When it first launched in 2010, the Charm City Circulator linked Penn Station, the Inner Harbor, Fort McHenry, and Harbor East through its free bus service. It was aimed at helping tourists explore the city, but plenty of regular folks–myself included–were happy to use the service as well. Which was totally fine — there was no limit or regulation to who could ride the free buses. Which some city councilmembers seem to see as a problem.
This week, the Baltimore Sun reports that City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young suggested removing “free” from the Circulator’s equation, instead charging bus riders $1 per ride. This is ostensibly to mitigate the annual $7 million it costs to keep the Circulator going. But, as the Sun reports, $6 million of that comes from an increase in the city’s parking tax. The rest comes from various other grants and “agreements with partners.”
Though there have been delays, accidents, and other problems with the Circulator, it’s largely been viewed as a success, with public transit advocates calling for its routes to be expanded. As Eric Allen Hatch wrote in the Fishbowl last year, the city should be taking notes on the Circulator (and the Johns Hopkins shuttle): “The success of these free bus systems isn’t just that they’re free. They also have short, efficient routes; take people places they want to go; and stick to clearly defined schedules. These are all essential ingredients of successful public-transit. The Circulator and JHU Shuttle are proof that these things can happen in Baltimore—even if the city bus system hasn’t managed them for many decades.”
So even though Baltimore is cash strapped, it’s certainly not due to the Circulator. It’s hard not to suspect that there’s some other motive at play here– perhaps an attempt to rejigger the demographics of the Circulator’s riders. The Council seems particularly worried about “riders without any genuine destination.”
But who’s to say who deserves or doesn’t deserve a city service? If those riders aren’t breaking the law or disturbing other passengers, then as Baltimore City residents, they have just as much a right to a seat on the Circulator as anyone else. The Sun quotes Kevin Lindamood, president of Health Care for the Homeless, who had a similar reaction to the $1 fare idea: “It seems to inappropriately target low-income riders who benefit from it just as much as tourists and upper-income residents. It doesn’t seem to me there is any evidence the Circulator has been anything other than a success.”
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