The claim that the Charm City Circulator bus arrives every 10 minutes is not accurate. It's more like 15 minutes. Once this week, I waited a half-hour. But all in all, this new strategy to navigate downtown Baltimore seems to be working. I give the city credit for some innovative thinking.
This week, I watched families load their children and baby strollers for transport to the harbor. Senior citizens seemed to be running their errands courtesy of the bus. I observed older teens saving a bit of money using the bus to get to summer jobs. I found law students going to classes and beating $9 parking fees. I also saw people just out for a ride through old Baltimore.
Virtually every patron on the new Purple Route — Penn Station to South Baltimore's Ostend Street — picked up a service map aboard the bus. It was obvious they were educating themselves about this transit amenity. They seemed pleased with these electric buses and their interiors. There is no fare to pay, so passengers step on quickly. There are fewer stops than traditional transit buses. These buses seem to move about a little more quickly. Some were full to capacity; others had only two or three riders.
Most of the passenger rides I watched were of a fairly short duration — say, Federal Hill to the Gallery at Harborplace. I also saw a stream of tourists board the bus from the harbor and travel up the hefty hill to the Washington Monument. This route could really open up some of Baltimore's most historic and rewarding institutions that are now off the map to those who confine themselves to the Inner Harbor tourist zone.
The Charm City Circulator is now running with two of its three routes. The east-west Orange route connects the University of Maryland's downtown campus with Harbor East. The Purple Route, which recently made its debut, is the north-south axis. It serves Charles Street, Mount Vernon, the old Redwood Street financial district, the harbor and Federal Hill. There is another route promised — but not yet running — for Fells Point and the Johns Hopkins medical campus.
I find it interesting that two of the routes will wrap about the Katyn Memorial monument circle at Harbor East. This is the core of a new downtown that has emerged in the past decade. It's a good sign that the city's Department of Transportation is acknowledging the corner of Aliceanna and President.
It's an ambitious concept to weave just about all of downtown Baltimore with free buses. As one who has taken city mass transit for more than five decades, I know how maddening it can be to use the MTA system. It's not so bad when you take the same line day after day and get to know its quirks and habits, then act accordingly. It's another thing to just arrive cold at a bus stop and expect to get to another destination.
Also, the traditional MTA routes are heavily weighted to rush-hour service, when workers need to get to and from their jobs. The Charm City buses operate under a different travel philosophy. They are more about helping visitors get from landmarks to restaurants and museums.
The key has to be reliability, and I am not absolutely convinced it was a good idea to advertise a 10-minute waiting time. People can be literal. But the company that runs these buses, Veolia Transportation, is a huge organization and already operates the successful Johns Hopkins shuttle.
After riding four days this week, I realized some of the problems. It's the summer paving season, and key sections of Calvert and Lombard streets are partially closed for resurfacing. Lanes get shut down and bus routes get snarled. No wonder I waited for the Purple Line for 30 minutes one day. I was initially skeptical that the city would fund this system and deliver the goods. It has. Now it's up to us to use it.
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