In a high-crime city like Baltimore, transportation is often overlooked. But Councilman Ryan Dorsey says creating more equitable and accessible transit throughout Baltimore would have a huge impact on the city, particularly in neighborhoods that have been historically disenfranchised or “redlined”
Lisa McCray: I’m Lisa Snowden-McCray, the editor-in-chief of Baltimore Beat, an independent weekly newspaper here in Baltimore, and you’re watching The Real News. Baltimore has a transportation problem. In early February, many people were left scrambling when transportation officials announced that the city’s metro would have to shut down due to serious track issues. In the meantime, riders were told they would have to make-do with a $2.2 million emergency bus bridge, to mixed reviews.
The city’s Department of Transportation has also announced that they plan to delay the implantation of the downtown bike network, a plan to add more protected bike lanes throughout the city. City Councilman Ryan Dorsey thinks he has a solution. His Complete Streets bill is aimed at urging the city forward on issues like public transit and bike lanes, although it seems to have been an uphill battle. He’s here to talk to me a little bit about what he’s trying to do and why it’s important. Hi, Ryan.
Ryan Dorsey: Hi, Lisa.
Lisa McCray: Hi.
Ryan Dorsey: Hey, thanks for having me.
Lisa McCray: No, thanks for being here. I wanted to talk to you because I’m someone he tries to read a lot and think a lot, but even for me, the issue of transportation was not a priority.
Ryan Dorsey: Sure. I think it’s not uncommon in a city like Baltimore, where you have 3,000 people homeless on any given night and where we are the third least affordable rental market in the country, where we have such immense difficulties with schools and food deserts and joblessness, it’s not unreasonable to not see the way transportation impacts people’s lives every day, especially in a city is just so taken over by cars. Right? There really isn’t much of a way to get around the city, and we have this long-standing issue of people needing to get around Baltimore City on a bus system that’s not run by Baltimore City so they can’t go directly to their local government and say “Why aren’t you improving this?” The MTA, the Maryland Transit Administration, is a state-run operation.
But what Complete Streets is really about is an understanding that while MTA operates the buses, we own and have full authority over the space in which they operate. We know that buses are an efficient way of moving people around. You can move 50 people in the space that you can move two in two cars, and that there are other healthier, more sustainable modes of transportation like cycling that help people to get out of cars. The fewer cars that are on the road, the more efficiently buses can run, the fewer cars that the buses have to compete with for space. And then of course, really, all of this starts from this most vulnerable road user, your everyday pedestrian. That could be somebody walking to one place to the next from origin to destination, or walking just to the bus stop in their neighborhood or to a transfer from one bus stop to another, or even just from their front door to their car.
Lisa McCray: One of the things that Baltimore journalist, and Real News reporter, Baynard Woods has said is that when there are pedestrian accidents, they’re not really treated the same as other deaths in the city. They’re kind of seen as like one-offs, not a systemic issue. Is that something that you’ve also noticed?
Ryan Dorsey: Yeah. Well, Baltimore has, over the last five years, seen a 46% increase in pedestrian fatalities, serious injuries to pedestrians due to crashes, and property damage crashes. But when you read the headlines around this, it says child killed on such-and-such a street, even when it’s a three-year-old like just happened a few weeks ago, a three-year-old walking out into the street that they live on, a 12-foot wide street with cars parked on both sides of it. Somehow, the headline indicates that the three-year-old pedestrian, the three-year-old walking out, is at fault, not the driver who was driving fast enough to kill a human being.
We have, over time, adopted the view that roads are for cars to move, not for people to get where they need to go and for people and all users to be safe. Really, what Complete Streets is about is about prioritizing the needs of all users so that no matter where you’re coming from, where you’re going, what time of day or night and what your economic status is, what that allows you to have access to, whether you own a car, and in Baltimore City that’s not cheap, it costs a lot for car insurance in Baltimore City on top of your other car-related expenses, or whether you are transit-dependent, using a bus, or whether you have decided that cycling is something that you want to do.
Lisa McCray: In a city like Baltimore, which has so many problems, how do you begin even like teaching people that this is important.
Ryan Dorsey: Yeah. One of the reasons that it’s been such a great length of time since my introduction of this bill last July and now in February is that we’ve continued to do community outreach. It’s really important for us to be able to have these conversations about empowering communities that have been left out of the conversation for a very long time to have the kind of tools that other communities that are fortunate to have community development corporations and Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and other organizations, nonprofit organizations with strong boards and people that have deep pockets, to empower every community to be able to advocate for the welfare of their neighborhood.
We know that the communities that have been left the farthest behind in this respect are the ones that have been historically disenfranchised. When we talk about car users and road users in Baltimore City, I like to give a little context through data, through facts.
Lisa McCray: Yeah.
Ryan Dorsey: Baltimore City has a citywide rate of vehicle non-access. That’s not just I don’t own a car but like my neighbor doesn’t have one that I can borrow, or my cousin around the corner doesn’t have one I can occasionally use, or Zipcar doesn’t find my block an economically enticing enough block to just drop a couple of cars on for people to use occasionally.
The citywide rate of vehicle non-access is 30%. But in every single historically redline black community in Baltimore city, the rate of vehicle non-access is above 50%. And in every single historically redline black community in Baltimore, there are individual census tracts where the rate of vehicle non-access is above 70 and in some cases above 80%. Those kind of numbers don’t appear anywhere else in Baltimore except for communities that, through public policy, have historically been discriminated against. They have decades after the repealing of official redlining policies have not had a recovery in access to transportation the way that they were stripped of it 60 years ago, when our street car system was dismantled from Baltimore City in favor of moving county commuters, white people, who were moving out of Baltimore City, abandoning our tax base, having their need to commute in and out accommodated by widening roads in order to accommodate high volumes of high-speed car travel.
Lisa McCray: I know you’ve been working closely with Bikemore, the biking advocacy group here in the city. Have you also brought people in those communities that have kind of been left out of the conversation to the table in some of your advocacy work?
Ryan Dorsey: Yes. Bikemore was my kind of like founding partner in advocating and writing this bill. But then we’ve also met in communities throughout Baltimore City to help people understand what it’s all about and to get their thoughts about what we’re thinking should go into this bill. The very first place that we went to bring this was the No Boundaries Coalition of Central West Baltimore. They, along with other organizations throughout the city … a group of strange bedfellows. It’s not often that you see No Boundaries Coalition in the same advocacy realm as the AARP and the Maryland Building Industry Association. People are really seeing this as a way that we can uplift all communities in Baltimore.
With them, we spent months and months crafting a bill that addressed a wide variety of concerns. It does drill down into things like the geometric design of streets so that we’re carving out space for the most vulnerable users and prioritizing buses, and from a hierarchy of users, then into land use types. You don’t want the same kind of treatment on a little neighborhood street as you need on a big arterial road. But then we go into some basic good governance things like what is our project selection criteria in this city? How do we decide whose neighborhood we’re going to invest in and whose we’re not?
Right now, what we know is that a review of the last eight years of capital spending in this city reveals that we spend disproportionately in predominantly white communities, we spend disproportionately in communities of higher income, and we spend disproportionately in communities with lower numbers of young people. So what is our decision making process for whose community we seek to improve and invest in, whose welfare we seek to improve?
Lisa McCray: Okay.
Ryan Dorsey: But then with that also, the project delivery process, there’s this opaqueness to how we get from concept to completion in Baltimore City. People see things happening in their neighborhood and they don’t know not just how it started but when it’s going to be over and what it had to go through to get to this process in the first place. People don’t know what part of the process they were left out of. And then finally, a report-out to show annually, whose neighborhood did we spend in and for what reasons and how much did we spend there, what did we get out of that, and really breaking that down by race, by income level, by rate of vehicle non-access to know whether or not we are moving in the right direction of more equitable spending in the city.
Lisa McCray: All right. Well, thank you so much for talking to me about this today.
Ryan Dorsey: Thanks Lisa.
Lisa McCray: Thank you very much for watching The Real News Network.