The Best and Worst of Baltimore Buses

Did you know that the Charm City Circulator routes include boats as well as buses? They do. While this isn’t exactly a new development it did come as news to the Chop that the Harbor Connector is now two routes stopping at four points total as opposed to the one route stopping at three points that was operating when the service began. Whether you knew any or all of this or not the point is that the Harbor Connector is easily the most enjoyable and least publicized transit option in town.

Another pleasant surprise we learned this week is that the Harbor Connector has graduated from jolly boats and is now running legitimate ferries that can and do accommodate bikes. Boats run from 7 am to 7 pm Monday through Friday (except between 2:30 and 3:30 when they are fueling). Now that we know this, we’re kind of in love with the Harbor Connector and will probably use it on every trip we make that requires going around the harbor. Here’s what a trip from Pier 5 to Harbor View looks like in a time lapse photo.

Oh and speaking of the Circulator we’re going to go ahead and use this as an opportunity to comment on this week’s Sun article about city council president Jack Young proposing a $1 fee to ride the Circulator.

This is an absolutely atrocious no-good very bad terrible awful loathsome idiotic idea that should cause all people who live anywhere near downtown to rise up as one to shame, jeer and excoriate Jack Young with the sort of pure indignation and contempt not seen since Bob Irsay Sheila Dixon Denise Whiting.

Jack Young has no idea what it’s like to ride a bus. None. Zip. Zilch. He is completely clueless. We would venture to guess that young has never ridden a bus, either Circulator or MTA, and if he has we’re sure he hasn’t done so in years. If he had he would know that crime on MTA buses is a continual problem which only seems to be on the increase. While it may only be violent beatings or worse that rate any mention in the news, smartphone theft is an almost epidemic problem on Baltimore transit. We’ve even heard stories of criminals stealing bikes right off the racks on the front of MTA buses (lock your wheel to your frame and sit near the front.)

On a ride of any distance on a fare-paid MTA bus riders are constantly reminded via recorded audio messages and public service ads that transit is dangerous and they are targets for criminals. That is the overarching customer service message from the MTA. Don’t get robbed. We really wish we were kidding about this. We’re not.

In addition to the signs reminding you not to get robbed there are also signs for all kinds of other rules of course; no eating signs, no drinking signs, no loud music signs, keep your voice down on your phone, keep your arms inside the bus… but for as many rules as the bus has it might as well not have any rules. There’s no enforcement at all.


These two junkies were kind enough to hold their heads up long enough to be photographed before proceeding to nod off and splay themselves all over the aisle and neighboring seats. The driver let them on the bus no problem, and of course paying the fare was no deterrent even to these two, so far gone on dope they can’t remember their own names. To be fair to the driver we assume there’s no ‘you can’t be high as shit on heroin’ rule on the bus but maybe there ought to be, eh Jack Young?

Mind you, being high as shit on heroin is not an unusual occurrence on an MTA bus. You can’t hardly ride one without finding a junkie in a greater or lesser degree of fugue, or making their merry way to a methadone clinic. There’s even a whole subset of mobile entrepreneurs who make it their business to sell lollipops or jolly ranchers to these people both at bus stops and aboard the buses themselves. Junkies love sugar.

We say ‘subset’ of course because the lollipop man is one of many people using buses and subway cars as their own personal flea markets. On the same bus as those two junkies pictured above there was also a guy not shy about offering porn videos and sex toys for sale. Body oils, maxi pads, headphones and small electronics, socks, gloves and umbrellas… anything and everything that can either be stolen or bought cheaply in bulk is now available aboard a Baltimore city bus.

Are there homeless people aboard MTA buses? Yeah. There are. Being homeless doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t want or need to get across town sometimes. If you want or need it badly enough you’re going to scrape together $1.60 in small change. Or just get on at the back door. Is the driver going to come all the way back there? Probably not. A $1 fare will not make the homeless magically disappear from the Circulator forever either.

But we kind of wish it would if we’re being completely honest. That sounds like a totally snobbish and horrible thing to say and it probably is but you know what? We would enjoy bus rides more if there were no homeless people, no junkies, no hustlers, no one so morbidly obese they take 3 seats and no one with face tattoos.

Does the Chop, as a bus rider, think he’s better than anyone else? Where do you get off so high and mighty, judging your fellow passengers, buddy? Well you know what? We’re just going to cop to it: we are better than a whole hell of a lot of people and we pass judgement on them all the time and so does everyone else, especially the kind of people who would never step foot on an MTA bus, which is Jack Young and MVBA’s Jason Curtis and probably you, too.

And that’s okay. It’s would be disingenuous and unbearably smug to pretend that all transit users are created equal and we’re all singing Wheels on the Bus as we roll down Sesame Street. One of the main reasons why Baltimoreans, even in the dense inner city neighborhoods the Circulator serves cling so tightly to their cars and use them for nearly every trip is because they don’t like sharing buses with poor people, whether they admit it or not. We can’t blame them. We don’t like it either, but our own tolerance for it is just high enough that we sometimes choose an MTA bus over some other mode. As someone with a decent income and an able body we’ve always got that choice. We could buy a car tomorrow. Every day we actively choose not to.

Make no mistake: there is a wide perception that the Circulator is the Rich People Bus. This is accurate too. While you do find all sorts of people riding the Circulator it doesn’t take very long to notice that there is a much higher percentage of tourists, Mount Vernon college students, office workers and Fell’s/Fed gentrifiers.

These are called Choice Commuters and basically they tend to be a whole lot younger, whiter and richer than the average ridership on an MTA bus. This is not our imagination. For more on choice commuters, captive commuters, race, class and bus snobbery we strongly recommend this 2012 Citylab article which focuses on cities like LA, Atlanta and others where bus ridership has a very similar makeup to Baltimore’s. It even ends by acknowledging that DC’s Circulator is successful precisely because it is unique in being able to serve both rich white people and poor black people.

At this point we’ll give a reminder of what Baltimore’s racial history is and how its gentrification patterns look on a map. Below is a map of Baltimore’s 2010 census data broken down by race. Just for shits and giggles we’ve drawn on an overlay of the Circulator’s four bus routes.


Obviously, blue dots represent black people on this map and green dots are white people. The Circulator doesn’t pass through too many blue dots, does it?

So when we read that someone like the Midtown-Belvedere Association’s Jason Curtis is making idiotic statements like “I don’t think a dollar’s going to break the bank” what we actually hear is “Oh my God the White People Bus isn’t white enough! Homeless people don’t have any money so let’s charge a buck because I can’t fucking stand them and I don’t want them coming up to midtown from under the JFX.”

What we’re sure Curtis doesn’t know because he doesn’t ride buses is that the Circulator in Baltimore has actually been very successful in its four years of operation in attracting choice commuters. Yearly increases in ridership and the extension of the purple line attest to this. Speaking as a choice commuter we can tell you that a $1 fare would have prevented us from taking literally every single Circulator trip we’ve ever made. It doesn’t go far enough for many to make a round trip from home without some other means of conveyance. We use it primarily because it shares stops with many MTA buses and because we can hop on for free. Others use it because they don’t want to give up a parking space, or pay for parking downtown, or just don’t want to walk a mile.

It’s also important to note that a $1 fare can easily turn into a $4 trip if one wants to go from, say, Mount Vernon to Fell’s Point. An MTA day pass is $3.50 and lets you ride buses, light rail and the subway all day long.

Then there’s the cherry on top of the sundae, a rhetorical flourish so inspired it should be carved onto Jason Curtis’ tombstone: “We shouldn’t be giving anything away for free with the taxes we have.”

We’re not sure why the Sun’s editors left this line in, but we can only assume it’s because they ride the Circulator to have lunch sometimes and they wanted to make Curtis look bad. The very same article where this quote appears explains that the Circulator costs $7 million a year and that $6 million of that is funded by a set-aside from the city’s parking taxes. Not parking tickets mind you, it is funded by the taxes the city charges to operators of parking lots and garages, whose customers are primarily tourists and office workers who live outside the city. The logic here is that people from outside the inner city who come here and crowd traffic and stress downtown infrastructure make up for it by funding a nice amenity for people who live near downtown so that they don’t have to pay for it themselves. (The other $1 million is not funded by city taxes either.)

In suggesting that The Charm City Circulator should be fare-financed to any degree we believe that Jack Young and possibly others in city hall have designs on that $6 million dollars and that they’re laying the groundwork to steal it from the Circulator the same way the mayor recently stole $3 million in community impact funds to move a steam pipe from under the entrance to downtown’s casino. Does anyone think parking taxes would go down if the Circulator were magically self-financed?

In a turn of events that should be surprising to no one, the owner of that steam pipe is Veolia, which also operates the Circulator. According to the Baltimore Brew Veolia “forced” the city to pay for that relocation.

We’re not sure how a private company ‘forces’ the citizens of a city in which it does business to do anything. It’s also important to note that “board of estimates” means Jack Young for the purposes of that article. He is the president of the board of estimates. What we take away from that is that he is too big a pussy to stand up to Caesar’s, and too big a pussy to stand up to Veolia, just like he’s been too big a pussy to stand up to Michael Beatty and John Paterakis and anybody else with a few million bucks in their pocket.

As that first Sun article pointed out, Veolia’s circulator contract expires next year and it is obvious that Young is laying the groundwork to play political hardball at the literal expense of downtown transit riders. Not only is this bad public policy and bad business, it’s bound to fail because Jack Young is, at the end of the day, an ineffectual pussy.