TRANSITBy Martin Csongradi in Greater, Greater Washington June 17, 2020 3 https://ggwash.org/view/78098/how-could-defunding-the-bpd-could-help-transit
In cities across the country, a call to defund the police and repurpose funds back into programs that help Black communities is growing louder by the day. And, Baltimore is no different. The City Council voted Monday to slash about $22 million from the Baltimore Police Department’s $550 million budget.
But where will that money go? One area the city could consider investing into is the city’s transit system. For decades, unequal access to affordable transit options have weighed down Baltimore’s Black community and have exacerbated racial inequality in the city. An infusion of funds may help to bridge the transit gap.
Looking to the past
In cities across the US and especially in Baltimore, transit has been a tool to create and retrench racial inequalities. Baltimore’s Black population didn’t start to grow until the early 20th Century during the Great Migration. As the Black population grew, white landowners, real estate developers, and city government used transit to keep them poor and locked out of opportunities for upward mobility.
The electric streetcar started the move towards unequal access to transit. While the streetcar map covered a good portion of the city, it was instrumental in “white flight.” As Eastern European immigrants and Black families moved to Baltimore for jobs at the Bethlehem Steel Yards, wealthy white families took the streetcar and moved out from the city center to newly built segregated neighborhoods like Roland Park and Guilford.
Transit did not act in a vacuum — racist real estate policies substantially weighed down Black families. The city government explicitly banned white and Black people from living in the same neighborhoods in 1910, but the Supreme Court quickly overturned these ordinances in 1917. The city then moved to less explicit forms of racism: pressuring developers and landowners not to rent or sell to Black families, selling houses to Black families at significant mark ups, and spying on potential buyers to determine their race and ethnicity.
With the advent and growth of personal cars, white flight only increased. The construction of the Beltway in the 40s allowed for white families to move even farther out from the city, to mostly White suburban neighborhoods like Towson or Columbia. As the Black population continued to increase through the 50s, they continued to be packed into neighborhoods by redlining. This created what still exists today, the “Black Butterfly”.
Following the Civil Rights movements in the 60s, there was a push to overhaul Baltimore’s transit system and provide equal access to opportunities and neighborhoods in and around the city. The development of this system was hampered again by racist attitudes about Baltimore. The remains of Baltimore’s streetcars were taken over by the Maryland Transit Administration, controlled from Annapolis. This handover meant the decades of tension between the state’s predominantly white government and Baltimore’s growing Black and working class population would be present in transportation planning, too.
The city drafted a plan to build three subway lines, stretching out six ways from a central location downtown. Planned in the 60s, a lone Metro line wasn’t completed until 1982, at only half the proposed length.
Baltimore’s lone light rail line also was born out of this original plan, but due to a lack of funding, was never fully integrated with the metro line. Baltimoreans were left with a fraction of an effective transit system that primarily served the same suburban communities built by the streetcars earlier in the century.
Discontinued street cars and a fraction of a Metro left Black neighborhoods with limited options. The streetcars had mostly been replaced with a patchwork of bus lines. With enough transfers and time, this patchwork could eventually get you where you needed to be. Compared to the car owning suburban developments, Black neighborhoods faced a serious disadvantage.
If the bus wasn’t viable, Black neighborhoods had one other option: hacking. Hacking generally refers to an unofficial taxi-esque service, comparable to today’s various ride hailing services like Uber or Lyft. Regular cab services wouldn’t serve Black neighborhoods, so residents hacked their way to jobs across the city.
Baltimore doesn’t need to look too far into our history to see how transit decisions have contributed to systemic racism. In 2015, Governor Larry Hogan killed the Red Line, a proposed East-West transit line connecting some of Baltimore’s Blackest neighborhoods with downtown. Due to lack of support from suburban communities — the same suburban communities built by white flight — Hogan shelved the plans indefinitely.
Where we are now
The transit issues of the past two centuries are still present today. Baltimore’s former streetcar suburbs and suburbs around the Beltway are still predominantly white. The Metro and light rail have seen no major improvements. The 2015 overhaul of Baltimore’s bus system was a marginal improvement over the city’s former patchwork. There is still no major East-West transit connection for the city, which continues to leave Black neighborhoods in the dust.
Baltimore City has the opportunity to divest from the police department and invest in transit. There are a few programs that could be quickly implemented to build a more effective system and work towards racial equity in the city.
Support and expand the Charm City Circulator
The Charm City Circulator is one of the few transit developments fully under operation by Baltimore’s Department of Transportation and is ripe for expansion into a more equitable service. Currently, it serves primarily a North-South corridor of the city, with predominantly white neighborhoods along its route.
Expansion of the Circulator would mean substantially easier connections to downtown and other transit options for Black neighborhoods. The Circulator has successfully expanded its routes in the past: the Purple Route extended from Penn Station up to 33rd Street, and the Green Route expanded to reach towards Johns Hopkins Hospital.
A quick fix could, for example, extend the Orange Route and Green Route farther east and west, respectively. This could connect areas around the West Baltimore MARC station and neighborhoods around Belair-Edison with businesses downtown.
The Circulator has been plagued by budget issues during its short history. Shoring up the program and expanding it into a more equitable program for the city should be a top candidate for more funding if the police budget is decreased.
Implementation of the Complete Streets Manual
With a draft report published this May, the Complete Streets Manual outlines basics for how the city should view pedestrian travel and safety. Pedestrian deaths in Maryland disproportionately affect Baltimore’s Black population, and a step towards fixing that is prioritizing pedestrian safety.
Complete Streets lays out a comprehensive plan on how Baltimore needs to reimagine transit, first and foremost with which mode gets priority. Under the Complete Streets suggestions, pedestrians would take first priority in development, followed by cycling and transit, then taxis and shared vehicles, and lastly single occupancy vehicles.
There is no clean budget estimate for the implementation of Complete Streets, as it provides more of a guide for future development. Prioritizing the implementation of these standards, though, would be an effective step towards increasing safety in Black communities.
From the CCC to the BRT
A bolder use of the city’s Circulator would be to structure it as a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. BRT creates streets dedicated solely for buses with frequent headways, typically between 10-20 minutes. New York City recently changed a stretch of 14th St. into a busway, and has already seen moderate success with increased ridership and increased bus speeds.
Turning the Charm City Circulator into a BRT — or even only one or two of the lines — would be a cheaper and feasible alternative to provide reliable and speedy transportation options to Baltimoreans, especially in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Many bus lines servicing areas like West Baltimore run with less frequent headways and have long transit times.
Offering consistent, quick bus service would provide major improvements for Black neighborhoods, as it would cut down travel time and costs as well as increase accessibility and safety. This allows for a more equal access to economic resources like time spent at home or healthier living luxuries not often afforded to Black neighborhoods.
These are just a few solutions that Baltimore could implement with resources it already has developed. There are also other ideas to achieve mobility justice. The ongoing protests are calling for a reimagining of our police system and an end to structural racism. But it could also be a revamping of how Black people are able to navigate through the city and have greater access to it.
Martin Csongradi is a political science student at Loyola University Maryland, freelance writer, and native of Philadelphia. He writes about transportation, the environment, and policy issues affecting Baltimoreans, Marylanders, and Pennsylvanians.