Baltimore Bus

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


Baltimore to Advance Yellow Line Project Ahead of Metro Extension?

Planned Baltimore Transit System Map» Regional business group suggests a new timeline for transit projects in the city.

Over the past thirty years, Baltimore has expanded its rail system steadily, opening its Metro Subway in 1983, its light rail lines in 1992, and adding extensions to the corridors in 1994 and 1997. Now Maryland’s Department of Transportation, which runs the city’s system, is planning an east-west light rail Red Line that will begin operating as early as 2016 if the state manages to convince the federal government to supply a New Starts transit grant to pay for the project. With that project underway, the city’s leaders are pushing further discussion about the city’s future transit needs. For years, an extension of the Green Line Metro northeast to Morgan State University and Martin State Airport was assumed to be the next step.

But in a recent report, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance described its priorities for transit-oriented investment in the Baltimore region and argued that the state should advance a new north-south Yellow Line connecting Lutherville and Columbia. Its route would partially share the existing Blue Line light rail alignment and add new sections of line in Baltimore and in the suburbs. The group, a coalition of business and non-profit leaders in the area, still argues for the eventual completion of the Green Line, which has been on transit plans since 1966.

The CMTA’s analysis of transit-supportive development, however, suggests that the Yellow Line would be more likely to create a “culture of transit,” according to the president of the organization. The Green Line, they argue, would provide fewer opportunities for redeveloping existing cities.

How meaningful is the group’s endorsement of the Yellow Line? Should the city and state, which have advanced plans for the Metro extension, change their course? Who will benefit from each project’s completion?

The northern section of the Yellow Line, connecting Camden Yards to Lutherville via Charles Center, Johns Hopkins, and Towson, seems like a reasonable investment, putting the latter city 18 minutes away from the Inner Harbor. It would provide better transit to the relatively dense areas along Charles Street, especially the redeveloping zones in Charles Village. It would connect a number of colleges and medical centers to the downtown core. On the other hand, the most productive (southern) portions of this route are planned to be covered by the planned Charles Street Trolley which would be cheaper to build, though slower for users.

The southern portion of the Yellow Line, on the other hand, seems to be another example of the sprawl-inducing transit in which Maryland specializes. While Columbia itself has a relatively “dense” downtown (oriented around a mall), one wonders whether its inhabitants would use a light rail system taking them through Guilford and Dorsey towards BWI Airport, where they would be able to continue on to trains heading into downtown Baltimore. The Yellow Line proposal would give commuters an astonishingly long 1h10 commute between Columbia and downtown Baltimore. The suburbs through which the train would travel may well grow into more transit-friendly communities, but they are likely to retain their auto dependencies.

On the other hand, the extension of the Metro Subway, dubbed the Green Line, would reach up into some of Baltimore’s densest, most transit-deprived, and poorest neighborhoods before heading to White Marsh, which has a growing suburban downtown also centered on a mall. A trip from White Marsh to Charles Center downtown would take 26 minutes. Plans would extend the project to Martin State Airport south from there. A quick review of the route indicates far more potential for infill projects along this line and what would likely be higher ridership. One significant problem: the Metro Subway, being heavy rail, would require a fully separated right-of-way either underground or elevated above the street.

Baltimore, then, has a fundamental problem: should it invest more money in a more productive project, even if it gets fewer route miles out of each buck? Or, should it decide to spend money on light rail, which will attract fewer passengers and provide inferior service, but cost a whole lot less?

Another question that may be worth evaluating: does race and class have a role to play in the CMTA’s route selection? While the Yellow Line’s route would provide service to predominately white and relatively higher-income neighborhoods, the Green Line would serve poor and black communities that have suffered from disinvestment over the years. Is the “culture of transit” for which the group’s president pushes merely an attempt to address the fact that middle class whites in Baltimore do not ride public transportation? Is there no advantage in improving the transportation options of people already dependent on trains and buses?

Rather than focus on choosing to complete either the full Yellow Line or the full Green Line, seemingly the only option offered by the CMTA, Baltimore should refocus on the sections of those projects most likely to be successful. Build the Yellow Line from Camden Yards north to Lutherville but not west from BWI Airport to Columbia. Build the Green Line from the existing terminus of the Metro Subway at Johns Hopkins Hospital to Morgan State University and perhaps White Marsh, but no further. These projects have the most potential for high ridership and would spur the most infill development of those suggested for the city as a whole. A light rail route to Columbia should be last on the list of prioritized investments.

Image above: Baltimore Region Rail System Plan Map, from Baltimore Rail Plan

Baltimore Bus Light Rail Washington DC

Maryland Governor Supports Light Rail for Red and Purple Lines

Both projects were being considered for bus rapid transit service as well.

Yesterday, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D) announced that he would support the use of light rail for new transit projects planned for suburban Washington and inner-city Baltimore. Though not surprising, the governor’s commitment ensures that both corridors will receive the state’s long term support as they’re reviewed by the federal government during the New Starts grants funding process. The choice of light rail over bus rapid transit was both a politically necessary move to apease voters in the state’s two population centers and one that will best serve the transit users in each.

Mr. O’Malley’s dual announcements — in New Carrollton, where the Purple Line will terminate, and in West Baltimore, where the Red Line will head — were the conclusion of a long effort by Marylanders to convince their government to support light rail over bus service. Former Governor Robert Ehrlich (R) had been adamantly in favor of BRT for the Purple Line and had demonstrated little support for the Red Line at all. The state continues to advocate major road construction, symbolized by the destructive and unnecessary Intercounty Connector and planned I-270 expansion. But Mr. O’Malley’s obligation of state support to light rail and his willingness to sacrifice roads funds in favor of transit construction suggests that Maryland may be slowly turning the corner in favor of alternative transportation.

Yet the routes selected and their use of light rail do not come without controversy. Rather, both projects have been lighting rods for local infighting in recent years. The Purple Line, which will run parallel to a popular walking trail and through a number of affluent communities, has been hit with criticism by NIMBYs who would prefer the construction of a less intrusive and less expensive busway to connect Bethesda, Silver Spring, and a number of other northern Washington suburbs.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the Red Line’s route through middle class Canton has raised a number of questions about whether the city’s citizens are more interested in moving about than in keeping certain people out. The neighborhood’s demands for a too-expensive tunnel under their streets have been strident but irrational, stroking fear about the dangers of public transportation in a community whose access to downtown and West Baltimore is quite limited.

To make matters worse, federal cost effectiveness guidelines that determine whether a project will receive support from Washington have required significant cost engineering in Baltimore. Part of the downtown tunnel will be built as only one track, meaning that trains will only be able to run in one direction in that section. This kind of cost reduction strategy is damaging in the long term, and Baltimore should have learned its lesson. When it opened its Central Light Rail line in 1992 and extensions in 1997, it left 9 of the corridor’s 29 miles single-tracked to meet cost guidelines. High ridership required the city to come back and double track the rest of the line more recently — a likely more costly proposition than if the tracks had been added from the beginning.

Even if the state is able to make it past the demands of these community groups and those of federal guidelines, it may not be able to fund both projects. Mr. O’Malley’s commitment suggests that the state will push for light rail along these corridors, but doesn’t indicate that Maryland will do everything necessary to ensure the projects get built. If it wants to demonstrate a commitment to transit, the state has an obligation to find the necessary funds to do so over the next few years.

Baltimore Light Rail

Baltimore Gears Up for Fight on Red Line Transit Plan

Baltimore Red Line Light Rail MapInhabitants of Canton see the line’s proposed route as a potential detriment to their neighborhood’s revival

The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday on the opposition of some residents of the Canton neighborhood of east Baltimore to the proposed routing of the Red Line transit corridor. The line would run 14 miles east-west from Woodlawn west of Baltimore City to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Campus, via downtown. The project, Baltimore’s top public transportation priority and in planning for several years thus far, is currently in the alternatives analysis stage of the New Start federal government funding process. In other words, though if all things go as planned the project would be completed by 2015 or ’16, the final routing of the project has yet to be determined by state planners.

But that doesn’t mean that a clear front-runner amongst the 11 options being considered isn’t yet clear. Rather, among others, Mayor Sheila Dixon (D) has been adamant in her support for the $1.6 billion Alternative 4-C, which would be a light rail system running in a tunnel through downtown and along the surface level along the waterfront in Canton (a section of the proposed alignment is illustrated in the map above). That routing is likely to be picked by the Maryland Transit Administration and to Governor Martin O’Malley (D) for approval this summer.

Other proposed alignments would run along a surface route through downtown and along Eastern Avenue and Fleet Street in Canton or along a tunnel route through both Canton and much of West Baltimore. The first is likely to be ruled out because it would make circulation in downtown a nightmare; the latter is, at $2.5 billion and with the same number of projected riders (around 40,000 a day), simply too expensive. An alignment with only one of the two sides of the city being offered tunnels – a potentially more economical proposition – was not considered because it would probably violate federal non-discrimination rules. West Baltimore is predominantly poor and black; Canton is wealthier and white.

Bus Rapid Transit is also officially being considered, but those involved aren’t interested in providing transit-needy Baltimore with anything less than a full-scale light rail line. The state’s probable decision in favor of light rail for the Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in suburban Washington, D.C. (connecting Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carollton) makes it politically unthinkable to impose a less-desirable BRT system on much poorer Baltimore.

Those in Canton who oppose the 4-C alignment seem to be doing so mostly for NIMBYist reasons. The Sun quotes community dweller Caroline Burkhart saying that “No one wants to live next to a train… Our property value is going to deteriorate.” Another interviewee, however, rightfully makes the point that real estate values near the Washington Metro have only gone up since the system was built. But some in the neighborhood – and in West Baltimore – suggest in the article that they’d prefer no transit service at all to street-running service. In Canton, they’re afraid that light rail trains would block the waterfront from the rest of the city. To them, only tunneled trains are acceptable. But anyone who’s seen the relatively minimal impact of light rail trains along streets in Portland, Dallas, or Minneapolis knows that there’s really nothing to fear.

Running along Baltimore’s increasingly appealing waterfront, the city’s prime economic development tool, the Red Line would be quite good in assuring Canton’s health. Boston Street, along which trains would run, is quite wide, meaning that not only will no land have to be taken to make the project a reality, but also that trains will be able to run both ways along the same right-of-way, not true of the other surface-level alternative. Overall – downtown, in West Baltimore, and in Canton – this line is more likely to be a neighborhood generator than anything else, helping to turn around the fate of a city that has lost population in every Census since 1950, but which has recently been on the upturn (2008 projections show that it may have gained 700 people since 2000).

There are some fundamental flaws with the Red Line proposal, of course. Most importantly, it bungles connections with other existing transit lines in the city: running underground where the existing north-south light rail line runs overground and not intersecting with the Baltimore Metro at all. But it will drastically improve access to the three most bubbling parts of the city: Charles Center and the downtown waterfront, Fells Point, and Canton, each of which already attract lots of traffic and deserve better service. While community opposition to this project is guaranteed at this point, politicians at the city and state levels who have been working hard on getting this program going should not be dissuaded. It’s a worthy endeavor.

Image above: Baltimore Red Line plan, from Maryland Transit Administration

Baltimore Bay Area New York Norfolk Seattle Washington DC

Big News Day: DC, Balto, Seattle, SF, Norfolk, NYC

There’s so much news today, we’re just going to summarize it quickly:

  • There’s increasing support in Baltimore for the construction of the $1.6 billion Red Line light rail system. It will run partially underground, partially overground, and complement the existing light and heavy rail systems in the city.
  • Sound Transit in Seattle got a huge rebate on its plans for an extension of its light rail line underconstruction: bids for the University extension were under estimates by $10 million.