Circulator gains riders, struggles to run on time

Popularity exceeds predictions, but the wait is a problem

August 25, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Since the city of Baltimore went into the bus business with the free Charm City Circulator in January, its service has gained steadily in popularity, exceeding ridership expectations.

Now if only it could get the buses to run on time.

With two routes up and running, the Circulator is transporting more than 4,000 passengers a day on its "cleaner, greener" new hybrid diesel-electric buses. During the two weeks that ended Aug. 6, it averaged 5,132 riders a day — or about 35,000 a week.

But a combination of road work and high temperatures have played havoc with the city's original goal of running the buses every 10 minutes.

"I could easily out-bike a Circulator bus," said rider Youssef Mahmoud of Charles Village, who otherwise likes the service.

Some critics say the city is discovering what the MTA has known for a long time: It's not easy to run a transit system.

"Mass transit, especially surface transit, is not easy to do," said Nate Payer, a Mount Vernon resident and vice president of the Transit Riders Action Council, who is concerned that the buses will lose riders if they can't stick to a schedule.

Despite those issues, riders on the Circulator this week were virtually unanimous in their praise for the system.

"This has just been a godsend," said Dawn Shipman, a resident of a senior housing building on Light Street who was returning from the Cross Street Market with a few purchases. Shipman, who described herself as "pushing 80," said she frequently uses the service to get out and around the city, including trips to Penn Station just to have coffee and a doughnut.

Achieving the city's goal of running the buses at 10-minute intervals — or headways — has been another story. In late June, the city backed off that goal and put its buses on a 15-minute schedule. Still, it has struggled to maintain that frequency of service.

The problems have been especially severe during peak evening travel hours between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Intervals during those hours averaged more than 18 minutes in July, and rider sometimes had to wait up to 30 minutes for a bus.

Headways improved somewhat when the heat moderated late in the month, but the Circulator is still struggling with road work on Pratt and Light streets. The Circulator has done a better job during the morning peak from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., before soaring temperatures can take their toll on the buses' power systems — but the problems have tended to compound through the day.

"These buses have not performed very well due to the severe heat," said Barry Robinson, chief of the transit and marine division for the Baltimore Department of Transportation. "We're addressing the problem now as to their inability to maintain their charge during the summer months."

The city launched the Circulator in January as one of Mayor Sheila Dixon's last acts in office. It started with one line, the east-west Orange Route between Hollins Market and Harbor East. In June, the city added the north-south Purple Route between Penn Station and Federal Hill. Both routes are operated by Veolia Transportation under a contract with the city.

A third line, called the Green Route, is expected to begin this fall. It will link Johns Hopkins Hospital, Fells Point, Harbor East and City Hall.

The free service, which uses fuel-sipping hybrid diesel-electric buses, is financed largely through an increase in the city's parking tax — a measure that is intended as both a revenue source and an incentive to ride the bus.

Since it started, the Circulator has garnered both praise and criticism. Some riders have complained that they have to wait too long; others find the buses intolerably slow, even compared with Maryland Transit Administration vehicles.

Jed Weeks of Baltimore said he'll often pay to ride the MTA rather than catch a free Circulator.

"If I get on it, the MTA bus ends up passing me anyway," said Weeks. "I don't know if I could rely on it for commuting."

But Weeks said that when he had friends visiting from out of town, they used the Circulator to get around. "From an outsider's perspective, they loved it," he said.

That was the experience of the five members of the blended Orr-Wile family of Canton, Ohio, who were in town on vacation this week. They learned about the Circulator from the staff at the Tremont Hotel — just as city officials had hoped the word would get around to visitors.

"We don't have public transportation like this — so it's different," said Kaitlyn Orr, 17, who was traveling with her mother, stepfather, brother and baby sister with plans to visit the National Aquarium.

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