Published: October 10, 2011
OK, so, the first thing you gotta do is grab the 56 bus for $1.60, and it’ll say “Owings Mills” or “Owings Mills Mall.” Something like that. Hop off at the Metro station—basically a big parking lot with a tunnel at one end—and get on a train heading into Baltimore. Yeah, it’s a subway, but mostly above ground. Get off at Lexington Market and transfer to the light rail. Except it’s not really a transfer, like you have in New York or Philly—you’ve gotta walk a block or so. Or, you can take that same subway another stop to Charles Center and walk over to Charles Street and grab the Charm City Circulator bus.
What? Oh, no, it’s a public bus, but run by Baltimore City, not the state. Why is there another bus service? Good question. Anyhow, either the light rail or Circulator will get you to Penn Station for the MARC train (like, a real train with bathrooms and a conductor), or you could take the light rail the other way and get the MARC train at Camden Yards. They both go to D.C., but take sorta different routes. Oh, and yeah, you have to buy a separate ticket for everything. And that’s how you get from Reisterstown, in the Baltimore suburbs, to Washington, D.C., by public transportation.
“L-o-l,” you say? How could one city’s transportation system be so disjointed and confusing? It’s a long story, but the point is that you have to deal with it. Like anything, you’ll get used to it. Millions of people have managed it before you. The words for it really are “ad hoc.” There’s an impressive regional transportation plan probably collecting dust on some wall somewhere at City Hall that has all kinds of train lines and looks more like Washington, D.C.’s extensive metro system, but Baltimore, like most American cities in the 21st century, lacks the money and will to do anything impressive or comprehensive.
And, so, you have the patchwork below, annotated with our best tips. Information about light rail, Metro, buses, and MARC trains can be found at mta.maryland.gov, where you can also find the Trip Planner, through which the MTA itself helps you through your own custom version of the above.
The north-south-running light rail skirts the harbor, stops at the sports stadiums, travels up the Howard Street corridor through the University of Maryland medical campus, and past Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Baltimore, and then shoots up along the low-density Falls Road corridor before hitting the city’s northern suburbs (not including Towson, however). At the south end, it takes you to Baltimore-Washington International Airport or to the suburb of Cromwell. Fare checkers are a regular sight. Full fare: $1.60. Day pass: $3.50.
The Metro starts in Baltimore’s northwest suburbs, and its single line swoops into central Baltimore, does an awkward, not terribly convenient curve through downtown, and ends at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution campus on Broadway, which isn’t close to much else of note. Many stations are now getting a needed facelift, with things like new signs and “art.” Full fare: $1.60. Day pass: $3.50.
This is the Maryland-based commuter-rail network. Baltimore has three stops: Penn and Camden stations and West Baltimore, with service on the Penn Line (service from Penn Station to Washington, D.C.) and the Camden Line (from Camden Yards to D.C.). There’s also a string of stops northeast of the city, from Martin State Airport by Essex to Aberdeen and Perryville, cruelly close to the beginning of Pennsylvania’s SEPTA commuter-rail system. Delays on the MARC happen a little too often. Buy your ticket at the station or expect to pay a few extra bucks and get a dirty look from the conductor. Fares range from $4-$14. Service Monday-Friday only.
Buses Around Town
There are basically three kinds: local buses, commuter buses (city-to-city/suburb), and express buses (like local, but with fewer stops). Local buses generally run from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. and cost $1.60 for a one-way ticket and $3.50 for a day pass (express buses are $2 one-way). You won’t find anything especially different in using Baltimore’s bus network than you would in most American cities, but a few guidelines: Routes aren’t clearly marked, always expect your trip to take longer than scheduled, you’ll find more room in the back of the bus, don’t be surprised if a full bus blows by your stop, and the most congested times to travel are between 6 and 9 p.m. The separate, downtown-centric, and free Charm City Circulator operates Monday-Thursday 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday, 6:30 a.m.-midnight, Saturday, 9 a.m.-midnight, and Sunday: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. See mta.maryland.gov for city bus schedules; charmcitycirculator.com for Circulator routes.
Buses Out of Town
Greyhound serves Baltimore at one location, a couple miles south of downtown at a relatively isolated location off Russell Street (greyhound.com). A cheaper and frequently more reliable alternative for getting to New York and Philadelphia are the inexpensive “Chinatown” buses and their successors. There are several companies with service to the Baltimore Travel Plaza (multiple companies, Philly and New York), Penn Station (Boltbus, boltbus.com, New York only), and Station North (the Greyhound-owned MVP, mvpbus.com, New York only). Megabus (megabus.com) serves Philly and many points in the Northeast out of the White Marsh suburb.
As in many other major metropolitan cities, taxis in Baltimore can be pretty touch and go. There are several cab companies, and many of them operate vehicles that look like they should be pulled by horses. If you’re worried, grab a taxi at Penn Station or a downtown hotel, where staff theoretically keep problem cabs away. Some cabs do take credit cards, but never expect it. If a cab happens to have a VISA logo, expect to hear, “The machine is broken.” Bring cash. You may see Baltimoreans standing on the sidewalk waving a finger downward toward oncoming traffic; they are hailing “hacks,” illegal ad hoc cabs, and you should not try this yourself.
Baltimore’s laid out on a rudimentary grid system, with Charles Street dividing east streets from west streets and Baltimore Street dividing north and south. Getting your directions mixed up is bad. (As in, North Broadway is an entirely different planet than South Broadway.) Major arteries in and out of the city include I-83 (which carries traffic north-south and terminates just east of downtown), Route 40 (technically a highway, running east-west), and I-395 (connects downtown Baltimore’s southern portion to I-95). Without a dedicated highway leaving the city to the west and east, you’re basically driving through neighborhoods, meaning traffic that way between 3 and 7 p.m. will be hell. Baltimore has an endemic problem with red-light running, so let your green ripen for a couple of seconds if you can’t see. And be advised that crosswalks/lights in Baltimore are considered “optional” by pedestrians.
This is a mess. Some neighborhoods have permits to park, some have free two-hour parking, some have “smart” meters, some might still have the old coin meters. Lots and garages are scattered throughout the city, especially downtown. Parking enforcement is merciless. Have fun with this.
With the implementation of an enthusiastic bicycling coordinator at City Hall, this has gotten better over the past few years—more bike lanes, more “sharrows,” more signage, new bike racks—including on buses—trail expansions. That said, drivers in Baltimore are assholes. You will get yelled at even in the best neighborhoods, you will get shit thrown at you, little kids will call you “faggot.” As for the dicier neighborhoods, go with your gut.
BWI is located about 15 minutes south of Baltimore. Cabs to and from the airport are expensive despite the short distance, so consider taking the light rail (45 minutes) or the MARC (20 minutes). D.C. has two airports, Reagan National and Dulles, which will have more airline/fare/destination options with a hefty convenience trade-off.
Amtrak’s northeast corridor serves BWI and Penn Station with connections in Philadelphia, Washington, and New York for all points.
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