Imani Humphreys-Torres recalls her daily commutes to and from Western High School using Baltimore’s public bus system as a bit of a slog.
The 18-year-old freshman at Maryland Institute College of Art instead spent much of her senior year in high school catching rides with friends or using rideshare apps to commute the roughly 3 miles from her home in the city’s Northwood neighborhood. That was a better option than dealing with long wait times in inclement weather, overcrowded buses and inconsistent bus schedules, she said.
When a friend invited Humphreys-Torres to join an after-school robotics team, she declined. She worried about relying on the bus to take her home after dark.
“I didn’t want to risk it,” she said.
The former Baltimore City student was among 274 public school kids interviewed in 2020 for a transportation study conducted by the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence, which aims to close the equity and opportunity gaps for city students. Students were asked about their experiences using Maryland Transit Administration buses, light rail and subway to get to school.
Among the findings published in a report Thursday, students cited unreliable transportation as the primary reason they were late to school. In some cases, tardiness resulted in the loss of a letter grade or delayed start times for an entire class.
Students also said their commutes could be complicated and involve long waits, unreliable service, multiple transfers and up to 45 minutes of travel time.
A number of students reported feeling the need to be vigilant or cautious when using public transit. Some caregivers asked students not to travel by public transit after dark for safety reasons, which limited their ability to participate in after-school clubs, sports, jobs or internships.
One girl told researchers about an experience she had in middle school when a much older man followed her as she transferred buses. In another extreme example, a student described being robbed of her cell phone at gunpoint while sitting at a bus stop.
An MTA representative did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.
The study is significant for Baltimore, which is home to Maryland’s only public school system that relies exclusively on public transportation to help students reach school buildings. The report argues that city students, a majority of whom are Black or Latino, are crucial customers of public transportation, but the system was not designed with their needs in mind.
About 29,000 students — the equivalent of 75% of public middle and high school students ― rely on public transportation to travel to school, extracurricular activities and after-school jobs or internships. City students make up 18% of annual ridership on the MTA’s core service, the report states.
The project’s goal was to amplify student voices on the public policies that affect them, said Kwane Wyatt, the Fund for Educational Excellence’s program director of analysis and engagement.
“There are a lot of people who use public transit, but one of the most vulnerable groups is children,” Wyatt said. “They can’t vote, they may not be aware of factors in play. No one has ever really asked them before. A lot [of them] have something to say.”
Baltimore’s neighborhoods — and public transportation to and from certain areas — have been shaped historically by decades of racist public policy. Black Baltimoreans were barred for years from living in certain parts of the city, restricted to neighborhoods in the east and west referred to colloquially as the “Black butterfly.” And infrastructure projects, such as the abandoned connection between interstates 70 and 95, historically prioritized the needs of white people at the expense of Black neighborhoods.
As a result, funding for and access to transportation has become a perennial source of debate in Maryland in recent years.
The Baltimore City school system introduced school choice to allow students in disadvantaged neighborhoods the opportunity to apply to high schools anywhere in the city. However, the new study found that students frequently took travel difficulties into account when deciding whether to apply to certain high schools.
The report recommends that the MTA take student riders into account when developing regular bus lines. It also calls on Maryland’s next governor, the Maryland Department of Transportation and the MTA to re-start the development of the Red Line light rail.
In 2015, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, scrapped the east-to-west Red Line project, which would have connected some of the city’s most isolated neighborhoods. The NAACP and ACLU later filed a federal complaint over the decision.
Hogan also recently vetoed the Transit Safety and Investment Act, which would have set aside hundreds of millions of dollars each year for projects to improve the MTA’s train and bus systems.
That funding would have helped Baltimore public school students directly, Wyatt said. He hopes the Maryland General Assembly will revive the discussion next session.
Students interviewed for the report represented 130 neighborhoods across the city and attended 32 middle and high schools. Latino students were slightly underrepresented in the study. Participants were interviewed over the phone due to the COVID-19 pandemic and received $30 for their time.
Students did report having positive experiences with bus drivers, describing them as friendly, decent and helpful.