Circulator bus grows, attracts mix of riders

Baltimore's free bus, the Charm City Circulator, takes on its newest destination next week, Fort McHenry. Beginning Monday, the route known as the Banner will begin linking riders from Light Street through the harbor and South Baltimore and Locust Point to the fort's gates. It will traverse a renovated Fort Avenue Bridge, which neighborhood activist Karen Johns successfully clamored to have repaired, in time for the Sailabration festivities this month.

I've watched this novel bus system operate for nearly 30 months. And while I was initially a skeptic — could Baltimore provide a free and reliable service, even though the paid, state-run bus operation can be so frustrating? — the circulator has done its job and delivered reasonable service. It also has grown. There is a free weekday-only water shuttle, too. The water version is new to me; I'll need more time to investigate its trips from Tide Point and Canton.

I spent some time this week reriding the circulator's routes and making a few notes. In my 54 years as a local transit rider, I've boarded a lot of buses. Maybe it's the no-fare policy, but the people on the circulator seem happier than their counterparts on the MTA. Maybe because on interconnected routes that stretch from Hopkins Hospital (east) to the Hollins Market (west) and Penn Station (north) to Fort McHenry (south), riders expect less and are delighted when the service is as good as what they encounter.

The circulator showcases the downtown Baltimore that has been rebuilt in the past four decades. The buses do not visit many places of urban decay. On historic Charles Street, these coaches move along with a hop-on and hop-off crowd. A packed bus travels a stop or two, then it disgorges its passengers and a new set steps on. The circulator has become a feeder to Penn Station, too, where it connects with MARC commuters and Bolt Bus and Amtrak passengers.

The Circulator passenger mix is striking. I saw wait staff who often carry uniforms or white shirts on hangers as they go to jobs. Tourists seem awed by a free ride to some of Baltimore's newish boutique hotels that are a good hike, often up the Charles Street hill, from the harbor. Seniors on grocery trips ride two stops to their homes. You also see plenty of parents with baby carriages.

The days I rode, there were also many city students. I shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversations and smiled at their after-school enthusiasm. A group of high school girls boarded near Ashland Avenue. They were talking about how they were applying to Virginia Commonwealth University.

I made a few notes on the beginning days of the summer tourist season. Somebody is watering the flowers and grass at downtown's gardened plots. From a bus seat, the city appears busy.

I encountered a few city-dwelling friends on the bus. A pair from Eastern Avenue used the crosstown Orange Line to get from Central Avenue to Howard Street light rail to the airport. I'd bite my fingernails, worrying about missing connections to a Florida flight.

No problem, they assured me and whipped out an iPhone with a downloaded application for the Circulator. The buses are equipped with sensors that tell a tech-savvy person when to expect the next arrival. The three of us timed our trip across Lombard Street, and despite the usual rush-hour traffic, we made the destination at the time predicted by the phone app. They picked up their luggage and boarded the MTA's light rail for the airport. For this trip to the airport, they paid a total of $3.20 for two (for light rail) — a price to delight any cost-conscious Baltimorean.

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