In the coming weeks, it should be a lot easier to get around downtown Baltimore. The first of three long-planned circulator bus services designed to shuttle business travelers and tourists through the area is set to open Jan. 11, carrying passengers along a route that runs from the Hollins Market area to Harbor East. Best of all, at least as far as passengers are concerned, the ride will be free.
The Charm City Circulator is patterned after free shuttle bus services in other cities that aim to reduce traffic congestion along crowded downtown thoroughfares and cut down on air pollution produced by vehicle emissions. Baltimore's system will operate a total of 21 new hybrid buses running at 10-minute intervals. Two more routes, one between Federal Hill and Mount Vernon and another connecting Johns Hopkins Hospital with Fells Point and Harbor East, are set to open in the spring. The routes are also designed to connect with the already up-and-running water taxi routes that serve the Inner Harbor, which are also free.
At an initial cost of about $12 million - and about $6 million annually thereafter - the system isn't exactly cheap. But the city says it will meet the costs of the service through a combination of an increase in the taxes it levies on city parking spaces and contributions from a fund sponsored by private developers. Moreover, a six-month start-up delay in the service due to construction problems with the new buses allowed the city to save about $3.1 million in operating expenses; that windfall can now be used to help pay off the cost of the vehicles early.
Still, we've questioned whether it makes sense to underwrite a free bus (and water taxi) service instead of requiring riders to pay at least some nominal fare, especially given the need for belt-tightening during an economic downturn that has forced the city to cut jobs and services across the board. The people expected to benefit most from the system are traveling business executives, conventioneers and tourists, most of whom probably could easily afford a token fee. In a situation where every dollar counts when it comes to making decisions about closing neighborhood firehouses or shuttering after-school programs for poor kids, why should anyone who can afford to pay get a free ride?
The city's response has been that the benefits of less-congested streets and a cleaner environment will more than make up for the cost of the service. Given the choice between spending hours in their cars stuck in traffic or efficient public transit in shiny new buses, people will begin to change the way they think about getting around downtown. If making the service free is the only way of coaxing drivers into the habit of leaving their cars at home, we can only hope enough of them will be persuaded to really make a difference on city streets that are now clogged at rush hour, and in the quality of the air that we all must breathe.