knit together by better wayfinding and fare unions, but by leaving off high-frequency, heavily-used buses on prominent corridors you're doing a disservice to transit riders.

  8. The 3 and 8 are local bus routes that make very frequent stops and not designed to function like Quickbus or rapid/select services. While your point is well taken that the Quickbuses are often not that much quicker than the locals, they really should and could be if the service was designed better. In addition, I did not put this map together to be tool for transit riders, but more for policy and planning folks to help demonstrate a concept that was completely foreign to most locals in 2011 when we first introduced these ideas. I do think MTA should put together a frequent service map for patrons as part of a service rebranding initiative, but that would be predicated on the notion that they are willing to reinvent their service.

  9. Service on the 8 really needs improvement. If you wait in Towson during the morning or evening rush hours or on Sunday going northbound to Lutherville you will have a significant wait,much longer than 15 minutes.


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