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Dude, Where’s My Car?

Abell Foundation Report Says Baltimore Has Worst Carlessness Rate in America

Ken Royster
GOING NOWHERE FAST: Without cars, the Abell Foundation reports, 32 percent of the city's population must take unreliable public transportation or resort to unlicensed "hack" taxis.

By R. Darryl Foxworth | Posted 2/15/2006

“I’d be lost without my car,” says Carl Balser, chief of transportation planning for Howard County. “It’s tough [not having a car] in our car culture.”

Yet there are more than 200,000 residents of Baltimore City who don’t have access to a car. They are, as Balser describes it, “lost.” Not only is it harder for them to get around the city, but it’s also difficult for them to get to work. They must seek jobs along bus routes or pay for taxis to get to jobs, and they often have to pass up opportunities for higher-paying jobs that are located beyond city limits.

According to the November-December 2005 edition of The Abell Report, a monthly newsletter published by the Baltimore-based philanthropic Abell Foundation, Baltimore is home to 205,544 citizens who don’t have access to an automobile. To put things into perspective, that’s 32 percent of the city’s population—a number six percentage points higher than the number of New Orleans residents who were without access to cars right before Hurricane Katrina. It has been widely acknowledged that a significant number of New Orleanians could not readily evacuate the city during the hurricane because they lacked auto access.

“Data show that if a disaster like Katrina had hit Baltimore,” the report notes, “there would be a harsh replay of New Orleans. That is because of all American cities, outside of the mass transit-rich New York region, Baltimore is the American city with the highest percentage of people without access to a car.”

Upon being told of these statistics, Balser expresses surprise, though he acknowledges, “I knew it was bad.”

And he would know: For the past seven years, Balser has been trying to make it so that city residents without cars have better access to out-of-city job opportunities. He is part of a program in Howard County that partners city residents looking for work with county businesses in need of employees. For many of these workers, arrangements must be made to provide them with a way to get to work. Howard County has two programs in place to assist them: Work on Wheels (WOW), funded by Howard County and the state Department of Social Services, and Job Access and Reverse Commute, a federally funded program. Both programs use buses to drive city residents to several drop-off points in the county. If those drop-off points are still too far for them to get to work, the programs will get them free rides on Howard Transit, the county’s public-transportation agency.

Some private companies, such as the Giant Food warehouse in Jessup, provide commuting assistance to employees as well. These efforts to help the carless get to work are important, says Nona Williams, senior career development case manager for the Center for Fathers, Families, and Workforce Development, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that provides city residents with skills to achieve success in the work force. She says that workers without access to cars are often forced to accept lower-paying jobs than people who drive. “They cannot earn a livable wage” without a car, Williams says.

Howard County’s transportation program gives some city residents a better shot at making a living, but there are still thousands not involved in the program who are struggling to make do without a vehicle in an automobile-dominated culture.

In the October-November 2005 issue of Washington Monthly magazine, Margy Waller, a former fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, wrote, “There is reason to believe that not having a car isn’t just a consequence of poverty—it’s a barrier to escaping it.” The story noted that only 15 percent of Maryland’s jobs are located in cities, while low-wage job opportunities in the suburbs are expanding. Therefore, a growing number of low-wage workers must rely on public transportation, hack cabs, or taxis. But each of these options can present problems for people who must use them.

Public transportation in the Baltimore area, especially to outlying areas in the counties, can be unreliable. Some students from the Center for Fathers, Families, and Workforce Development, Williams says, found themselves unable to get to work when the Maryland Transit Administration made changes to its bus lines and discontinued service to Sparrows Point last fall. Many of them resorted to hack cabs or taxis to get to work, but hacks can be dangerous and taxis are expensive. Being dependent on these methods of transportation, she says, can be more than just inconvenient.

“It creates low self-esteem in our young gentlemen,” she says. “And it’s dangerous for women who have to take hacks or walk to their job.”

According to The Abell Report, the costs of obtaining a license, vehicle, insurance, and inspection are too high for many of Baltimore’s lowest-income residents. Maryland requires new drivers, no matter their age, to log 60 hours of driving lessons before they can obtain licenses, and Williams says the fees for instruction can range from $250 to $300. Car insurance premiums in the city are also high—on average, Baltimore city residents pay premiums that are 60 percent higher than those paid by Baltimore County residents and 80 percent higher than those paid by Carroll County residents. And even within the city’s boundaries, premiums for those living in low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods are higher than in more affluent white neighborhoods. For example, The Abell Report notes, in 2001 residents of ZIP code 21217, which is predominantly black, paid an average of $385 more than residents of the mostly white 21210 ZIP code.

Further, the state Child Support Enforcement Administration, in conjunction with the Motor Vehicle Administration, can suspend the driver’s licenses of people who are 60 or more days behind in their child-support payments. Between 1996 and ’03, 55,000 licenses in the city were suspended. Restricted licenses that can be used only to drive to and from work are available, the Abell report notes, but many people are not aware that they can apply for them. Williams says the state is “shooting itself in the foot” by implementing this child-support rule: People who lose their licenses may lose their means of transportation to work, and therefore will have a harder time making child-support payments.

The Abell report suggests that the city and state governments should make some meaningful changes to its motor-vehicle regulations to make car ownership and driver’s licenses more accessible to low-income individuals. In The Abell Report, the organization suggests changes to insurance laws to make mandatory insurance more affordable, implementation of an alternative driver-education program that would be affordable for people of all incomes, and possible elimination of the driving-lesson requirement for license applicants over 18.

“We’re one of two states in the country that requires that all adults, regardless of age, undergo the” driving instruction rule, says Melanie Styles, program officer for work-force development at the Abell Foundation. “I think with legislators they are looking at teenage drivers, and how can we reduce teen accidents and how can we make roads safer. And that makes sense. But when you then expand it to all drivers, and you don’t have any evidence to show that it has an effect for all drivers, it doesn’t make sense. . . . It’s an incredible cost and an incredible barrier, and who is benefiting here? [The law is] assuming that every first-time driver is young.”

The Abell report and Williams both say it would also be beneficial to see more encouragement of progressive programs that put affordable vehicles in the hands of those who need them most. For example, the Abell Foundation helps fund Vehicles for Change, a program that makes reliable used cars available to low-income families for far less than retail value. For about $70 per month, participants in the program can get a used car, for which Vehicles for Change offers a six-month warrantee. But the program is limited and can only help a fraction of the city’s carless population.

“We’ve been funding [Vehicles for Change] since its inception,” Styles says. Since 1999, she says, the program has sold an average of 45 cars per year to families in the city. It would be nice, she says, if it could provide assistance to many more.

“There are many people that can’t wait for the public-transportation system to be as effective as we need it to be,” she says. “What do we do about all of these people who don’t have the same access [to private transportation] that many middle-class people have access to? I mean, that’s how I got to work today. I didn’t take public transportation. I drove my car.”

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