Baltimore still lags behind civilization in lacking an integrated, comprehensive mass transit system. Decades of general stupidity have left the city with a mishmash of buses and trains, and the need for carless folks to learn a lot of science in order to get where they’re going efficiently. But it can be done. Here’s how to manage it.
Charm City Circulator: Free, clean, mostly efficient and timely—with only a little phone-snatching and other crime—the Circulator is far and away the easiest way to make one's way from Station North to the harbor (Purple Route), or from Fells to the west-side attractions (Orange Route). You can sign up for mobile alerts and there's even an app available to keep you in tune with the buses' changing routes and occasional delays (including those on the related water taxis). In the summer, the Circulator runs Monday-Thursday: 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday: 6:30 a.m.-midnight, Saturday: 9 a.m.-midnight and Sunday: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Winter hours are an hour shorter on weekdays and Sundays, with service ending at 8 p.m.
There are drawbacks: You can't bring your bike (or a stroller or scooter), unless it's foldable; the Banner Route out to Fort McHenry is a little weaker in the off months; and there are all kinds of temporary stop closings and detours while the roads get torn up for new water mains and such. But you can't avoid that sort of thing without a jetpack anyway.
Then there's the Harbor Connector boats between Maritime Park and Tide Point and Canton Waterfront Park and Tide Point and Harbor View—Harbor East, extending the Orange Route from Fells Point East in a way that should delight tourists and locals alike. At least from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. on weekdays during the three non-winter seasons.
Water Taxi: The water taxi runs from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday during the summer. Throughout the rest of the year the hours are scaled back but weather permitting the boats will run. New for this year (maybe) is an electric-powered boat to reduce your carbon footprint even more. A one-way ticket costs $7 (not including the optional 50 cents insurance) but an all-day adult pass is $12 and the two commuter routes to and from Tide Point are free as part of the Circulator routes. Get route maps and schedules at its website.
Local Bus: For $1.60 per trip or $3.50 for a day pass you can always take MTA buses. There are 47 local buses, four limited-stop routes (known as QuickBus), and 4 express bus routes (which operate 24 hours from various suburbs to downtown Baltimore). They generally run from 5 a.m. until 1 a.m. and though the MTA is still subject to complaints about on-time service—particularly the Ol' 27 bus (Cromwell Street to Reisterstown Plaza) and the 3 (Cromwell Bridge Rd. to Inner Harbor)—the system is by far the city's most comprehensive, with route information available at mta.maryland.gov/local-bus. Still, if you're heading to the ball park or the airport, the light rail is the easiest and most convenient, while east-west in-city commuters have the metro subway.
Light Rail: Running from Hunt Valley in the north to BWI Airport, the Light Rail is among your best north-south options. It runs from 5 a.m. to midnight on weekdays, 6 a.m. to midnight Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday. Cars are usually neither too crowded—except on O's or Ravens game days—nor too empty.
Metro Subway: The east-west Light Rail route in Baltimore (well, mostly just west) is the subway, which a lot of people don't seem to know is there. Running from Johns Hopkins Hospital on the east all the way out to Owings Mills in the west, the subway stops at Charles Center, State Center, Lexington Market, Mondawmin Mall, and other places you might want to get to. But it does not connect to the Light Rail at all—or to the MARC or Amtrak trains at Penn Station. Just because.
Trains: If you are heading to D.C. or points north there is the MARC (mta.maryland.gov/marc-train), which runs two lines out of Baltimore now, including weekend runs on Saturday and Sunday, all for the same $7 it costs to go to work Monday-Friday or a few bucks more. Better yet: If you already have a monthly pass, your weekend trips cost $0 additional. But beware: The last MARC out of D.C. on Saturday night leaves at 10:35. You can also take Amtrak (amtrak.com), whose Acela has reached new ridership levels despite its prices. Pretty much everything leaves out of Penn Station in midtown.
Interstate Bus: Greyhound (greyhound.com) serves Baltimore from 2110 Haines St., a couple miles south of downtown at a relatively isolated location off Russell Street. Cheaper and frequently more-reliable alternatives for getting to New York are the Bolt Bus (boltbus.com) which leaves from Penn Station and the Megabus (us.megabus.com) with service from White Marsh. These are the higher-quality successors to the Fung-Wah Chinatown buses, most of which were shut down for safety violations a couple years ago.
Taxi Cabs: Baltimore is not as well-taxied as New York or other mega cities but you can usually get a car from a bar or hotel, even if you have to wait 20 or 30 minutes for it to show up, and you can flag them down if you're in a busy area. There is Yellow, Checker, Baltimore City Taxi (baltimorecitytaxi.com), Arrow (arrowcabmd.com), and Jimmy's. Rates are high and regulated. If you see a meter moving real fast, call the Public Service Commission and enjoy the show.
Ride-Shares: For the past year Baltimore has seen an influx of new pseudo cabs from Uber, UberX, and Lyft. These ride-sharing apps allow you to summon a car and driver with your smartphone, and then pay them with it in a seamless transaction. Uber rates are pretty high and can go very high during times of peak demand, but the reviews so far are mainly good. Lyft, which employs part-time drivers in their own vehicles, claims paying is voluntary but suggests the rate. Neither company follows all the rules applied to cab companies, which is both good and bad, depending on your perspective. Lawsuits and Public Service Commission hearings are all pending.
By Car: Baltimore is pretty good town for driving a car, if you have one, and the Zipcar option (zipcar.com/baltimore/find-cars) is one many forward-looking people are taking up. The company has depots all around the central city, out toward the east side and in Arbutus. Parking can be tricky though: Read the signs and the arrows—all of them, including any street sweeping-related restrictions. The sweeper may or may not come; the ticket almost always will. Parking rates in Baltimore are reasonable, even in the downtown garages, but if you're heading to one of the popular or touristy areas—Canton, Federal Hill, or Fells Point—do your best to leave the car home, or at least somewhere outside the neighborhood, where street parking isn't so rare. Parking in midtown and taking the circulator downtown is a pretty easy way to do that. If you're out late you can always cab it back. But if you absolutely must drive your own car down to the place where everyone else is already trying to park theirs, another option is to check into Parking Panda (parkingpanda.com/baltimore-parking), a Baltimore-based driveway-sharing app that lets you reserve a legal parking space—either on a commercial lot or in a private space—for a fee you can see ahead of time.
Bike: This is not a bike city. The roads are rough, there are few dedicated bike lanes, and there are neighborhoods that are dangerous. And most car drivers here are dangerous to two-wheelers. Still, things have been improving for the past half-decade, with new signage, "sharrows," and even a city ordinance requiring street drainage grates to be turned so bike tires won't fall in them. Consultants are look at allowing bikes all along the waterfront promenade (they're banned now on most of it). Fort Avenue now has a bike lane from Jackson out to Fort McHenry, and Penn and Camden stations now have bike racks and a pump station (flats being a common thing on city roads). For a few years we've been waiting for a New York-style "bike share" system to roll out, but it looks like we'll have to wait another year for that. The Baltimore Bike Party (baltimorebikeparty.com) brings the monthly party on bikes to raise awareness that large groups of bicyclists can pretty much overwhelm car drivers and other users of the road, if only for a couple hours on a Friday night. Last we checked they were still operating under "West Coast Rules," meaning "stop at red lights," which would seem to make a lot of sense. Check the website if you want to ride. It's free to ride and cheap to drink beer or wine.
By Foot: Walking is also very possible in most of the city. Sober, daylight walkers are seldom accosted criminally and the scenery—in terms of architecture, smells, and even music and other entertainment—will improve your day. At night, better to walk in a group.