It’s still time for Carroll County to get on the bus

Carroll County’s newly-elected, all-Republican Board of Commissioners has been taking strong positions on a number of issues—one of which, the Baltimore Sun reports, is mass transit for the county:

“We don’t want subways or metro buses,” said Richard Rothschild, one of the new commissioners. “They are conduits for crime. That’s not politically correct, but it is factually substantiated.”

In rural communities—the kinds of places where people “mow [their] grass with tractors”—it’s entirely true that local bus service is logistically difficult, and often infeasible, because of the low density. Light rail, too, is unlikely to ever work in these places. But that doesn’t mean that transit and rural communities don’t mix. On the contrary, public transit can do a lot in rural communities to make commutes faster, easier and more environmentally friendly, while reducing road congestion.

The issue of transit in Carroll County is not at all a new one; in 2007 the Baltimore Sun’s Michael Dresser reported on bus bays at the Owings Mills Metro station which had “gone unused for 20 years”. These bus bays were originally intended for commuter bus routes serving destinations including Carroll County, which never came to fruition. As the Sun reported then, many Carroll County residents already commute to Baltimore, along roads which Dresser described as “a minor league version of Los Angeles”. Carroll County was—and is—growing, and Dresser’s prescription was commuter bus service, like MTA Maryland already operates to many destinations. It was, he said, “[t]ime for Carroll to get on the bus”. Four years later—and twenty-four years after those bus bays were built—it is still time for Carroll County to get on the bus, so to speak.

Of course, the commissioners also brought out the old trope about transit and crime; unfortunately, the facts do not support their position. A UCLA study found that transit stations were not likely to have higher crime rates than the surrounding neighborhood:

In general, transit stations are no more unsafe than city streets or other public places. In fact, if we consider only serious crime, rail stations are safer than many city streets, because of the high rates of police deployment.

The myth of criminal activity migrating from urban areas to suburban ones along transit routes—the notion of a transit system as a ‘conduit for crime’—was not borne out. Instead, the study found that one of the major factors in transit crime was not the presence of transit itself, or the kinds of people using transit services, but rather the built environment: “Dark, and desolate parking areas under the freeway projected a feeling of lack of safety. Smaller parking lots that were well integrated to their surrounding context and were visible from the adjacent sidewalks had fewer incidents of crime.”

In short, it’s reasonable for the people of Carroll County to make sure that they get the right kind of transit service for their needs, and to make sure that it is well-designed, well-built, and rider-friendly. A new commuter bus service, for example, should come along with well-built park-and-rides which are designed for safety and usability, rather than the “dark and desolate parking areas” of the UCLA study. But categorically dismissing transit out of misplaced fears is a bad idea, both for Carroll County and the region as a whole.