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Charm City Circulator ridership plunges after bumpy transition to new operator

Charm City Circulator ridership plunges after bumpy transition to new operator
(Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Ridership on Baltimore’s free Charm City Circulator shuttles plummeted by nearly half in the year ended June 30, following a shake-up in bus vendors that resulted in a shortage of buses and gaps in service, coupled with the launch of dockless electric scooters in the city.

Passengers took about 1.27 million trips on the four-route system downtown in the city’s 2019 fiscal year, down 48% from the 2.4 million trips in the prior fiscal year, according to data provided by the Baltimore City Department of Transportation.

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The Department of Transportation believes its ridership data for the Circulator is misleading due to the change in vendors last October, said German Vigil, a department spokesman. For the service’s first four months under RMA Worldwide, he said, “we weren’t counting the number of riders.”

“With the change of the vendor and the way that it occurred, we’re showing that there was inconsistent ridership data," Vigil said. "We’re reaching out to both companies to see if we can get a better count of true ridership numbers.”

But Charles Penny, the city’s chief of transit, acknowledged the difficulties with the service at a Transit Choices Coalition meeting Thursday.

“Last year, we really did struggle because of confusion with our operations," Penny said. "Some people just didn’t know if the Circulator was running. They didn’t recognize the buses. We understand that. We’re working through that. But that is part of the reason you’re seeing some of the drop-off.”

It’s not the first time the system’s ridership has been in question. An October 2018 audit found that the department could not provide documentation for its Circulator ridership estimates in 2016 and 2017.

City officials have blamed the recent bus shortage on the Circulator’s previous operator, Transdev, for failing to perform the required maintenance on the city-owned buses. Baltimore declined to renew Transdev’s contract last fall and sued the company, alleging it had overbilled the city $20 million for thousands of hours the service had not operated since 2010.

Baltimore City Circuit Court Associate Judge Wanda Keys Heard dismissed the lawsuit against Transdev in December, although the city has appealed the decision, according to court records.

RMA Worldwide Transportation, a Rockville-based chauffeur service, was the only other applicant for the Circulator contract after the city chose to allow Transdev’s previous contract to expire without renewal, Penny said.

Baltimore Sun interns raced to BWI to see what was the fastest (& most cost-effective) means of travel: ride share, light rail, MARC train or driving yourself.

Circulator service was disrupted during the transition to the new operator. Two of the system’s four routes were suspended without notice on RMA’s first day running the system, which officials attributed to a shortage of buses that had undergone safety testing.

And RMA Worldwide initially had not trained all its drivers as required and had contracted another shuttle company to run one of the four routes because of the bus shortage, officials acknowledged in response to reporting by The Baltimore Sun in March.

Baltimore paid RMA Worldwide $3.4 million under an extended emergency contract to run the service before awarding the company a three-year, $26 million contract last month to be the Circulator’s permanent operator.

The city owns 12 Circulator buses and is leasing six cut-away minibuses from RMA, Penny said. Only 10 to 12 of those are out on streets on any given day, Penny said, “because of the constant maintenance issues that we’re having.”

“That’s part of the reason we had to purchase new vehicles,” he said.

The city has set aside more than $1 million for upgrades to its current buses and has ordered six additional buses, which will arrive in November or December, with two new ones coming per year after that, he said.

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The city eventually wants to have 18-24 buses running on the system, arriving every 10 to 15 minutes, he said.

Penny said he did not know whether subcontractors are still helping RMA Worldwide run the system. Kevin Polite, RMA’s general manager of the Circulator, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Circulator also will undergo a rebranding, with new bus wraps, improved technology and other upgrades to celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, Penny said.

“We’re hoping to have the fleet in a better place than where it is right now around March, February of next year,” he said.

The debut of dockless electric scooters in Baltimore also likely took a bite out of Circulator ridership, Penny said. The scooters have been popular: More than a quarter of a million rides were taken on them in the first month of Baltimore’s dockless scooter pilot program and many more are on the street now.

The electric Bird and Lime scooters have become wildly popular since they hit Baltimore streets but some riders are discovering they can be hazardous. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)

Charm City Circulator ridership peaked at nearly 4.4 million in the 2014 fiscal year and already had slid by 44 percent over the ensuing five years before last year’s drop, according to DOT data. Of all the routes, only the Banner, which runs between Fort McHenry and the Inner Harbor, has seen increased ridership, Penny said.

Despite the drop in ridership, none of the system’s routes, which have faced planned cutbacks and cancellation in the past, are being altered or eliminated, Penny said. The city uses general funds and parking revenue to pay for the free bus system, which runs at a deficit.

“All the routes are staying as-is,” he said.

The year-to-year drop in ridership is “dubious," given the service disruption and bus shortage, said Sandy Sparks, a member of the Charles Village Civic Association and longtime rider and supporter of the Circulator.

But Sparks, who attended Thursday’s presentation, was happy to hear the city’s plans to move ahead with a new contract, new buses and a new branding campaign.

“They really have made a commitment with the new contract,” she said. “If they were going to kill the Circulator, it would’ve happened by now.”

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