Last week, Getting There asked readers for their views of the Charm City Circulator, the city-run free bus service that made its debut a year ago Tuesday. Folks were more than willing to share their opinions. Here's a sampling of their views:
I use circulator orange line from Pratt and Calved streets to little Italy and from Little Italy to Lombard and Light
I think the circulator is great and use primarily in frigid weather. The cold also causes certain users to ride who either are homeless or close to it, I wouldn't be surprised if they ride most of the day. Additionally, the tend to speak loudly and scream back and forth to each other . I believe there is a shelter or some sort of a soup kitchen near Central Avenue.. When I leave the little Italy stop heading in a round about way to downtown the bus stops maybe 3/4 of the time to change drivers at Market place. This is ok but often you need change to another bus because they tend to get to close in time to each other. They also will sometimes sit for 5-10 minutes to allow the bus ahead of them to space itself. Would think they could do a better job of keeping to schedule
L. Stephen Hess
I'm a frequent user of the Circulator Purple Line. This winter, due to a knee injury that kept me off my bike, I've used the Circulator to get to work on a daily basis, and I've developed a real love/hate relationship with the service.
I'm a big supporter and user of public transit. The Circulator is a great concept. The fact that ridership is high in spite of the serious ongoing scheduling problems is great proof-of-concept, but it still needs a LOT of work. All my comments below apply only to the Purple line, I don't ride the Orange enough to see if the same problems exist there.
- Extremely unreliable and infrequent service. 10 minute headways remain a pipe dream. Many days this winter during peak hour the bus tracker map shows only two buses on the entire Purple loop. However, during off-peak, I've seen as many as five buses showing. This flies in the face of normal transit operation where you would put more, not fewer, buses in service during peak hours. As a result, the buses become very crowded. Yesterday, at 5pm, the Purple line was showing 38 minute headways. As a result, buses were crowded standing room only. One year in, they should be doing much better than this. I don't know if it's a mechanical reliability problem, or scheduling. This should be investigated, as even the suspiciously optimistic headway averages reported by Circulator are WAY off their supposed 10 minute performance standard, and have never even been close. Veolia is a big name in transit, why can't they get this right????? The lack of predictability keeps a lot of commuters away. I'm averaging about 50% riding in the morning riding the Circulator versus getting fed up and hopping on a 64, 61 or 3 MTA.
-Rude and mis-informed front-line employees. This has honestly improved noticeably but still need improvement. One vehicle operator told me, when I asked why it was running 30 minute headways instead of 10, that "because it's free you ain't got no right to complain." When I informed him that I'm a voting taxpayer, he said "No taxes pay for this. It's all free." Obviously untrue. I carry the Circulator number with me, and nearly every time I call to ask about the extended wait, I'm told "It's shift change." I'm no transit operator, but there has to be a way to do shift changes when it's not rush hour. . . "Construction" is also popular, when I pointed out to the dispatcher that there was currently no construction anywhere on the Purple line they sounded flummoxed. Circulator needs to own its failings- not give excuses, otherwise they will never be able to improve.
-Inebriated indigent "circuit" riders. This is a touchy issue. I understand that homeless people lead a harsh life, and I generally don't begrudge them seeking what limited services they can access. But when three inebriated gentlement delayed the 5pm commute this evening, causing disruption and discomfort as well as a delay as the operator tried to talk them off the bus, it's hard to keep that perspective. Operators should be instructed to refuse service to disruptive and obviously impaired passengers during crowded rush hours.
-It's freakin slow!!! Painfully slow!! I don't know what the deal is- drivers are instructed to drive slow, try to hit lights red so they have time to charge the batteries (I honestly believe this is the case- just watch sometime, they slow down for greens so they hit it red, not kidding), not sure- but the MTA buses do my stretch in just about 1/2 the time of the Circulator, in spite of MTA having a posted stop every block on St. Paul/Light. This is a true story: I once left the Superfresh with a backpack full of groceries, walked to the Pleasant St. stop, a bus pulled up, I thought, heck it's a nice night- so I started walking up Charles. The bus and I arrived at Biddle Street exactly together.
-Poor information systems. The phone number is not posted at stops, and since there is no time-point schedule, calling is the only way to find when the next bus arrives (if you don't have web access on your phone). The stops that have the time display are inaccurate- I timed the one at Pleasant street one night, it displayed "6 minutes" for 3 minutes, then switched to 17 minutes, then said "Arriving", all with no bus in sight. I walked home.
-Last, the limited operating hours.
HOWEVER, I remain positive:
-Supposedly it's green! But why don't they publish the real world operating costs though so we can see? (Anecdotal evidence suggests the buses are expensive white elephants- I hope not, but wonder. .)
-The route is pretty well thought out- a few changes could help, but generally the stops are proper distances, and in good locations.
-Lots of riders, and I suspect it has attracted non-traditional transit users.
What I would like to see in the future:
-More transparency about the operating problems, more responsive mangement. I've left several messages for Mr. Johnson with never a call-back.
-I think an extension of the Purple line to Station North/Baltimore Museum of Art/Hopkins would be a natural, and a huge boost for tourism in that area. Maybe the city can form a partnership with JHU to replace the Hopkins Shuttle with the Circulator in exchange for financing the service? They are both run by Veolia. . .
-Not sold on the Green line. Why doesn't the Orange go down into Fells? Johns Hopkins has the Subway, why a Circulator line out there as well?
-I'd like to see the city require Circulator to meet it's operating goals on the Purple and Orange lines, and only once they are reliably meeting scheduling, only then open the Green line.
-Speaking of scheduling, why not just put it on a timed schedule? That would eliminate a lot of the uncertainty that keeps commuters off now.
Since I live at the bottom of the Purple line, about two blocks from the nearest stop, I use the circulator about twice a month. Living in the SOBO/Federal Hill neighborhood means two things: (1) you don't have to leave very often because everything is close and (2) it's hard to leave and expect to find parking after 9 pm. With the circulator I can and do easily go to Mt. Vernon and Habor East without having to worry about parking. It's a great service and one that I'd even pay for--I hope they keep it up and expand it.
I no longer live in Mt. Vernon (moved to Hampden), and now use the Circulator more as a tool to get around with friends after work and on the weekends. I think it's well suited for that and I have no complaints. It's significantly improved since launch. Anyone who thinks it is a drain on city $ simply doesn't know how successful cities operate (or they are willfully ignorant). Friendly competent public transit is a requirement to Baltimore's successful future, and relying on car commuters to save the city won't work.
• City should (upon launch of green line) negotiate with JHU to partially pay for expansion to Charles Village--eliminating need for some of the Hopkins shuttles.
• Buses should go faster. Idling down St. Paul is painful.
• Buses should get bike racks installed on front like MTA buses.
If anything, I think the continued growth of ridership on the Purple Line demonstrates we can't build the Charles Street Trolley fast enough.
The Circulator is great, but I don't see why they're the only buses in Baltimore that don't have bike racks! A route between Penn Station and Hopkins Homewood campus (and maybe all the way to Towson?) would be great, too.
I totally disagree with the City expanding the service. Baltimore is cutting services left and right so how does the city have the money to operate a free bus service for mostly affluent neighborhoods. The majority of the riders use the free bus for entertainment purposes, if we can afford free buses they should be for low income workers traveling to and from work.
The Circulator is a huge success in my view. Living in Mid-Town, I use if frequently: the Purple line to go downtown, and also connect with the Orange Line to connect with Harbor East and the Light Rail. While the project had a rough and uneven startup, by and large it works quite well, is on time and is clean. In addition to the commuting locals, it seems to carry a fair number of out of town visitors.
While this is a "free" service, I believe that it more than pays for itself by way of decreased traffic, less parking problems, and happy visitors who boost the economy.
Abel J. Merrill
I sold my car in 2007. Living downtown (Seton Hill), I generally don’t need a car. If I do, I take a zip car. My Quaker meeting is right off the orange line (Jewish Museum stop). I can go to meeting for free using the purple line (St Paul @ Centre) and transferring to the orange. I can get to Whole Foods via the orange, and the buses are MUCH easier load get granny carts! I take the metro to work (State Center to Milford Mill), and then walk to my school from there (about 3 blocks).
Because I hold a monthly pass on my charm card, I sometimes combine the circulator and mta buses. Thankfully, Google has also combined these two systems which makes getting around the city that much more convenient.
I appreciate the GPS devices in some of the stops that let me know the wait for the next circulator bus. I wish these devices were on all MTA buses! I could get so much more done in my day if more bus stops had these devices!
One complaint is the speed at which the circulators drive. They creep along the routes under the speed limit which not only is a pain if one is driving behind these buses but also is frustrating to those of us who see MTA buses whizzing by.
My greatest complaint is the complete lack of manners that the drivers of the circulators have. Many do not greet customers when they board the bus, even if the customers greet them first. They talk to customers like children and many times I’ve heard them yell at customers. If the job is miserable, get a new one. They do not help the city’s image of poor customer service at all.
Finally, I wish the circulator was a trolley. Buses are not good for our streets and even if the circulator buses are greener, they do create pollution. If this system becomes successful and the ridership increases, the city should explore bringing back the trolley system, and allowing Veolia or another private entity to maintain it. Or, even allow a private entity to build and run it, subsidized by the city coffers.
I've used the Circulator bus last week, to get from my office at Pratt and Howard Streets to deliver some material to my financial advisor on South Exeter St. in Inner Harbor East. The material was time-sensitive, so I couldn't rely on snail mail. Although I would normally walk the 50 minute round-trip, it was a cold, very windy day, so I took the Circulator. It was great. I waited about five minutes before boarding, and the trip took about 10 minutes, each way. It was comfortable and pleasant. If all public transit was as efficient, pleasant and comfortable, (and free), people would leave their cars at home. Talk about a National Energy Policy.