Circulating after dark

The city's free bus service can be a barhopper's best friend — if the timing is right

  • Parham Farahat, an ER resident at the University of Maryland, uses the Charm City Circulator to get to Federal Hill's pubs. “You can’t really plan a night out with it in mind,” he said. “You can always go out and get a cab back, but it makes it half a free round trip.”
Parham Farahat, an ER resident at the University of Maryland,… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
December 05, 2010|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

Can the Circulator be your designated driver? Well, sort of.

When the Charm City Circulator launched in January, most people saw its potential to get commuters from one end of downtown to another, to transport tourists and to help out the environment with hybrid transportation.

Kate Hendrickson and her friends saw its potential for something else: barhopping. After all, the Orange route, and later the Purple route, go by some of the bar-heaviest neighborhoods in the city.

Hendrickson , a 25-year-old publicist who also uses the bus to get to work, organized a large bar crawl she and her friends dubbed the "sparkulator" that took them to 12 bars in one night.

"It gives you a route and schedule that you can abide by, where you don't have to convince seven people of where to go. The circulator just drives by a bunch of places," Hendrickson said.

She's among a growing number of people who are discovering the possibilities of riding the Circulator at night, figures from Baltimore Department of Transportation show.

Of the nearly 6,000 total riders who used the service on a weekend day (Friday and Saturday), 26 percent of them used it after 6 p.m.

The only snag is that, like Cinderella's pumpkin carriage ride, the Circulator stops operating at midnight on weekends, and even earlier on weekdays.

Passengers and transportation activists say that's hampered their nightlife plans — a "sparkulator" repeat hasn't happened again. The hours also hamper the Circulator's potential to compensate for some cuts to regular bus service along the north-south axis, and to alleviate the city's parking issues.

"A big part of the problem is that you can get down, but you can't get back up on the weekends" from places like Federal Hill, said Nate Payer, director of the Transit Riders Action Council, an activist group. "A lot of the crowd that goes to Federal Hill are going to be staying past midnight."

Using the Circulator to barhop seems like a natural. With all the bars it drives by, the bus could pass for a transportation barfly.

On the Orange route, Hendrickson and her friends went from Frank & Nic's West End Grille — near the Eutaw and Pratt stop — to James Joyce Irish Pub in Harbor East and ended at Power Plant Live near Lombard and President streets.

And on the Purple route, passengers pass by or get very close to the Water Street Tavern, Mick O'Shea's, Red Maple, the Metropolitan and Nevin's Cross Street Station.

On a recent Thursday night, Parham Farahat, a 28-year-old emergency room resident at the University of Maryland who lives downtown, used it to get to Federal Hill to meet some friends for a drink.

Farahat, who was coming off a 24-hour shift, said it's a hassle-free way to get around for someone who doesn't have a car.

But, he said, it's also a restricted service. "You can't really plan a night out with it in mind," he said. "You can always go out and get a cab back, but it makes it half a free round trip."

That night, he stayed until 2 a.m.

Lindsay Iredale, an 18-year-old Maryland Institute College of Art student who was on the bus that same night, said she normally rides it from Penn Station to the Inner Harbor or to the American Visionary Art Museum.

"I'm new to Baltimore. It's nice to have a bus where, if I miss a stop, I don't have to pay again for getting lost," said Iredale, who just moved from Portland.

But on weeknights — when the Circulator runs only until 8 p.m. during the winter and 9 p.m. during the summer — she finds it less useful. Instead, she uses her school's shuttles to navigate Mount Vernon instead of the Circulator, or the light rail if she wants to get to Hampden.

The Circulator is "only useful if you're going to Inner Harbor or if you're coming back by midnight," Iredale said. "I usually don't. If you want to see a movie, you can't take it because it doesn't really stay up too late."

In that way, she's like most Circulator riders. Those who ride it after 6 p.m. on an average weekday account for just 12 percent of ridership, or 637 out of 5,326 passengers a day, according to the city transportation department.

On Friday and Saturday nights, when the Circulator operates until midnight, the numbers are higher: 1,549 passengers after 6 p.m. out of a total 5,916 daily passengers.

Transportation officials acknowledge the bus' shortcomings.

"If you're going barhopping on a Tuesday night, I don't see how beneficial it's going to be," said Barry Robinson, chief of marine and transit services.

Jamie Kendrick, deputy director of the transportation department, said the shortened night hours are a result of the bus' dual purpose.

Initially, the department proposed starting later in the morning so that the bus could be in service until later in the night.

But to accommodate more morning commuters, they settled on just starting later on Fridays and Saturdays — 9 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m. — when they anticipated ridership at night would be higher.

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