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Q and A: Jessica Keller, Director of Service Development, MTA

Jessica Keller, Director of Service Development at MTA, took time out of her busy schedule to respond to some questions about living car free and bus service in Baltimore.  And here is a special treat; a Google Earth KML file of every transit route in the city! (some routes may be somewhat outdated, so go to mta.maryland.gov to double check).

Also, a quick bus related link from The Transport Politic discussing the most efficient bus rapid transit alignments – Alternative Alignments for Corridor Cities Transitway and Reaching Town Centers

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How long have you been living without a car? What has the experience been like?

I have been car free for nearly three years and quite happy living without it. I walk or take the bus everywhere – I used to have a bike but it was stolen a year and a half ago. I don’t miss my SUV but I miss my bike dearly, especially during rush hour on Pratt Street. Living without a car was trouble-free until 4 months ago when I gave birth to my son. The amount of planning I must do in advance of leaving the house has increased exponentially. I will have to write a follow-up on being car-free with kids later.

I am fortunate that I do not punch a clock; I don’t know how people who do manage keeping a job. I have a bus transfer in my commute so it is very unpredictable. I live 3.5 miles away from my office and sometimes it can take an hour and a half to get to work. This is why I miss my bike.

As Director of Service Development at MTA, what are some of the things you most want to improve about MTA’s bus service?

I think the title is a little misleading, let me tell you about my office (as copied from the MTA’s web site):

The Office of Service Development develops routes and schedules for MTA’s local bus service.

Baltimore’s strong local bus ridership translates into heavy loads that fluctuate throughout the day. We develop schedules to meet this demand, making sure that there are enough buses to connect passengers to their destinations throughout the service area, as well as to other MTA modes.

We also monitor the performance of local bus service by:

· Modifying routes to serve new trip generators, such as retail locations, schools, and community centers.

· Updating bus destination signs and on-board announcement systems.

· Determining bus stop placement.

· Conducting ridership collection and analysis for federally required reports

I have little influence over the day-to-day service, if I did, it wouldn’t take me an hour and a half to get to work. I am obviously dedicated to alternative transportation – I don’t HAVE to take the bus. This leads to what I would like to see happen with the system. I want to increase ridership. The only way to do that, in my mind, is to appeal to choice riders like myself. The general perception is that public transportation is a welfare program and I can understand that perception, after all, it is subsidized. But isn’t the money used to build new roads subsidizing car drivers as well?

So back to my point about appealing to the choice rider – if we get the choice riders on the bus and they LIKE it then the choice riders will demand more (service, quality etc.) which means they will force the politicians to allocate more money to the system. Once the money comes, we can increase service and quality to everyone, not just the choice riders and not just the captive riders. If we take the approach to increase ridership by aiming efforts to captive riders then we (public transportation agencies) have to go with our hands out and ask for more resources…..and fight for them. This second approach fuels the perception of public transportation as a welfare program, not a sustainability program.

You were the chief of BCDOT’s Planning Division before working for MTA. What is the city doing to promote sustainable transportation?

This is a loaded question. I am sure I will get some negative feedback for my answer: I don’t think the political will exists [yet] in the City to truly embrace sustainable transportation. There have been some great steps in the right direction. I love the bus/bike only lanes but they aren’t enforced and drivers don’t respect them. I’d like to see more bus/bike lanes on arterials and I would like to see them enforced. The bike plan implementation is coming along wonderfully but I’d like to see more dedicated bike lanes. I work in SW Baltimore and there are bike lanes everywhere but no cars, so there was no political “risk” installing them. The City will install bike lanes but not at the expense of roadway capacity [for cars] at this point. I think one of the biggest things the City is doing is keeping the Transportation Planning Division around because the staff are truly dedicated to sustainable transportation and they keep pushing their ideas.

Any new bus service improvements in the pipeline you want to promote?

OF COURSE! To all eight of your readers: we have two new Quick Bus (QB) routes rolling out beginning August 29th! Look for the QB 47 which overlaps the 15 and the QB 46 which overlaps the 5 on the east and 10 on the west. What is a QB you ask? A QB is basically limited stop service where we stop at the heaviest boarding locations only. It is different from an EXPRESS that shoots from point A to point B, A being the county and B being the central business district. It is different from a LOCAL which hits every stop along the line.


  • Youssef

    Ok, so maybe that’s three questions…

  • Youssef

    I have another question I would have asked Ms. Keller. How many of her colleagues in the MTA also use MTA service? How many of them do it regularly? How many of them live without cars and thus are captive to public transit, biking, and walking?

  • Mark

    Good questions. I’ll forward them on to Jessica for a follow up.

  • Jessica

    Good questions Youssef. I can only speak for the Office Service Development. The individuals who directly contribute to building the schedules use the system. My Deputy uses the service regularly and also uses his car. The Superintendent of Scheduling relies completely on the system and is quite the transit buff. The Superintendent of Ops Planning uses the EXPRESS service to get to work.

    I was pleased to find that the staff I inherited use and rely on the system. I expected that they did not use it because so many things about the system did not seem to make sense, as an outsider. The truth is that politics control the system more than logic. That’s why it is so important for me to think strategically about ways to influence politicians to favor alternative transportation.

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  • Claudlaw

    So, it’s about a year later.  Has Jessica ever followed up on a post about being car-free in baltimore with kids?  

    She appeared to primarily be a bus user, but here’s one thing I would be interested in hearing the MTA’s take on:

    Navigating access to most city light rail stations with children/carriages is nearly impossible. Specifically, it seems like none of the access streets to getting to non-downtown light rail stations (mount royal/U baltimore, cold spring lane, north avenue, mount washington up north all spring to mind) are pedestrian friendly.  Even just embarking to these stations from any of the main pedestrian arteries alone is a suicidal proposition. 

    Is this even in the purview of the MTA (my planning ignorance is in full view)?  For example, only after years of complaining that one day someone would get killed crossing the street from U Baltimore across Charles to Penn Station was a plan even considered to install a pedestrian light (which as of today still doens’t exist, as Penn Station commuters have to run like gazelles to avoid traffic often heading onto an I-83 on ramp).

    More broadly, I am interested in her success (or lack thereof) in utilizing public transportation with her son (on a daily basis, as opposed to a weekend stroll when time isn’t critical).

    Many thanks!

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