Baltimore City, Maryland’s school-age population is roughly 90,000, with about 185 public or charter schools that enroll based on neighborhood, academic criteria, school choice, lottery, or specialization. The mix of school types and enrollment practices in Baltimore City means greater opportunities for students regardless of their home address or lack thereof. However, much of the opportunity brought on by school choice is diminished by persistent shortfalls in transportation options for students. Yellow bus service may be provided to students of certain elementary schools, while others receive an S-Pass for public transit or taxi vouchers. Others receive nothing.
On any given school day in Baltimore City there are well over 500 buses on the road at one time. The Maryland Transit Administration operates at least 50 bus routes of differing lengths and frequencies, creating a web-like pattern in and around the city, which contains 600,000 people spread across 80 square miles of land. Relatively limited metro, light rail, and commuter rail services are available, but ultimately the bus system carries the greatest weight due to inadequate infrastructure for rail, bikes, or other modes of transportation. If students had access to a clean, safe, and reliable transit system, they might experience the many benefits attributed to youth who use public transit. Benefits include healthier and happier students who are connected to their communities and more likely to become the transit advocates of the future.
Unfortunately, Baltimore and other cities such as Boston and San Francisco have transit systems with imperfections, even the smallest of which can exacerbate the abundant stressors challenging city students. In Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray and the heavily publicized riot that followed has sparked discussion about historic and present-day issues in the context of race and social justice. Specific topics include: housing, crime, policing, architecture, design, and many more, all of which have shaped Baltimore over the years. Baltimore’s youth are in need of better opportunities, and transportation access continues to emerge as a weak link.
Before the protests and rioting, I’d heard city planners, teachers, students, civic hackers, and community leaders all express concern for students relying on public transit. Even MTA engaged with students on transit issues through various channels. Free bikes were suggested as a way to encourage active transportation to school, but this suggestion would prove impractical in a city where very few safe routes exist for cyclists of any age. Student-focused ridesharing applications were mocked up at a local hackathon. A lot of ideas are floating around on web sites and social media, but so far no observable action has been taken.
In the aftermath of protests, the problems facing city kids are gaining more attention and potentially gaining more advocacy for those willing to create solutions. Unfortunately, the driving forces behind students’ transportation challenges continue.
Maryland’s Department of Planning reports that the recent recession closed several parochial schools and public schools in Baltimore. As a result, Baltimore City has experienced a recent uptick in public school enrollment, a trend expected to continue for several years. Baltimore may see a reversal of its previous efforts to reduce school sizes and buses may get a little more crowded if the city’s problems continue to outpace implementable ideas.
What kind of solutions do you think civic hackers or urban planners can use to relieve the stressors of students in transit? What student transportation fixes have been executed in your community? Share your thoughts and city's stories in the comments area below.
Images by Jade Clayton. Map created using ArcGIS® software by Esri. ArcGIS® and ArcMap™ are the intellectual property of Esri and are used herein under license. Copyright © Esri. All rights reserved. Data linked to sources.