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Cruising through Charm City.
Brian Seel

How software engineer Brian Seel gets around Baltimore

Biking, scooting, and running—yes, running—to work

A few weeks ago, Brian Seel casually posted a tweet showing stunning photos of his morning commute. Not that unusual, perhaps, except the fact that he took them while jogging. Three miles. To work. In sub-freezing temperatures.

Yes, the Baltimore software engineer runs the 1.5 miles on either ends of his rail commute for the ultimate first-mile/last-mile solution. But that’s not all Seel does to get around. Living in the city and commuting out into the county each day gives him a unique perspective on transit accessibility, bike culture, and walkability.

Follow him at @cylussec and read on to see how many modes of transportation beyond his two feet he uses in a single week—thankfully, in much milder temperatures.

Sunday, February 3

I live in Baltimore City, which lags behind many of its peer cities with its mass transit network, but the crown jewel of our system is our single subway line. Built in 1983 with a few subsequent extensions, it provides fast and frequent service between the northwest suburbs and Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Because it connects to so few things, I rarely have the opportunity to ride it. But today I’m meeting my friend Emma Oppenheim at a coffee shop that's a five-minute walk from the State Center stop. I love taking our subway, because it’s one of the few times that Baltimore’s mass transit is faster than driving.

Baltimore was supposed to start construction on a second subway line in 2015, but our newly elected governor threw away 15 years of planning, and a $1 billion federal grant so he could pour more money into rural highway projects. He promised a revolutionary bus network overhaul, but delivered an incremental improvement instead. This is totally not a sore spot for Baltimore.

Snapping a selfie on a chilly run to work.
Brian Seel

I get across the city in nine minutes and have a great tea with Emma as we talk city politics, police, and even transportation. And the pastries are really good! We talk about the consent decree that Baltimore is currently under, and her interest in getting involved as a community liaison.

Baltimore has suffered through over 300 homicides per year since 2015, but the consent decree holds a lot of promise in dealing with the corruption, technical debt, and community relationship issues. We are also about to get a new police commissioner from New Orleans, who has experience with a deeply flawed department that was going through a consent decree. I, for one, am quite excited.

The reforms to our transportation system will take a bit longer, although they are also deeply tied to systemic racism.

My ride back is just as smooth. My wife, on the other hand, had taken a Lyft to the grocery store, and accidentally left her phone in the car. Without a phone, she couldn’t call a ride share, use a scooter, or see when the next bus was coming. So she ended up walking home with her twenty pounds of groceries.

After dealing with the missing-phone crisis, my wife and I head out to meet up with a friend in the county. I am able to handle using mass transit to get to the county during my weekday commute, but there is no option on a weekend. For longer trips like that, we can either get a Zipcar, or take a ride share, depending on the cost. Today, the trip is a $25 Uber ride each way, versus an all-day Zipcar rental which would be $75, so we decided to use the ride share.

Monday, February 4

Today is a very interesting day for getting around. I start my day by walking to Johns Hopkins for my yearly physical. We moved to Baltimore because my wife works for Hopkins, and we realized how much we were spending on transportation, from the $400 car payment, to the $120 monthly in parking, the $100 in insurance, roughly $100 in gas, and the highly variable amount in maintenance. Now my wife enjoys a 12-minute walk to work, which I get to enjoy, too. After the polar vortex we had last week, this week will feature temperatures in the 50s and 60s.

After my physical, I grab a scooter to meet up with someone for coffee. Baltimore doesn’t have many separated bike lanes, but I’m able to complete my trip largely using our major east/west route, which connects with our major north/south route, and drops me a block from the coffee shop. The nice weather makes for a wonderful trip. After that meeting, I use our free bus system, called the Charm City Circulator, to meet a staff member from the office of my councilman, Zeke Cohen. I’m a little bit late because the bus has so many people getting on at each stop that it takes awhile to get downtown. I have a feeling there was a bit of a gap between buses, which meant the bus was pretty crowded.

Scooting down one of Baltimore’s protected lanes.
Brian Seel

Over lunch, we talk about a new transportation coalition a few transit advocates in Southeast Baltimore are trying to start. As individual neighborhoods, we struggle to get our transportation department to pay attention to issues that matter to us, such as unsafe intersections, traffic calming, and speed enforcement, so we decided to try and combine our voices and form one larger group. We have also had issues in the past where projects have not been well advertised, and have blindsided affected communities, so this will hopefully help avoid these issues. I have very little experience with community organizing, so this will be an interesting experiment.

After that meeting, I take a scooter home to get some work done. In my day job, I am a software engineer and have a flexible work schedule where I am able to work four days per week, 10 hours per day to save me a day of commuting. That also leaves me a day for my other projects, such as the deep dive I did into Baltimore’s failing bike share system last year. It also gives me time to get involved in some of the advocacy I care about.

That evening, I go down to Annapolis for a networking event in Annapolis with legislators in the Maryland General Assembly. I wish I could say that I was so important that they specifically invited me down, but the city organizes buses to bring people down. I thought it would be something where we advocate for Baltimore-related things, but it seemed more like a photo op, and the room was so small that I was not able to even move around. After riding the bus back to the city, I put my warm gear on and take a scooter back home because the second bus was 40 minutes out.

Tuesday, February 5

I was originally asked to write this journal because of my crazy commute, where I jog to the train, ride the train to Dorsey Station, and then jog through a transit-oriented development (TOD). The crazy part is that the TOD part involves descending a slippery hill, climbing two fences, jogging through a mud field, and playing frogger in an intersection without a crossing signal. Check out the tweet for pictures and all of the fun details.

Our local paper, The Baltimore Sun, sends a photographer today to document it for an article they wanted to do. This was the first time I have ever had someone join me for my commute, and I don’t think he was prepared.

After work, I have a meeting with Councilman Cohen, and don’t want to get sweaty. On days like this, I usually just walk to the train in my work clothes, which takes about 25 minutes. When I run, it takes about 15 minutes, plus changing time, so it can end up being a push. The train is about 10 minutes late, so I only had 20 minutes to get across town after I got off the train. I pull up the Transit app to see what my options were. I have things in my favor: My destination is on two “high frequency” bus routes, I won’t require a transfer, and it’s rush hour with the most buses running. Unfortunately, there’s no bus for 12 minutes, and there were no scooters anywhere close by, so I take the bus and arrive late. These are the ways transit slowly adds time to a trip.

After the meeting, I walk home because it’s a beautiful spring-like evening.

Wednesday, Feb 6

I bike commute today. It’s supposed to lightly rain in the evening, but it’s been cold in recent weeks and I haven’t had a lot of chances to ride. Sometimes in cases like this, I will do a split commute, where I bike in one day and then bike home another day (and use the multimodal jog/train commute to handle the other end of those commutes). With a trip to Annapolis on Thursday, and even colder rain on Friday, I decide to just ride through the potential rain.

My bike commute is 13.5 miles and takes me 50 to 55 minutes, which ends up being roughly the same as my multimodal run commute. Normally, I put a podcast on and just go to work. But I look over as I pass the river, and see how beautiful the frozen water is, so I decide to walk down for a picture.

Impromptu nature hike along the daily commute.
Brian Seel

My ride home is much wetter than expected, which is mostly a problem because the rain gets on my glasses, which I mainly wear because I mount a rear-view mirror on them. Normally not a problem, but it is today. I get home and take a nice warm shower and have a nice glass of bourbon.

Thursday February 7

Today is supposed to be an easy commute day. I am going to Annapolis to shadow Delegate Robbyn Lewis and support her bill that will create a working group to study better bus-lane enforcement.

The night before, I looked at the schedule on the commuter bus that goes from Baltimore to Annapolis. It has a stop that I can get to with a 20-minute walk north, and it would drop me about a block from my destination.

I leave with plenty of time to walk to the stop, but I find construction equipment blocking the stop when I get there. I double-check the schedule, and the Transit app. I look for signage about the move. I start circling the block to look for the moved stop. I then call customer service to ask where the stop is, and they tell me its a block south, but it’s too late. Also, it turns out that the stop was actually moved two blocks south, which I found out after a second phone call, making me about 20 minutes late.

Since the bus only comes once per hour, it gives me time to ineffectively gripe at MTA on Twitter. The stop was moved in October, and does not appear to be close to finishing, yet MTA calls this a temporary move, and says that the feed for the Transit App and their website should not be updated. Good thing I have a meeting with an MTA official on Monday to talk about unrelated things, and will bring this up. I believe that a ‘temporary’ move should be one or two weeks, not six months.

What should be an accessible bus stop, completely blocked by construction.
Brian Seel

After finding the right stop and waiting an hour for the bus, I mention to the bus driver that there was no sign at the old stop indicating that the stop had moved. “It’s the MTA,” he quips. “What do you expect?” I expect better.

There are only eight people riding this bus to Annapolis, despite this being the busy time of year when the Maryland General Assembly is in session. But with a system that treats riders that way, and with a ride that gets stuck in the same traffic as the rest of the drivers, it’s no wonder most people opt to drive.

My delay to Annapolis ends up not mattering because I’m not able to meet up with Delegate Lewis after all, the meeting we were going to do is cancelled, and now I have time to kill. I pop into the Senate floor session, and am surprised by the first spirited debate of the session over the start and end dates of school.

I try to stop into some of my representatives’ offices over the day, but they are all quite busy, so the most I got was a quick pass by Delegate Brooke Lierman. I try to testify in favor of Delegate Lewis’s bill about bus-lane enforcement, but the last bus of the day leaves at 5:15, and it wasn’t even close to coming up at that point. Despite coming down to shadow her, I didn’t see her all day. That was disappointing.

I ride back to the city, and chat with Danielle Sweeney, who is one of the best transit advocates in Baltimore. I first met her when we took a Transportation 101 course together in 2017, and have been vocal advocates for Baltimore’s transportation needs since then. We compare notes about different efforts we are undertaking, and will probably meet next during Transportation Camp in the spring.

Catching up with fellow bike riders at the Bikemore Bike Love party.
Brian Seel

I get back to the city and transfer to a local bus to get to the Bikemore Bike Love party. I love the cycling community, but always feel like such an outsider because I am always a lone wolf cyclist. Especially lately, all of my riding has been for purely transportation reasons, as I have just not done as much pleasure riding. I figure I would pop in for a drink and then slink out, but it turns out that I know a lot of people there. It’s fun realizing you are more a part of a community that you think.

Then, I had to get over to Fells Point for a social cornhole league I’m in. Yes, I know there is probably no more millennial thing you can do, unless the cornhole bags were instead socially conscious avocado toast or something. To get down there, the bus is not a great option because it would require a lengthy transfer, and there’s not a scooter in a reasonable distance, so I grabbed an Uber. Councilman Cohen called me in regard to something we had talked about during my Tuesday meetup with him, and so I end up missing the whole game anyway, but my friends and I are able to catch up. One of them had driven down there, so she drove us home.

Friday February 8

Normally I figure out the night before if I will run or bike to work, but I was feeling noncommittal when I went to bed. In the morning, I see warnings that there are going to be gusts of up to 40 mph that afternoon, which is enough reason to push me to the run option. I also realized that I had missed dinner the night before, so the run was a real slog. I basically walked the section after the train ride because I was running on empty.

Good thing I ran, because there was an office happy hour I had forgotten about after work. I catch a ride with a coworker from the office to the bar, and from the bar back to the train. If I had wanted to take transit, it would have taken two hours, and would involve taking a bus back to Baltimore, and then a bus back to the bar. I opted for the five-minute car drive.

Afterwards I take the train back to Baltimore, and then the bus to meet up with my wife at this new Jamaican place that recently opened. They had really good oxtail, and amazing wings. Then we walk home and call it a night.

Saturday February 9

It’s been interesting documenting this week. I am honestly not sure if this week has been especially busy, or if I am always doing things like this. I ask my wife, and she indicates that I am always running around, so I guess that’s my answer.

So I spend the day putting on my headphones, drinking some scotch, and doing some writing. It’s a great way to decompress after a fun week.

Sunday, February 10

We have an Airbnb guest staying with us for a month, so we take him to a great local breakfast place called Water for Chocolate. The food is stellar, but the dining room and kitchen are tiny, so you have to be patient. It’s right around the corner from us, so we walk up there and back. On the way back, we walk through Lady Day Way, which is an alley that has some art pieces that honor Billie Holliday, who grew up in Baltimore.

Later, we Uber up to an improv class we had signed up for. My wife is not as enamored by transit as I am, and scolds me when she sees me opening the Transit app to see how close the bus is. Sure, there is a bus that goes a block from the theater to a couple blocks from our house—but sometimes you go with what other people prefer.

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