October 28, 2015

How to sort out the bus system: A "Circulator District"

The biggest "X Factor" in Governor Hogan's new proposed bus plan is the system's relationship to the circulator routes run by the city and others. And that's exactly how it should be.

The new MTA plan has a void in the city center. This calls for a completely different kind of planning and involvement by the various stakeholders, and recognition of the need for a whole new geographic entity - a "Circulator District".

Eliminating Redundancy

The MTA's new bus plan clearly recognizes that they should not continue flooding the congested downtown streets with slow inefficient long distance bus routes which are redundant to the city's "Charm City Circulator" system.

Operating short localized bus routes is a totally different proposition from the types of lengthy bus routes the MTA traditionally runs. The MTA has had decades of experience attempting to plan and operate short circulator routes, most of which have been failures.

While it's hard to say how much the MTA's failure with circulators differs from their overall track record of general failures at running any kind of bus service, what has happened fairly recently is that other institutions have taken up the mantle of operating circulators with greater success. This includes the city government's "Charm City Circulator" system along with various other institutions such as colleges and hospitals,

And in the blueprint for its new plan, the MTA has actually recognized the need to provide funding support for the Charm City Circulator, which the perpetually cash-strapped city has been struggling to pay for. While the MTA has long subsidized and contracted out services outside their traditional service area, such as for the DC suburbs, long distance commuter lines, small towns and rural areas, supporting service inside their core service area is new.

In fact, previous MTA attempts to run circulators have scrupulously avoided anything that would impact their own existing routes. The MTA's failed attempts to plan circulators in east and south Baltimore back in the 1990s even avoided running into downtown, just so the MTA would avoid competing with itself.

However, one of the apparent keys to the success of the Charm City Circulator is that it is very blatantly redundant with the MTA system - redundant but better. Being free helps too, of course, while the MTA system charges the same $1.70 "base fare" whether riding one mile or twenty.

The New MTA Inner City Plan

The new MTA plan calls for only seven "BaltimoreLink" bus routes to penetrate the heart of downtown, defined as the area bounded by Howard Street on the west, Franklin Street on the north, President Street on the east and Pratt Street on the south. (Five other major color keyed "Link" bus lines would not enter this central area at all.)

These are:

Blue - West: From US 40 (Edmondson Ave.) to East Baltimore Street
Red - North: From York Road/Charles/St. Paul
Green - Northeast: From Harford Road
Brown - Northeast: From Belair Road
Orange - East: From US 40 (Orleans Street)
Navy - Southeast: From Boston Street
Silver - South: From Key Highway/Hanover Street

Many corridor bus routes in the MTA system would no longer penetrate the center of downtown at all. These include from Washington Blvd, Wilkens Avenue, and Frederick Avenue to the southwest; Pennsylvania Avenue and Eutaw Street to the northwest; Howard Street and Greenmount Avenue to the north; and Eastern Avenue and Fayette Street to the east.

This group includes some notoriously bad bus lines, so if there's a better way, good riddance!

The new MTA plan recognizes that the center of downtown can get very slow, bogged down and congested. Still, it's a popular destination and since so many bus lines converge there, it has always been important for transfers.

There are three general ways to fill this void created by the diversion of traditional radial corridor bus lines away from the center city:

1 - Transfers to the Metro and Light Rail Lines - This is the ideal method. The Baltimore Metro, in particular is by far the fastest, highest capacity and most cost effective way to carry the most passengers. And the central light rail line has its place as well. It can provide very high capacity by using three car trains and not devoting too much service to its outer extremities.

2 - Express Commuter Bus Lines - These can get expensive for the amount of service provided, but they have a role as the MTA has shown. Their main distinguishing characteristics are a limited number of runs, infrequent or no off-peak service, and a lack of integration with the rest of the system, so we need not discuss them here.

3 - Circulator Bus Lines - Clearly, these must now have a greater role than ever. For shorter service on local inner city streets, slower and more circuitous routes are less of a problem than they are for longer distance bus lines.

A Proposed "Circulator Transit District" and Transit Hubs

The best way to fill the inner city void of the new MTA bus plan is to designate a "Circulator District" where short localized bus lines provide the bulk of all transit service.

Below is a map of a possible Circulator Transit District, based not on politics, but on physical and transit system geography. The key to its success is the location and operation of transit transfer hubs at its outer boundaries where the circulator bus lines would interface with the longer distance MTA bus lines and the regional rail system.

Proposed "Circulator District" and Transit Hubs to interface with the larger MTA system,
including the Metro (Green) and Light Rail (Blue).

The transit hubs need to be well located to facilitate transfers that encourage the greatest use of the most efficient transit services. Too many transit hubs would spread the transfers out too much, so that there wouldn't be enough of them at a given point. For example, Penn-North should not be encouraged as a transit hub because it would take away from the interface at nearby Mondawmin. Also, Penn Station does not make a good bus hub because it is along a corridor rather than at a transition point.

In fact, the Mondawmin Metro Station (shown below) is the prototype for what an efficient transit hub can be, linking bus lines from a wide arc, not only with the Metro which provides by far the fastest and best service, but with each of the other bus lines. Transfer options increase exponentially as the number of bus lines increase.

The Mondawmin hub is a nearly ideal off-street setting for all this, unlike many transit hubs envisioned either on-street or cramped into very small sites.

Mondawmin Metro Transit Hub: The best in the system by far.
The transit hubs envisioned for the periphery of this Circulator District are:

1 - Mondawmin Metro Station - The ideal setting (existing). An example of the kind of Circulator service that would be provided here is described in this post - splitting up the MTA #1 bus line into smaller localized routes including linking Mondawmin to Sandtown, Harlem Park and West Baltimore.

2 - West MARC Station - Sitting at the outer end of the "Highway to Nowhere" where efficient service to downtown can be provided, along with rail service to Washington, DC of course.

3 - Patapsco Light Rail Station - A very quick ride to downtown (existing).

4 - Baltimore Travel Plaza - Former Greyhound Bus Station, with very quick service to downtown via the I-95 Fort McHenry Tunnel (should have designated express lanes!)

5 - Hopkins Hospital Metro Station - This is the only hub which is not located on the periphery of the Circulator District. However, it is important to have a hub at the end of the Metro - all major modern urban transit lines need one! This would provide an east-side mirror image of the bus services provided at Mondawmin for the west-side. However, this is not an idea location, which is why an east/northeast Metro extension beyond Hopkins Hospital needs to be a high priority.

6 - Northwood Shopping Center - Now incorporated into the Morgan State University campus, this is a nearly ideal location for a transit hub. Travel time for thru service to to downtown can be improved significantly by using Loch Raven Boulevard instead of the existing routes via Waverly and Charles Village.

7 - Woodberry Light Rail Station - This station is located along the outer edge of higher density urban development, and so makes a good transit hub. (The Cold Spring Lane light rail station is also a possibility.)

In addition, a central transit hub should be provided at the Lexington Market Metro Station, as described in a previous post.

Organizing the System

It is not clear that the MTA plan provides the right amount of each kind of transit service, but it is a first step in that direction. The Circulator District and Transit Hubs would provide a strong impetus for resolving this.

Clearly, the Metro should carry the most passengers possible. It was designed to easily carry over 100,000 riders per day, but now carries barely half of that. The central light rail line should be second in the hierarchy.

Beyond that, how much service should be on traditional MTA bus routes and how much on circulators is an open question. But designating a "Circulator District" is a way of rationalizing the process to figuring it out. High density inner city areas work better with circulators, relative to spread out lower density outer city areas.

Then there is the question of who should operate the various services. Smaller and more localized services are more likely to be identiable with specific institutions such as colleges, hospitals or the Downtown Partnership. They have "skin in the game" and so may have a greater incentive to do a better or at least more personalized and tailored job of operating the service. They may also be able to run it less expensively, with lower wage rates, perhaps through contractors (although there is often contradictory talk about providing "living wages".)

It shouldn't necessarily be the city who runs the circulators, just as there is no magic formula for determining who should pay for it. The "Circulator District" should probably not be a formal tax authority "benefits" district.

Similarly, all services should be open to everyone. There should not be services targeted exclusively to tourists, college students, poor folks or any other specific group. That kind of marketing is what leads to inefficient redundancy.

The MTA has taken the first step, recognizing that they are not automatically the best at running these more localized routes. The next step is the creation of a "Circulator District".


  1. Awesome idea. Will you be attending any of the workshops for the new citylink system?

    1. Thanks. I used to attend zillions of meetings but I suppose I've become too jaded. Good luck to anyone who participates. The MTA knows very well who I am if they want to talk.

      To another reader who offered me some ideas on how to run circulators: I don't think loop routes work well since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That goes double for one-way loops, which are really a no-no unless the loop is very small. The MTA has messed around with loop circulators in the past, and they messed up.

      I would try to have the circulator routes conform to the existing routes as much as possible, since that's what riders are used to. The most popular Charm City Circulator is the one that duplicates the MTA lines on Charles Street almost exactly, and that's why I proposed simply splitting up the #1 line in my previous post. Of course, circulators are community-oriented so communities should have a large say.

  2. Here is another interesting idea for a new Circulator system. It was found on the comment section for the citylink website. What do you think?

    1. Thanks. This idea is basically in the same vein as my concept, so in that respect I like it. I would orient it more to transit hubs. The MTA already runs what is basically a circulator in Cherry Hill and it appears to work well, so that should be included. It's good that this proposal addresses fares, which is a topic I've avoided. Certainly if they were part of the MTA system, a fare would have to be charged, but if a new authority was created, perhaps they could be free. I'm not sure that nonstop short-hop services make sense, because I don't think they'd save enough time to make up for the riders they'd pass by. Anyway, this is a good start.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I actually created this map along with many others of how the Charm City Circulator should be restructured. I have tried before to give this idea to the administrator of CCC but she kind-of shun me. I actually had a far different system apart from this but it was until the new CityLink map was created I had to change things to meet the standards. Ultimately, it is not until "Plan B" is created that I can build a CCC system around it. Thanks for giving me notification.

  3. Didn't Hopkins specifically Disallow their station as a transit hub, as it would "bring in the wrong crowd"? Never mind most of the hospital support staff rely on the buses.

    1. You're right, David, but that was over 20 years ago. Hopefully Hopkins has seen the light by now. The Charm City Circulator does serve their area.

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