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After years of driving and parking, getting back on the bus

For the first time in many years, I've been taking the bus on a regular basis again, and I have a few things to say about it. But first, a moment of awe: The drivers who work for the Maryland Transit Administration, at least those I've seen in action, do one thing, as a matter of routine, that I find awesome: They bring a 40-foot bus to rest within half an inch of the curb without touching it. I haven't seen the tires rub yet, and I'm always watching for it.

Some drivers can put the tires within a whisker of the curb as they come to a halt. I've complimented a couple of them on the skill, and they've smiled their appreciation.

I realize the drivers do this hundreds of times a day, but still, the smooth glide into a bus stop, delivering the door to passengers waiting at the curb, constitutes admirable public service, and I think it should be noted.

Three years ago, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a coalition of business and civic groups that pushes for more transportation options throughout the region, conducted a nine-month Rate-Your-Ride survey of bus and train riders.

No. 1 on the Gripe-o-Meter was tardiness: trains or buses showing up late.

So, of course, people who've been taking the bus a lot longer than I probably don't care about the abilities of drivers to slide up to a curb without scraping the tires. It only counts if the bus is on time.

But I have to say, two months into my effort to be a regular MTA rider, I've only been disappointed a couple of times by buses not being where they were supposed to be — and both times, the bus was early, not late.

I swear, both times.

Both times, the bus I had hoped to catch rolled past my stop, one at least five minutes ahead of schedule. I'm pretty sure about this because I've been watching the clock and taking notes.

But that's really my only complaint in two months of daily use of the bus in the central part of the city.

Before I go further, an acknowledgment: I have only tried three different routes, and mostly in Baltimore's north-south corridor. I have only taken a transfer once. My rides have not been complicated. I've taken the bus to different locations downtown and on the north side of the city, during morning rush hour, midmorning, midafternoon and after the evening rush. None of the buses ran more than seven minutes later than scheduled. In fact, many were on time — in my book, within a minute of a scheduled stop.

All but one of the buses was clean. The exception was a bus in which passengers had left a small pile of plastic bottles.

All the drivers were friendly enough, and they all were responsive and helpful to the many disabled passengers in wheelchairs who boarded their vehicles. (Riding the bus certainly gives you more awareness of the number of people with amputated legs who live in the city and rely on the MTA.)

All the buses were air-conditioned and there were adequate seats on each of my trips.

So ... so far, so good with my experiment in public transportation. I had not taken the MTA on a regular basis in forever, and now that I've tried it again, I feel foolish for not getting back on the bus sooner.

Part of this had to do with the nature and pace of my work and the need for an automobile. But with use of the MTA's online schedule, I now see greater possibilities for using the bus to get around town.

I mention this to give others the idea. If you haven't looked into the MTA buses in a while, you might want to give it a try. You can find online schedules and maps for all the MTA's bus lines. With a rechargeable Charm Card you can swipe your way onto the bus and not have to worry about carrying cash for the fare. At $3.20 round-trip per day, the MTA certainly beats burning gas and paying to park.

The Rate-My-Ride feature is still in place, allowing passengers to review the service they receive and compare notes on the various lines.

What MTA riders need are real-time reports of the progress of buses.

The Charm City Circulator has something like this now — an app that tells you how far off the next bus is. The light rail system rolled out a "next train arrival" program in May ( This fall, the MTA plans to launch the same online system for buses. An app would be better, but I'll take what I can get.

Timing is everything. When I'm standing on Maryland Avenue in the hot summer sun, and there's a shade tree 50 feet away, I want to know when my bus is coming. That way, I can take a few minutes in the shade without worrying about missing my ride.

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