Field Tripping By Kate Drabinski

Field Tripping: Baltimore-Linking

I don't own a car. I didn't even learn to drive until I was 30. I mostly ride my bike to get around, but I also need public transit, and I love it. Public transit shows you parts of the city you'd never see inside your car and throws you into crowds of people you might not otherwise meet. City buses and trains are magical places where new connections and perspectives are made and shaped, and I wouldn't trade that for all the cars in the world. I don't always feel like this when I'm waiting, again, for a bus in Baltimore.

My car-free life goes something like this: I didn't learn to drive as a teenager in Boise, Idaho because I didn't think I could afford car insurance, and I decided to save the McBucks I earned slinging flattened cheeseburgers to in-a-hurry types for debate camp instead. I went to college in New York City where having a car seems more like punishment than anything else. I spent the first year after college riding Paris' efficient and comprehensive metro and then enjoyed DC's metro for a few months before landing back in the sweet arms of the NYC subway. I headed west to Berkeley for graduate school, where I took the bus and BART, until I met a girl with a car—a faded red 1991 Nissan Sentra. She finally got tired of Driving Miss Daisy and taught me to drive, but I was still basically a professional passenger.

A job offer found me moving to New Orleans a few years later. I got a car so I could drive away if the levees broke again, but I found having a car was more trouble than it was worth. I let it sit on the street for months at a time, because who wants to drive around in a tin can filled with trash when you can ride a bicycle and get there in almost the same amount of time? The car flooded twice in rainstorms, I filled it with kitty litter to dry it out, and then I drove it to Baltimore, where everyone said I actually would finally need a car.

I totally did need my car to get to my job out in the county, until I didn't anymore. My transmission gave out on a scary afternoon drive back from work. I calculated that for the price of a new transmission I could buy like three years of monthly bus passes, and I donated my car to Vehicles for Change and haven't looked back.

Life without a car in Baltimore is not as easy as it was in most of the cities I've lived in. The most reliable form of public transportation, fixed rail, only works if you are traveling between small sections of the city or going to the baseball game from the county. I do, though, take the bus, along with the third of Baltimoreans who don't have access to cars, and the system just has to get better if any of us are ever going to be able to get where we're trying to go with reasonable predictability. I'm lucky to have a flexible schedule that can roll with some waiting, but if I were paid by the hour, the many minutes a day lost to waiting for buses that don't show up would be really, really expensive. I have spent hours of my life waiting for buses that the tracker tells me are pulling up but that aren't really there, getting passed over by buses that are too full to pick up another rider, and just waiting. It is outrageous that this is how we expect a third of us to live while we pour more and more money into amenities that make things easier for drivers who, from the bus stop perspective, already live lives of incredible luxury.

BaltimoreLink promises to make things better, so I hopped on it that first Monday to give it a ride and check out the mood. I took the Red, the replacement for the 8/48 buses that run down Greenmount. My bus came about ten minutes after I got to the stop, and there was another right behind it. The Red replaces two bus lines that were always packed, so I said a silent prayer to the bus gods that there would that many Red buses along this route.

My bus was a mass of grumblers, everybody clutching maps and complaining about all this change. You take the same route for years and years and then all the names and numbers change? On the ground it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Every stop opened the doors to new passengers with confused questions as our driver patiently walked through some changes. My easy transfer, the big promise of Link, wasn't so easy as I waited 20 minutes for "frequent service." My social media was lit with declarations of this terrible new system, but to me it felt like the same old thing.

I made it where I was going that day, and I made it home. I'll keep riding the bus when I need to ride it, and for some trips the new system looks like it'll get me there faster. Not so for others who now face commutes with more transfers, the death knell to any commute by bus. If things get reliable enough to make those transfers work, the new system might turn out well, but I also think more buses and drivers would work a lot better than just shortening routes.

The data might show this new organization of the bus system will be a net good for Baltimore's riders, and I really hope that's true. Change is hard, but after we all adjust, maybe things will get better. The data doesn't matter, though, when you're the person whose commute just got 30 minutes longer or when yours is the bus that breaks down. We need more money spent on more buses and more drivers, not just on new signs and marketing schemes. I want this system to work, and I'm cautiously hopeful that it will, and skeptical, too—my general mood these days. We deserve a system that works.

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