Has the Charm City Circulator morphed into a MARC train on wheels. Does Baltimore really need a second MTA? Has the Purple Route developed a circulatory disease?
All these snarky thoughts and more occurred to me today as I waited more than 40 minutes in 90-degree heat on St. Paul Street outside Penn Station for a Charm City Circulator Purple Route bus that never did arrive.
To be sure, I could have cut the ordeal short by acting on my suspicion that the Circulator was messed up by the Artscape festival taking shape around the train station. But to the extent possible, I tried to replicate the experience of a visitor who had knew nothing about Artscape.
Let's just say that visitor wouldn't want to return to Baltimore -- or at least use its free shuttle service -- again any time soon.
It was 10:34 when I arrived at the Purple Route Penn Station stop. There was conspicuous signage for the Purple Route, along with an electronic sign giving the time and the wait expected for the next bus. It was noticeable that there was no signage up yet informing riders that the Penn Station stop would be closed during Artscape, but traffic along St. Paul was still running and the electronic sign kept promising an arriving bus. With advertised headways of 10 minutes, there was every reason to expect a bus by 10:44.
At 10:47 a.m. the electronic sign said a bus would come in 1 minute. A minute later, no bus. Then the sign rolled over to say the next bus would arrive in 18 minutes, leaving me and several other waiting riders puzzled.
At 10:59 a.m., with no bus having yet arrived, one of my younger fellow riders used his Blackberry to contact the Circulator web site and was iinformed that the Purple Route had been forced to pull buses because of mechanical issues caused by the excessive heat. Jesse Kriss, having already waited almost a half hour jumped on the third MTA No. 3 bus to pass us during that stretch, choosing to pay the $1.60 rather than wait any longer.
At 11:02 a.m. the electronic sign promised a bus in 6 minutes. At 11:08 there is still no bus, and Mike Thomas grabs a ride with his girlfriend after about a half-hout wait. At 11:09, the sign says a bus will come in 3 minutes. Meanwhile MTA No. 3 and No. 64 buses, along with Hopkins Shuttles, are passing with regularity.
Daymon Bittings, a New York transplant who has lived in Baltimore two years, said it's not the first time he has waited an extended time for the Circulator, a city-sponsored service that made its debut in January. About a week aggo, he said, he waited 30 minutes for a Circulator bus.
"If you're in a hurry, I wouldn't rely on it, but if you're out just sight-seeing, it's a cool bus," Bittings said. "Maryland's bus system is kind of the worst for punctuality."
Since one of the premises of the Circulator is that downtown workers would be able to use it to get across town at lunch hour, Bittings' comments are hardly a ringing endorsement.
About 11;20, with the electronic clock promising a bus in 6 minutes, a fellow rider called the Circulator system by phone and was told he would have to go to Biddle Street because the Purple bus was on a modified route for Artscape. That seemed funny because a fellow rider who checked the web site earlier saw that the Artscape bus schedule wouldn't start until 6:30pm. (Later confirmed by my own visit to the web site.)
So several of us began to walk down toward Biddle Street. Along the way we passed Celine Prebet of Baltimore, who had been waiting with her two young daughters at the Preston Street stop -- also without signage to notify riders it was closed --- for about 15 minutes.
After pausiing to inform her, she and her girls would have to walk to the next stop to the south, we resumed walking -- only to spy a Purple Route bus turning off Biddle onto St. Paul ahead of us -- just too far for us to catch up to.
When we reached the stop -- closer to Eager Street than to Biddle -- we met Carolyn Williams, who had walked up to Penn Station to catch the bus because she was relying on information from the web site. Spotting the closing of Charles Street, she correctly guessed she would have to go down to St. Paul to catch a bus -- a process that took her 25 minutes because she had been steered wrong.
A Circulator bus finally arrived about 11:35, and I hopped off at Centre St. about 11:40 -- more than an hour after arriving at the Penn Station stop.
Hey, stuff happens, and it's no more serious because it happens to a transportation writer than anyone else. And maybe we should expect some rookie mistakes in the Circulator's first year of operation. But if anyone from the city is reading this, would you please dispatch someone to all the closed bus stops on the Purple Route -- pronto -- and put up signs telling people they are closed and where they can go to catch a bus this weekend? That's what professional transit people do.
And in case anyone is confused, don't blame the MTA for this fiasco. The Circulator is run by the city of Baltimore, and the name on the signs is Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.