Cities Develop Alternative Bus Networks to Combat Perceived Disadvantages of Mainline Routes

» Baltimore’s new three-line Charm City Circulator only the latest in a series of urban trolleys designed for easier center-city access. But are these systems promoting a problematic hierarchy of service quality?

Hoping to increase transit usage in its downtown core, Baltimore officials began service this week on the Charm City Circulator, a three-line free bus service serving some of downtown’s most popular destinations. Baltimore’s new transit network, which supplements the city’s metro rail, light rail, commuter rail, and bus routes, is the most recent example of a trend that has taken American cities by storm: The creation of auxiliary routes for the inner-city that are designed for frequent, high-quality service with the goal of attracting onto buses people who aren’t used to public transportation.

Though Baltimore’s existing bus and rail operations are sponsored by the State of Maryland’s MTA, the Charm City Circulator is the personal initiative of outgoing Mayor Sheila Dixon (D). As a result, it is being funded directly by the city though a 16% tax on downtown parking, enough to provide more than $5 million in annual funds and free service every 10 minutes on three bus routes and a related two-line water taxi service. This week, operations began on the east-west Orange Line; the north-south Purple Line and a U-shaped Green Line serving the east side of downtown will begin rolling in the spring.

Private transportation firm Veolia is operating the lines via contract. A similar service, called the Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH), ran between 2002 and 2005 thanks to a federal grant, but when funds dried up, the route was eliminated.

Like many cities opening similar downtown circulators and rubber tire “trolleys,” Baltimore hopes that its new bus service will be attractive to people who rarely ride transit; the underlying message is aimed at middle-class whites who live and work downtown along the city’s gentrified Inner Harbor. By offering service every few minutes with brand new hybrid buses, well-marked bus stops (though no new stations), and defined routes, the appeal of transit increases, especially for lunch time and late-night trips.

The decision to separate the Charm City lines from the typical MTA bus routes, which, like those of many bus systems, have acquired a less-than-ideal reputation, exemplifies this attempt at wooing a new clientele.

Of course, the improvements offered by the Charm City Circulator will be appreciated by everyone. Indeed, the advantages of these inner-city routes ought to be noted by the operators of traditional transit systems; there’s no reason why nice buses, easy-to-understand routes, and frequent service should be reserved to downtown corridors serving a city’s top destinations, when every transit rider deserves such amenities. Yet the division between the Charm City service and the MTA buses has created a division: Baltimore seems to be implying that it is offering two levels of local transit, one high quality and reliable for downtowners and another more utilitarian and less attractive for everyone else. The same goes for the many other cities implementing such lines.

One problem that might result from this differentiation: Commuters may find themselves happy with the Charm City network, but unwilling to move on to the other services offered by MTA. This approach is different from that taken by cities like New York and Los Angeles, which have ramped-up bus offerings with their own branding — think Select Bus Service and Metro Rapid, respectively — but still under auspices of the larger unified system. Both of the aforementioned bus routes remain part of the overall network of the associated city in terms of fares, look, and general workings.

That said, it could be argued that this is a reflection of funding limitations; at least some urban bus routes in the United States are being upgraded to standards commonplace on most routes in many European and Asian cities. Often these implementations, however, aren’t ideal because of poor routing decisions by transit planners.

Fortunately for Baltimore, the Charm City Circulator is neither circuitous in its routing nor duplicative of MTA bus or light rail service — two characteristics frequently manifested elsewhere.

The MTA #21 bus connects Johns Hopkins Hospital with Fells Point and Little Italy, similar to the corridor to be followed by the Charm City Green Line, but the 21 only runs every 30-40 minutes and does not continue on to the neighborhood east of the city center, as does the Green Line. The Purple Line, to connect Penn Station with Federal Hill through downtown, is parallel to the light rail line, but it is several blocks over and therefore arguable serves a separate passenger group; meanwhile, the #64 bus, which makes a similar connection, only operates on a 15-30 minute frequency. The Orange Line will link Little Italy and the University of Maryland at Baltimore, a route mostly provided by the #11 bus, but that line doesn’t extend to West Baltimore and has a frequency of every 15-30 minutes. That said, 0nce the Red Line light rail line opens in 2015 following a virtually identical route, the Orange Line should probably be eliminated.

Thus, the Charm City Circulator routes will provide significant improvements in service for inner city Baltimore. Mayor Dixon’s push for the lines, as well as her decision to implement a reliable funding source in a tax on parking, is worthy of emulation. Yet, over time, the quality demonstrated here should be expanded to the rest of the city’s bus routes — all of which deserve similar upgrades.

Center-City Circulator Systems Separate from Mainline Bus Routes* (table is sortable)
CitySystemNumber of LinesShapeFree?Frequency (min)Hybrid?
Baltimore, MDCharm City Circulator3Mostly LinearYes10Yes
Washington, DCCirculator5Mostly LinearNo10No
Raleigh, NCR-Line1One-way LoopYes10-15Yes
Charlotte, NCGold Rush "Trolley"2Mostly LinearYes8-15No
Denver, COMallRide1LinearYes2-30Yes
Orlando, FLLymmo1Mostly LinearYes5-10Yes
Fresno, CADowntown "Trolley"1One-way LoopYes10No
Scottsdale, AZDowntown "Trolley"/ Neighborhood Route2Linear/ One-way LoopYes15No
Indianapolis, INRed Line Circulator1One-way LoopNo15No
Bethesda, MDCirculator1One-way LoopYes10No
St. Petersburg, FLLooper/ Central Ave "Trolley"2One-way Loop/ LinearYes15-20No
Wilmington, NCDowntown "Trolley"1One-way LoopYes10-20No
Lancaster, PADowntown "Trolley"1Mostly LinearNo15-40No
Milwaukee, WI"Trolley" Loop1One-way LoopYes20No
Jacksonville, FL"Trolleys"5Mostly LinearNo15-50No
West Palm Beach, FLDowntown "Trolley"1Mostly LinearYes10No
* Note: this is a cursory list based on quick research; there are plenty more of these trolley and circulator systems currently operating in the U.S.

Image above: Baltimore Charm City Circulator, from City Department of Transportation

28 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • AlexB

    It makes sense to me that a city would invest in a few noticeable, relatively cheap routes that highlight its main cultural and tourist attractions in the city center area. I think it might be a stretch to say, “the underlying message is aimed at middle-class whites who live and work downtown along the city’s gentrified Inner Harbor,” not to mention that’s something of a slap in the face to any middle class black person in Baltimore. Because it’s free, and specially branded, it seems more like a service offered to tourists than regular commuters, or maybe people who commute to downtown by transit and need to travel around downtown during the day. Like you said, despite its branding, anyone can use it, and people from all racial and economic groups work downtown.

    Just because there is a supplement to the bus network doesn’t really mean there are two systems. Many services like this in other cities are operated by the main transit provider. The Charm Bus is not going to expand and become some kind of competing entity. I do agree that the principles of well marked stops, frequent service, good branding, etc, should be universal and not just be relegated to a particular market. Metro Rapid in LA fits the bill, no?

  • AlexB –
    Thanks for your comment — it made me realize I had forgotten to mention an important difference between Baltimore’s approach and those of cities like Los Angeles, as you put it. I added a paragraph midway through the text discussing that point.

  • aw

    You could add Seattle’s route 99 to your list: http://metro.kingcounty.gov/tops/wfsc/waterfront_streetcar.html

    Free, separately branded, but caters more toward tourists than downtown workers.

  • Jed

    Just a note:

    The MTA has also tried to ramp up bus offerings like NY and LA, with the pseudo-BRT QuickBus system, which is currently operating on two routes (QB40 and QB48).

  • I hate it when we call these things “trolleys”. They’re not trolleys, even the ones with the stupid ye olde timey trolley shell. To be a trolley you need a trolley wire.

    But the language is just semantics. What I really don’t like about the olde timey trolley-shell buses is that they send the message that transit is a theme park ride to be used for fun, but not to be taken seriously. I’m all for specially branded modern buses like the DC or Charm City Circulators, but when you use a faux trolley shell you’re actively harming the rest of your bus system by psychologically reinforcing it as a bunch of loser cruisers.

    Not to attack Yonah, because you’re just calling them what the agencies that run them do, but those faux trolleys are a problem.

  • Daniel

    Interesting. Austin just killed off the Dillo Trolley system in their downtown area. Major fail, IMOHO.

  • Woody

    Beyond DC — These phoney trolleys are a problem, I agree. Aren’t most of them difficult to enter or exit? Transit systems should be showcasing the sleek designs of European trolleys, with their ultra low floors and wide doors that make entering and exiting easy and quick. At least they should show off the newest buses that try to match the modern trolleys.

  • Max Wyss

    About those pseudo trolleys… they do send out the message “we are for tourists”.

    At least the Baltimore vehicle look like buses, and that is very good so.

    By looking at the table, most of those circulators provide a decent service (in order to become useful, 10 minute intervals are about the maximum; shorter intervals would be even better.

    I am not surprised why the MTA buses don’t have a good reputation, after reading their intervals… they look more like a joke to me than a serious public transportation offer.

  • Winston

    Beyond DC,

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. Transit, especially bus transit is perceived as “a bunch of loser cruisers” in most U.S. cities because the buses are full of the poor and disabled – losers to most peoples minds. If you provide a differentiated service that targets affluent riders (whether with replica trolleys, modern buses with different paint or whatever else) the service will generally be perceived as being less full of losers because it is. This isn’t a bad thing. In every case I can think of, such services aren’t funded out of the same pot of money as regular transit service but do provide additional service to riders of all income levels.

    One case I can think of in particular is the replica trolley that operates in Walnut Creek, CA (an upscale suburb of San Francisco that features a successful traditional downtown shopping area and an outdoor mall). The city pays the local bus agency to operate a free replica trolley that serves the BART (rapid transit) station as well as the downtown shops and parking garages. This service is part of the city’s “park once” strategy where shoppers are encouraged to park once in downtown (or take BART downtown) and walk or take the shuttle to their destination instead of driving from store to store. Because of the city’s funding this is also the only bus route in Central Contra Costa County to have avoided big service cuts during the current economic downturn. It is also one of the busiest routes the bus agency runs.

  • I only wish that Downtown Atlanta had something similar when I was at the Economist’s convention at the beginning of the month – the MARTA train worked OK for getting between conference hotel and conference center, but at that temperature I was not in the mood to walk too many blocks beyond the reach of a MARTA station.

    And of course I was not about to get into a regular city bus in a strange city and risk ending up who knows where with who knows how long a wait to get back. I already had that experience a few times in Newcastle (NSW) when I first arrived there. But a clearly marked circulator route on a downtown map, that’s a different thing.

    Indeed, speaking of Newcastle, it had one of those silly tourist trolleys, but most of the use of the bus in the CBD by commuters was the regular buses in the downtown free bus zone. Since its a riverfront city with a CBD laid out along a long east-west axis, if you got on a bus one one of the two main east-west streets, you could be confident of where it was going within the CBD itself.

  • jon

    I am quite familar with the Providence LINK system which uses CNG faux-trolleys, its not a bad way of getting around downtown and close-in neighborhoods. The nice thing about them is they provide additional service to the 4 main corridors radiating out of the city. Typically the LINK “trolleys” ran every 15 minutes, with other longer bus lines also running along their route. Combined with these bus lines the headways could be brought down to say 8 minutes and better during rush hour. I am less familar with Baltimore but in Providence there definitely was no sense of seperate classes of service. The LINK “trolleys” were used by tourists and suburban day trippers, but also local residents, students and transit riders (as an inner city circulator). I think also most felt the “trolleys” with their wooden benches, limited seating, difficult boarding, goofy look and bumpy ride were worse than the regular buses.

    BTW Providence might make for an interesting TP post as they are looking at a system of 4 smaller “sub-hubs” just outside of downtown to replace the single heart-of-downtown bus hub. Its sort of an interesting concept, not sure how it would work exactly.

  • Good analysis, but you should really differentiate between downtown shuttles that are mostly about look-and-feel — where your concerns about the effect on city buses is valid — and those that really do work with the larger transit system and/or do important high-patronage business. Denver’s 16th St MallRide, for example, has long been partly about bringing people into downtown from commuter bus terminals, where the commuter buses are run by the same transit agency and aren’t that much fancier than local city buses.

    Your “number of lines” column requires me to say again: The number of lines isn’t a measure of the quality or extent of your service, only a measure of its complexity.

    These services often have a value if they run free or cheap while the regular buses charge a fare. Los Angeles downtown DASH, for example, is more complementary to MTA than competing, because MTA bus passenger loads are so high that they prefer not to be carrying the short-trips intra-downtown.

    The real issue about downtown shuttles is that if you’re focused on very short trips, you have to be very frequent, because people won’t wait long to go a short distance. Few of the items on your list rise to that bar — again Denver is the big exception, with a bus on every signal phase at some hours. Inadequate frequency on a shuttle is the best signal that the service is just for show.

  • J

    The cursory list is misleading. The circulator in DC runs until 3am on weekends, while other systems operate ONLY during lunch for example.

    I think duration of service as as important as frequency.

  • Anonymous

    Admittedly the MTA service is different than the Charm City Circulator – it seems obvious that this new green bus service wasn’t supposed to be the same as the old bus service. What would be the point of having more of the same anyway? This new bus line serves a lot of differing segments of population, rather than just being geared to the daily commuter. It’s like thedifference between Industrial Era thinking and Information Age thinking. Some of the segments of population are considered too small of a business niche to consider in other cities, but Baltimore needed to consider all the niche riders because that aspect is what gives the City of Baltimore its charm. Recognizing this, planning for it, and putting it into action makes this bus line unique to the character that’s Baltimore.

    Perhaps this new bus line will challenge the MTA to offer better service to its customers, or at least cleaner bus service. The Charm City Circulator has definately raised the bar!

  • Has anyone looked at the Charm City Circulator route maps? The routes look quite confusing, with the two directions of each route not only splitting up, but also crossing over at points.

  • Wad

    As Jarrett said, in L.A.’s case, the identical counterpart to the Charm City Circulator is the DASH, specifically in downtown L.A.

    It’s a service by the city of Los Angeles, not the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

    Metro Rapid is an entirely different service. It’s the name given to more than two dozen limited-stop lines. The concept, and many Rapid lines, existed for years before that. Rapid and limited-stop buses are designed to relieve overcrowding on local lines, and its target market is for transfer passengers.

  • Excellent article!

    I’d like to see an analysis on what makes some alternative bus networks succeed while others fail. Downtown Los Angeles’s DASH and Anaheim Resort Transit seem to work well and are thriving, while others have fallen flat and largely been cancelled (e.g. Muni’s Culture Bus in San Francisco CA, the Irvine Shuttle, RTA pseudo-trolleys in Riverside CA, Omnitrans’s pseudo-trolleys in Redlands CA).

    The OCTA in Orange County (in California) has started fragmenting our bus service by starting a “Go Local” program that gives money to individual cities to start their own shuttle services and it hasn’t entirely been successful (like the aforementioned Irvine Shuttle). However, they are still doggedly pursuing these projects.

    • GRL

      In the case of RTA (the line I am most familiar with), the issue is one of need. For example, there are two lines that cover the area around the UC Riverside campus. For the most part, these lines cover areas that are fairly easily walkable, negating the need of these lines. The other lines, from what I understand, have similar problems (one seems to serve no purpose other than to attach the county courthouse to a parking lot, for example).

  • Martin

    One problem with the Charm City Circulator is that their schedules aren’t yet integrated into Google Maps. Also, it would help if the buses had a GPS tracking system so riders would know how long they had to wait until the next bus. The city could even build an ad-supported iPhone app with live bus schedule info.

  • Winston, I think you missed my point. I’m totally in favor of differentiated service in general, but it has to be in a modern-looking vehicle. The message should be “look how great transit should be”, not “transit is something you only ride in a theme park”. The former helps the rest of your system, the latter hurts it.

    It’s all about how you carry out your differentiated service.

  • Why don’t they serveo the ferry terminal?

  • Jed

    Martin,

    The Charm City Circulator does have NextBus tracking, at least as of a few days ago. However, it would be helpful to see those arrival signs installed at stops as well, for those without smartphones.

  • Erik H.

    Thanks for this great article.

    This situation occurs right here in Portland, OR with the Portland Streetcar. It’s owned by the City but operated under contract by TriMet, and TriMet does list Streetcar information on the website. However it is marketed as a separate service – the vehicles do not have any TriMet markings whatsoever.

    Many Streetcar riders would never think about riding a TriMet bus, even though TriMet buses serve South Waterfront, downtown and the Pearl and 23rd Avenue districts; in fact it is a bus that travels up and down 23rd Avenue. And TriMet and the City of Portland actually encourage that the Streetcar encourages “choice riders” while the bus system does not.

  • Redrover

    DASH succeeds because it provides good service in the high density (especially of jobs) environment of a large downtown–Downtown Los Angeles. It can be a mile from one part of Downtown LA to another so you need something like DASH. I believe DASH has a pretty good reputation among visitors to Downtown LA as well.

    The Muni Culturebus was completely different–ill-conceived from the start. It took a meandering route around the city. It was not focused on the downtown area. It was based on the premise that visitors want to go from one cultural site to another to another. From what I can tell visitors want to go to a cultural site, then go to lunch, then maybe go to another one or go back to their hotel etc. The Culture Bus fare was $7, for service that largely duplicated existing Muni service with a $2 fare. In San Francisco, unlike many cities, visitors are willing to and encouraged to use the regular Muni system.

  • Rob B.

    I think you can add the Philly Phlash to your list. Nice article.

    http://www.visitphilly.com/tours/philadelphia/phlash/

  • Wad

    Redrover, the key to DASH’s success is to provide a service attractive enough for downtown workers not to drive to lunch.

    The good reputation was kind of an unexpected blessing.

    DASH is run by the city of L.A.’s traffic engineers. They realize the value of the buses and how they prevented the “third rush hour” from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

  • Michael

    These downtown/inner city routes like the Charm City Circulator, are helping to bring quality transit to areas which have seen growth.

    I see nothing wrong with providing a service like this in inner city Baltimore, considering the huge growth in the downtown and surrounding neighbourhood population, etc.
    These areas offer the high density, and high concentration of regional destinations, and critical mass of people, to beed up transit.
    Sad but true, you can not have a bus running every 10 minutes in most parts of Baltimore or any American city, because the density is just not there, with the depopulated neighbourhoods. Once the success of downtown spills beyond the central neighbourhoods, than you will see better transit come on board in the outter areas.

    But it is just natural to start downtown, because it has the critical mass.

  • As someone who lives in Baltimore and has used the new circulator bus, you couldn’t be more wrong with your assessment of its target market.

    The bus service is being marketed to visitors, whether they’re here on business or vacation and then to residents who work downtown and need to get around while they’re at work. I don’t think race was a factor in marketing the service.

    As for the route maps, they’re not confusing if you live here — for tourists, they might be a bit convoluted — but so are most transit system maps, if you’ve never ridden that system before. Also, the drivers seem to really know the city, unlike MTA drivers who (some, not all) don’t seem to know where any of the bus lines go except their own.

    So far this service has been a welcome added convenience to living downtown — I’m looking forward to the opening of the remaining two lines!

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