Baltimore’s Metro Shutdown Underscores City’s Transportation Problem (2/2)
In the second part of his interview with Lisa Snowden McCray, Councilman Ryan Dorsey talks about how creating a more bike-friendly and walkable city not only improves public health but also boosts employment and small-business growth
Lisa McCray: I’m Lisa Snowden-McCray, the Editor in Chief of the Baltimore Beat, an independent weekly paper, here in Baltimore. I’ve been talking to councilman Ryan Dorsey about transit. 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.
Lisa McCray: My question is kind of hinging on an article that came out in the Sun a little while ago that said you were part of this new class of city council members who came in super idealistic and kind of ran head-first into reality. I don’t know if I agree with the premise of that story, but I do know that it hasn’t been easy moving your ideas forward. So where are you now with this?
Ryan Dorsey: We’ve been meeting with the Department of Transportation for many, many, many months. We’ve sought to get their buy-in to this like we’ve had from all these others that we call into this. It’s been challenging, but we’re going to be holding a hearing. I believe we’re going to hold a hearing on March 21st in the Land Use and Transportation Committee of the Council, where it was referred to, and just try to move forward with this. If there are amendments that people want to suggest, they’ll have an opportunity, but if there’s other just general input that people want to give … We anticipate having really strong support from a broad range of stakeholders in the city.
Yeah. You know, it’s challenging being in the legislative branch of a city where we’re so disempowered by relation to the executive branch. It gives everybody pause about whether they want to wade into anything because they’re so dependent on the Mayor and the executive branch to deliver things for their communities and deliver things that they want the Mayor’s support on. It’s not an easy city to be part of a legislature in, and it’s also a city where the City Council hasn’t necessarily been aggressive about acting like the legislative branch of government.
It’s even further stifled, I think at the moment, by the article that you referred to where the Mayor basically said the City Council shouldn’t focus itself on citywide policy, it should probably just focus on their districts. I have a fundamental disagreement with that perspective, that the City Council is the legislative branch of government. Our primary and really our sole duty to this city is to put forth citywide policy and act as the legislators of the city. When we do constituent service, what we’re actually acting like is a help desk for the shortcomings of city agencies that are under the purview of the Mayor, so I don’t really think that that’s an acceptable way of viewing the functions of government.
Lisa McCray: What are some of the naysayers, or what have people said, that maybe it’s not a great idea for the city?
Ryan Dorsey: You know, we really haven’t actually had any pointed opposition. We have this really strong and diverse coalition of support. Even the mayor’s transition report, that she did at the beginning of her term, actually says in it that Baltimore needs an enforceable complete streets ordinance, which is exactly what we’ve produced. All across the city we hear people saying this is exactly the kind of change that Baltimore City needs.
Our opposition has really …The process has just kind of been slow because we’ve sought to be really inclusive of people’s voices, and I’m really … I do want to be a partner to the Department of Transportation, so I’ve kind of slow rolled my movement of this bill, just in order to have robust dialogue with the Department of Transportation, partly accommodating the time that it took for the administration to bring in a new DoT director and to establish a rapport with her, and for her to bring in other supporting staff. We’ve just really spent a lot of time in that kind of conversation.
Lisa McCray: Has there also been an issue with lanes, as far as having space for emergency vehicles? Has that been one of the things that’s been slowing up?
Ryan Dorsey: Yeah, so, well, that’s not directly related to this, but it does bear some similar considerations. Baltimore has, in the fire code, this 20 foot clearance requirement. There’s this supposition that we need 20 feet for a fire truck to be able to deploy outriggers, in order to extend ladders great lengths and fight fires.
Lisa McCray: Okay.
Ryan Dorsey: But in reality, 70 or 80% of the city’s streets don’t meet that requirement, and we don’t have a problem getting to fires to fight them. It’s kind of a ludicrous claim, but it’s-
Lisa McCray: And it’s something that city’s fire officials have said that we need [crosstalk]?
Ryan Dorsey: Yeah. Between the DoT Director, the Mayor, and the fire department, this has been upheld but it’s really … it never, ever came about until this one bike lane went into this one neighborhood after a five-year long public process, including getting federal and state funding to make it happen, and extensive community meetings around it. But a couple of people didn’t like it and caught somebody with power’s ear. It was a perfect display of a known issue, that we see across the country, where bicycling infrastructure goes in. They have a word for it; bikelash. People give this backlash when they see bicycling infrastructure.
Lisa McCray: What are people mad about?
Ryan Dorsey: People are really sensitive about their car usage and their belief that … especially middle class homeowners, they believe, you know, “I worked for this and this is my home, and I am somehow entitled to this space that’s right in front of my house,” even though that’s public space and it needs to serve the greater public good as well as possible, not just be free housing for your car.
Lisa McCray: That makes me think about another thing. Most of Baltimore has cars. I think, according to the last census, it’s, like, 70%. Part of car ownership, I think, is almost just, like, that’s what you’re used to. We drive cars because that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s kind of like we eat meat because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Up until very recently, there haven’t been a lot of other options. How do fight that? How do you fight that tendency towards thinking that’s what we do? We have streets because we need cars and that’s just the way it’s always going to be?
Ryan Dorsey: The roads in the city are the largest, most expensive physical asset that the city owns. The DoT Director is charged with stewarding that, but it goes, to me, without saying, that if you’re making changes or if you’re deciding in broad ways how that space is used, you’re going to impact other aspects of quality of life.
With that in mind, it’s really easy to say … You know, we put the health department, the health director, on this commission, on this coordinating council because we know that when people have an opportunity to have safe access to cycling and pedestrian and have a more active lifestyle, that that’s a way of addressing chronic hypertension, that that’s a way of providing healthier lifestyle for people. Similarly, we know that Rec and Parks has a stake in the public right of way, by their work with trees, and the DPW has the stormwater, and when we start to talk about all of these different elements that take place in the public right of way and how we know that there are … The Urban Land Institute refers to roads like Harford Road, where I represent, and probably others around the city like Edmondson Avenue, where you have 50,000 cars a day traveling past neighborhoods that are historically redlined and lack anything like real job opportunity right there in the neighborhoods, that lack of job opportunity, that lack of small business presence, is a result of what the Urban Land Institute refers to as a disinvestment engine. The design of that road itself deters from locating in the community things that people who live in the community really want.
A lot of what I talk about is people having a vision for what their neighborhood could be like if it weren’t being dominated by cars. I have probably 50% of the businesses in the Hamilton business district in my district vacant, and nothing has changed over time. It was a once thriving small business community that people from all over the neighborhood walked to and spent time walking around, but the only thing that has changed over time to affect its blight is that the space has been taken over by cars in high volume and high speed.
If we create communities that are really walkable, we have an opportunity to improve air quality, public health, small business growth, and that means job growth. The Baltimore Development Corporation throws their hands up about creating jobs in the city and says, you know, “What are we going to do?” The number one barrier to employability in Baltimore City is transportation. We talk about creating jobs at the Amazon Center, far over beyond East Baltimore,but without saying that 90% of the people who take jobs in such a place depend on public transportation, and 90% of those people are more than 90 minutes each way from getting to that job. This significantly impacts a community’s ability to thrive, when huge numbers of their people can’t even be in the community because they’re spending such a significant amount of time traveling to and from everywhere they need to go.
Lisa McCray: To make these changes, to add bike lanes, to make it more walkable, to decentralize cars, is that going to be expensive?
Ryan Dorsey: No, it’s super cheap stuff to do. One of the things we can do, probably all over the city, is what’s referred to as a road diet. Just scaling down the number of travel lanes for cars to make designated space for buses and for bikes, so that those modes become safe and more efficient, so that more people begin to use them and fewer people using their cars. You can do a mile of a road diet for only about $45,000.
The complete streets elements, if you’re just, say, repaving a whole road, they might add only … the research shows that about 3% to the total cost of the project, but when you then take into account the savings in healthcare costs for people who live in the community, the savings of insurance payouts for property damage from crashes that are enticed by dangerous cars, when you take into account the potential to put vacant spaces back onto the city’s tax rolls because they then become viable business places, when you take into account the employability that you create for these small, small investments, it a real win, and there are huge pools of money available for just that and nothing but that. It’s really a matter of just having-
Lisa McCray: Grant money.
Ryan Dorsey: Grant money from the federal government and from the state government, and it’s not even necessarily all transportation oriented. There’s money available to do this stuff through health-based grants, and then there are other ways of coordinating city funding to make this stuff happen, because DPW has stormwater to address in that way, and an incentive from the federal government to reduce impermeable surface. When they’re spending money to improve these things, that can be coordinated and cover some of the cost of these transportation improvements. There are ways that this stuff can be funded really easily, without taking anything away from our tax payers in Baltimore City, and it’s really just a potential boon for return on investment.
Lisa McCray: All right. Well, thank you very much.
Ryan Dorsey: Thanks Lisa.
Lisa McCray: Thank you very much for watching The Real News Network.