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Runner misses start of Baltimore marathon because his train doesn’t show; has to take an Uber, blames MTA

What happens when you train for a marathon, but you miss the starting gun? When you practice and practice, condition yourself for the grueling day ahead, but your ride to the race doesn’t show up? Do you sit down and surrender? Quit for good? Well, I live in Baltimore — that’s not what we do around here. I’m taking my frustration and trying to make the city better.

In preparation for this past weekend’s Baltimore Running Festival — a huge event that drew more than 25,000 runners into the center of the city — I spent the past nine months in training. I can’t even count the grueling miles I ran in practice. But I was ready for the festival, my fourth marathon in 17 years.

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You can guess what happened. I arrived at the starting line almost 20 minutes after the gun had gone off. Why? Because I’d decided to use Light Rail to get to the event. The trains were sporadic — not showing up at all on the southern route into downtown. A group of us runners waited for nearly an hour for a train. By the time we gave up and took an Uber, there was nobody at the starting line except a clean-up crew and some other angry runners. A number of us had been let down by the severely messed-up train schedule.

I’m not new at riding Light Rail — I use it almost daily. Sometimes the wait is long, but I also know that something is going on here: It’s the dysfunctional Maryland Transit Authority, which runs public transportation in this city and has made a mess of it.

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With the festival clogging the streets, I jumped out of my Uber and sprinted the last mile toward the starting line, hoping I wasn’t too late. But it was not to be. My heart rate, which I'd trained to hover at around 145 beats per minute for the race, was in the high 160s. Stress ruled over me. Still, I did not give up. I got checked in by a kind race official and set off on the course heading up from downtown toward Druid Hill.

A strategy I have for long-distance running is to reflect. But as I established my pace, heading into one of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods, I wasn’t reflecting — I was seething with anger at Baltimore’s terrible transit system. The shocking disinvestment in atrophying neighborhoods is best exemplified by the state’s 2015 cancellation of the Red Line addition to the Light Rail system.

According to 2017 Baltimore Neighborhood Indicator Alliance data, in neighborhoods like Upton/Druid Heights and Penn North/Reservoir Hill, more than 31% and 28%, respectively, of residents rely on public transit to get to work. Logically, those numbers should be considerably higher: 59.2% and 40.2%, respectively, don't have access to cars. Compare that to the neighborhoods I ran through in the early second half of the race, like Patterson Park and Canton: There, 19.8% and 4.5% of residents don't have access to cars, and only 12.2% and 3.2% of residents in those neighborhoods use public transit to get to their jobs.

When you experience many of our city’s historic neighborhoods, the widely-cited dichotomy of “two Baltimores” comes to mind. The lack of transit use and service speaks loudly to both sides of our divided city. It’s cause — and effect.

Runners begin the 2019 Baltimore Running Festival on October 19, 2019. The author, Greg Walsh, missed the start because his Light Rail train didn't show up. He finally had to take an Uber.
Runners begin the 2019 Baltimore Running Festival on October 19, 2019. The author, Greg Walsh, missed the start because his Light Rail train didn't show up. He finally had to take an Uber. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

And here's the interesting part: As much as we might want to blame this problem on the city, it's not our fault. This is an issue that is wholly owned by the state of Maryland. There is no school board, no City Council, no mayor of the month that anyone can blame for the lack of adequate public transit. It is 100% within the purview of the MTA to make sure the citizens of the Free State can get to work and events without relying on private vehicles. In a city where only 18.2% (trending down since 2011) of residents take trains and buses to work, the failure is on the agency responsible. Does Baltimore's record-setting population decline have something to do with transportation in the city? The answer is obvious.

After the race, I was frustrated with the MTA for failing me. But as I thought more about it, I realized this wasn't just a short-term disappointment for a few of us runners. MTA is letting down the citizens of metro Baltimore every day: the workers who lose wages or jobs because the train made them late; the people who live in poorly resourced places like West Baltimore, where residents spend 45 minutes commuting each way; the students who rely on neighbors to get to school because city buses are jam packed or absent. These are the real victims of the lack of coordinated transit in our area.

It's time to set up a regional transportation authority dedicated to the metro area. A Baltimore Area Transit Authority would be responsible for making sure that people can get around, to and from Baltimore for work, family, and events. Its responsibilities would range from the low-hanging fruit of aligning traffic lights or making bus riding a time-efficient form of transit. Then there are the loftier goals: Completely redesign inter-city travel to focus on neighborhood hubs instead of 19th-century train lines. To ensure its success, make this new organization strike an equal balance between city and state agencies, neighborhood advocates, and employer representation.

Greg Walsh celebrates after finishing the Baltimore Running Festival marathon, despite missing the start of the race when his Light Rail train never showed up.
Greg Walsh celebrates after finishing the Baltimore Running Festival marathon, despite missing the start of the race when his Light Rail train never showed up. (handout)

Despite my frustrating start to the running festival, I finished the 26.2 miles with a personal record. To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about transit by the time I ran down Pratt Street to the finish line, I was just happy to be done. And that’s how transit should work: You don’t have to think about it, worry about it; it’s there when you need it and it gets you where you want to go. Obviously, however, we have some thinking to do about our trains and buses — a lot of thinking, and a lot more work. The city and the region are in a race to turn Baltimore around and make it work for everybody. We won’t give up. We don’t give up.

Greg Walsh is an associate professor in the Division of Science, Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore where he directs the Information and Interaction Design doctoral program. His email is gwalsh@ubalt.edu.

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