The morning commuters trot down Hull Street in Locust Point, past the International Longshoremen’s Association hall and the CSX railroad crossing gates.
At the end of the street at the harbor’s edge, they board the Harbor Connector, a vessel that shoots across the harbor to their jobs.
Lesser known than the the city’s Charm City Circulator free bus service, the Harbor Connector could be called a water bus. It’s free as well, and its three routes are geared toward a worker’s traditional start and end times.
But unlike a bus traveling along congested streets, the connector encounters no traffic, unless you count seagulls. It’s a commute that deserves to be better known.
“What would you rather do? Take a bus or a boat?” asked Matt Warner, the pilot on my recent 8:30 a.m. run out of the Rusty Scupper pier.
“This is not a bad way to start your morning off,” he added.
The Harbor Connector serves Federal Hill, Locust Point, Harbor East (and its newest component, Harbor Point) and Boston Street in Canton. The longest ride connects Locust Point to Canton. The shortest is the run across the harbor from a landing by the Rusty Scupper restaurant at the foot of Federal Hill to the Marriott Waterfront hotel at the foot of President Street.
If traveling by car, bus or bike along the shoreline — which includes crowded Fort Avenue, Light or Pratt streets — the trip would be long. On a recent connector ride, the journey seemed to end too soon, in about five minutes.
The connector lives up to its name, knitting together neighborhoods that, while close as the gull flies, entail a circuitous drive or walk.
While you don’t have to be going to and from work to use the Harbor Connector, commuters are a good portion of its clientele. On my recent ride, unsure of the boarding dock location off Key Highway, I followed a likely patron: a man in a business suit who had an old-fashioned briefcase. Soon I spotted others, some sporting backpacks or messenger bags.
The dock for the Harbor East stop, adjacent to the Marriott, is at the mouth of the Jones Falls and is one of the oldest parts of Baltimore. The morning I tested this water transit service, I noticed workers walking from the vessel to Legg Mason and the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business.
On another run, passengers boarded in Canton at the Korean War Memorial Park. One woman had a child in a stroller and headed toward the Under Armour building at Tide Point, a major destination for passengers bound for Locust Point.
The stop closest to Fells Point is at the foot of Caroline Street, at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Museum.
The Harbor Connector is subject to a Coast Guard rules — including that only two bikes or scooters are allowed on board each trip. As a result, walkers make up nearly all of the patronage. Another rule, not the Coast Guard’s, is that no immediate round trips are allowed.
The service has afforded a nice touch — one of its shuttles is named for Ed Kane, the civic and harbor use booster who died in 2003.
The Harbor Connector is not to be confused with Water Taxis, which stop at many more places. The Water Taxi service also operates weekends — the Harbor Connector does not — and charges for a day’s unlimited rides. The Harbor Connector operates weekday mornings 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., then from 2:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Tom Biller, who works at the Exelon tower at Harbor Point, drives in from Howard County each morning and hunts for a parking space in Locust Point. Then he walks down Hull Street to the Harbor Connector.
“It’s not a bad way to start your day,” he said, “the wind in your hair and the sun on your face.”