Tucked amid the lush lawns and stately mansions of Potomac, Md., is the little-known, historically African American neighborhood of Tobytown, where many of the 60 or so residents trace their ancestry to the freed slaves who founded the area in 1875.
But the large lots and winding roads that offer wealthy homeowners country living 10 miles outside the nation’s capital have left Tobytown an isolated pocket of poverty.
Many residents, including some who have lived in the 26 publicly subsidized townhouses for generations, say it’s not a lack of jobs that holds them back financially. It’s the lack of a bus stop — something Tobytown has been seeking for more than 30 years.
About half of the neighborhood’s adults and teenagers can’t afford to drive or own vehicles, residents say, and walking or riding a bike requires a dangerous trek along narrow roads with no sidewalks or paved shoulders. Meanwhile, the closest bus stop is three miles — nearly a one-hour walk — away.
“The buses won’t come out here because there’s no bus stop,” said Ivan Stewart, 24, who rode his bike or caught rides with his uncle to his former landscaping job at a country club six miles away. “If we had transportation, we could look for more jobs.”
India Shaw, 26, said she sometimes pays $18 for a cab when she can’t find a relative or neighbor to drive her to a bus stop about six miles away in Darnestown, where she catches a bus to cosmetology school and her job at a community center.
Without a car, Shaw said, “it’s a struggle just trying to get places you need to get to — not just to work, but also to the doctor or to get groceries. It’s hard if you don’t have any extra money or someone to get you out of the neighborhood.”
Many local governments, including Montgomery County, are investing in public transportation as a way to focus population growth and attract economic development. But as the county and other auto-centric suburbs become poorer — the number of children in the county who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school has jumped over the past decade, to about 35 percent — they’re also exploring new ways to serve more residents who can’t afford to drive.
Montgomery officials say that they have tried for years to help Tobytown but that its relatively few residents and unusually remote location, off River Road near the C&O Canal, make it prohibitively expensive for a regular Ride On bus line. Citing tight budgets, the county has cut about 10 bus routes over the past few years, and most of those had higher ridership than a Tobytown bus would have, officials say.
The County Council is considering spending up to about $200,000 annually to provide Tobytown a smaller shuttle bus as a less expensive alternative. The shuttle would carry as many as 15 people about every 70 minutes to and from local schools, the Rockville Metro station, Shady Grove Medical Center, the library and other stops. A similar proposal, which county officials projected would have 100 riders daily, was cut from this fiscal year’s budget to save money. Tobytown has a school bus stop, but parents say teenagers have trouble playing sports because they have no reliable way home after the late “activity” bus leaves Wootton High School.
Some Tobytown residents say they wonder how a shuttle bus would differ from a van that the county bought the community in 1990. That effort failed, they say, because the county left the driving and maintenance to a resident, and the van didn’t have a set schedule they could rely on. For 18 months, starting in 2008, the county offered them taxi vouchers, but residents said expensive suburban cab rides consumed the monthly vouchers in three or four trips.
“We want to help, and we’ve tried different approaches,” said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). “But to be honest, unless you throw a lot of money at it, with very low use, it’s going to be a challenge. But we’ll try. . . . We think we owe this community a good effort to come up with something that works.”
Sociologists and urban planners have studied the link between poverty and limited mobility for decades. The latest major study, from Harvard University in 2015, found that the problem is particularly acute in low-density neighborhoods, such as in sprawling suburbs. Areas with commutes of more than 15 minutes had the strongest correlation — more than the quality of local schools or the percentage of single-parent households — to children there growing up to earn low incomes, the study found.
Researchers say they don’t know exactly why that is, but they theorize that longer commutes signal isolated areas of concentrated poverty with less access to jobs or working parents who can spend less time with their children.
“This is a real challenge,” said Tom Sanchez, a Virginia Tech professor who has researched the social effects of mobility. “The whole idea behind economic and social opportunity is you need to be able to get places — whether it’s to a job or to health care or to get your kids [to] places — to participate in society and have those opportunities. It’s really only in urban-core areas where people can get away with not owning cars.”
Some transit agencies, including those in Memphis and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, are testing a new app that allows bus riders to coordinate their trips with Uber so, for example, an Uber driver is waiting at the bus stop when they get off. Providing or subsidizing ride-booking services can potentially cost governments less than running buses farther out, experts say, and better serve low-wage workers who often commute in the early morning or late at night when buses don’t run. People without smartphones can call the service via a landline.
Adie Tomer, a Brookings Institution fellow, called ride-booking companies such as Uber a “game changer” for serving transit-dependent residents in low-density areas.
“It’s a truly new option when it comes to mass transportation,” Tomer said.
In Tobytown, residents say they want a regular bus, not Uber, because that’s what the rest of the county has. They worry that a special Tobytown shuttle would be more vulnerable to budget cuts if ridership is low, even though they think it also would serve residents from nearby subdivisions — or at least those residents’ housekeepers, nannies and home health aides.
Many say they can’t move closer to public transportation because they doubt they could find affordable housing, even if it meant that they no longer had to call in sick and risk losing their jobs for lack of transportation.
When Mary Wilson left her job at a Kmart in Gaithersburg a couple of years ago, she said that her Tobytown neighbor had to quit because Wilson had been her ride. At one point, Wilson said, she didn’t work for two years because she wanted to help her son attend Montgomery College.
“I didn’t work so I could drive him back and forth,” Wilson said. “That’s what it took. He had no other way to get there, unless he paid for a cab, which was too expensive.”
She said that her son worked as a prep cook in a Pittsburgh restaurant for two years but that he hasn’t worked since recently returning to Tobytown because he doesn’t have a car. She said she needs her car to get to her job at a community center.
“He just wouldn’t even try to look for work here because he can’t get there,” Wilson said.
After Tobytown’s years of asking for a bus, residents say, county officials began paying closer attention a few years ago, when a small band of residents from the affluent surrounding area began to agitate on their behalf.
One of them, Sarah Katz, said she dug up a 1982 Washington Post story about Tobytown residents asking for, yes, a bus stop.
“Obviously,” said Katz, who now lives in Fairfax County, “people need to get to work on” securing a bus.
At a recent meeting at the Tobytown community center, County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) struck an apologetic tone. He told about 60 residents that the county “kind of gave up” on providing them public transportation after the van and taxi-voucher programs failed. But Berliner said Tobytown’s extraordinary history requires the county to do more.
A traditional bus for so few people “doesn’t make any kind of economic sense,” Berliner told them, but he said he would make sure funding for the smaller shuttle bus is included in the county budget when the council votes on it in May.
“I think all of us have come to appreciate that we need to treat your community differently,” Berliner told the group.
“We’re going to put in the dollars necessary to make sure you’re not an isolated community, that you can get to where you need to go,” he said.
Tobytown is watching, and waiting.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.