FOR THE first time since moving from Philadelphia a decade ago, I took the bus to work recently. In the years since leaving the city, I've lived in suburban communities and have relied on one clunker or another for transportation.
Only when the Howard Area Transit System (HATS) started running new bus lines in September could I reach Columbia from Ellicott City via mass transit. And in Howard County, the term "mass transit" gets defined rather broadly.
The HATS system is nothing like the intricate bus-subway-light rail-elevated train networks of big cities. The county-run system's bus lines are so few they are identified by seven basic Crayola colors: blue, green, purple, yellow, red, orange and brown. Not even the recent expansion requires the use of fuchsia or other colors in Dennis Rodman's hair-dye kit.
Howard still is in its mass transit infancy and is taking baby steps to the future. The county could ease congestion on its highways, conserve energy and improve the environment by pushing light rail. But county officials have no immediate plans to push for a link to the Mass Transit Administration or to Washington's Metro.
For now, commuters have a few alternatives to the automobile, including Eyre Bus Service, a 50-year-old company based in Glenelg that travels to Silver Spring, Washington and Baltimore.
The auto still dominates transportation in the outer 'burbs, but its grip is loosening.
On the Purple Line
The Purple Line comes close to my home. Now, if my aging car decides not to start on a frosty winter morning, it is good to know I have a backup.
To be sure, a commute on HATS takes much longer -- about an hour, compared with my 12-minute trip by car. And I have to walk from the Mall in Columbia to The Sun's Howard County bureau on Sterrett Place, a 10-minute trek that involves a perilous jaywalk across Little Patuxent Parkway.
I became aware of the Purple Line shortly after it started running in late September. The buses usually seem to carry few, if any, passengers as it traveled its circular route around Ellicott City.
The buses, however, are essential to those few riders, including my barber, who depends on a HATS bus to transport him daily from Columbia to the barbershop on Main Street.
My first bus ride to work this decade comes on a chilly, autumn-fresh morning. It's a short walk to a road along the Purple Line's route. The route has official stops in some places, but not here. Riders must flag buses, taxi-style.
Dorothy "Dot" Boone is right on schedule, just after 7: 30 a.m. I'm the first passenger on the 26-seater this trip. Empty buses don't bother Ms. Boone. She gets her fill -- and more -- from driving a school bus in Baltimore in the afternoons. The solitude of her morning job, when there are few riders, suits her just fine.
Ms. Boone motors around Ellicott City, going past the Normandy Shopping Center, the Chatham Mall, the library's Miller Branch, Main Street, the county government complex and to Columbia.
Her second passenger boards on Main Street at Ellicott Mills Road. The rider will exit at the Columbia Palace shopping center on Centre Park Drive in Columbia for her job at a Dunkin Donuts store. Seven more passengers enter at a stop on Ellicott Mills.
Ms. Boone knows some of her passengers by name: "Are you sure you want to exit here, Vicki?" she asks one woman. And "Myrtle's here today," she says after spotting one of her favorite passengers at a stop.
The Purple Line changes, chameleon-like, to the Yellow Line when it reaches the county government complex. The Yellow Line is the only route from Ellicott City to Columbia.
Ms. Boone picks up another passenger in Ellicott City before meandering through the hilly historic district and past the new Long Gate shopping center, the Columbia Palace and Dorsey's Search village. In Dorsey's Search, Ms. Boone collects her last passenger this trip.
The bus arrives on schedule at the Mall. A relatively long trip, but one that enables riders to read a newspaper or fiddle with a laptop.
There are still bugs in the system. My barber says some buses run late and that one driver dares to smoke on his route.
Carl Balser, the county's chief of transportation planning, said most complaints concern changes in the number of stops after the county took over the former ColumBUS system. He said service is working to place buses where riders are and to make transfers between buses smoother.
All in all, the service is not bad. There are bound to be logistical glitches running a system in a suburban community with only pockets of density. Still, more work needs to go into promoting the extended service, which might be ideal for some residents of Ellicott City, Elkridge and other newly served parts of the county.
Anyone who can get to work, to a store or to the library might want to try the bus at least once. Who knows? Many might come back. I may never become a regular, but I'm certain another decade won't pass before I ride the bus to work again.
Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.
Pub Date: 11/24/96