Jacques Kelly: Time to take a refresher course in bus routes

A system to identify buses and their routes, used for more than a century in Baltimore, ends this weekend. How often have we said, "I'm taking the No. 8 downtown," or "I caught a 15 on Belair Road"? And while the superstitious may be wary of anything labeled 13, that number has long been synonymous with North Avenue and its crosstown buses.

A long-overdue reform of Baltimore's public bus routes means that those of us who travel the system will have to take a refresher course. I find that one of my ways home will now become the Silver Route — no number at all.

Baltimore's transit-numbering system goes back to the streetcars used at the turn of the last century. I consulted a 1902 guidebook and found that the streetcar-numbering system of that time remained in effect pretty much until today as bus routes. Streetcars going to Towson, for example, were numbered consecutively, from 801 to 899, and also carried a destination sign giving the particulars of the route.

And while some of the transit numbers and routes have remained as unchanged as July's heat and humidity, others have simply vanished.

The 1902 guide reveals there was once a streetcar, a No. 25, to Emory Grove in Glyndon. The same streetcar took pleasure-seekers to Electric Park, an amusement oasis with outdoor cafes on West Belvedere Avenue.

The book says that cars numbered 1201 to 1299 traveled along John Street, today a sleepy Bolton Hill thoroughfare. I doubt that the transportation czars of 1902 actually assigned 99 cars to this jerkwater route, which appears to have disappeared before World War II.

Some of the 1902 routes defy easy explanation. The No. 4, for example, is listed simply as "Edmondson Avenue and Monument Street and Gwynn Oak." That's some trolley ride. Better pack a lunch.

As any daily bus rider knows, the test of transit reliability lies in meeting its published schedules. A look at old streetcar schedules reveals how plentiful the cars were — and that most advertised service was built around waits of no more than seven or eight minutes.

In planning the BaltimoreLink system that goes into effect Sunday, transit planners decided to simplify routes (adding to reliability) and make them recognizable by colors. There's a whole palette of transportation hues being used to identify these routes.

As the MTA color-codes its routes, the workhorse Greenmount-York Road service becomes the CitiLink Red. This may seem like an innovation to Baltimore, but wait a minute.

Baltimore's streetcars once had different paint schemes, although the colors had nothing to do with indicating routes. We had streetcars that came in red, green and yellow in the 1940s — whatever colors they were given in the factory. Those that traveled down Dundalk Avenue to Sparrows Point were dubbed the Red Rockets.

About 1958, by the time I dropped a my first dime in the No. 29 fare box (a bus that traveled Calvert and St. Paul streets into Roland Park), all vehicles were a uniform yellow. They soon went to green, which morphed into blue. Buses today have returned to a variety of colors; the more recent models sport the colors of the Maryland flag, and that's a lot of hues.

And come to think of it, changes in route designations are really nothing new. My old 29 changed to the No. 6, then, about 40 years ago, it became a 61.

Come Monday morning, it'll be the LocalLink 95.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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