Depending on where you want to go, you may need to mix and match the metro subway, light rail, MARC commuter lines, buses, charm city circulator, and even water taxis.
Published: October 10, 2012
This year the city of Baltimore added a line to its formerly three-route free Charm City Circulator bus service. It’s the called the “Banner Line” and it takes the residents of Baltimore—who collectively pay for the buses via parking fees—to Fort McHenry, the famed historic site expected to get heavy tourist traffic this year due to the War of 1812 bicentennial. If those city residents don’t actually need to commute to the kinda isolated park, across the harbor from downtown Baltimore nested in an industrial district, they still have the good ol’ Maryland Transit Administration’s morass of not-free city buses, a subway line, and a light rail line. That’s where the real adventure is, anyway, and you’ll find a strange sense of pride amongst its users, less in having an awesome transit system, than in having the ability to deal with a not-awesome transit system day in and day out.
In fairness, that park-bound line is destined for a new Charles Village terminus in 2014. And the other three lines generally provide a good service in getting people around the center city in a sane fashion. If the MTA bus service is less-than-great at getting people around the city at large, it’s terrible at getting them around the downtown core. We’ll get to those routes shortly (along with such getting around subjects like walking, biking, and driving) but, first, a quick overview of the public transportation picture. What we have is a frayed transit tapestry, made up of city buses (of two varieties, the Charm City Circulator and the Maryland Transit Administration), one subway line (the Metro), one light rail line, and a pair of regional commuter lines (MARC). Also: water taxis.
The Metro Subway: The subway, which many locals don’t even know exists— runs from the Johns Hopkins Hospital complex up the hill from Fells Point to the western suburb of Owings Mills, carving a wide curve through downtown Baltimore, up to Mondowmin Mall, through West Baltimore along the way. It sees plenty of use on the west-side, but empties out closer to downtown.
The Light Rail: The subway line (that’s right, there’s only one) crosses the light-rail, which skirts downtown at its western edge, running north to Hunt Valley and south to BWI Airport and Cromwell. Sadly, the light rail misses a lot of crucial Baltimore neighborhoods because of its highway-hugging route, but does make a light rail jaunt to Hampden somewhat possible, as well as Mount Vernon. It does also, however, make for a great way to get to Camden Yards, the fairgrounds, and the airport. Also: the famed Wegman’s grocery store at the light rail’s northern end in Hunt Valley.
The MARC Commuter Lines: There are two lines. The Penn Line runs from Penn Station to Washington D.C.’s Union Station with stops at the airport and several intermediate suburbs. It runs frequently, hourly or more, during daytime hours and less so off-peak early morning and evening hours. The Camden Line goes from Camden Yards at the southwest corner of downtown to Union Station, taking a more western route through Laurel and other suburban locales along Route One . The Camden Line only runs several trains in the morning and several in the afternoon and early-evening, with a gap in the middle of the day. Neither line run on weekends or holidays, or late-night, though there are ongoing efforts to expand service.
Buses: There are basically three kinds of bus in Baltimore: 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 (sometimes by hours), 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., and when public schools start or let out during the school year. Being a few minutes early for a bus is also a pretty good idea, though early buses aren’t as much of a problem as late ones. See mta.maryland.gov for city bus schedules.
The Charm City Circulator: The separate, downtown-centric, and free Charm City Circulator operates Monday-Thursday 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 6:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday 9 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The Purple line runs down the center of the city from Penn Station to Federal Hill with lots of stops in Mount Vernon and the Inner Harbor along the way. The Orange line crosses the city west to east from the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus to Little Italy, running through the Inner Harbor along the way. The Green line goes from City Hall through Harbor East and Fells Point and up to Johns Hopkins Hospital on the eastside. And the new Banner Route goes from the Inner Harbor to Fort McHenry. Despite being free, the Charm City Circulator is generally nicer and runs more regularly than the city buses you actually pay for. For more information hit charmcitycirculator.com.
The Water Taxi: Unless you live in specific waterfront communities, the water taxi probably isn’t going to be a part of your weekly commute. It is, however, a neat way to get around the harbor area. The water taxi runs from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday during the summer. Through out the rest of the year the hours are scaled back but it keeps on chugging weather permitting. A ticket cost $5 but two commuter routes to and from Tide Point are free. Get route maps and schedules at baltimorewatertaxi.com
Putting It All Together: Depending on where you want to go, you may need to mix and match the light rail, subway, and bus, not an easy thing to do. Your best bet is to hit the Trip Planner at the MTA’s web site (mta.maryland.gov) before you head out.
Buses To and From the City: Greyhound (greyhound.com) serves Baltimore at one location, a couple miles south of downtown at a relatively isolated location off Russell Street. A cheaper and frequently more reliable alternative for getting to New York are the Bolt Bus (boltbus.com) which leaves from Penn Station and the Megabus (us.megabus.com) with service from White Marsh. These are the higher-quality successors to the famed Chinatown buses, most of which were shut down for varying safety violations early last Summer.
Other Ways In and Out of Town: Amtrak trains (amtrak.com) leave from Penn Station to points north and south. And you can fly just about anywhere from the Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (bwiairport.com), known as BWI.
Driving: Baltimore is laid out in 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—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.
Cycling: Riding a bicycle around Baltimore is a higher-stakes variation of the city’s driving anarchy. 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 awful. Wear a helmet, be cautious, and go with your gut as far as the city’s dicier neighborhoods.
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