The steep, six-block walk from Helen Markley's home to the Woodberry light rail stop had become way too much for her 79-year-old heart, even after the triple bypass.
Reduced to begging rides from her children or taking the lengthy bus trip to the Mount Washington rail stop, the gregarious Hampden resident was turning into a reluctant homebody.
Then five months ago, a whimsical-looking green and white bus embellished with a lady bug began appearing every 17 minutes a block from her door. Its loop around Hampden -- past the grocers, shops, movie theaters and Woodberry rail stop -- has widened Markley's horizons and is simplifying travel for hundreds of other Hampden residents.
In a city often faulted for its disjointed transit system, the Mass Transit Administration's Hampden Shuttle Bug experiment is generating a rare chorus of praise, spurring plans for shuttles in more neighborhoods. Now just a small cog in the transit system, the shuttles could prove to be an important ingredient in the goal to double transit ridership in the next 20 years.
"Whoever thought this up, God bless them," Markley said. "It's the best thing they ever did for this neighborhood."
Riders say it's quick and comfortable, and the one-step, low-to-the-curb floor allows people with two-wheel carts to board easily with their packages. At 50 cents a trip (25 cents for senior citizens) some kids and seniors have been known to ride it around for fun, say drivers. The price is significantly lower than the $1.35 regular bus fare.
"It's the neighborhood bus -- that's the way we want people to see it," said Henry Kay, MTA director of planning.
Perhaps most important, it has become a painless, time-saving way to get to the light rail.
"The potential for a service like this to really increase ridership at the [Woodberry] station is there," Kay said. Similar service could benefit other "walk-up" rail stops that have limited parking, including Mount Washington, Falls Road, Ferndale, Linthicum and Cherry Hill, he said.
A stream of requests has begun from other neighborhoods wanting a shuttle bug of their own.
"People who had never heard about it before are asking how they can get one," said Beth Robinson, chief of community planning for the MTA. "The feedback has been phenomenal. People are ecstatic. That's so untypical for transit."
Ridership on the shuttle bug has doubled since the Hampden service began in December, with about 500 people boarding it each day. Helen Markley's experience explains why.
Lunch and shopping
On a brilliant afternoon last week, fresh from a light rail trip to have lunch with a friend in Hunt Valley, she caught the shuttle for home, hopping off briefly at the Rotunda Giant.
"I ride it every day if I get a chance," she says, heading for the produce section. She dropped a couple of Idaho potatoes into a plastic sack, grabbed a loaf of Italian bread on sale, then steered down the pet food aisle for cat food. She's "Miss Helen" at the checkout, exchanging neighborhood news with the cashier.
Stepping outside with her purchases, she notices the shuttle pulling away.
"No use running, another one will be along in 15 minutes," she said. She's become a regular hunting deals at the local dollar store and sometimes treats herself to lunch on The Avenue in Hampden. Recently, she decided to take the light rail to the airport, her first time there after 30 years in Baltimore, and she delighted in her spunkiness.
"I never knew the planes were so big," she said.
With baseball season here, the die-hard Orioles fan is making other plans. "Wait 'til the ball games, boy. I just get up and go, and it's a wonderful feeling," she said.
Many shuttle bug riders say it has cut as much as an hour off their transit commutes.
Jim Tankersley, a free-lance photographer who doesn't own a car, says the trip from his home in Hampden to visit his mother in Timonium has been cut from an hour and 45 minutes to 50 minutes.
Words of gratitude
"It's the best thing they ever did, and I've been wanting for a while to say thank you," he said. Others say they have written letters of gratitude to the MTA and the mayor.
Dan Harvey, vice president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, describes the shuttle bug as a rolling billboard for the neighborhood.
"Retailers think it's great," he said. "It's enabling people to go to more places around the neighborhood faster, maybe shopping a little more since they've got wheels to get home instead of carrying bags."
The MTA plans to roll out one or two a year in other neighborhoods over the next five or six years, Kay said. The agency has identified about 10 neighborhoods that might benefit from a shuttle bug, including Owings Mills/Randallstown, Middle River, the Fells Point-Inner Harbor-stadium area and South Baltimore.
The next shuttle is planned for the Mondawmin area, perhaps by the end of the year. Community leaders there have been working with the MTA to define a route that might include stops at Baltimore City Community College, Coppin State College, Mondawmin Mall, the Baltimore Zoo and neighborhood retirement apartments, although plans are being discussed.
"There are a number of senior citizen apartments in this neighborhood that do not have any kind of transportation," said Pearl Moulton of the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council. "At least these people would be able to get around without needing to use the regular bus. It's going to bring a lot of them to the mall."