At 5 p.m. on Monument Street in East Baltimore, the line of doctors, nurses, researchers, students and others winds down the block and around the corner. Coffee cups in hand and headphones in ear, they file on to the buses that line up three deep.
They are riding what has become a highly popular shadow transit agency - the Johns Hopkins shuttle. Every day it provides 5,000 rides to and from Charles Village, Mount Vernon and the east side, to anyone associated with Hopkins, or sometimes just anyone at all. That's up from 3,100 daily riders just three years ago. Riders do not pay a fare and need not show an ID.
The big white buses with "Johns Hopkins" emblazoned on the side depart as often as every five minutes during rush hour. There are seven stops on the route between the university's medical campus, home to its world-renowned hospital, and its Homewood campus, where crowds gather in the morning to be ferried down St. Paul Street.
"This is 1,000 times more reliable than a city bus," Obadiah Manley, 33, a graduate student in immunology at Hopkins, said after he boarded the bus in Charles Village. Manley lives in Guilford and takes the shuttle to his classes. "It enables me not to have a car, so I save a lot of money."
Manley boarded at the shuttle's first stop and was able to find a seat, but by the time the bus reached Mount Vernon, all seats were taken and the aisles were full.
The shuttles don't pose a serious threat to the Maryland Transit Administration, which provides about 218,000 bus rides daily. But since it travels up and down two main city streets - Charles and St. Paul - the shuttle hits areas not served by the MTA's light rail and subway operations.
Hopkins started the shuttle at least a decade ago as a way to ferry students and staff among its various campuses. But in recent years, as gas prices have increased and people have become more concerned about the environment, the shuttle has become popular as a way for people to get to and from work. And three years ago, Hopkins began phasing out the yellow school buses that had been used, replacing them with more comfortable coach buses.
"The volume took off much more quickly than we expected it to," said Larry Kilduff, executive director of facilities management at Hopkins. "We're a victim of our own success." The university and medical institution spend $1.5 million a year on the shuttles, seeing it as a benefit that makes Hopkins more appealing for students, staff and faculty.
Riders have high expectations, even though they're riding for free. "If we don't have them backed up one behind the other, we hear about it pretty quickly," Kilduff said.
Many Hopkins staffers live in North Baltimore and walk or ride bicycles to the Charles Village shuttle stops, and many medical campus students prefer to live in Charles Village and take the shuttle to classes. The Johns Hopkins Institutions, all told, have 38,200 employees and 6,200 students.
"City buses aren't free, and the shuttles tend to be a little cleaner," said Jessica Myers, 25, a Hopkins graduate student who takes the shuttle from her home in Mount Vernon to East Baltimore.
In four years of riding the shuttle, Myers said, she's been asked for her ID only once or twice. Indeed, some riders suspect that people who have no connection to Hopkins use the shuttle as a way to get to Penn Station (one of the stops) to get trains to Washington.
A University of Baltimore student who lives in Charles Village openly admitted to riding the shuttle to school. Hopkins officials said some abuse is unavoidable, but they believe very few non-Hopkins people are taking advantage of the service, operated by Veolia Transportation of Baltimore. Officials say the drivers don't check IDs because it would slow down the buses. But if they sensed freeloaders were becoming a problem, they would crack down.
The service is so good, said Jason Bayer, that when his car's transmission died four months ago, he didn't get it fixed. Bayer, 29, lives in Butchers Hill and walks to the medical campus shuttle stop every morning. From there, he rides to Homewood, where he's a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering.
"I use the public system on weekends, but that's more of a coin flip," Bayer said. "You have to flag those buses down."
The MTA says it welcomes any new transit service in the city and that its success shows that people are paying more attention to public transit than they used to. And that can only be a good thing, MTA spokeswoman Jawauna Greene said.
"It eases overcrowding, it gets people to get out of their cars, and it lowers the threshold and makes them more willing to try mass transit in general," Greene said.
Recognizing the popularity of the route served by the Hopkins shuttle, the MTA is in talks with the Downtown Partnership and the Charles Street Development Corp. to begin public shuttle or trolley service in several areas - such as from Charles Village to downtown, from the west-side theater district to Harbor East, and around the Inner Harbor.
Those shuttles would run more frequently than MTA buses and could take some pressure off the Hopkins service. One that would go up Charles Street as far as Penn Station is expected to begin service next year.
One rider who uses the MTA and the Hopkins shuttle is Dale Berry, 49, a program coordinator at Hopkins. She takes an MTA express bus from her home in Loch Raven to her office at the medical campus, then uses the shuttle to get to other campuses.
"You can set your watch to the timing," Berry said, on her way to Homewood for a meeting.