City transit system needs to go beyond patchwork

December 10, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

I felt a little sorry for the bus driver who so candidly answered my question the other night. When I asked why he was 15 minutes late, he told me it was equipment failure. He was behind the wheel of a Maryland Transit Administration bus obviously at the end of its working life and normally used only for school runs.

I looked up and saw, yes, the bus had an 89 number, meaning it first began service in 1989 and was still grinding away on the streets at rush hour.

No wonder it was late.

Baltimore has recently embraced a tentative bus reorganization, which I applauded - even though the state transit officials considered scrapping the line I regularly ride.

Baltimore's bus routes needed creative rethinking because people don't necessarily live today where the city's streetcars once operated. And what changes were made this fall had to be tentative because altering bus lines is bound to lead to complaints and arouse political ire.

Bus riders are a curious band of people. They exhibit a certain tenacity, the kind of toughness required to put up with the system, learn its routine and deal with its shortcomings.

So when it's threatened, these riders show up at hearings and make a noise. Yet we need to change. And why is it that Baltimore's buses are subject to such major bunching - when one arrives, after a wait, two more of the same line are on its rear bumper?

Baltimore's bus routes are from the days of steamboats and freighters. Figure this out: Despite the construction costs of double-tracking light rail, the cars still poke along Howard Street and get stopped at every traffic light from Oriole Park to the Maryland Institute. Is this rapid transit?

I've been taking a lot of buses lately, and I have to say that I'm often amused by my fellow travelers. They seem to chatter away, and often greet new arrivals as if they were old friends. And if you ever want to see what a hard-working city this is, ride a bus at 5:15 a.m. They are often packed to overflowing with shift workers trying to get to their jobs on time.

I have no complaints about the personalities of the bus drivers. Most try making the best of whatever situation comes their way.

But I am envious of the mass transit I've taken in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, which have real systems, often enthusiastically used by patrons who ride for only a few blocks. They know that service is so frequent that they can do a little shopping, or whatever, and that another vehicle will be there to fetch them for the next leg of their trip.

I've often thought that if Baltimore is going to really make it as a city, it will have to grow up about mass transit. Patching a system together with 1989 buses is not what I had in mind.

If the governor and the General Assembly opened their wallets, the transit system in Baltimore would change. But not entirely. We'd have to convince Baltimoreans of its worth, and therein lies a problem: Many people will talk a good game, but they would not dare board a public conveyance. I often think the hardest people to win over to taking a bus are those who were forced to ride them at another time in their lives and vowed never to board another again.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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