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Public transit is not a bad backup

The Baltimore Sun

This column comes to you courtesy of a powerful painkiller, Howard Transit and the Maryland Transit Administration.

The painkiller is quite legal, prescribed by a physician for the persistent pain of a shoulder condition. It's a humongous pill and quite effective. For the first time in weeks, I can type without feeling as if someone's trying to repair my rotator cuff with a staple gun. But that same drug comes in a bottle plastered with dire warnings about driving while taking it. There's no law against writing columns under the influence of happy pills. But operating a motor vehicle is another story.

That left the question of how to get to work from my Howard County home to The Sun sans Hyundai. Whom could I beg to give me a ride? My wife? Already at work. My son? Off at college.

Then came the biblical revelation: public transit. That's one reason it's there, as a backup against the unthinkable burden of Not Having Wheels.

But there was a problem. At the time I would be coming into Baltimore, there were no trains running. It would mean taking - cue the scary music - a bus.

Here's a dilemma. Could I ride a public transit bus and still keep my license to be a middle-class suburbanite? Would I be run out of Howard County?

It's no joke. I was recently talking to a very nice woman who rides the MARC train about the service on that system. Wanting to be helpful, I told her about a bus alternative to the Camden line.

She reacted as if I had offered her a cockroach sandwich. Ride a bus? Unthinkable.

I was tempted to feel morally superior, but I had to ask myself: How many times in three decades had I actually used that bus stop right in front of The Sun?

Never. I'd been on buses for various reasons but never to get from home to work.

But when you're taking powerful painkillers, a world of options opens up. So there I was last week, standing at a bus stop at Route 103 and U.S. 1 (an intersection where the State Highway Administration seems to be waiting for a pedestrian fatality to install a crossing signal).

Now the MTA does not make it easy to get from the southern suburbs into Baltimore. Its schedule is limited, and it still does not offer a trip planning service on its Web site (a common feature at 21st-century transit agencies). But if you do a little computer research, you can unearth all kinds of Baltimore transit secrets.

For instance, did you know that Howard Transit runs a Silver Line that goes from The Mall in Columbia to the light rail at BWI Marshall? Seven days a week and not just at rush hour. Fare: $1.50 one way.

So about 11:35 one morning last week, after physical therapy and a big pill, I boarded one of those little green buses.

After a bumpy ride and two loops around Arundel Mills mall - once not being enough - we pulled up in front of the International Terminal at BWI just in time to watch a light rail train leave the station. Nice coordination, guys.

After cooling our heels a half-hour at the BWI station, we were on our way to Baltimore. The light rail has its detractors, but I've always found it a pleasant way to travel. After a 28-minute scenic journey, I got off at the Convention Center and searched for the bus stop to connect to the No. 35 bus on Pratt Street. I finally found it two blocks away - the MTA's quaint idea of connectivity. Fortunately I wasn't passed by a No. 35 bus on my way to the stop, and my wait was brief. A few minutes later, I was stepping off the bus on Calvert Street. Total trip time: 2 hours.

This is not something I would want to do every day. I'm hoping the shoulder gets better and that I can soon return to my environmentally unfriendly half-hour commute.

But the point is I got here. It was frustrating at times, but not an ordeal. I got some reading done. I was safer than I would have been in a car on an unmedicated day. It was less expensive than unsubsidized downtown parking - $6.50 both ways ($3 both ways on Howard Transit, plus $3.50 for an MTA day pass).

My modest suggestion is that it's not a bad idea for suburban commuters to figure out a backup plan for getting to work or other regular destinations via public transit. And some of them might find it fun, just for the heck of it, to jump on a transit bus some day and see life from a different perspective.

Or maybe that's the drugs talking.


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