Center Maryland: Matching communities in need with Baltimore’s big employment hubs

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Editor’s note: This commentary was published on CenterMaryland.org on September 18, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

Since Governor Larry Hogan killed the Red Line, the 14.1 mile east-west light rail line that was to run from Social Security to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, community groups, elected officials, local transit experts and others continue to ask the question, “What should we do next?”

For the past 13 years I’ve said the Red Line held the potential to reinvigorate the Baltimore economy, provided east-west connectivity and access to jobs for thousands who are transit dependent, and deservedly was viewed as a “jobs line.”

Now that other transit options are being debated to replace the Red Line plan, it’s important to stay focused in this discussion on the fact that mass transit is a vital link to jobs.

Jobs aren’t just a way to link people to a paycheck. They are also a way to tie them closer to families, neighborhoods and even an entire city.

None need jobs – and a reliable way to get to them – more than those in Baltimore communities where residents are chronically unemployed or live on very low incomes.

In these communities it is unlikely that many can afford to own and maintain even one car. They must rely on other means to get to work.

If they can’t access reliable transportation to get to work, it serves as a barrier to employment. Barriers to employment fuel frustration, hopelessness and disenfranchisement.

And so these are the very citizens who need to be connected to major areas where the jobs are located. But in Baltimore they face a number of transportation hurdles – not just the lack of nearby access to reliable rapid mass transit.

Opportunity Collaborative, a consortium made up of representatives from local governments, state agencies, universities and nonprofit organizations, is working on reducing socioeconomic disparities in the Baltimore region.

The group’s research has found that there are a number of transportation-related barriers to employment for low-income residents and the chronically unemployed. These include an inability to get to work using mass transit, lack of a driver’s license and the cost of public transportation.

So as transit advocates, elected officials and others try to develop a new solution to improving Baltimore’s mass transit system, it would be wise to keep in mind these barriers for residents who need reliable, accessible, speedy, and affordable mass transit.

An interesting exercise as we engage in the discussion over ‘what’s next’ would be to take a map of the Baltimore region which highlights the big employment hubs and then overlay that map with one showing areas of the city with low incomes, high unemployment and transit dependent neighborhoods.

By studying this overlay, it is likely that areas or routes where new mass transit solutions could best serve populations in dire need of a ride to and from work would emerge.

Recent research by Opportunity Collaborative, which is supported by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, has identified these big employment hubs.

In Baltimore they include the downtown area and the large new Amazon distribution site in Southeast Baltimore.

Other big employment hubs close to Baltimore include: Woodlawn on the west side; the Nursery Road area near Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport; and the Coca-Cola Drive area, also near BWI.

As for areas of the city with low incomes or high unemployment, recent demographic mapping by The Baltimore Sun, using data from the Baltimore City Health Department 2011 Neighborhood Health Profiles, offers some perspective.

For example, Southwest Baltimore and the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park area in West Baltimore have very high unemployment – close to 20 percent. That statistic may have improved to a degree from 2011 when the data was collected, but probably not significantly.

As a new vision for improving public transit in Baltimore is developed,  planning reliable, speedy, and affordable mass transportation routes from these pockets of high unemployment to the big employment hubs seems essential. It’s also the right thing to do from a public service perspective.

It may also help address the disenfranchisement some who live in these areas of income inequality have for Baltimore as whole.

They don’t need efficiencies of the existing bus routes as some state officials have suggested. Maximum efficiency should be expected of any transit function.

What is needed is an accessible mass transit system that’s innovative – fuel efficient, rapid and equipped with mobile payment or voucher systems and other new technologies.

The loss of the Red Line was a significant setback that will not be overcome. But connecting the unemployed to the major job centers via innovative and reliable mass transportation options is essential to economic growth of the City of Baltimore. Any viable substitute for the Red Line must be one that provides comprehensive alternatives that greatly enhance the prospects of reducing unemployment in lower income and transit dependent communities.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.  

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