South Baltimore is getting a new ride.

The Charm City Circulator, a free bus service that runs four routes through the city’s core, will add a new Cherry Route starting June 23, the Baltimore Department of Transportation announced on social media Wednesday.

The new route will run on a 20-minute frequency north out of Cherry Hill in South Baltimore. It will pass over the Hanover Street Bridge, weave through the new Baltimore Peninsula complex, Riverside and Federal Hill before terminating at the Inner Harbor.

The new route will mark the first time that the Circulator has ventured across the bridge into one of Baltimore’s most marginalized areas.

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“This long-awaited adjustment to the Charm City Circulator will be a game-changer for the communities impacted, especially Cherry Hill, which has historically faced intentional disinvestment and lacked access to the same level of transportation options as other neighborhoods,” said Mayor Brandon Scott in an emailed statement. “This will provide better access to downtown, other neighborhoods, and all the city has to offer, including easier access to jobs, entertainment, and necessary amenities like more grocery stores.”

A green, white and purple bus stops at a bus stop in front of a man standing by a bench.
The Orange Route, one of four free Charm City Circulator bus lines, pulls into a stop along East Pratt Street on May 22. (Daniel Zawodny)

The Circulator is run by the city’s transportation department, not the Maryland Transit Administration, which operates regional bus service and charges $2 per ride. The Maryland Department of Transportation helps pay for the free Circulator bus service through its Locally Operated Transit Systems funding pool, which also helps Baltimore County with its Towson Loop and supports additional transit lines across the state.

Some have criticized the Circulator’s routes in the past, saying they mainly pass through downtown, the Inner Harbor and more affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods. Meanwhile, they say, people of color who live in the so-called “Black Butterfly” are left to pay the fare on MTA-run buses.

“But what about all these other folks?” asked Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham Sr., president of the Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association, of the announcement. Cheatham has advocated in the past for a new “Brown Route” that would connect predominantly Black neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore by running along North Avenue.

“It’s a predominantly African American city, and they [the Circulator] don’t go through one Black neighborhood,” he said.

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Some advocates have called for Circulator routes to be adjusted to better serve neighborhoods where more people rely on public transit. Others have questioned why Circulator and MTA routes overlap in certain areas and whether the region is better served by dividing and conquering.

Most riders just care about frequent, reliable service that gets them where they need to go regardless of the operator, said Brian O’Malley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. “And I worry that running two transit systems along the same routes is not the most effective way to deliver that.”

A white bus with a sign saying "PURPLE ROUTE" at the top is seen amongst a crowd of moving cars.
The Charm City Circulator Purple Route navigates rush hour traffic on May 22, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny)

Estimates say a quarter to a third of Baltimore households do not own a car, but the percentage fluctuates across neighborhoods — 48% of Cherry Hill households lack a personal vehicle, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance; for nearby Baltimore Peninsula, Riverside and Federal Hill, that number is 3%.

The Cherry Route will run along Charles and Light Streets in Federal Hill, meaning the Purple Route will no longer cover that ground. Starting June 23, the Purple Route will turn around just south of Key Highway, but also widen its loop on the north side — when the bus reaches Charles Village, it will head east for Greenmount Avenue and north before looping back via 33rd Street.

Scott and other mayoral hopefuls traded blows over the Circulator at a transportation policy forum last month. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who started the Circulator while in office, and other candidates pledged to expand the service like Scott did and criticized his slow progress on doing so.

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Scott, whose transportation department has been planning the Cherry Route expansion for years, said the state threatened to withhold some road maintenance funds if the new route came at the expense of cutting the Banner Route, which runs along Key Highway and into Locust Point before terminating at Fort McHenry.

About a week ago, Scott locked up the Democratic nomination for mayor, making him a heavy favorite to win a second term in November.