January 25, 2011

Inner City Bus Plan

I've decided to reprint some of my articles from The Baltimore Brew that have gotten buried in the Brew archives, but are still relevant. Planning issues in Baltimore are notoriously cyclical - mostly never really resolved but just buried when we've gotten tired of talking about them or we've settled on some half-baked solution which will only satisfy the need to do something but not the issue itself. Transit offers many prime examples, of which this is one:

Expand Baltimore’s free Charm City Circulator buses to cover the whole inner city

If they wish, folks can now stand at a Charles Street bus stop and wait while three or four of the same old MTA buses pass by until a bright, gleaming slightly-smaller CCC bus pulls up. And they’ll save $1.60 in the process.Beginning today, the City government is adding its Charm City Circulator to the four local bus routes the MTA already runs on Charles Street between Cross Street Market northward to Penn Station. Riders will now have shiny, new “clean, green” buses to choose from in the peak hour, in addition to the eighteen buses the MTA already runs along most of this route.
We watched today as the new Purple Route Circulator pulled up to Penn Station, drawing curious stares from regular MTA riders awaiting the #61 MTA, which also runs up Charles Street (and continues up into Roland Park.) If only THAT route were clean, green and free!
So, here’s an idea from the Department of Redundancy Department: since the city seems to have given up on the MTA, why not expand the Circulator into an entire inner-city transit system and let them take over the whole thing?

An MTA bus, with a free Charm City Circulator bus coming up behind it on almost identical route. . . except it doesn't go to Curtis Bay, hon! (Photo by Fern Shen)
As the second of three planned Charm City bus lines, this new Purple Route is the one which most closely crowds in on what the MTA already provides. Functionally, the routes are so similar that the simple essential difference jumps out: It’s not the MTA.
The birth of the Charm City Circulator is the culmination of decades of MTA failure to give the city’s business and civic leaders what they want, so now the city is doing it themselves.
And they already want even more. In addition to a third route to Hopkins Hospital coming soon, a planned extension to Fort McHenry is already in the works, and Midtown leaders want an extension to Charles Village and Hopkins University as well. Hopkins already runs its own bus service just as many other local colleges do – another byproduct of perceived MTA deficiencies.
Even the proposed $1.8 billion Red Line plan was conceived by business and civic leaders, much more than by the MTA.
As such, all of these transit initiatives totally fail to consider the comprehensive impact on the transit system as a whole, which is why they create such blatant redundancy.
It’s long past time to deal with these transit needs in a comprehensive manner. The MTA needs to finally recognize that the city does indeed have special needs that cannot be addressed as a one-size-fits-all transit system, and the city needs to recognize that it cannot just keep adding costly new lines willy-nilly to the transit stew.
But the MTA has heard all that before, and the city has apparently given up on them, and put its scarce and precious money where its mouth is.
So here is a solution that gives everyone what they want
The Charm City Circulator could be expanded to become a transit system serving the entire inner city. This would replace all local MTA service within the specified area. MTA bus service would be limited mostly to express buses between downtown and transit hubs where the two systems would meet at the perimeter, with intervening stops limited to major destinations and transfer points .
The transit hub locations would be carefully selected to define the boundaries between the two systems. Geography would be the determining factor, not political jurisdictions as is the case with most local/regional systems in Maryland and around the country.
Some obvious transit hub locations would include:
1 – The Mondawmin Metro station – The MTA already terminates all of its longer distance bus routes from outer communities such as Park Heights and Liberty Heights at this point to feed riders into the subway.
2 – The West Baltimore MARC station – MTA would run all of its remaining regional buses non-stop to downtown on the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway, as they already do with the #40 Quick-Bus.
3 – Baltimore Travel Plaza – MTA service would use the I-95 Fort McHenry Tunnel to downtown, while the Charm City Circulators would use Boston, O’Donnell, Eastern and Fayette through Canton, Fells Point and Highlandtown.
4 – Northwood Shopping Center – MTA express service would use Loch Raven Boulevard to downtown while the CCC would take over all local service to Charles Village and Waverly via 33rd Street, Charles Street, Greenmount Avenue et al, and to Morgan University.
The MTA’s cost savings from this concept could be passed on to Charm City to operate the new system, along with financing from a new “Transit District”. Another important source of participation would be from the colleges and other organizations which now pay for their own transit, but which should benefit greatly by being an integral part of the new service instead.
The boundaries of this district would closely conform to that of the high density portion of the city, where mass transit really needs to be an essential part of urban life, so that the costs and benefits of this service could be kept closely aligned. Geographically, this boundary would be fairly obvious, including roughly the Gwynns Falls to the west, Middle Branch to the south, I-95 to the east, and 39th Street to the north.
This makes much more sense than attempting to devise a regional transit district encompassing the city and all the surrounding suburbs. Metropolitan areas that have done that have had to endure constant carping from the outer areas that are barely served, and exploitation from those just beyond its borders. It also makes more sense than forcing all city residents to pay for this, and adding another arbitrary artifice at the city line (along with other taxes, insurance rates, public school zones, etc.). It would also enable transit fares to the outer areas to rise to more appropriate levels, and service to be optimized to the needs of longer distance riders.
The common perception is that as a statewide agency, the MTA is just too far above the people to be sensitive to their needs. From that, the Charm City Circulator was born, but it is a messy and inefficient compromise. The MTA and the city both need to realize that the city’s special urban needs should not be met by simply plopping a new system on top of the old one, but by making all aspects of the entire system work better.
- Fern Shen contributed to this post.


  1. Couple things I wonder about. First (and I seem to recall you mentioned this re: the MTA previously) doesn't extending the Purple route also make the circulator service prone to the bunching that plagues MTA's bus routes because they are so long?

    Second doe you think the MTA should just cede any routes that the Circulator covers and concentrate their limited resources in other areas or on other routes?

  2. Your points definitely should be considered as part of what needs to be a comprehensive planning process, Anon. But what is painfully clear is that the current City Circulator system is a piecemeal non-solution. Any system should absolutely include Charles Village and Fort McHenry. Simple geography dictates it. If the "Purple route" was extended to cover them, it would be somewhat less reliable and cost more. So maybe it should be two separate routes to provide greater reliability and cost accountability for those paying for it, whoever it is. In any event, the current system where the routes don't go far enough and are redundant with the MTA is the worst of all worlds.