In January, the Charm City Circulator will mark its 10-year anniversary, and by most standards, the city-managed free bus service has been a modest success overall, particularly in serving tourists, shoppers and other visitors who wish to explore some of Baltimore’s most popular destinations from Johns Hopkins Hospital to the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry. The city is even sponsoring a rebranding survey giving riders a chance to pick a new logo to adorn its fleet of a dozen or so hybrid buses. You have until mid-November to choose a favorite (alas, all the candidates keep the garish purple, orange and green color scheme) at the charmcitycirculator.com web address.
But we would make a modest suggestion that goes beyond a paint job. We would like to see the circulator bus aim higher. Baltimore needs all the transit service it can get. And given the Maryland Transit Administration’s unwillingness to make substantial investments beyond its own “BaltimoreLink” reshuffling of routes, logo rewrite and retreat in long-term capital investment, the need has never been greater. How to achieve such a feat with buses that provide no more than 2.4 million trips per year which is the equivalent of about 6.3 days of MTA total ridership? There’s a limit to how much Baltimore can afford to subsidize Circulator service with city garage parking revenue and other sources. That leaves just one solution — begin charging fares.
As convenient as it may be to provide rides without requiring passengers to pay, the boutique nature of the Charm City Circulator raises some questions. City residents who rely on MTA buses got hit with a fare increase this summer (ironically under a 2013 law that was meant to pave the way for Baltimore’s Red Line). The tourists on the CCC did not. We aren’t recommending the city start charging riders $1.90 per trip like the state-managed MTA. But how about 25 cents? That’s right, a single quarter. It won’t raise much (25 cents times 2.4 million comes out to $600,000), but it’s a nice start and an important symbolic gesture that reminds users that there are, if you will pardon the expression, no free rides.
Think a quarter is too much trouble? We would point to Aldi, the fast-growing German supermarket chain that requires patrons to insert a quarter to get a shopping cart. It’s a low-cost way to get shoppers to return their carts (and eventually get their quarters back). It’s not as convenient as no-quarter carts, of course, but do Aldi customers begrudge the charge? The chain now has more than 1,900 stores across the U.S. so clearly not. What it does is invest people in the Aldi experience. “Look at how there aren’t any carts sitting out in the parking lot,” customers often marvel. And it’s difficult to see this as discrimination against the poor given the Aldi business model is aimed directly at people looking for low prices, not a high-end produce department or personalized service. Granted, Aldi gives the quarter back if you give the cart back, but you get the idea.
The Charm City Circulator needs to be a top-notch system. People need to feel safe and welcomed. The biggest obstacle to this premium experience isn’t a fare, it’s the quality of service. Last year, ridership dropped. A change of vendors resulted in fewer buses on the road and in service problems (including routes temporarily suspended). Who wants to ride a bus that isn’t reliable? With more revenue, perhaps improvements could be made like adding a route or hiring friendly onboard guides extolling the virtues of Baltimore, helping people navigate the city and discouraging loitering or misbehavior. At 25 cents a trip, the buses would still be as “wallet-friendly” as advertised but they would also be upgraded.
Again, that’s not to knock the Charm City Circulator. It’s been a welcome addition to Baltimore these past 10 years. But we can’t help wondering if it might be called upon to do a bit more heavy lifting when it comes to ferrying people to and from jobs, which is the backbone of urban transit. A quarter isn’t too much to ask. Businesses on CCC routes might even keep a bowl of them (or perhaps tokens that would serve the same purpose) to hand out to customers. Visitors staying at $150-a-night hotels are unlikely to complain and might even find it charming to pay a 1950s era fare, particularly if it means sustaining the rarity of a first-class transit experience.