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November 11, 2011

Cheatham wants another new Circulator line

After the recent launch of the third line of Baltimore's Charm City Circulator -- the Green Route serving Johns Hopkins Hospital, Fells Point and Harbor East -- former city NAACP chief Marvin L. Cheatham Sr. weighed in with a proposal of his own: a Blue Route between City Hall and the state office complex at Eutaw and Preston streets.

For Cheatham,now president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Action Network, the No. 1 argument his fairness. He says his proposed route would be one for "those who actually live and work in Baltimore city" -- implying that users of the previous three routes do not.

Cheatham complains that the Maryland Transit Administration routes on Eutaw Street are among the worst in the system. He believes there should be a free service for riders in that corridor.

I'm skeptical.


The main reason is the corridor Cheatham is proposing to serve is already intensively served by the MTA. The Metro runs straight from the City Hall area to State Center via Lexington Market at much better speeds than the Circulator can achieve. Eutaw's bus service may leave much to be desired, but one block away is the light rail.

Cheatham contends it's a matter of fairness. "Quicker is not the issue. The issue is FREE!!" he wrote.

The problem is that the Circulator is not intended to be a free replacement for under-performing MTTA routes. Nor does the city have the resources to duplicate every MTA route that riders are dissatisfied with.

The surest way to kill off the Circulator entirely -- all three existing routes plus the proposed Red, White and Blue Route to Fort McHenry -- is to let it grow too big for the revenue streams that support it. Would Cheatham's proposed route do that? I don't know, but the city administration has to weigh calls for expanding the Circulator -- whether from Yuppies in Canton and Charles Village or poor people who live near State Center -- with an eye toward the bottom line.

It is a political dilemma. The idea of free is so appealing that once the city provides it in a few central areas, it's tough to tune out the demands to expand to new areas.  In the Circulator's popularity could lie the seeds of its undoing.

The Green Route was aided by some powerful private sponsorships -- including Hopkins and East Baltimore Development Inc. It's hard to see those materializing for a route whose bookends are City Hall and State Center.

Still, it's an interesting concept and worthy of discussion. I do think Cheatham's wrong, however, when he implies the current routes are not benefiting low-income residents of Baltimore. When I've ridden the Circulator, I've seen a good mix of the city's different populations. The Green Route, in particular, serves several low-income neighborhoods. My suspicion is that residents of those areas are less concerned about abstract notions of fairness than about keeping what they already have.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 6:01 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: City bus service


I think they should RAISE the price of some routes and guarantee on-time performance, as well as greatly reduce the time to get downtown. I think lots of people would be wiling to pay far more than $1.60 for service that was actually good and reliable.

"The Metro runs *strait* from the City Hall area to State Center "

STRAIT? How about "straight?" Honestly - I don't know how the Sun expects people to pay for their rag if their writers can't even write.

So why doesn't Cheatham hit the streets and drum up some private sponsorship funds along his proposed route?? Probably because he'd be laughed at all the way back to the Metro station he should have used in the first place....and I'd challenge him to find a non-City resident on the Circulator who isn't visiting the City.

Last time I checked, strait was a narrow of channel of water, as in "Bering Strait." A hypothetical circulator would run "straight" from City Hall to the state office complex.

There are reasons to ride the Circulator beyond "free". 1) It's a comfortable ride. The buses don't lurch like the MTA busses. 2) They come every 15 minutes, which means one doesn't have to obsess over bus schedules 3) You don't have to pay, which means the buses transfer passengers quickly. People get on fast when they don't have to swipe a card or put money in a machine. 4) No car, so you don't have to worry about where your car is parked, putting money in a meter or having to return to a car.

The Circulator has me circulating more, walking more, spending my money in the city more. I wish the Green route was more linear, although I do understand it has to go to Hopkins. I hope the new Circulator routes go into more areas of the city aren't currently served, such as Canton, and NE and NW of downtown.

In my opinion, the circulator should not be expanded beyond what it already does. Rather, MTA service must be improved, for reasons of both practicality and social equity.

Also, "the minx" is right on target about the "strait" typo. If The Sun wants people to pay for online access, perhaps some of those laid off copy-editors should be hired back (and don't charge home subscribers who have stuck with the paper all these years for online access).

In Portland all mass transit is free. People don't have to drive day in day out, pay for parking, get tickets, have one of our yearly 8 million accidents or sit in traffic. Plus, cheap transportation means that people spend more, because they have more money in their wallets. Also, the technology has long been sound. For example a single gallon of diesel fuel can move the equivalent of 280 semi-trucks over 400 hundred miles. So, the costs are quite cheap for bulk transportation. Buses are also going green and bio-diesel makes sense. There is no down side to free public transport... Keep your money in your own pocket, please...

Why should I pay for an inferior ride? The Circulator busses are cleaner and more comfortable than MTA. The drivers are more courteous, too. MTA may have taken a ride, are afraid of the competition.

Well, he does raise interesting equity issues, which have already been repeated in DC, with the expansion of the Circulator to areas of the city where the ridership levels don't justify that level of service.

But in DC, they didn't make the objectives of the service clear and they never published metrics and an objective method for making a decision.

The point of the Circulator in Baltimore is to improve mobility within congested areas, to make the transit system more legible, and to develop a specifically intra-city transit policy and program.

To expand Circulators in this fashion as suggested requires A TRULY COMPREHENSIVE TRANSPORTATION PLAN FOR BALTIMORE CITY SPECIFICALLY, not indirectly as a function of MTA planning.

I disagree with Richard somewhat with his stated purposes of the Circulator: to improve mobility within congested areas, to make the transit system more legible, and to develop a specifically intra-city transit policy and program.

The purposes as previously stated by interested parties are to provide visitors with practical downtown mobility with transit, reduce parking demand in the interior, and improve economic development with high frequency service that is necessary for short distance trips.

The circulators are good, but ideally this would be better achieved within the MTA system. Also given that MTA has been continually been forced to do more with less, the circulators are picking up some of the overflow with rush hour overcrowding on the MTA b/c there isn't a sufficient size bus fleet these days.

The state can't afford to run the MTA the way we need to right now. So expanding the circulator would require more City funding which we don't have, or increasing the parking taxes more, which would probably be counterproductive at this point given the economy.

We mustn't let the Circulator become a distraction: a robust intraurban system would do our region better in the long. Let's operate the Circulator as it exists currently as well as possible and be vigilant about continuing to implement a bus system redesign following consistent guidelines--one based on geography, service demand, and travel times and keep the politics to a minimum. TRAC developed a coherent plan to do just that.

The main problem with the pols and writers who opine about public transit is that they don't actually use it on a daily basis. For this reason, the only concpet they have of the ridership is what they saw on the one Saturday afternoon they used it to get somewhere. That's probably why he doesn't think the users "live and work" in Bmore- probably saw a weekend visitor group and thought that was representative.

This is the same problem we have with the MTA and the Circulator operations- the administrators and politiicians who could actually affect positive change and reform the MTA into a functional entity just don't use it, and the clients of MTA don't have enough economic and political clout to get anyone's attention.

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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