Baltimore’s first transit equity analysis seeks to guide federal money to the city’s long-neglected ‘Black Butterfly’

The maps of Baltimore in a new study of transit equity remind Lawrence Brown of the infamous 1930s residential security map segregating the city’s neighborhoods by race and redlining Black residents into the areas east and west of downtown.

The analysis by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition shows different city neighborhoods’ access to transit as well as social vulnerability, pollution and health. The darkest colors represent the areas of greatest need.

“The patterns are unmistakable,” said Brown, author of “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America,” which examines the ongoing effects of redlining and other racist policies.

“Just knowing Baltimore’s history and seeing a lot of maps, it’s not surprising,” he said. “But it’s reflecting just how much the city’s legacy of racial hyper-segregation shows up in so many different areas.”

In Baltimore, where about one in three people lacks access to a car, the report concluded that public transit “often fails to get people to their destinations in a reasonable amount of time.” The analysis called insufficient service “especially concerning” due to the high concentration of low-income, minority riders, “many of whom during the COVID-19 pandemic were classified as ‘essential workers.’”

As Baltimore and other areas of the country prepare to receive and distribute historic levels of federal transportation funding, the authors of the “Transit Equity & Environmental Health in Baltimore” report hope it won’t just identify the areas of Baltimore facing the biggest challenges.

Instead, the officials hope to use the information to direct incoming federal money to the neighborhoods most desperate for it.

“There’s a lot of opportunities to spend these dollars wisely,” said Megan Weil Latshaw, an environmental health researcher at the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Latshaw and Samuel Jordan, who co-authored the analysis, said the report represents a first for Baltimore — and is one of the first of its kind to be published anywhere in the country.

“Not only to do just transit equity, but also to look at pollution and health, and try to think about it from a systems perspective, offers a unique way to help drive policy through evidence,” Latshaw said. “The goal is, if we can, to target investments where they’re needed the most.”

Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, an advocacy group, said viewing public transit “through an equity and environmental health lens” provides a fuller view of the disparities between neighborhoods and the significant need for investment.

“We saw lots of inequity along racial and ethnic lines, and lots of opportunity to better serve all the people in this city,” Jordan said. “It identifies the communities most in need of investments and/or interventions and mitigation.”

Jordan said he hopes leaders in the region will use the report as a guide and consult him and Latshaw as they search for solutions to address the needs.

Jordan, among the fiercest critics of Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to cancel the $2.9 billion east-west Baltimore Red Line light rail project, wants Baltimore to have its own regional transit authority to replace the state-owned Maryland Transit Administration, which is controlled by the governor.

Hogan’s 2015 decision to halt the project, which would have served neighborhoods of primarily Black and brown residents, and instead fund highway projects serving the primarily white surrounding counties, “exacerbated disparities in access to jobs and other destinations based on race,” the report said.

The map that least resembles Baltimore’s Black Butterfly might be the one showing air pollution, Latshaw said.

“The air pollution data is so sparse we really couldn’t even see many patterns because the EPA only has three air pollution monitors in the state,” she said. “And so trying to model what air pollution is like at the neighborhood or census tract level is virtually impossible.”

An estimated 40% of air pollution comes from the transportation sector, said Jordan, stressing that local and state officials’ promises to fight climate change must hinge on improving transit if they are to be kept.

“You’ve got to bring them under control, and you’ve got to know where those communities are, because you’re going to do more than simply express your concerns,” Jordan said. “There’s action that can be taken, relief for these communities, many of which are historically overly burdened and underserved.”

The report said it “indicates the potential need for greater investments in transit” in the neighborhoods concentrated in the Black Butterfly.

“An efficient transit system provides access to things like health care and healthy food and jobs and education,” Latshaw said. “If we want to lift up society through all of these things, then we can do it by investing in transit.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said generations of policy decisions in “the birthplace of redlining,” as he called the city, created stark inequality — particularly in West and East Baltimore.

The Democratic mayor said devoting funding to transit will be critical to improving the region’s buses, subway, light rail and MARC train for Baltimore residents, workers and visitors.

“Baltimoreans deserve a transit system designed to accommodate their needs first,” Scott said in a statement. “Investing in equitable transportation infrastructure is paramount to ensuring residents in our historically-redlined neighborhoods can effectively and reliably get around town.”

Don Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional business advocacy group that favors improved transit, said in an email that the analysis “is worthy of serious consideration as short- and long-range plans are developed for public transportation in Baltimore City.”

Investing more in equitable transit will give residents and neighborhoods most affected by poverty, disinvestment and lack of transportation options “greater access to reliable, fast transportation to jobs, health care, workforce training opportunities and day-to-day activities,” Fry said.

“Ensuring efficient and reliable transportation access is a proven generational pathway out of poverty while enhancing job and career advancement,” Fry continued. “This study confirms, once again, that the need for improved transportation access must be a high-priority diversity and equity goal for Baltimore City, working in tandem with elected leaders and transportation officials, to attain in the near future.”