Raychel Santo was both a Johns Hopkins University alumnus and employee in 2018 when she decided to tackle the inequity she saw in her employer’s free shuttle system.
It “weighed on her” that the free shuttle wasn’t convenient for a lot of Santo’s coworkers, many of whom would pay for transit that brought them to the North Baltimore campus from less-connected, more remote parts of the city.
But how could she — just one person — push such a large, powerful institution to change? Signing up for Transportation 101 was a start.
The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy initiative of the Baltimore Community Foundation, is offering a free, six-week course called Transportation 101. The class aims to deepen participants’ understanding of regional transportation issues and how they affect their lives.
“Transportation 101 will develop community leaders that are poised to enhance communities and people’s lives by cultivating a healthy, resilient and more sustainable lifestyle by supporting transit, active transportation and increased access,” says the course’s online information page.
“The process of transportation decision making can be opaque and intimidating for average citizens,” said Eric Norton, director of policy and programs for the CMTA.
Norton and his colleagues want to arm interested area residents with more knowledge and connect them with each other.
“Our hope is that Transportation 101 helps us all raise our voices together to challenge the status quo and push for new transportation goals that will connect and improve our neighborhoods, promote inclusive economic growth, give us real choices and protect the environment,” Norton said.
In addition to lectures on the history of the region’s transportation landscape, Q&As with local transportation officials and field trips, the weekly, three-hour sessions offer participants a chance to develop their own action plans to better engage their communities.
The Hopkins shuttle was the focus of Santo’s plan. The course helped her design a survey that allowed her to better gauge how other JHU employees took transit, where they were coming from, and whether workers who relied on cars would swap their drive for transit if it were a reliable option. CMTA also leveraged its connections to introduce Santo to Hopkins’ transportation director.
“It gave me the tools to transition from being a regular pedestrian and public transit user to an advocate,” said Santo, a food and climate researcher who recently left JHU for another employer.
The course helped nudge Santo to write an op-ed for The Baltimore Sun in which she argued that Hopkins and UMBC should subsidize MTA rides for their employees.
And four years later, Hopkins is doing just that. She thinks her advocacy helped get the conversation going.
“Everyone there was so passionate about having better transportation infrastructure, and it was contagious,” Santo said of the CMTA course and her fellow classmates.
The different backgrounds and perspectives in the room helped her understand how transportation and mobility are cornerstones of life, and that people experience them in such different ways because of their unique needs.
“You walk away feeling really invigorated,” Santo said.
Danielle Sweeney certainly did, too. After participating in the first Transportation 101 course, she later went on to work for the organization. After she started having more trouble seeing at night, Sweeney began driving less and relying on transit more. Her action plan focused on pushing the MTA to be more forthcoming with reliability issues — her drop in a larger advocacy bucket that eventually led to MTA making their data publicly available.
“It wasn’t just complaining about bad service, but learning how to have one-on-ones with officials,” said Sweeney, who noted that the course helped her feel more empowered to hold individuals and institutions accountable.
Santo knows that the professionals who run the MTA and similar agencies are “more than capable” of fulfilling their roles, but noted that other perspectives are necessary to make transportation systems work for everyone.
“We need the citizen voice to really move change. … but we need people on the ground to share their experience to elucidate what’s not working,” Santo said.
The six-week Transportation 101 course is free and online registration closes Sept. 15. The CMTA has offered the course since 2017 and roughly 200 people have taken it.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.