Baltimore is like most other American cities. It has a half-built transit system. It is patiently trudging through the decades-long process required to build each additional metro line. But while Baltimore waits for its metro system, it did something that most other American cities have not. It built a comprehensive, inner-city transport network. Just to hold itself over.

Baltimore has endured an up-and-down relationship with public transportation over its nearly 300-year history. The city is the birthplace of American rail. In 1830, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began operation as the first passenger rail line in the United States. Several decades later, the first American electric streetcar line began operation in Baltimore in 1885.

By the late 1920s, private companies had laid over 400 miles of streetcar tracks that crisscrossed the city to form a system that was among the most extensive in the world. Were it still in existence today, it would continue to be one of the most comprehensive public transportation networks anywhere.

But as quickly as it was built, the Baltimore streetcar system disappeared. A variety of factors contributed to its demise, and in November 1963 the last two streetcar lines – the numbers 8 and 15 – made their final runs.

Baltimore Streetcars

The only remaining streetcars in Baltimore can be found at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. (photo by Cody Wms on Flickr. Some rights reserved.)

For the twenty years that followed, there was no intra-city rail transit in Baltimore. It was not until 1983 that the Maryland Transit Administration opened the metro subway, a heavy rail line that now stretches 15 miles with 14 stations.

Since then, the region has built three light rail lines that connect the northern and southern suburbs with downtown. An east-west light rail line is set to break ground next year.

The system, though, is largely disjointed, both physically and psychologically. There is not yet a true east-west connection. Huge swaths of the city have no rail service at all. The heavy rail and light rail lines do not have a true connection.

Consequently, residents mostly view the two, not as components of a single system, but as two independent options that are rarely combined to form a single trip. Riders may take the subway or the light rail, but rarely will they ever transfer between the two. In conversation, morning commute reports on the radio, and even on the MTA’s own website, they’re spoken about as entirely separate.

As a result, the city’s bus system is left to serve the majority of the region. By American standards, it’s a quality bus system. It’s relatively reliable, frequent, affordable, and comprehensive.

Nearly a third of Baltimoreans live car-free and the bus system offers them the freedom of mobility that they need. But it still suffers from the same shortcomings that plague most bus systems. Buses get caught in traffic jams. They make frequent stops over long routes. Those long routes make buses vulnerable to delays that get them off schedule.

Serving the Baltimore area with just one transit mode presents a challenge. Despite having one of the largest and most densely populated urban cores in the country, Baltimore is also home to suburbs that sprawl for miles outside the city.

Working to serve the full metro area stretches the system thin, decreasing frequency and increasing travel times. Despite inadequate funding from the state, the bus system works as well as can be expected for those traveling from the suburbs into downtown. But for those traveling within the city center, it can often be more efficient to walk than to wait for a bus that’s running delayed.

To remedy this problem, the City of Baltimore implemented the Charm City Circulator. Opening in 2010 and expanded under the watch of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the system now consists of seven connecting routes – four bus routes and three water taxi routes – that operate exclusively in Baltimore’s urban core.

While the four bus routes operate in traffic just like regular MTA buses, their short routes, which cover just a few miles at most, make them much less likely to stray off schedule. Stops are also spaced farther apart than traditional buses, making travel times speedier. Real-time arrival information is posted at the stops, and riders can also track buses using their smartphones.

The system is operated by a private contractor and paid for by taxes on city parking garages; although, one route receives federal funding. This dedicated funding has allowed the city to offer the circulator without charging a fare.

Charm City Circulator Route Map

The Official Charm City Circulator Route Map from www.charmcitycirculator.com

Later this year following the completion of infrastructure improvements, the city will again expand the circulator southward to the edge of the South Baltimore peninsula and northward to the campus of Johns Hopkins University.

When it does, the circulator system will more or less tie together the entirety of Baltimore’s urban core. It will include seven routes covering all directions with approximately 115 stops. Over 80,000 residents will live within a few blocks of the circulator. When the system is expanded, that number will surpass 100,000. The circulator connects the city’s business districts, many of its cultural attractions, five of the city’s colleges, and its two intercity rail stations.

Other cities have made similar efforts, but none have achieved quite what Baltimore has. In neighboring Washington, DC, the routes work more as a complement to the existing metro, filling in gaps in the system.

In Miami, an impressive “trolley” bus system has been implemented following the success of Baltimore’s circulator. But Miami’s system has not yet achieved the coverage of Baltimore’s and most routes operate during limited hours and only on weekdays.

A similar network in Nashville is also limited by short operating hours.

What Baltimore has achieved is an independent system that provides effective coverage all on its own to a significant portion of the city.

Harbor Connector

A Harbor Connector water taxi loads passengers in Harbor East. (photo by Tony Crider on Flickr. Some rights reserved.)

The circulator is not a perfect system. It is still vulnerable to traffic delays, although less so than traditional buses. It lacks the capacity of larger systems; ridership is about 12,000 passengers per day, which puts it on par with Portland’s famed streetcar – but is still significantly lower than Baltimore’s other transit options. It has not yet proven to have the same placemaking and economic development benefits of rail.

But what the circulator offers is an intermediate transit solution. While Baltimore, like other American cities, awaits funding for a more robust transit system, the circulator offers an efficient, low-cost option that does a really good job of connecting inner city neighborhoods where no such option existed previously.

It demonstrates that while some transit plans take decades to implement, others only need a couple of years. And it offers a lesson that the way we plan travel within the city is not necessarily how we should plan travel around the city.

The future of transit in a city like Baltimore is never certain, and the circulator is no outlier. In the near term, it will likely remain in its current form, offering basic service to downtown residents and visitors at relatively little cost to the city.

Before even its first run, city visionaries have suggested that it may serve as a foundation for a streetcar revival, with the bus routes eventually being converted to rail lines. This would increase the system’s capacity to accommodate growing ridership. It would also spur economic development that has eluded the circulator thus far but that has been shown to accompany streetcar lines. And tt would be a nice tip of the hat to city’s streetcar heritage.

In the long term, the circulator may no longer be necessary, having been replaced by expansions to Baltimore’s high-capacity rapid transit system. It may morph to resemble DC’s system more closely, filling in the gaps of a robust rapid transit backbone.

Image

A Purple Route bus outside of Baltimore's Penn Station. (photo by Cody Wms on Flickr. Some rights reserved.)

The real charm of the circulator is not in its future but in its present. Waiting for cities to build transit systems is a universal experience of urban America. It’s a custom passed from generation to generation simply because that is how long it takes to make transit a reality in the United States.

While not a perfect substitute for rapid transit, the Charm City Circulator offers an intermediate solution for connecting Baltimore’s urban core. Its charm is in its simplicity. It requires no right-of-way and no additional station infrastructure beyond existing bus stops. The city did purchase new vehicles for the routes, but it could just have easily been implemented using existing buses.

It is funded using a tax on something that is even more prevalent in most other American cities than in Baltimore: parking garages. One of its primary conveniences – its real-time tracking system – utilizes an app that is now standard in transit systems around the world.

Unlike the transportation achievements of early Baltimore, there is very little about the circulator that is groundbreaking or mind-blowing. What is noteworthy about Baltimore’s circulator is the way that existing technologies and ideas converged to offer a practical solution to an enduring problem.

It is an innovation of public administration more than it is a tech one. But it may prove just as easily exported to other cities facing the same challenges, of which there are many. In a country screaming for more transit, Baltimore’s Charm City Circulator shows us what the first step forward looks like.