Over the last few years, there has been quite a lot of discussion around Baltimore’s public transportation system. Much of this discussion has centered on the cancellation of the Red Line project, the subsequent redirection of those funds towards the highways, and a reorganization of the city bus system. In particular, the cancellation of the Red Line has caused concerns about neighborhoods in places like West Baltimore, where vehicle ownership is low and buses are the only mode of public transportation available. As someone who was commuting on the Metro at the time, I also find it hard to forget the headaches caused by the month-long shutdown of Baltimore’s subway line early this year. Even car owners are feeling the pain of the Baltimore commute, as they dealt with one of the country’s longest commutes even before changes to the traffic light timing put downtown into near-permanent gridlock for a significant part of the summer.
For many, these issues would suggest that Baltimore needs serious improvement in its public transportation system. However, some residents in the area are advocating for reducing the levels of existing services. Two members of the Baltimore County Council recently created a stir by suggesting that bus service around the White Marsh Mall should be shut down after 11:00 PM due to “large crowds of youth” causing disruptions at night. In Anne Arundel County, a group of residents has been pushing for a reduction in light rail service, asking the MTA to reduce or eliminate service to four stations in the County along the southern end of the line.
Activists argue that the light rail has increased crime and drug use in the areas surrounding the stations, despite the steady decrease in breaking and entering across the county and police evidence that at least some of the crimes attributed anecdotally to the light rail are being committed by county residents who live in the community. These efforts have picked up support from Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh and some members of the county council.
Fights over the light rail, and the neighborhoods it services, are hardly a new development. In Linthicum, the current fight is a continuation of a decades-long effort, as residents have been unsuccessfully calling for eliminating service in Linthicum since 1994, within a year of when the station first opened, using essentially the same arguments about crime that are echoed today.
And while these efforts may not find success—Governor Hogan released a statement that there would be no service cuts to the light rail in Anne Arundel County—they have historically found success at reducing or eliminating public transportation projects that are still in the planning stages. This even affected Baltimore’s light rail before it was built, reducing the number of stations that were ultimately built. In an editorial from 1990, The Baltimore Sun decried the “NIMBYs” [Not In My Backyard] who were resisting placing light rail stops in their neighborhoods, noting that “the wealthier the neighborhood, the more vocal the cries of resistance to a transit stop.”
The Sun’s jab about wealthier neighborhoods gets at one of the consistent issues around public transportation, which is that any argument about these services will be tied to discussions of wealth. There is no question that any change in public transportation will have a disproportionate effect on the region’s poorest residents. According to U.S. Census data, commuters who use public transportation for jobs in either Baltimore City or Anne Arundel County are far more likely to live below the poverty line than commuters in general. In Baltimore City, workers living below the poverty line make up 5.4 percent of overall commuters but are 10.9 percent of the commuters who use public transportation. This difference is even greater in Anne Arundel County, where workers earning below the poverty line only make up 3.2 percent of overall commuters but constitute 11.3 percent of commuters on public transportation.
It’s also important to note that many of the people using public transportation have no vehicle available, and so they have limited options if their transportation routes are eliminated or reduced. The same Census data show that among workers who take public transportation, 42.5 percent in Baltimore City report having no vehicle available, and the same is true of 36.5 percent of Anne Arundel County workers. As a result, any reduction in service is likely to either significantly increase commute times or keep workers from getting to their jobs altogether, depending on what alternatives are available.
Census data can also be insightful in understanding why groups like the Baltimore Sun have leveled accusations of racial bias towards the light rail activists, as it shows that black or African American workers in the region would also be disproportionately affected by reductions in service. In Baltimore City, black or African American workers make up 40.2 percent of the workforce, but they make up 68.8 percent of people riding public transportation to those jobs. In Anne Arundel County, the difference is again larger, with black or African American workers making up only 18.9 percent of the workforce while being 55.7 percent of the people commuting to those jobs on public transportation.
Of course, it is no coincidence that an action affecting the region’s low-income residents would also have a greater effect on black or African American population. The Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University has previously highlighted the persistent disparities that remain throughout Baltimore City and the region, from segregation in the workforce to standards of living that differ wildly between historically black and historically white neighborhoods. Public transportation is a valuable tool in combating these issues and making the region more interconnected. And while the residents of Baltimore’s suburbs have the right to fight for what they feel is best for their communities, these decisions cannot be made without taking into account the effects on the entire transit system and on the vulnerable populations that depend on it.