My Impressions on Visiting Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Public Transportation

Earlier today my spouse dragged me away from the comfy computer chair and screen into the somewhat frigid outdoors for a trip with the kids and a stroller to the Inner Harbor. To avoid traffic and expense of parking we decided to take public transportation, and being that all three of our kids are under 6, it helps that both the Metro and Light Rail do not charge for them. While we originally planned to take the Metro, because we gave some a ride along the way, we ended up taking the Light Rail from Mt. Washington instead to the Convention Center station, from where we walked down Pratt Street to the Harbor. We walked through the Harbor, took the skywalk across Pratt Street, went up Gay St. to Lombard and walked half way, then took the free Charm City Circulator back to the Light Rail’s University Center/Baltimore Street station from which we went back to the University of Baltimore/Mt. Royal station because we took the wrong train, and ended up taking a second light rail train back to Mt. Washington. We ended up paying about $6.40 for Light Rail fares for two adults, both ways instead of gas and parking fees downtown, plus endless entertainment for the kids on the trains. I do feel bad for the people in the light rail car on our way back when our youngest shrieked loud enough for everyone to cover their ears, but overall it was a fun experience. The most interesting thing was watching how excited kids get over everyday things like trains, buses, elevators and boats. We even saw the Occupy Baltimore camp and their tents.

Over the course of our trip I kept seeing all sort of strange and interesting things Baltimore is famous for, but the nagging overall feeling I kept getting is that while the city overall has tried to attract people to visit, there were a lot of small “finishing touches” that just weren’t there, and made the overall experience good, but not great. It felt like there is a small step that remains to be taken and no one thought about taking it.

Some of the things that concerned me:

  • At the Light Rail station, no instructions were provided as to how to use the Charm Card (I happened to have a WMATA SmarTrip card left over from a trip to DC which works the same way). I eventually found the instructions online and even then, it turns out that you cannot use one card to pay for two adults. For a visiting tourist, that is a major issue. To make the whole thing even funnier, they have instructions inside the light rail car itself, at which point it is too late to get a ticket.
  • While there is handicap access, there aren’t any details on strollers.
  • At the Light Rail stations, inside the cars and online, there is no mention of the Charm City Circulator - a free bus downtown. We ended up walking about 7 blocks to the Inner Harbor, and would not have done that even we knew the bus was available. While I understand that the CCC is a city project and Light Rail is state operated, but a little cooperation would go a long way.
  • The signage pointing to the Inner Harbor on the street corners is ambiguous - we weren’t sure we were heading in the right direction until we got very close to the Harbor.
  • We tried to use the skywalk at the convention center because my kids wanted to see it and went to use the handicap elevator to go up with a stroller. The elevator worked and opened, but lo and behold there were two homeless guys sleeping inside! We decided it was best not to disturb them and have them nap in their cozy place. For a tourist that could be somewhat jarring.
  • In the Harbor itself, there is very little signage regarding the public transportation available near by aside from generic signs pointing how blocks it is to the closest station in which direction. I remember seeing downtown maps in NYC when visiting.
  • On the way back, we took a skywalk across Pratt street. While the elevator on the Harbor side worked perfectly without any sleeping people in it, the other side had no working elevators, so we ended up going down three floors of parking ramps to get the floor.
  • We wanted to hitch a ride on the CCC on the way back, but the mobile app did not have prediction times for the bus, the station pole did not have time estimates on it and the regular website claimed it would be another 10 minutes. So we started walking only to get passed by a bus 2 minutes later. If you go out of your way to make sure the buses are tracked, you should also make sure that the website for tracking works! We eventually caught another one half way through.
  • On the way back, we took a Light Rail car only to discover later on that it was going to the wrong destination (Light Rail has three lines). It would have been much easier if when the car came, it was clearly indicated and announced that this was the wrong car.
Overall it felt like the entire area would benefit from usability review as we call it in software development, where someone would try to step into a mind of a tourist or a visitor and figure out small but meaningful changes that would make a big difference.
PS. In general, the whole trip got me thinking about transportation in the city and surrounding area. It seems that much of the logic and intent surrounding planning for transportation in the region centers on the “downtown / suburbs” concept, there people travel daily from the suburbs downtown, and then come back in the afternoon. Additionally, airports and train stations need strategic connections to downtown as well. This explains why the Metro and Light Rail are so downtown centric, and the CCC as well.
However, over time people tend to form new patterns for travel – for example, I travel daily from the Baltimore suburbs south to Columbia, and so do many others. There is currently no low-cost public transit option between those two areas which does not involve a downtown trip. It would seem logical that some of those areas can benefit from rapid transit, starting with possibly buses, and eventually becoming something bigger.
I can envision a savvy entrepreneur or a bus company like BOLT or MegaBus coming up with commuter routes using new air conditioned, bathroom equipped buses with WiFi access and GPS tracking. Combine them with some sort of corporate program, tax credits and commuter programs like Guaranteed Ride, and it would be a great business. Once of the great advantages of using buses is that they do not need infrastructure like trains do, so entry costs would be pretty low. I personally would love to use a service like that which would free up an additional hour for me every day. I guess at the minimum I can look into carpooling.

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