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|
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.
|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)
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).
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 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|
- 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.