There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there is a free ride to it.
After several months of seeing the Charm City Circulator loop east and west across downtown, I tried it out the other day. It was tax day, actually, so while the Tea Party types were protesting government spending, I was taking advantage of it.
But surely even a tea partier would have to approve of the circulator, which funnels parking taxes to a bus that helps you avoid paying parking taxes?
I had my own doubts about it, watching its halting development. First proposed by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon a couple of years ago, the bus literally got off to a late start — its debut in January was six months later than initially planned. The first route linking Harbor East to Hollins Market seemed like one of those twains that never would meet any other way: Does someone living in one of those pricey waterfront condos need a free shuttle bus to go shop across town at the Gucci Goodwill?
Plus, the circulators always seemed mostly empty when I would see them heading east on Pratt or west on Lombard. It seemed like one of those government boondoogles, where you could just take all that funding and give riders the cab fare instead to get them wherever they were going.
But four months in, the shuttle seems to have found riders. Jamie Kendrick, the city's deputy transportation director, says ridership that he expected would average 1,200 a day is up to about 1,400 a day — and goes even higher when there's a convention in town or an Orioles home game.
It was quite well ridden the day I decided to test it out — there were commuters heading to or from work, workers from the University of Maryland Baltimore campus or biotech park grabbing lunch at Harborplace, tourists from the Harbor East or downtown hotels heading to the B&O Museum and other attractions along the line.
Riding it is much more akin to being on a tourist coach, with cushy seats and a smooth ride, rather than a groaning, exhaust-spewing city bus. (The circulator buses are eco-friendly hybrids.) Not much waiting on the street, since they come about every 10 minutes, or to get on board since there's no fumbling for the exact change.
I actually felt a little guilty not paying anything, like I'd jumped the turnstile. Instead, we passengers were a rolling band of freeloaders. One woman told me she was saving $20 a day on parking at her job. Parking should be expensive, and public transit cheap — you want to discourage driving, particularly downtown — but should it be free?
Kendrick says in this case, yes. "It's not that one dollar or two dollars is a lot of money," he said of charging for the circulator. "But it's a psychological barrier."
People who normally won't take public transit will give it a whirl for free, he says, and then maybe they'll be converted. "It's important to change the culture of transit."
The circ will cost about $5.6 million to operate every year once it's fully operational, and most of that will come from parking taxes and developer fees. The city is using capital funds to buy the buses, but Kendrick says that even though the system won't make a profit, there will be benefits in less pollution and congestion. And the free shuttle has already helped the city sell itself to conventions.
I'm sold too, but while I'm charmed by the city circulator, for now it's a fun but entirely fabricated ride for me — there's no logical scenario under which I'd walk about a half-mile from my office to catch the circ, take it to the Hollins market for lunch then hop back on it to shop a bit in Harbor East before heading back downtown and another half-mile walk back to work.
But Kendrick had a bit of news for those who, like me, live and work on more of a north-south axis: the purple line, from Federal Hill to Penn Station will be next to go operational, in early May. The green line, a route that goes from City Hall to Fells Point then up to the Hopkins medical campus, won't start up until mid-summer.