Death by Public Transportation

A weekend in Baltimore almost killed this public transportation girl.

No, really. The Mechanic and I had planned on spending a cheap weekend in Baltimore – ride his motorcycle, hotel booked with frequent flier miles, walk all over the city to see all the ships in town for Sailabration…  Except at the last minute, the motorcycle had engine problems and we had to find another mode of transportation.

I love tall ships!

Amtrak was prohibitively expensive (almost $200 round trip per person!), the MARC train doesn’t run on weekends, since it’s a commuter-only service, the Bolt Bus doesn’t go there…. Instead of renting a car, we decided we would take public transportation all the way! After all, there are buses, subways, and light rail all the way between here and there. We guessed it would take about 2 hours from door to harbor. Boy were we wrong!

Here was our plan:

  • 2 bus from my apartment to Ballston Metro station
  • Orange line train to L’Enfant Metro station
  • Transfer to the Green line and head all the way to Greenbelt.
  • Get on the B30 express bus to BWI.
  • Jump on the Baltimore light rail the rest of the way to the Inner Harbor.

It actually worked that way on the way up, fairly smoothly too. But it took closer to 3 hours, because the 2 buses in my neighborhood don’t run very often on the weekends, so we had to leave earlier than maybe necessary. Then we padded our Metro time, just in case the trains were all screwed (as they so often are on the weekends). In addition, the B30 bus was scheduled to arrive at basically the same time that the light rail was scheduled to leave – and it only ran every 30 minutes. So we had to wait for the next light rail, which did give us time to figure out the ticketing system (sort of).

The Baltimore Light Rail train at BWI

On the way home, however…. the light rail train we were on sat for close to an hour because the train in front of us had technical problems. We got to BWI starving, so decided to eat there, but since that bus only runs every 30 minutes, we basically had to give up an hour or more there (but we ate at the DuClaw pub and it was tasty! I love the Mysterium beer; I’d tried it at the Brew at the Zoo). Then, as we crammed onto the crowded bus, the bus driver yelled at the people still waiting, “There is another bus 5 minutes behind this one!” Really? You tell us that now that we have paid the “special fare” of $6 each?!  So we stood the entire 35-40 minutes to Greenbelt. Luckily both Metro trains were just arriving when we got to each platform, but I did almost have a breakdown when we got to Ballston and there were NO taxis at the taxi stand!

Takeaways from this weekend:

  1. We tried to by the Charm Card, the Baltimore version of DC’s SmarTripcard, and asked at a few tourist information places if they knew where we could get them. Blank stares and rudeness greeted our queries. Time for some education and outreach, Baltimore!
  2. The light rail driver and the B30 bus driver need some customer service training – the light rail driver bad-mouthed the driver of the stalled train over the intercom. Not cool.
  3. Amtrak needs to be an affordable option for everyone, all the time, even last minute. $200 round trip for a 45 minute ride is not reasonable at all.
  4. The MARC trains need to run more often. The infrastructure exists for this service to benefit everyone, not just commuters on weekday mornings and evenings. I’m sure we aren’t the only people who want to take a train to Baltimore for an overnight trip.
  5. The total costs of our public transportation, not including the cab, were about $20 for each of us. The last time we rented a car, we got an SUV for $25 a day. If public transportation is to be a serious, efficient, affordable option, it needs to be easier than renting a car.

    Trying to figure out how to pre-pay our light rail tickets wasn’t as easy as it should have been. Or we are really clueless.

There is so much talk about moving away from car dependency, and the positive impact of public transportation, and yet, as we have proved, it just isn’t there yet. If neither of us had traveled, and been in other countries where we have experienced reliable, efficient, affordable transit, we could beg that whole “ignorance is bliss” thing – but we know better. It’s something I hope the authors of “Road to Nowhere: Federal Transportation Infrastructure Policy” take into account, and something I’d like Congress to remember when they are debating yet another extension on the transportation bill. People demand better transit options – how quickly can we get them?

Tall Ships and Crowds in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor







On the Go with LaHood

Last week The Mechanic and I attended a town hall talk at George Washington University with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

"On the Go" with Ray LaHood

I have been following his blog, Fast Lane, since I started my new job in transportation demand management (TDM), when my boss recommended it among others. When I told her I was going to hear Secretary LaHood, she said that he really gets the whole thing, smart streets and TDM, and she enjoys hearing him talk. After an hour with him, I understood why.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

I guess I don’t expect politicians to all be personable, honest, and frank with their audiences. Perhaps it was because it was a university setting, college students in the audience, and Secretary LaHood had started off as a civics teacher, but he was surprisingly open about himself, his career path, and current politics. He told us how he ended up, as a Republican, appointed to the Obama administration (working well and being friends with Rahm Emanuel, and working well with then-Senator Obama), emphasizing, not for the first time, how important it is to work well with others. “To solve problems, help other people,” he said, stating that in politics it is about building relationships to get stuff done. (That being said, he admitted that there are many in office right now who don’t want to do anything because it will be seen as helping or working with the president.)

I was a bit worried that the talk would never get around to it’s topic – “On the Go: Ensuring a Quality Transportation System,” but eventually it did. Proving my boss correct, LaHood said “The people want mass transit – we don’t sit around at DOT making this stuff up.” He wants to provide what people want – buses, light rail, streetcars, subway systems – not to replace cars, but to give people different ways to get around. 

Although the conversations were wide ranging (I’d like to add that all but maybe two of the people asking questions were male – I really wanted to get up and ask something but couldn’t think of anything intelligent enough), Secretary LaHood answered everything honestly and openly. Well, he did refuse to talk about the tax-per-mile issue, which apparently got him into trouble a few years ago. I had to look it up and find out what the drama was – but was still impressed that he answered every other question.

There were three big take-aways from the evening for me. One was that cities and states that have good multi-use roads and smart cities is because the mayors and governors come to DOT wanting it, which means they are officials elected by people who want these things. The other is that there will always be some sort of federal subsidy for transportation in this country, of some sort, be it Amtrak, highways, or streetcars. And to go back to Secretary LaHood’s big point about working together and the importance of compromise to get things done.

Oh, and distracted driving – don’t talk or text while you are driving!