Thomas Reaves looks out the coffee shop window every few minutes as he talks.
He pauses each time, just for a moment, no doubt calculating in his mind: late, on time, on time.
He says he can tell if a bus is on schedule just by looking — he could tell even from a photograph, he says — and he doesn’t seem to be able to stop his eyes from flicking up whenever a bus drives by.
Reaves, an insurance agent who lives in Northwest Baltimore, has been collecting data about buses in the city since he was a teenager. He knows more statistics than the Maryland Transit Administration itself hands out, able to rattle off numbers and history that cover everything from the number of buses on the streets of Baltimore to the exact time it takes the light rail to travel from one end to the other.
Reaves could well be the most passionate transit fan most Baltimoreans have ever met, but he is simply part of a worldwide subculture of mass transit enthusiasts.
They travel, collect obscure trivia, and share photos via web forums. On one Facebook group for the New York MTA, users nickname their favorite buses and exchange information about travel times and route snags.
They even have an entry on Wikipedia.
Like Reaves, most transit lovers hope to help others use public transportation more effectively.
Harry Douthwaite, a Canadian transit enthusiast, described it for British Columbia Transit’s “Transit Hero” site.
“Transit opened up a whole new life for me, and it continues to do so on a daily basis,” Douthwaite said. “It makes me feel like I have a purpose in life, and even though I haven’t quite fulfilled that purpose yet, it gives me something to aim for in the years to come.”
For Reaves, 33, transportation is important because it is the only way many people can afford to get around, he said.
He has become one of the most active community advocates for public transportation in Baltimore.
“I’m affected by it, and I want to help people be able to transport and get to their places.”
In high school, Reaves began carrying the MTA bus schedule in his backpack. He quickly memorized it and became a self-described walking customer-service line, answering questions for other riders.
Today, Reaves is head of the Baltimore Transit Archives, a community group of 100 members who discuss MTA activity in Baltimore.
He counts MTA drivers as friends, and he sometimes talks shop with people in the department, who he said keep him up to date on MTA news.
MTA service director Michael Walk said the Baltimore Transit Archives, which mainly communicates via Facebook, is an asset to the region.
In “the cyber sphere, [Reaves] is able to get people to think about specific ideas for changes and balance pros and cons, so he’s a very valuable person,” Walk said.
“It’s the best kind of person that you want in the community to be engaged in these kind of projects.”
Reaves is in school at the Community College of Baltimore County. He worked at a warehouse in Timonium for eight years before getting his current job at Kelly and Associates Insurance Group in Hunt Valley.
Reaves dreams of becoming a scheduler for the MTA after he graduates. If not, he says he’ll go into accounting, and he hopes some day to move to Southern California.
But first, he wants to help change the MTA.
Childhood bus rides with his mother were the first experience Reaves had traveling, and the thrill never wore off, he says. As he got older, he began traveling more, often specifically to check out another city’s transit service. And he started taking pictures of buses, trains and planes, aiming in particular to gather valuable photographs of vehicles that are old or going out of service.
Reaves has gone to New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Ore. and Canada, among other places, to learn about their transit systems and photograph what he sees.
In 2010, he went to Hawaii — not to relax on the beach but to look at buses.
“I traveled 6,000 miles because that system was retiring 17-year-old buses, and I just had to get photos and ride them,” he said.
He now has a collection of more than 35,000 photographs of transit vehicles.
He said he is excited about the Bus Network Improvement Project, the MTA’s new initiative to update its system, pleased that the department is asking riders for comments and suggestions.
“I think this opportunity is MTA showing their faith that they’re not trying to do everything they want to do,” he said. “They want valuable input.”
Customers, he said, need to help provide solutions rather than just complaining.
Bus and rail
He takes public transit to work every day, using a combination of the bus and light rail. Reaves said he generally has a pleasant, reliable commute.
But he has also experienced the limitations of the system firsthand. He said he has turned down “great” jobs because he couldn’t get to them on mass transit, and he recently completed driving school, in hopes that getting a car will make it easier to find employment in the future.
“It’s ironic that the biggest advocate for public transportation is learning to drive,” he said. But that way, “I can be more marketable to employers and not have the stigma of being just a ‘bus rider’ on my resume.”
Reaves hopes use the knowledge, photographs and memorabilia he has collected over the years to preserve transit history for the ages.
Along with some friends, he is in the process of starting the DMV Mass Transit Museum, which would be dedicated to the history of Maryland transit. It would feature some of his photographs as well as other relics he and his colleagues have collected, like MTA bus schedules dating back to the 1950s.
The MTA has also donated a bus to the museum, and Reaves said his group hopes to move forward with the project as soon as they find a site for the museum.
“Basically, the objective is to impart people with the history of transportation in Maryland,” he said.