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Green Machine

The Charm City Circulator is more than a cool free bus--it's part of a hopefully sustainable relationship

Frank Klein

By John Barry | Posted 7/7/2010

Since its Purple line opened June 7, the Charm City Circulator has been getting rave reviews. It's clean, green, and quiet. Drivers are friendly. But one cab driver, rounding Penn Station in his Checker Cab, is more ambivalent about the large, hybrid $600,000 Design Line bus that has planted itself at the entrance to the station driveway.

"So now you see the city bringing in these free shuttles," he says. "They make a deal with Sheila Dixon, OK, for $40 million." He doesn't approve? "No--because they are taking away some of our business."

The cab drivers are a little grumpy for a reason. Rail commuters who relied on a $10 cab ride to get downtown can do it for free now, every 10 minutes. Technically, though, the Circulator isn't taking away cab business. The cab driver just needs to think globally.

The driver's Checker Cab is owned by Yellow Cab of Baltimore, which is owned by Veolia Transportation. The Charm City Circulator, now two thirds complete, is operated, managed, and marketed by Veolia Transportation in a partnership with the Baltimore City Department of Transportation. Veolia Transportation is the largest private operator of public transport in the country. It is a subsidiary of Veolia Transport, with about 80,000 employees and its corporate headquarters in France. Veolia Transport, in turn, is one of four parts of the Paris-based Veolia Environnement, with 335,000 employees worldwide and a reported 2008 revenue of $50 billion.

The cabs and Circulators are both appealing to the same customer base too. Yellow Cab, with 600 cars, has been shuttling around commuters who may associate the St. Paul Street MTA lines with dropoffs at methadone clinics and the $1.60 fare. Now, the Circulator is hoping to attract that population back to the buses with courtesy-trained drivers and green energy.

If that works, it could spark a change in the way Baltimore views public transit. "The Circulator does something that the MTA doesn't do," says Richard Layman, a blogger (urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com) who has worked as an urban planning contractor for Baltimore County. "It's helping to reframe how people think of transit. The prevalent belief is that only poor people ride trains. This is beginning to reposition transit."

With its aggressive marketing campaign--"smooth . . . quiet . . . green"--the Circulator is reaching out to a new clientele. The web site (charmcitycirculator.com) promises that "the lower fuel and lower maintenance cost has proven the technology to be a sustainable energy efficient form of transportation." And while the Circulator's Orange, Purple, and Green lines don't entirely solve all of Baltimore's downtown transportation issues--some stops merely incidentally overlap with pre-existing Maryland Transit Authority bus routes and transfer hubs, and the Orange line doesn't exactly stop at the MARC Camden station--but it's a start.

Sustainability is big business; so is the Circulator. And people who ride it for the hybrid accessories may be surprised how big the business is. The Circulator is but a small part of a large corporate strategy that may, over the next decade, help reshape the city.

Baltimoreans may know Mark L. Joseph, the CEO of Veolia Transportation, as a pillar of the local business community who got his start as the owner of Yellow Cab--a company that was founded in 1909 and has been in the Joseph family for more than 30 years. He notes that sustainability is about more than reusable bagging or compact fluorescent bulbs. "When I say sustainability, it's not just that," he says by phone from his office in Silver Spring. (Veolia Transportation is headquartered in Chicago; Joseph maintains offices in Baltimore and Silver Spring.) "It's how do you have a company that thrives and grows for more than 100 years."

Veolia Transport (then known as Connex), bought Yellow Cab (then known as Yellow Transportation) in 2001--after it had expanded and diversified to include paratransit, shuttles, and sedan service. "All my friends thought I'd be out of work in six months after selling the company," Joseph says. But parent company Veolia Environnement planned on using Baltimore as a launching pad for a larger corporate strategy: to fill in the gaps of America's transportation infrastructure in preparation for a world where, within a few decades, the car (and the suburban commute) will no longer be sustainable. Since 2001, with Joseph as the CEO, the company has become the largest private operator of public transportation in the country, with 20,000 employees.

Veolia has been intimately involved with mayors and city councils across the country in boosting urban sustainability. It improves connections in urban transit systems, such as Baltimore's, that--either through fragmentation or reputation--have left large portions of the city with only the automobile as the primary transportation option.

In 2008, when then-Mayor Sheila Dixon began to push for the Circulator, the recession was only starting to kick in. Federal funding--even in the modest stimulus--has constraints on how it can be spent (right now, stimulus funds are covering MARC and subway station rehabilitation and various road and bridge projects). The state budget crunch was on. And Veolia was willing to help.

Veolia already had a large presence in Baltimore. In addition to over 600 cabs, it owns the airport Super Shuttle service and operates the 200-vehicle Paratransit Fleet. It also operates the Hopkins shuttle. Choosing it to fill in the downtown shuttle service was an obvious choice.

What made it even more attractive: Veolia was willing to finance $6.9 million of the $12 million that the new bus fleet would cost, which will eventually number 21 Design Line buses.

Veolia would help with marketing and planning, and it would offer driver training (which includes a "certified tourism ambassador" program) and vehicle maintenance for a flat fee of about $5.5 million a year for five years. The City of Baltimore kicks in funds from a 16 percent increase in parking fees.

Veolia's Circulator plan, according to Joseph, is part of a vision to redefine urban sustainability. "We're making cities more livable," he says, targeting the gaps that Veolia wants to fill: transportation networks that are crumbling, water systems that don't work, and waste management (Veolia Water operates the Baltimore City Composting Facility, which produces ORGRO compost and mulch). Instead of defining itself by investing in shaky capital markets, Veolia focuses on those constants.

And it's a strategy that is making Veolia a sustainable company in difficult times. "As cities look at their budgetary challenges now, they only have two alternatives," Joseph says. "Either they can raise their fares or cut their services. They're not equipped politically to get the funds they need to operate efficiently."

So Baltimore now looks to Veolia as a way out of its jam. With its 2009 purchase of Comfort Link, Veolia now operates the largest thermal cooling system in the country. Veolia also owns Trigen, the country's largest district heating and cooling system. Both serve a network in Baltimore's Inner Harbor/central business district. If the city ever gets a high-speed rail line, Veolia may play a role in that too, much as it is hoping to be involved in high-speed lines under discussion in California and Florida.

Likewise, Veolia isn't only targeting Baltimore. In 2009, Veolia Transportation signed a one-year contract to manage New Orleans' entire public transportation service. In 2002, Veolia Water received a 20-year contract to operate Indianapolis' water service. Since 2003, Veolia Transportation has operated the Boston commuter rail network. And on July 1, 2010, Veolia Transportation began a five-year contract to operate a large portion of Phoenix's transit system. The list goes on, locally and globally.

So the Charm City Circulator is another step in an evolving marriage. Veolia is making money and winning contracts, and Baltimore is getting what it needs to move through the 21st century. That's what Veolia considers a sustainable relationship--and now Baltimore, like many cities across the country, has a reason to hope it's right.

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