Transportation in Central Maryland has been top of mind, and at the forefront of the news recently. But it’s an issue that we at United Way of Central Maryland have seen systemically, and historically, affecting underserved communities.
A recent Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition study found racial disparity regarding public transit access. One-third of Baltimoreans lack access to a car, and 40% of essential workers rely on transit in the Baltimore region.
We recently gathered a panel of regional leaders, including Mike Kelly, executive director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council; Cheri Cernak, co-owner of CRC Restaurants; Joseph T. Jones, Jr., founder, president and CEO of the Center for Urban Families; and Leonard Parrish, director of Harford County Community and Economic Development, to discuss the transportation issues they see perpetuated throughout the region. This was the 10th conversation in our Realities of Inequity series, which focuses on the obstacles people face to achieving economic stability — and what can be done to breakdown these barriers.
Our panelists highlighted challenges they see individuals and families in their communities facing regularly. These barriers include the lack of access to a vehicle, the rising cost of gas, reliability of public transport, the additional time using public transportation takes — sometimes adding more than an hour to commute times — and cost (which for some can mean choosing between going to work or paying for groceries).
Lack of safe, reliable transportation impacts almost every aspect of a person’s life, from where they work and live, to what they eat and if or where they have access to medical care. At United Way, we recognize the impact this has especially on the ALICE population in our communities — those who are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed. They are hardworking people whose earnings can’t keep pace with the cost of living, and they are most affected by transportation issues in the region.
Transportation connects people to basic needs: a safe affordable home; a job that pays the bills; access to grocery stores; and the educational support children need to get ahead in life. It is a vital piece to increased economic mobility and the well-being of the ALICE population.
Our panelists shared the work their organizations are doing to help remove transportation barriers for ALICE in their communities. The Center for Urban Families spearheads advocacy efforts for legislation to restrict the Child Support Office from automatically suspending driver’s licenses for low-income people. The organization is also working on initiatives with the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and partners with Vehicles for Change, which provides donated cars for those in need. In Harford County, the Office of Community and Economic Development has worked to create one of the most aggressive rural transportation systems in the nation.
Workplaces have also taken on some of the burden. At CRC Restaurants, management pays for parking, provides an allowance for public transportation, and accommodations or additional transport assistance in inclement weather.
United Way introduced a Ride United program in partnership with Lyft in 2018 to help close transportation gaps. Ride United provides free and reduced cost rides for callers to the 211 Maryland United Way Helpline to access essential medical services and healthy food, get to job interviews, and more. 211 helplines throughout the country receive more than 250,000 requests for transportation assistance each year. Since the start of Ride United, the program has served people in over 1,900 cities and towns and has provided over 110,000 free and discounted rides.
While these initiatives and other programs help, our community needs a more comprehensive, modernized and coordinated approach to the overall issue of transportation. We need to address transportation challenges as they relate to systemic, institutionalized racism and public policy decisions.
We have a long way to go to fix the long-standing transportation barriers that remain for folks working hard to get by. We’re optimistic — there are many groups and organizations, including United Way, Center for Urban Families, and Harford County Community and Economic Development, and local employers like CRC Restaurants — working to build awareness of the issue and address the problems they find where and how they can. But we need true, sustainable solutions to make a lasting impact.
Franklyn Baker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland.