Following a three-year hiatus, Central Maryland Regional Transit (CMRT) revived its annual Transportation Summit this year with a May conference themed “Mobility Matters: Connecting People to Life.”
This year’s event showcased innovative solutions to public transit challenges and highlighted Mobility Management programs throughout the region. It also afforded transit providers, service professionals, employers and consumers the chance to communicate and create collaborations aimed at bridging gaps in the existing regional transit system.
“There needs to be an effort to improve the coordination and communication between the various entities [in the region],” said Howard County Office of Transportation Administrator John Powell, who spoke at the event. “The transportation challenges in Central Maryland are significant. … If we continue to operate in silos, in 10 years we can be having this conference and have the same conversation.”
CMRT Executive Director Stephen Harrison acknowledged that mobility management “is a bit of a mystery” to many, equating to more of an art than a science.
Harrison cited a Brookings Institute report, titled “Building From Strength: Creating Opportunity in Baltimore’s Next Economy” that illustrates the challenge facing workers in the region who rely on mass transit.
“Public transportation allows them to connect to only about half of all the jobs in the metropolitan area and just under half of all the middle-skill jobs within a 90-minute timeframe,” he said. “Low-income suburban residents have it far worse, as they can reach less than 28% of all metropolitan area jobs within 90 minutes via public transit and only about 23% of middle-skill jobs … [in] the best case rush hour scenario.”
Those who use public transportation while attempting to cope with some level of disability, as an older adult, with children in tow or with a limited command of English face even more formidable challenges, he said.
Brian O’Malley, executive director of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (CMTA), reported on the variety of gaps identified in the regional transit network, as well as ongoing improvements being undertaken by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA).
“A key factor is that jobs continue to grow more outside Baltimore City than inside,” he said, particularly at Arundel Mills, Fort Meade and in the BWI Business District.
A broader survey of 23 of the largest job clusters throughout Maryland revealed that these areas covered just 1% of the state’s land area, but represented more than 42% of all jobs, 20% of all auto trips and nearly 40% of all transit trips in the state.
“They are important growth engines with 21% of new startups and nearly one-third of new jobs [in 2008 and 2009, when the survey was taken],” O’Malley said. “That’s a great place to start: Can we connect people to those centers and reinforce the dynamic that’s happening there?”
The good news, he said, is that existing MARC, Central Light Rail, Baltimore Metro Subway and WMATA Metro System rail lines already bring commuters into proximity with these locations. “When you get closer, though, you encounter the last mile issue,” O’Malley said.
Driving the message home is a joint study sponsored by the BWI Business Partnership and CMTA. That study found that the commute time for workers traveling to the district or Fort Meade from Glen Burnie and Elkridge, only 15 minutes away by car, ranges from five to nine times as long when taking public transit.
“A study done last year by the Opportunity Collaborative in Baltimore … found that 82% of job seekers face three or more access barriers simultaneously,” O’Malley said.
A greater emphasis on transit-oriented development could help, he suggested, as could supporting expansion of the commuter tax benefit to help both employers and employees afford the cost of shuttles to close the gaps.
Locally, a new Fort Meade gate near a MARC station, combined with the addition of bike lanes and sidewalks along Route 175, have greatly improved access to the installation, O’Malley said.
“We’re long overdue for an update to our bus routes,” he said. “Where jobs are today is quite different from where they were decades ago. We need to adapt if we want to get value out of that money we’re already spending to run a bus system.”
Michael Walk, director of service development for the MTA, acknowledged that improvements in structural, temporal, informational and financial gaps could greatly benefit commuters. “We’ve been going through a process of reevaluating the system under the brand of the Bus Network Improvement Project,” he said.
Phase One of that plan, released in June 2014, is currently under review. “There’s a lot of new administration that has to be brought up to speed on what we’ve done so far, and if that’s in line with the current fiscal situation the state is facing,” he said. “It’s uncertain at this point when the next projects are going to come out.”
In the meantime, however, the MTA has focused on a few easy fixes. “We’re … trying to figure out what we can do right away with current resources,” he said.
In one example, the MTA was able to add early morning service seven days a week to a bus line serving BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and Arundel Mills — after the BWI Business Partnership demonstrated committed ridership by standing up its own Sunrise Shuttle to serve workers without access to transportation.
“Bigger infrastructure issues need to be addressed, as do better connections between MARC and local bus service identified during our planning work,” Walk said.
Philosophy of Coordination
Improved coordination between nonprofit organizations could help to fill some of the gaps, said Nicky Pires, regional transit coordinator of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland. In her jurisdiction, multiple nonprofits serve the same aging population with separate assets. “Maryland could do a better job governing its policies, so we don’t have [service redundancy],” she said.
Keynote Speaker Judy Shanley, director of the National Center for Mobility Management (administered by the Easter Seals), has observed a nationwide trend in which partnerships between a diverse range of stakeholders and non-traditional organizations are starting to provide more options for public transit commuters. “We’re seeing travel options really expand,” she said. “Demand for transportation is increasing, but we don’t have the resources, so demand is necessitating us to be innovative and creative about the options we provide.”
She also reported on a new initiative called Rides to Wellness, which was established under the federal secretary of transportation. “The thinking … is there needs to be better coordination between health and transportation,” Shanley said. “Too many people in our country are not accessing primary health care.”
The new program could enable more people to keep follow-up appointments and access treatment and prevention services to avoid unnecessary hospital stays that influence the bottom line of health care costs. A similar state program in Missouri provides a health mobility manager to coordinate transportation for low-income patients who lack mobility access.
“That’s the innovation we’re seeking,” Shanley said. “There’s not one right model of mobility management. It’s a person, a system and a philosophy of coordination.”