For Lewis, abandoning her car was a choice. But she represents a city where more than a quarter of households don’t have access to a private vehicle, and where access to cars breaks down along racial lines — with a majority of households in some predominantly Black neighborhoods not having the use of a vehicle.
Before being appointed to the General Assembly in 2017, Lewis had worked in public health and was an advocate for transit. She talked to The Washington Post about the challenges of living in Baltimore without a car, the perspective it’s brought to her role as a lawmaker and ideas for making streets more welcoming for pedestrians. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: What was your thought process for giving up your car when you were living in Baltimore and how did you have to adapt your life?
A: I moved to Baltimore in 1999 from Haiti. I was living overseas and I finished graduate school and I was working my dream job down in Haiti, doing tuberculosis, clinical trial research work for [Johns] Hopkins. And then I got an opportunity for another Hopkins position based in Baltimore. I had a sleeping bag and a couple of books and no car. So I got here without a car and rented an apartment that was walking distance from my office. That decision to find a place to live that was walking distance from my work shaped everything about my life. I didn’t want to own a car. I wanted to walk to work and then fly around the world, which I did. I remember telling people when I moved here that I didn’t own a car and they were just like, horrified, speechless, aghast.
A year after moving here, I kind of broke down. I had to buy a car. I couldn’t do household shopping unless I called for a yellow cab. It did fulfill a purpose so I could go to Home Depot or whatever, but I hated owning it. But once you get on the car ownership train, every force in our society bends to tie you immovably, inextricably from car ownership, especially in this city, where transit is so underinvested and service quality is so poor.
There is a culture of hostility and contempt for public goods in general, but transit, in particular, that is grounded in our city’s very special history of racism and white supremacy. Public goods are denigrated because they’re associated with public access, and that means Black people can touch it. And that’s really how transit is in this town.
Q: You’ve made a case for why you would maybe want to have a car, even if you don’t particularly like it. How did you get to the process of giving up that car?
A: It was a source of misery in my life, and I dreamed of living in a different place where I didn’t feel the burden, the forced impinging burden of car ownership. I got involved in advocating for the Red Line light-rail project back in 2010 or so. And at the time, I learned that the nearest Red Line station was going to be quite a distance from my house. But the idea was so exciting to me that I could make long trips on modern rail. I realized, even with the station a little bit of a distance from my house, having that light rail would obviate the need for car ownership. So I basically owned a car, hating it the whole time for 14 years. And then it was the Red Line that promised to set me free from that burden.
Q: Obviously, the Red Line hasn’t been built. It’s not clear if it will ever be built.
A: I gave my car away in October 2014. [Gov. Larry] Hogan was elected in November 2015 and the clock started ticking. Eight months later, that man canceled the project, but meanwhile I had already gotten rid of my car and I was a happier person without it. And by then, I’ve learned how to get around, do things I need to do without a car. A lot of things changed in the 14 years since I had moved to Baltimore. If you needed wheels, you could rent a Zipcar or call a ride-share. We had a lot more bike infrastructure. So just because Hogan canceled the Red Line, it didn’t change my commitment to a car-free lifestyle. It really cemented it. The cancellation of the Red Line honestly turned being car-free into a political act.
Until you get out of the car, throw away the keys, put on your sneakers and start walking, you have no idea of the world that we actually live in, and Baltimore City changed radically for me when I got rid of my car. I started to see things a lot more clearly. Not owning a car expanded my world.
Q: What do you see as the opportunities for changing the way we think about transportation? Are there things that you think Maryland could do?
A: In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter summer, the George Floyd protests, there’s this burgeoning interest in creating a more equitable society. We could have immense impact in reducing the disparate harms that Black people, Native Americans, immigrants and poor White people face if we reduced our dependence on cars. We could do an enormous change by making a few shifts. We could reduce a lot of injury, which also disparately harms Black people and poor people, by slowing down cars. It doesn’t require a billion dollars of Build Back Better infrastructure money. It just means having the political will to pass a bill to slow down the traffic.
Another really simple thing we could do that would prioritize human life over car convenience, we could plant more trees, and we’re doing that. We know that planting trees improves air quality in a city that has some of the worst air quality in the state. It just so happens that more trees also slows down car speeds. We could make mass transit more attractive, more efficient, sexier by investing to improve the frequency of bus service.
The carrot that I dream of would be to make it really easy for every household to own an electric cargo bike — not just an electric bike, but a cargo bike. Electric cargo bikes allow you to carry children, groceries.
Q: We’re in a moment where there’s interest in building big new things. Do you think the Red Line could be revived and do you think big projects like that have a role to play?
A: Yes, I believe in huge sweeping modernizing infrastructure investments. We absolutely need modern transit infrastructure. Modern transit infrastructure is light rail, it’s subways, it’s commuter rail, it’s bike lanes. It may take the rest of my lifetime, but I’m going to lend every nanojoule of my energy to get this city a modern east-west light-rail network. Because I choose not to own a car, it just reminds me every day about the challenges that my constituents face.