The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baltimore transit equity study spotlights racial disparities around neighborhoods

A public bus seen at a stop in Baltimore earlier this year.
A public bus seen at a stop in Baltimore earlier this year. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

BALTIMORE — The maps of Baltimore in a new study of transit equity remind Lawrence Brown of the infamous 1930s residential security map segregating the neighborhoods around the city by race and redlining Black residents into the areas east and west of downtown.

The analysis by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition shows different city neighborhoods’ access to transit as well as social vulnerability, pollution and health. The darkest colors represent the areas of greatest need.

“The patterns are unmistakable,” said Brown, the author of “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America,” which examines the ongoing effects of redlining and other racist policies. “Just knowing Baltimore’s history and seeing a lot of maps, it’s not surprising,” he said. “But it’s reflecting just how much the city’s legacy of racial hyper-segregation shows up in so many different areas.”

In Baltimore, where about one in three people lacks access to a car, the report concluded that public transit “often fails to get people to their destinations in a reasonable amount of time.” The analysis also called current insufficient service “especially concerning” because of the high concentration of low-income minority riders in the city, “many of whom” during the pandemic were classified as “essential workers.”

As Baltimore and many other areas of the country prepare to receive and distribute historic levels of federal transportation funding, the authors of the “Transit Equity & Environmental Health in Baltimore” report hope it won’t just identify the areas of Baltimore facing the biggest challenges. Instead, they hope officials use the information to direct incoming federal money to the neighborhoods that are most desperate for it.

“There’s a lot of opportunities to spend these dollars wisely,” said Megan Weil Latshaw, an environmental health researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Latshaw and Samuel Jordan, authors of the analysis, said the report represents a first for Baltimore and is one of the first of its kind to be published anywhere in the country.

“Not only to do just transit equity, but also to look at pollution and health, and try to think about it from a systems perspective, offers a unique way to help drive policy through evidence,” Latshaw noted. “The goal is, if we can, to target investments where they’re needed the most.”

Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, an advocacy group, said viewing public transit “through an equity and environmental health lens” provides a fuller view of those ongoing disparities between neighborhoods and the significant need for investment.

“We saw lots of inequity along racial and ethnic lines,” Jordan said, “and lots of opportunity to better serve all the people in this city.” The report “identifies the communities most in need of investments” or “interventions and mitigation.” Jordan said he hopes local leaders will use the report as a guide and consult him and Latshaw as they shape policy.

Jordan, among the fiercest critics of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to cancel the $2.9 billion east-west Baltimore Red Line project, wants Baltimore to have its own regional transit authority to replace the Maryland Transit Administration that is owned by the state.

The 2015 decision to halt the project, which would have served areas of primarily Black and Brown residents, and instead fund highway projects serving the primarily White counties, “exacerbated disparities in access to jobs and other destinations based on race,” the report said.

The map that least resembles the Black Butterfly might be the one showing air pollution, Latshaw said. “The air pollution data is so sparse we really couldn’t even see very many patterns because the EPA only has three air pollution monitors in the state. Trying to model what air pollution is like at the neighborhood or census tract level is virtually impossible.”

An estimated 40 percent of air pollution comes from the transportation sector, said Jordan, stressing that promises made by officials to fight climate change must hinge on improving transit if they are to be kept.

“You’ve got to bring them under control. You’ve got to know where those communities are, because you’re going to do more than simply express your concerns,” Jordan said. “There’s action that can be taken, relief for these communities, many of which are historically overly burdened.”

The report said it “indicates the potential need for greater investments in transit” in the neighborhoods mainly in the Black Butterfly. “An efficient transit system provides access to things like health care and healthy food and jobs and education,” Latshaw noted. “If we want to lift up society through all of these things, then we can do it by investing in transit.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said generations of policy decisions in “the birthplace of redlining,” as he called the city, created inequality, notably in East and West Baltimore. The Democratic mayor said devoting funding to transit will be critical to improving the region’s buses, subway, light rail and MARC train for Baltimore residents, workers and visitors.

“Baltimoreans deserve a transit system designed to accommodate their needs first,” he said in a statement. “Investing in equitable transportation infrastructure is paramount to ensuring residents in historically-redlined neighborhoods can effectively and reliably get around town.”

Don Fry, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional business advocacy group which favors improved transit, said in an email statement that the analysis of the transit system “is worthy of serious consideration as short-range and long-range plans are developed for public transportation in Baltimore City.”

Investing more in equitable transit will give residents and neighborhoods most affected by poverty, disinvestment and lack of transportation “greater access to reliable and fast transportation to jobs, health care, workforce training opportunities and day-to-day activities,” Fry said.

He continued, “Ensuring efficient and reliable transportation access is a proven generational pathway out of poverty while enhancing job and career advancement.” Fry concluded, “This study confirms, once again, that the need for improved transportation access must be a high-priority diversity and equity goal for Baltimore City, working in tandem with elected leaders and transportation officials, to attain in the near future.”

— Baltimore Sun