A couple times a year, I visit an old friend in Philadelphia, and when I return to Baltimore, I feel a kind of quirky envy. That city has the kind of fully functioning, reliable public transit network that Baltimore could use.

As someone who hasn't driven a car in decades and who makes use of public transit daily in Baltimore, I am impressed by a city where the buses, streetcars, trains and subways generally run to the minute of the published schedule. Philly's public conveyances are punctual - and there are a lot of them.

I've taken Baltimore buses for 50 years and watched our system fall apart. I rate our transit system a very average C. I don't blame the drivers; I fault the transit planners and Maryland's tepid approach to public transit.

I watch as politicians hawk the idea of green living and environmental awareness. But public transit, as delivered by the state of Maryland and Baltimore City, is not much - hardly what it could be.

Added to Baltimore's transit woes is a perception that our buses are dangerous. I do not dispute the facts of students going berserk in Hampden. It's my experience that, generally, Baltimore bus patrons are courteous, often helpful. On the other hand, Baltimore's buses are old. Many just rattle along.

As a policy, Baltimore's planners still vote for the car. I watched buildings at the corner of Lombard and Charles streets get torn down a few months ago for yet another new downtown parking garage. And it's one of many that have risen recently. As a planning priority, Baltimore puts the auto first. It's a philosophy that goes back to traffic czar Henry Barnes and the 1950s city planners that gave us the Charles Center. Its pair of plazas - Hopkins and Center - are really landscaped lids for underground parking garages.

I spent four years at college in Washington from 1968 to 1972. Bus service in the District of Columbia was nothing spectacular at that time - certainly comparable to the levels in Baltimore. But after D.C.'s sprawling Metro opened in the mid-1970s, things changed. The city knit together. And the transit authority's interlacing bus network came together nicely.

In the past 40 years, I watched Baltimore's public transit picture deteriorate - with the one exception of the amazingly successful MARC train service to Washington. In the early 1970s, the Penn Line commuter train service to Washington consisted of antique 1920s electric passenger coaches. The service carried maybe a couple hundred commuters a day. Today, the commuter trains are packed - with more recently added - and service now extends to Perryville and Frederick.

I got a little encouragement when the late winter changes to bus routes came out. On the one hand, I lost my bus home - the 61 no longer runs on Calvert Street and its pathetic schedule was also drastically reduced.

I was initially annoyed, but then noticed that another bus I regularly patronize, the No. 11, had a route makeover that now links it to Towson and Canton - two popular destinations. So maybe Baltimore is catching up and gaining some ground. I am still not convinced that in a beauty contest between transit and a parking garage, the garage will be the winner.

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