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The Charm City Circulator‘s ridership numbers have been increasing steadily for over a year. This should come as no surprise to those who live or work near its routes. What may come as a surprise is that Baltimore City is actually responsible for a successful transit program. As of March 2012, the Circulator transported about 350,000 per month. This may not seem like a huge number of riders but consider that in March of 2011, the Circulator transported only 188,000 riders per month. Transit use is increasing rapidly across the U.S., but very few municipalities can boast an 83% ridership increase over the course of one year*.

Total Monthly Ridership on the Charm City Circulator

There are many causes of this downtown Baltimore transit renaissance. First, the bus service is free, eliminating almost every disincentive to ride. Second, the service is local, not regional, making it highly functional for people making short trips within the Circulators target area. Third, two of the three routes serve the 401, the City’s central business district, currently the fastest growing in terms of residential population. Perhaps most importantly, the Circulator serves people going to and from jobs, stores, businesses, homes and apartments, not parking lots in the suburbs. Every Circulator stop serves a neighborhood, not a park and ride. And, the Circulator is expanding, serving even more neighborhoods and job centers, including Fells Point and Hopkins Hospital. As a result, one can expect ridership to increase even more. In fact, since the Green Route, the newest Circulator route, first began operating in November of 2011, overall circulator ridership has been increasing even more rapidly.

A map showing all three Charm City Circulator Routes

The Circulator is also a small operation. The Circulator is able to run efficiently because its routes are short and the Baltimore City Department of Transportation isn’t trying to do too much. Fewer routes in this case means higher performing routes and, in this case, consistent growth in ridership numbers. It also means that the Baltimore City Department of Transportation can spend time finding funding sources to add new routes to the Circulator. The Banner Route, for example, was made possible, in part, by a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, even if the MTA were able to get such a grant from the Federal Government, $1.6 million would probably not be enough money to fund a new route.

Courtesy of Baltimore City, a map showing the new Banner Route in blue.

The Circulator isn’t just one new bus route though: it has grown from one route carrying about 1,200 passengers a day into a three-route system carrying over 11,000 in under two and a half years. With the opening of the Banner route this June, expect ridership to continue to grow rapidly as residents, commuters and tourists gain access to Locust Point and Fort McHenry.

Even though the Circulator doesn’t cover nearly the area that the MTA does, its ability to make the most of very little is impressive and begs the question: isn’t it time Baltimore had its own centralized transit authority? Baltimore is currently the largest city in the U.S to have a state-run transit agency. The effects of the bureaucracy and thinly spread resources can be seen in the piece-meal way that Baltimore’s transit system was built, in the lack of comprehensive planning and in the lack of regional cohesion around a transit-oriented vision.

A map of the MARC Train system: The State of Maryland currently operates MARC Service in 12 counties within Maryland and 2 separate jurisdictions including the District of Columbia and West Virginia. MARC, similar to NJ Transit, is a perfect example of the sort of regional transportation resource a state should provide. The Light Rail, however, which operates much more locally within Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties and Baltimore City serves a different purpose entirely, one more consistent with the goals of a regional transit authority.

*If anyone is interested in taking a look at the data set or the data sources, as always, feel free to comment below and I’ll put it up.

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An article in this Sunday’s Baltimore Sun titled Baltimore’s port marks record year for vehicles in 2011 discussed the inherent advantages of the Port of Baltimore’s geographic location: Baltimore’s cozy harbor on the Patapsco River is farther inland than any other port in the Northeast. Historically, this made Baltimore’s harbor safe from storms but more recently it has given Baltimore’s port an indisputable advantage when it comes to shipping cargo to and receiving Cargo from the Midwest. But as a Rex Sherman, a research director for the American Association of Port Authorities, points out in the article: “‘Those terminals weren’t built overnight.’”

Indeed, there has been significant investment in Baltimore’s port infrastructure: cranes, dredging and expanded storage and processing facilities. This investment has paid off; the automotive import and export industry alone provides over 1,000 jobs. And, according to the State of Maryland, that’s only a small part of the over 50,000 total jobs and more than $3 Billion of annual revenue created by the Port.

For once, however, the jobs and the money are not the only focus of the article. In fact, it has undertones of an “if you build it, the will come” approach to investment. Baltimore needs a bit more of this attitude to build its infrastructure and, eventually, create the jobs that will keep the City growing.

The Port has shown private investors, the Federal Government and the State of Maryland that investment in Baltimore can be rewarded. In fact, a public private partnership is responsible for the construction of new berths and for millions of dollars in tax revenue. Perhaps the Port of Baltimore is one of the only infrastructure projects in which some are willing to invest in what many see as a lost and troubled Baltimore City. If that is the case, then let the money continue to roll in and create several thousand more jobs. However, repairing and adding capacity to one piece of infrastructure alone can’t fix Baltimore. The City needs to rebuild and, in some cases, rethink its infrastructural priorities in order to reverse decades of population decline; and it needs some help from investors to do it.

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