Grass-roots transportation

May 19, 2010|By Chris Dunnett

This essay is selected from the work of Johns Hopkins University freshmen in the course "B'more Innovative: Studying Change Through Charm City." The course explored how ideas and innovations spread through society using case studies associated with Baltimore (e.g., Johns Hopkins Medicine, Project Love — Baltimore, The Afro Newspapers, B&O Railroad). The final assignment required students to propose an innovative project and describe how they would spread or "diffuse" it. These essays summarize key concepts from several proposals. Additional essays are at The student authors invite you to read and comment on their proposals. Michael Reese, the course instructor, is the associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Educational Resources and a doctoral student in sociology.

A social innovation, rather than a material innovation, is most needed in order to press for smart, efficient transportation in Baltimore. While Baltimore is proudly a city of neighborhoods, disadvantaged communities are often isolated from one another. This poses obstacles to accessing employment, educational opportunities and shopping districts.

Anyone who has lived in this city will attest that its public transportation leaves something to be desired. The public buses are the most extensive transportation system in the city, but they are often late and serve as a poor method of transportation for those needing reliable service. Although the metro subway is somewhat more reliable than the buses, there is only one line. Also, on some ground-level sections of the metro, the tracks can physically separate neighborhoods rather than integrate them. The same is true for sections of the Baltimore light rail trains, which offer limited service and are often delayed. Neighborhood groups expressed similar concerns when transportation modes were debated for the proposed east-west Red Line.

A small but diverse grass-roots organization — including college professors, students, professionals and typical city residents — can play a crucial role in advocating for smart, efficient transportation. The city's colleges could take a leading role in encouraging positive changes in transportation. Engineering professors and students, in cooperation with local engineering professionals, could examine the technological requirements for extensive and efficient mass transit, recommending technologically feasible proposals.

Similarly, social scientists could advocate the social benefits of better transportation. Economists and sociologists could demonstrate the costs and benefits of improved mobility. Political scientists could examine the politics of the city and advance the public interest through the most efficient channels. Public health professionals could focus on the improved access to nutritious foods that better transportation would bring to lower-income residents. News outlets and community organizers could help to diffuse dialogue and motivate change.

Ordinary Baltimore residents would play the most pivotal role by raising awareness about their transportation needs. Residents need to spread awareness through friends, peers, posters, fliers, and online through blogs and websites. The movement would require active participation from the diverse residents of Baltimore in order to succeed.

These Baltimore residents, representing diverse backgrounds and professions, could work together to brainstorm transportation solutions for the city. For example, the group could advocate for a resurrection of the Baltimore streetcar system. They could investigate whether a street-level trolley system is less invasive and costly than an expanded metro system. Members could also research how a trolley system could replicate the positive aspects of the light rail system, while avoiding the negative. The Charles Street Trolley Corporation is an example of an advocacy group such as this in action.

Another possible innovation could be developing a website that tracks the location of buses and trains. Commuters or MTA operators could update the website by posting the locations of transportation vehicles via text messaging or other mobile communication devices. Computer and media experts could work together to enable the website to effectively track trains and buses. Riders could subscribe to receive text messages or Twitter tweets tracking their preferred mode of transportation.

The organization would need some direction from the founders of the movement but would hopefully take on a more grass-roots character as its ideas are diffused.

Contributing to this article was James Harris, who suggested using social media to monitor the location of transportation vehicles.

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