» 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.
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)|
|* 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