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Op-ed

Improving public transportation is key to reversing Baltimore’s population loss | COMMENTARY

At the Patapsco Light Rail Station, riders can connect between the light rail line and buses. The Maryland General Assembly will take up the proposed Transit Safety and Investment Act this session.  Jan 11, 2021. p2

Many of the stories about the new census data showing Baltimore City lost over 27,000 people (5.7% of its population) from 2010 to 2020 neglected to mention Baltimore is the only major city in the northeast corridor to see its population decrease over the past decade. Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and New York all gained residents during this period — ranging from a 5.1% increase in Philadelphia to 14.6% in Washington.

Even more troubling is Baltimore’s 30-year population trend compared to other major northeast cities — particularly Boston and Washington. In 1990, just over 736,000 people lived in Baltimore City while 574,000 lived in Boston and about 607,000 in Washington. But as Baltimore lost more than 150,000 people over the past 30 years, Boston gained 100,000 residents while Washington added nearly 110,000. Each city now has over 100,000 residents more than Baltimore.

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And while there is more than one reason for Baltimore’s population trend running counter to the growth of our fellow East Coast cities, there’s one fundamental element of urban life that characterizes Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington that cannot be ignored.

Each of these cities and metropolitan areas has a comprehensive, reliable, rail-based public transportation system.

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And yes, Baltimore’s violent crime rate has been higher than that of the other cities during at least some of this period, but a growing body of data speaks to the relationship between public transit and poverty — which is a key driver of crime.

The New York Times said “In a large, continuing study of upward mobility based at Harvard, commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.” Citing a Frederick resident commuting to work without a car, the story referenced a bus system where “routes were far apart and the buses often late...his problems highlight a central theme for many low-income people trying to build a better life: a lack of reliable and efficient transportation is often a huge barrier.”

Even closer to home, the research of the University of Baltimore’s Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance comes to a similar conclusion. “The impact on urban neighborhoods of long commute times is highly detrimental to population growth,” the Alliance says in a 2016 report.

More data about the impact of unreliable public transit in Baltimore comes from the Baltimore Collegetown Network. In its 2018 survey of students at 16 schools, only 36% said they were “definitely or likely” to remain in Baltimore after college, with “Better Transportation” cited as the most frequent response to “What is Baltimore missing that you wish it had?”

Think about what Baltimore is missing by lacking a public transit system that would result in more college graduates remaining in the city.

But beyond Baltimore’s 20th-century public transit system that does not meet the 21st century needs of its residents, each of us must examine our expectations about Baltimore.

During my 14 years here, I’ve heard far too many people speak only of Baltimore’s problems rather than its assets.

I’ve heard far too many people express low expectations, pessimism and cynicism about Baltimore and its future.

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I’ve seen far too many elected officials use their positions for private gain rather than public service.

Baltimore should be one of the most attractive, desirable cities in the United States. Our character, authenticity and lovable quirks cannot be manufactured. Baltimore’s location in the middle of the East Coast with major bodies of water a short distance east and beautiful mountains a short distance west is an asset few cities can match.

And while Washington may have more power, New York may have more money, Boston may have more brains and Philly may have more...cheesesteaks, Baltimore and its residents have a great big collective heart. There are so many Baltimoreans who care deeply about the city and work every day to make our quality of life better in the face of formidable obstacles and limited resources.

With vision, leadership and the right investments – including a 21st century regional public transportation system – we can turn things around and grow Baltimore’s population again. Baltimore has picked itself up from the mat before; we can do it once again!

Paul Sturm (psturm@outlook.com) is Chair of the Downtown Residents Advocacy Network


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