Kaid Benfield Archive


Free downtown transit could be the key to economic investment

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 22, 2010 at 12:45PM

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  Orange Route, Charm City Circulator (by: Charm City Circulator)

Last week Baltimore launched the Charm City Circulator, a free bus route that connects the city’s downtown with neighborhoods east and west and with other transit routes.  At a time when many transit providers are having to cut back on service, Baltimore is betting that the new service will entice economic activity.

Even better, the Circulator has a dedicated lane through congested areas and, by putting seven buses on the Orange Route (route above), the first of three planned, free Circulator routes, the city will be able to offer service at 10-minute headways.  a Charm City Circulator bus (by: Charm City Circulator)Neighborhoods served by the Orange Route, in addition to downtown, include the city’s popular Inner Harbor, Little Italy, and the University of Maryland’s Baltimore campus.  The fleet consists of environmentally friendly diesel-electric hybrids.

Writing on the web site Autopia, Zach Rosenberg reports that the system is funded by a 16 percent tax on parking, which will raise about $5 million annually, and that its underlying logic is compelling:

“Despite the high costs and massive subsidies implicit in driving, forking over a relatively small fee to ride a bus or subway is a psychological barrier to getting people out of cars. Even the most efficiently run buses can be crowded and slow, but by running at frequent intervals on dedicated lanes between fixed stops — as the Circulator does — delays can be kept to a minimum. The bus might not stop next to, or even near, every rider’s point of origin or destination, but it ensures a measure of proximity for most riders.”

  The Charm City Circulator’s own web site stresses the environmental benefits:

City Hall, Fells Point, and Johns Hopkins will be served by the Green Route (by: Charm City Circulator)“We service residents, downtown employees, students and tourists and anyone else who wishes to ride. The shuttle is intended to reduce congestion and greenhouse gas pollution by offering a convenient, reliable and eco-friendly form of public transportation.

“We’re not only dedicated to offering a stellar form of public transportation that links critical parts of the city—we are interested in doing it in the cleanest way possible. That’s why we’ve chosen 21 DesignLine 2009 EcoSaver IV LF Hybrid Electric vehicles—the first fleet of this type in a major metropolitan area. The Charm City Circulator is one part of Mayor Dixon’s vision of a ‘cleaner, greener Baltimore.’”

The Orange Route serves an east-west corridor, as can be seen above.  When introduced, the Purple Route will serve a north-south corridor will run all the way from Penn Station in the north to Federal Hill in the south. The U-shaped Green Route will run from City Hall down through Fells Point and then up to the Johns Hopkins University’s East Baltimore campus (see photo set).  The routes intersect each other at several points and also connect to other forms of transit, including trains, light rail, buses and water taxis.

Portland has long had a free downtown zone for its regular light rail service, but has had to cut back recently to address budget shortfalls.  Several cities in Europe have free transit zones.  Washington has popular circulator bus routes that link downtown with nearby neighborhoods and that link to but are operated separately from the main Metro transit system; the DC Circulator is not free, however, but operates on a reduced fare system.  Baltimore's bold venture into free transit service is an exciting initiative well worth following.