Celebrating regional mobility

Washingtonians and Baltimoreans alike seem quite fond of complaining about how poor their local public transit services are: the fares are too high, the span-of-service too short, the reliability too poor. In many cases, these complaints are perfectly legitimate. But there is something few recognize, which is that the public transit services in the Baltimore-Washington area, maligned as they are, actually provide a fairly substantial amount of regional mobility.

If you follow transit in the news, you might have seen Joshua Kucera’s 2008 article in the Washington City Paper about travelling from Washington, D.C. to New York City solely on local bus and rail services. The trip takes nearly 12 hours, but it does serve to prove the point that local services along the Northeast Corridor provide some minimum level of connectivity—though some of them are by no means fast or frequent.

Twelve hours on various buses and trains might seem like a long time, but it’s not even the longest trip that has been taken on local public transit. Last year, Matt Nelson devised a 30-hour trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and Joe Eskenazi, writing for SF Weekly, actually tried it. It may not be the most practical of trips, but again it proves that there are local transit services on the route between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and that they provide at least some minimum level of service.

So, in the spirit of these itineraries, I set out to see how far you could go if you used only services which accepted SmarTrip (or, in Baltimore, the CharmCard) for fare payment. After some staring at maps and squinting at timetables, I found that it’s possible to travel from Quantico, VA all the way to Hunt Valley, MD using local bus services and Metrorail.

One of the interesting things about this itinerary is that it’s something you can’t replicate using a more appropriate mode of transportation. There are plenty of regularly-scheduled services between DC and New York, and between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But even if you are willing to use intercity carriers, it’s not easy to get between Quantico and Hunt Valley.

The itinerary is actually fairly simple; it’s not like the 30-hour odyssey from San Francisco to Los Angeles. There are hardly any tight connections; not a single chance to get stuck somewhere overnight. As transit-geekery goes, it’s relatively ordinary. You could make the trip more challenging by excluding rail services, but even then it would still be doable (albeit considerably longer and more circuitous).

Of course, in a few more years, there may not be any point to a journey like this, for by then open payment will almost certainly have taken hold. When every transit agency accepts the credit or debit card in your wallet right at the farebox, closed-loop cards like SmarTrip will no longer tie agencies together. Until then, this itinerary serves to show that the buses and trains in Baltimore and Washington, maligned as they are, can actually be strung together to accomplish a fairly substantial trip.