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The pandemic is amplifying Baltimore’s transit disconnect | COMMENTARY

An MTA bus on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown.
An MTA bus on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown.(Kenneth K. Lam)

It’s a hell of a time to be riding public transportation in Baltimore. But many Baltimoreans are doing it anyway, because they have no other choice.

While demand for public transit around the country has declined dramatically since the emergence of COVID-19, Baltimore still has a high number of residents who ride daily to essential jobs.

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On social media, riders post pictures of crowded buses and vent bitterly about state-run Maryland Transit Administration buses that come less often or never show up at all. These riders are fearful of losing their jobs during the worst economic crisis in recent memory, and their anger is understandable.

According to data from TransitCenter, a New York-based transit advocacy organization, an estimated 40% of Baltimore’s essential workers are still relying on public transit to commute across town to jobs in health care, security, warehouses and factories.

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Given Baltimore’s demographics and low rate of car ownership, this is hardly surprising.

For them, public transportation is more than a public good. It is part of the social safety net. It enables them to provide for their families. Our society relies on many of the jobs they perform. That’s why they’re called essential workers.

Yet because of COVID-19, bus driver quarantines, and absenteeism, MTA can no longer provide much of a safety net. In the interest of public health and protecting their own workers, the agency has severely reduced public transit service and limited the number of riders who can board a bus at any one time. And they should.

Given these exceptional circumstances, MTA is running as much service as it safely can.

But it’s simply not enough, and riders are feeling disconnected from their jobs and increasingly desperate as they have to pay for ride-hailing services out of their own pockets to get where they need to go.

To be honest, in Baltimore these feelings of disconnection and desperation are hardly new. According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, an annual demographics study at the University of Baltimore, Baltimore’s transit-dependent residents were already making long commutes to far away employment centers (often in the county) before the pandemic. COVID-19 has just made longstanding problems — housing affordability, discrimination and redlining — much worse.

The city, state and major employers must address this crisis now because, given CDC guidance to transit agencies, MTA service might not return to pre-COVID levels anytime soon, and Baltimore needs workers to spur economic recovery.

To address underlying problems long term, this means city planners and elected officials need to work harder to bring employment to low-income neighborhoods — or affordable housing closer to job centers — so residents are less disconnected from job opportunities in the first place. And they need to use tools like bus lanes and signal priority to help transit vehicles travel between neighborhoods and employment centers faster and more reliably.

In the short term, as the pandemic still rages, this means workers who ride transit need options other than relying on buses and trains exclusively. Maybe that means MTA and local employers should partner with ride-sharing services like Lyft or Uber, or car rental companies to give transit riders more options. (Other transit agencies such as IndyGo in Indiana, and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, are already doing it).

Maybe it means Baltimore’s major employers provide shuttles for workers, or hotel rooms for staff to live close to work for the duration of the pandemic.

As Wes Moore observed in his recent Sun op-ed about missed opportunities in the five years since Freddie Gray’s death:

“I wish I could celebrate that the city, with the assistance of the state, had prioritized transportation assets connecting our most undervalued areas with job assets. Connecting opportunity with ambition.”

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The pandemic has brought these longstanding disparities into even sharper focus.

If we don’t work on those connections now, Baltimore’s mobility crisis will just get worse. We don’t have another five years.

Danielle Sweeney (dsweeney@cmtalliance.org) is an organizer for the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

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