A Service Change??? Yes, I’m actually doing one. My friend and I visited Baltimore a few weekends ago, and I came in knowing I wanted to do a post – I had never been to the Charm City before, and I knew very little about its public transportation network, the MTA (whose website completely rips off the MBTA’s, incidentally). So join me in exploring this brand new city via transit!
After a long and predictably late Greyhound trip (not because of traffic, but because of a random 20-minute stop at a service plaza for seemingly no reason), we arrived at “Baltimore Downtown” station. Baltimore Downtown, huh? Yeah, it’s about a 40-minute walk to anywhere resembling a downtown. Apparently it was built where it was because of local opposition to putting it in the actual downtown, but it leaves it in such a horrible place! Your only transit options from here are the 73, which runs downtown but only comes every 45 minutes most of the time, and the 26, which is actually every 15 minutes on weekdays (every 35 on weekends), but it doesn’t go anywhere a tourist would want to go.
So we walked. The roads around the bus terminal are really pedestrian-unfriendly, but eventually we made our way into the Federal Hill neighborhood. Honestly, it felt like one of those neighborhoods that you can only fully enjoy if you’re over 21. But you know what can be enjoyed by anyone of any age?
This, my friends, is the free Harbor Connector. It only runs at rush hour, and it operates three routes that do short-hauls across Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the Patapsco River. We did the HC3, which runs from Federal Hill to Harbor East, a journey that takes about five minutes. The boat was adorable, the ridership was tiny, and it was a great introduction to the Charm City.
After that wonderful ride, we walked through Fells Point (a truly wonderful, bustling neighborhood) and Canton (where we had dinner). We kept walking after dinner up to Eastern Ave and Conkling Street, in the neighborhood of Highlandtown. This was where we picked up the CityLink Blue, one of the twelve colored bus routes in Baltimore with frequent, 24-hour service.
The colored CityLink routes represent absolutely amazing branding. MTA redesigned its bus network a few years back, and I have to say, the way they sold it was fantastic. But has it been successful? The numbers say no, and I was pretty mixed myself. The CityLink Blue is an exception, but a lot of their colored lines are as infrequent as every half hour on Sundays! That’s not frequent!
Also, I would’ve thought stop spacing would’ve seen big improvements with a redesign. But no – stops were wildly inconsistent, with reasonable lengths at some times and multiple stops on the same block at other times! And the on-time performance. Oh, geez, it’s bad. 67% systemwide. It shows – buses were late all the time. For a good look into the current state of the redesign, check out this article, which goes into much more detail on these issues.
Hey, speaking of stop spacing, did you know that the CityLink Blue has an express section? And did you know that it comes right after our stop? Well…we accidentally missed our stop because the automatic announcement came late. So it was time to express to West Baltimore, a place that really didn’t look like a fun neighborhood to be in at night! At least the bus terminal there was spacious and well-lit – but we did have to get back somehow.
We discovered something else once we got here: MTA doesn’t give transfers. That’s right, they did a bus network redesign focusing on a high-frequency grid…but they don’t have transfers. Unless you bought your ticket on the app. Which we didn’t. We tried to explain to the driver of a CityLink Orange that we had missed our stop and we were trying to get back, but with headphones in, he bluntly said, “Doesn’t matter, you gotta pay.”
Next day! Time to ride the…Metro SubwayLink? Hang on, that’s what you’re calling it, MTA? It used to just be the Metro Subway, but they had to add “Link” to everything with the redesign, so now we get this cumbersome name that no one actually uses. I guess LA already took Metrolink, huh? Anyway, our underground journey began at Lexington Market Station, where we got a firsthand glimpse of the Metro’s graphic design:
The stairs here didn’t actually go underground, they just led to a submerged courtyard where the real entrance was. Once inside, I was impressed at how big and high-capacity the station was. It felt like one of the grandiose stops on the Second Avenue Subway in New York, except a lot less aesthetically pleasing, and with far fewer riders. Also, with smooth jazz. Yes, MTA plays smooth jazz at every single rail station, reminding me of just how much I hate the soprano saxophone. And if you’re a complete masochist, you can stream that wonderful music 24/7 right here!
One of the faregates was just open, so everyone was going through that one, although you do have to swipe again when you leave. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case, since it’s a fixed fare, but maybe it’s to prevent fare-dodging. Then again, these people going through the open gate without paying seemed to know what they were doing. Anyway, Lexington Market has a much easier way to fare-dodge: the elevator to the platform is outside of fare control! How that works, I have no idea, but a cashier did ask someone walking toward it if they had a ticket.
The Metro SubwayLink began operation in 1983. That should give you an idea of what the station design is like. I do have to give Lexington Market some credit for having interesting artwork, though. The litter on the tracks was a little less appealing, but it did make me feel like I was back in Philly!
At this point, I should probably mention that the Metro SubwayLink consists of just one line with fourteen stops. Yeah, it’s a lot easier to figure out why barely anyone uses this thing once you know that. Heck, on weekends, it only runs every 15 minutes! That’s horrible for a heavy rail metro line! The most frequent it gets is every 8 minutes at rush hour.
I’ll give this to the Metro: its seats were super comfortable. But the whole thing felt like it was stuck in 1983, right down to the announcements coming over the tinny, low-quality speakers. Also, the last crossover on the line was three stops away from Johns Hopkins, so for the eastern three stops, trains have to run on the wrong track. Umm…what? Maybe there’s a crossover past Johns Hopkins that they use on weekdays, but as far as I saw, all trains are forced to use this ridiculous arrangement! Talk about a capacity constraint.
The main problem with the Metro is that it…well…doesn’t really go anywhere. The eight underground stops serve actual neighborhoods, but the six that are above ground (which form a larger proportion of the line’s length, since the stops are much further apart) are mostly just park-and-rides. Indeed, after Old Court (the second-to-last stop), the line spends three miles in the middle of a freeway running through the woods to the last stop, Owings Mills, which only really serves a newly-built lifestyle center. Want to get anywhere else from there, you better have a car.
From Owings Mills, we took the train back to Old Court and hopped on a bus route, the 83. This is one of the “Metro feeder” routes, which used to get an “M-” prefix before the redesign. The 83 runs down Reisterstown Road, essentially serving the actual civilization that the Metro misses, before terminating at Mondawmin Station (the first underground one on the Metro).
Our next transit-related expedition began in Charles Village, home to Johns Hopkins University. It involved taking the 51 bus to Towson, then the 93 to Hunt Valley. Neither of these were especially noteworthy trips, but why were we taking these buses? To get to the Light RailLink, of course! Ah, okay, that name doesn’t really work either…
This light rail line is fascinating. It runs up to Hunt Valley, the northernmost point on the entire local MTA network (including bus, aside from the 93 which goes a tiny bit further north), to serve…a suburban shopping mall. It’s a very nice suburban shopping mall, but there’s really nothing else here! It seems to generate ridership, though, so they’re doing something right. I’ll bet trains get empty after the mall closes, though.
These high-floor trains have seen better days. They feel just as dated as the Metro, but they have the added bonus of chipping paint on the outside! Also, it seems like the light rail’s schedule is completely unreliable. I mean, the weekend we were here, they were doing single-tracking up at Hunt Valley and running a shuttle train from there to Timonium, which threw all the schedules on their head. And of course, MTA didn’t put any signs up. The operator didn’t tell us anything until he came out and kicked everyone off at Timonium. No one knew what was going on. It was a complete mess.
The line from Hunt Valley to Timonium consists of snaking through industrial areas making a ton of stops that saw very little ridership on a Saturday. Once we got on the train to continue from Timonium, there were two more industrial stops, then the line ran through the complete middle of nowhere without stopping! Since it’s following an old rail right-of-way, it bypasses actual places where people want to go, like Towson. The line even runs through a downtown (Ruxton), but there’s no stop there because of local opposition when the line was being built. It was a very scenic ride (I didn’t take any pictures for some reason, unfortunately), but not a useful one.
The line didn’t enter proper civilization until Mount Royal a few blocks from Penn Station, the main MARC (Maryland commuter rail) and Amtrak station for the city. A few blocks was a little too much walking time, apparently, so MTA decided to build a light rail spur line there that runs every half hour. They also failed to put any signs up saying that it was replaced by buses on this day! So we wasted our time walking to Penn Station, but at least we got to see the…actually rather underwhelming main hall.
But hey, as long as we’re here, I’ll just talk about how we did get to ride the light rail shuttle! That’s right, on Sunday, we came down here on a whim not expecting anything, but a train was sitting right there! Now, the shuttle usually runs to Camden Yards, which is the other MARC station in Baltimore, but that station was (and is) being renovated. Thus, the shuttle was only running to…Mount Royal. It was a two minute ride with no one on board. Sweet.
Okay, back to Saturday. After our time had been wasted, we got back on the light rail at Mount Royal and entered the street-running downtown section. It was brutally slow. Even outside of downtown, it seemed like the trains would sit there for a while at each station doing nothing! Luckily, they would get a lot of speed in between stops, and south of downtown, the line has this awesome bridge over a body of water with a highway interchange over it! The light rail kinda swoops between it all.
The southern half of the light rail seems to be overall better-used, since it does actually serve places. Well, more so than the north, anyway. After Linthicum, it splits into two branches, each with half-hourly service. We took the Glen Burnie/Cromwell branch, which nearly makes it to downtown Glen Burnie, but stops a little under a mile before it.
And where did we go from Cromwell? Annapolis. Yeah, MTA actually runs a bus to Annapolis, the capital of Maryland. The bus ride felt like a long-distance RIPTA route with fewer highway sections and lower ridership. It was totally worth it, though – Annapolis was awesome. It has its own horrible little bus system, but we unfortunately never got the chance to ride it. At least I got one singular photo:
But we weren’t going to miss out on the other branch of the light rail! We decided to push the airport branch to the next day, Sunday, when…the light rail doesn’t start until 10:40 AM. Okay, scratch that, no way were we waiting that long for a train! One option was to take MARC to the airport and the light rail back, but I had a different idea…
I love weird bus variants. The 75 is the only MTA bus route that serves the airport, but it usually begins at the Patapsco light rail station…except when the light rail isn’t running, like on Sunday mornings. At those times, it runs express into the city! The bus was 20 minutes late, but for an hourly service on a Sunday morning, it was pretty busy, with a full-seated load.
After an excruciating wait with many other people, the train finally came, and we took it back into Baltimore. Our next destination was the B&O Railroad Museum, and to get to it, we were going to use downtown Baltimore’s free bus system, the Charm City Circulator. It has four routes serving different parts of downtown, and it seemed like it would be the happy fun tourist bus. That turned out not to be the case…
“The tree spirit came. The tree spirit came and it opened my body and peed in my body. Then the tree spirit took my intestines and put feces in my intestines and trash in my mouth.” Well, for crazy ramblings, this lady was certainly being creative. But it was a bit of a relief when the ride was over.
We did one more Charm City Circulator ride later on, this time on the Purple Line, which had much a much higher ratio of normal people who actually seemed like they were going somewhere. We also took a trip on the CityLink Navy to get back to the Greyhound station, but the walk from the bus turned out to be longer than expected. And that’s about it! I really enjoyed my time in Baltimore – it’s a great city, and it would be a blast to come back again. I leave you with a photo of the harbor from the top of the world’s tallest pentagonal building: