Wednesday, May 4, 2022

How Should the City Fix its Circulator Bus ?

To some the Baltimore Charm City Circulator ("The backbone of any great city is transportation") is nothing but a toy for the young professionals and "creatives" who live in the affluent parts of the City also known as the "white L". A bus system, critics say, that further cements the racial divide in our city. 

To others the City operated transit system was an encouraging signal that Baltimore's city leaders understood that modern urban  transportation really needs good transit and that  catering to the only communities in the city with population growth was a sustainable smart move featuring an environmentally friendly local transit system that was fueled by electricity, paid by car owners who park in downtown parking garages, and was fun to use. 

The Circulator: Continued ridership losses over the years
(Source: BCDOT)

The original mission of the Circulator was to avoid further downtown parking garages by better utilizing peripheral parking and connecting parking with a free shuttle that would get people from there to their workplace or to downtown shopping and restaurants. The mission was clearly downtown centered and not intended to serve neighborhoods or compete with MTA bus service.

The existing Circulator routes are concentrated inside the "White L"
and barely touch disadvantaged neighborhoods (City graphic)

But the initial Circulator fan base slowly evaporated when a series of calamites struck:

  • the "green" electric buses failed and had to be replaced with used diesels, 
  • a DOT employee in charge of the bus system was caught embezzling funds, 
  • the City wound up suing the operator (Veolia/Transdev) over a dispute about the contractual service obligations 
  • the City hired an outfit mostly known for running limousine services which had neither the required operator training nor the right buses. 
Parallel, the system suffered from "mission creep", cost went up but ridership didn't. To please various constituents the routes had been expanded to a point that operations used more money than the parking revenue surcharge yielded, even if one doesn't count the unexpected cost of the replacement buses. With each trouble the ridership dwindled. When finally enough replacement buses were in place (24 buses are now fully City owned), operators trained and things were running again on all four routes, COVID struck, some service was suspended, ridership plummeted even further. 
Trip purpose: Most trips are not for going to work


The voices demanding a fix for the non equitable, unreliable, money losing and no longer fun to use system became louder. 

No wonder then, that Director Sharkey's new DOT has set out to reform the Circulator and put it into the context of all the other modes the City manages, namely the Harbor Connector boats and the bike and scooter-share systems which DOT licenses. The new BCDOT created a  TDP Transit Advisory Committee Meeting that had six meetings to date, minutes and materials are posted online. Representation on the committee included agencies such as BMC, BDC, DOT and MTA as well as transit advocates such as Transit Choices, the Transit Equity Coalition, the Charles Street Development Corporation, the South Baltimore Gateway partnership, the Downtown and the Waterfront Partnerships and Johns Hopkins University. The creation of the committee and MTA's presence at the deliberations were promising signs of collaboration.

BCDOT also created a separate website "streetsofbaltimore.com" where one can find various city transportation initiatives such as The Baltimore City Transit Development Plan (TDP), i.e. the reform of the Circulator bus in the form of a "StoryMap" (which requires quite a bit computing horsepower to run smoothly). 

The Baltimore City Transit Development Plan (TDP) is a planning process that will develop a five-year transit investment strategy for the Charm City Circulator bus service. The Plan will identify opportunities where the Charm City Circulator service can improve efficiency and equity. This TDP includes analyses of unmet needs, potential route changes to address those needs, and short- and long-term operating plans for the service. (website)

One would think that the reform plans would be mostly driven by ridership, i.e. by supporting the services the most that attract the most riders today. By that metric the Purple Route going up and down the "White L" from Johns Hopkins University to Federal Hill is most successful with 1,548 riders a day and the Green Line with its circuitous attempts of reaching into disadvantaged areas on the est is failing with its mere 181 riders a day. The second worst performer, the Banner Route has 269 riders.

The proposed "optimized route" system: 
Extensions into the "Black Butterfly" (City graphic)

But in a  sharply divided city where everyone is suspicious about what the other one is doing, simply cutting low performing routes would be too simple. Looking at the proposed map, the City has taken the accusation that the system wasn't equitable to heart by planning extensions into the wings of the "black butterfly areas", i.e. the parts of Baltimore that have high percentages of poverty and low car ownership. With that, the City also decided that they won't try to cover the operating cost through parking surcharges which means that a portion is funded from the general fund, i.e. by regular tax dollars. This approach towards more equity contrasts sharply with ideas that MTA had provided some time ago in an attempt to avoid service duplication between the the two transit systems. MTA contributes a small portion of the operating costs and isn't sympathetic to the notion that the City should just run better transit than the State agency and make thus make up for the shortcomings of the CityLink bus system. 
Adjusting the Circulator routes with the goal of equity in mind is a good thing. But the proposed adjustments are only on the margins and the system was originally designed with other legitimate goals. Combining those different goals creates potentially a Frankenstein monster that doesn’t accomplish any of the goals effectively. Brian O’Malley, CMTA).  
On April 26 the City presented a proposed "optimized" new route map and presented the analysis and ideas that lead to the suggested map. The "Optimization Proposal", presumably has taken into account the essence of comments gathered in the past. The website describes the optimization this way:
The Transit Development Plan is proposing improvements to current routes as well as operations improvements of the Charm City Circulator to expand transit access for key equity zones within the city and improve access of transit to job centers not currently served. These proposals include:
Extending the service’s weekday hours so that buses start running at 6 a.m. instead of the current start time of 7 a.m.
Adjusting weekend hours from 9 a.m.-9 p.m., rather than the current 9 a.m.-midnight period on Saturdays and 9 a.m.-8 p.m. on Sundays.
The routes go deeper into the black butterfly areas, the Banner Route was eliminated and the new Cherry Route connects Cherry Hill. Public comments on the website welcome the access to Cherry Hill, decry the loss of the Banner Route to Locust Point and the proposed earlier shut down in the evening. Of course, it isn't a given that ridership will shift as much as the routes. A survey on the current system indicated that only 6% of all riders earned under $30k annually while over 45% earned over $75 k, a stark contrast to the ridership profile on MTA buses. Even though by far the most frequently requested improvement of the survey has been increased service frequency (61%), better headways are not part of the draft improvement package. To the contrary, the headways on the Orange Line will increase by 2 minutes. One third of respondents wanted to see longer weekend evening service, what the proposed system would provide is an earlier shut-down at 9pm instead of midnight. 

Predictably, there is little public concern with how the expanded system would be funded. There is a comment from somebody who plans to move here who suggests based on her current hometown that institutions served by the routes should contribute. It should, indeed, be part of the discussion why Hopkins, for example, runs its own buses up Charles Street and still wants the Circulator to drop people off at the doorsteps of the University, a duplication Baltimore's transit system can ill afford. The expanded services are estimated to cost $2 m per year in added operating cost. The City hopes to get additional funds from the federal infrastructure bill and considers the TDP a step in that direction. Current funding includes, local, state (MDOT/MTA) and federal money. 

Asked for this article about the proposed routes and if MTA is in agreement with them, Administrator Arnold provided the following response for MTA:

The Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) supports local transit operations in all 23 counties and Baltimore City.  In FY21 and FY22, MDOT MTA provided Baltimore City with $1.6 million for eligible operating expenses for the Charm City Circulator.  The budget allocation also provides $1.6 million in funding for FY23.

 

While MDOT MTA provides support to local jurisdictions in the development of their local transit operations, decisions relating to service levels, hours of operation, and areas served for the Charm City Circulator remain the responsibility of Baltimore City Department of Transportation.

This map is labeled "Possible Long Term Service": Adding a Poe
Route

The improvement menu of the TDP is interesting for what it does not address:
  • Even in its longer view is also mum on the question how the bus can be better integrated with the other modes that the City operates, the water taxi (Harbor Connector) and the bikes and scooters.
  • Even less is there a hint about the City's transit in a future time when there would be a regional transit authority, something the Mayor and DOT supports. 
  • The electrification of buses as part of the City's sustainability strategies isn't on the menu either
  • nor is an outlook towards autonomous buses and how they could be ideal for short range circulator systems where they are already operating on an experimental base in some cities. 
  • The license with the current Circulator operator will run out soon, but no strategy how a future service agreement should be framed has been part of the Transit Development Plan.
The suggested route changes are not yet final, comments are still possible. Public response is still expected until May 13. Comments can be placed online or emailed to StreetsofbaltimoreTDP@wrallp.com, a clear hint that the consultant Whitman Requardt has been commissioned with running the public engagement. 

If the changes would be similar to the draft, the City owned Circulator's equity pivot would move the Charm bus into uncharted territory with the assumption that poor and non-motorized Baltimore residents would flock to the free service and that the earlier start hours would entice low wage workers to use the free ride while the bulk of the current more affluent non-work riders on the Purple Line would continue to use the buses. If the MTA bus system gives any indication, "choice riders" (those who are not dependent on buses for their mobility) are hard to come by on a system dominated by transit dependent riders. This is especially true now, when transit around the country are still struggling to get the riders back they lost under COVID, in part for fear of infection, in part because of work from home shifts, in part because a large part of the entertainment sector had shut down. Around the country circulator type bus systems complement larger scale public transit as a short trip, hop-on, hop-off addition that fills a small scale mobility need one level up from scooter and bicycle share systems. It isn't clear that the proposed Baltimore Circulator routes stay in their lane, i.e. complementing MTA routes instead of competing with them. 

The implementation of Circulator service changes are expected to occur in the Spring/Summer of 2024. According to BCDOT "the implementation phase of the TDP includes the planning and finalization of bus stop locations, the design and construction needed for the new bus stops, and the installation of improvements at current stops. This time frame also includes federal and city regulatory requirements regarding public outreach and notification about the planned transit changes."

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

the article was update for the MTA quote 5/5/22

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