About 5 p.m. on a recent afternoon, Kevin Leslie and Chris Zorn, both 28, hopped off a small boat onto a short pier at the Canton waterfront, headed for happy-hour drinks at nearby Claddagh Pub.
The friends had met after work — Leslie at Wells Fargo and Zorn at Big City Farms — and for their evening in popular O'Donnell Square, the Harbor Connector water taxi was the easy choice for getting across town, they said.
"There are no stoplights on the water, and you always know exactly when [the boat] is going to come or leave," Zorn, a Federal Hill resident, said of the free city service. "You don't have to wait at the bus stop or on the corner for a cab."
Leslie, who lives in Locust Point added: "Plus, it's cool to show up on a boat, as opposed to a bus."
As many of the city's waterfront neighborhoods continue to add residents, officials say, Baltimore's water taxi system has experienced growth of its own — and is poised for much more.
Started in the late 1970s but rooted in a much older Baltimore tradition, the city's water taxis are shedding their reputation as a summertime option solely for tourists, becoming a viable year-round option for city residents and downtown commuters as well.
Part of that growth has been driven by the introduction in May 2009 of the city's Harbor Connector routes, which connect with the city's free Charm City Circulator bus system — expanding the water taxis' link to mass transit throughout the city. The city added a third route from Harbor View to Harbor East in November.
Michael McDaniel, president and CEO of Baltimore Water Taxi, said his company — which operates the free Harbor Connector boats under a city contract and offers various other routes of its own, at a cost — sees huge potential in attracting the young professionals who are arriving daily in neighborhoods like Canton and Fells Point, Federal Hill and Harbor East.
"We're looking to cater more toward the local crowd, while also the tourist crowd, which is our bread and butter," he said.
Between 2000 and 2010, neighborhoods around the Inner Harbor saw the largest growth in population and the largest increase in housing units in Baltimore, according to statistics kept by the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore.
Baltimore Water Taxi, which recently purchased a similar operation in Jacksonville, Fla., as it looks to expand its reach, transports about 300,000 people a year in Baltimore, most of them during the summer months, McDaniel said. Attracting more off-season riders is a priority, he said.
As he watches land-based taxi companies like Uber and Lyft tap modern technology to reach new customers, McDaniel said he is "looking to modernize" as well, perhaps by introducing more on-demand service and scanner technology to read tickets and track passenger ridership more precisely.
City officials see more trips across the harbor as a way to mitigate the effects of a booming waterfront population on city roads, and are investing in the Harbor Connector program accordingly, said Barry Robinson, the city's chief of transit and marine services.
"It saves a lot of time, it takes cars off the road, and I think it provides a great service in terms of affording folks an alternative solution, avoiding congestion and the accompanying pollution," Robinson said.
For its existing Harbor Connector routes, the city leases boats it purchased with grant funding to Baltimore Water Taxi for $1 a year and pays the company $15,000 per route per month to run the service.
In 2012, the route between Maritime Park and Tide Point provided 108,732 rides, while the Canton waterfront-to-Tide Point route provided 29,510 rides, according to the city.
In 2013, as of mid-December, the Maritime Park route had provided 143,208 rides, while the Canton route had provided 49,556 rides, the city said. Robinson said if more commuters took advantage of the parking lot at Canton Waterfront, numbers on that route could surge.
In its first month and a half of operation, the Harbor View-Harbor East route provided 2,215 rides. McDaniel said weekly numbers on the route "are increasing pretty rapidly."
More grant funding could mean a fourth Harbor Connector route, Robinson said.
The growing service is a function of the times, officials say, as Baltimore continues to reclaim the waterfront as the focus of its future fortunes. It also harks back to a distant past.