Delegate Robbyn Lewis believes we’re valuing the wrong things like how fast cars can move instead of how healthy our communities are. She shares her advocacy story and what she’s doing now in the Maryland House of Delegates to ensure that our streets are places of community, not division.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Lewis: Robbyn Lewis
Cohen: Welcome to The Movement podcast. This is Josh Cohen, and welcome to my cohost L’erin Jensen.
Jensen: Hey, Josh.
Cohen: This is the first show that we’ve hosted together, and we’ve got a great one with Delegate Robbyn Lewis from the Maryland House of Delegates. L’erin, you ready?
Jensen: I’m ready. Let’s go.
F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: Our guest today is Robbyn Lewis who represents the 46th legislative district in the Maryland House of Delegates. Her district includes part of Baltimore where she has lived for over 20 years. She is also the only car-free legislator in Maryland, relying on public transit, biking, and walking, which she believes helps her connect her to the reality of her fellow Baltimore residents, 30% of whom don’t own a private vehicle. Welcome to The Movement, Delegate Lewis.
Lewis: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Cohen: You know, I mentioned earlier this is the first episode that L’erin is joining us for, so I’m excited. L’erin, welcome.
Jensen: Thank you; thank you. I’m excited to be here.
Cohen: Well, good. Well, we’re going to have a good conversation today. Let’s start with this. You know, there is a line on your campaign website. And what I love is that you talk about the advocating for building modern transit and quality, equitable housing in Baltimore, and so here is the quote here. “These are not costs; they’re investments that will deliver demonstrable returns in the form of good jobs, social vibrancy, economic vitality, and human health for decades to come,” end quote. And, you know, I guess I was kind of reflecting on that.
And, you know, obviously there’s a ton of research. You’re a public health expert; that’s kind of your background, your academic background. And so, you know, there’s a ton of research on all this stuff, so I guess I’m kind of trying to understand from the perspective of we know all these things and yet why—what’s it going to take to get us over this hump to view housing and transit as the true community investments that they truly are? What’s it going to take to get us so that everyone just kind of accepts that?
Lewis: Yeah, to get us where we need to be, to get us where we could be as the richest country that’s ever existed in human history. You know, there are—[SIGHS]—that’s a great question. We could spend the whole segment talking just about that. There really are some structural and cultural impediments that prevent us from really investing in the things that human beings in this country need to live to their potential, to experience good health and all of the things that we want, social connection and all the productivity. But the impediments that are structural include—and I’ll be dead-honest here—the incentives we’ve built into our capitalist system.
They’re baked in, things like preferential subsidies for highway building as opposed to transit investment; preferential policies, whether it’s zoning or laws that privilege car ownership over non-car ownership. It’s even the case that there are Supreme Court decisions that have made it really difficult to argue or to prove that investment in transit and walkability are worthwhile. And it’s very hard to fight that, so there are [ph][3:53] structural problems. We can dismantle those by electing people who will fight to make the changes that are required and reconfiguring the incentive structures so that we really put our resources where we get the biggest return.
We get much more return for every dollar we spend on transit than on road building. I actually got into a little bit of a conversation with a state official at one of our state agencies when I mentioned in passing—I said, “Oh, it’d make a lot more sense, if we have limited resources. One dollar invested in transit returns four dollars in economic productivity, economic activity.” And this particular official tried to argue with me. “That’s not true. No it doesn’t.” So there’s a psychological block there. It’s not just a lack of information, but that’s an ideology. So if we switch the incentives—we can’t change people’s attitudes. You can’t legislate changes of heart, but you can reform incentive structures.
So why not—where’s what I would love to do. Okay, there’s two things I would love to do to change incentives. I would love to subsidize walking, transit use, and biking the same way we subsidize car ownership. I would love to make parking available at a market rate. That’s car storage. I’m looking out my living room window right now, and I can see, you know, all these trees that I helped to plant as well as cars. We’ve got angle parking now because car storage was more important, you know. But we make car storage on our public rights-of-way free. Let’s change that. In places where we have rules that allow us to create parking permits, residential parking permit programs or entertainment district parking, you know, whatever, we should really do that everywhere. It’s just a fact. Something like 60%—60, 70, up to 80% of the land surface in the average city is given over to car storage. That’s insane. That’s a NACTO statistic; it’s not something I made up. So anyway, let’s pay for what we care about.
I would love to make SUV ownership more expensive. In places where they do that—like, I’m thinking of Singapore where car ownership in general is so expensive because the state charges you for the purchasing a vehicle, and they use that money to invest in transit. So we could do that. That would be an incentive. We could also change the requirement, like, at the federal level. Federal transportation dollars are sent to states with a kind of carte blanche. It’s said that these federal dollars should be dedicated to transportation, but the states can then spend those dollars however they want. The feds should say, “You must devote 40% of these federal transportation dollars to transit, walking, and biking.” And I’d love to see those changes happen, and I’d love to give every person who doesn’t own a car a tax break. You know? That’s an incentive.
And then the second thing I want to do is just reward people for doing the right thing, make it easy for people to do the right thing. Some of that will involve changes in culture, like I mentioned. We are the offspring of an ideology that we did not choose, and that ideology was reinforced over the last few generations to prioritize the convenience of car movement and vehicle movement over the health, safety, and wellbeing of humans. And that’s going to require a cultural shift that will take a generation. But until we change incentives we’re not going to get there. I do hope that more and more people who understand all this will begin to seek elected office and positions of policymaking leadership. Until there are more car-free state legislator or local elected officials, federal, we’re going to continue to replicate the system that we have.
Cohen: Mmm. I like that, and I like that you bring up the role of the local and state officials there too because I think about my commute to our office, which I haven’t done in six months now, but, you know, I could drive there in about 20 minutes if there’s no traffic, probably 30 minutes if there’s traffic. My transit trip plus my bike ride to the transit station is—uh—I guess, you know, probably 40 minutes or so. So, you know, not a big delta, but certainly enough. And I’m doing it because I’m a true believer. Right? But there’s not enough true believers out there until you start adjusting those incentives, as you said.
And if there’s an incentive to say, “Yeah, we’re using one whole lane of the Durham Freeway for bus priority, and everything else has to squeeze into one other lane or two other lanes,” that’s a pretty big—you know, I guess that’s a stick there and, I guess, the carrot on the other side with the bus, but, you know, I think that’s one way to do that. And until you do that from a legislative perspective I think we’re just going to get nibbling around the edges from the true believers ______________________________________________________ [9:26].
Lewis: Right. Well, there will never be enough true believers, and that’s why policy is so important. That’s why enlightened policy moved by enlightened and well-informed policymakers is the key. More than 50 years ago in this country we passed the Civil Rights Act. That law is really important and does some really useful things, but it didn’t turn everyone into a true believer for human rights; it didn’t transform racists into allies. And we’re still living in the aftermath of 400 years of history. It’s going to take a while.
But, you know, you said something that occurred to me, that in addition to changing incentives we need to do something that may be a little bit harder, and that’s valuing the benefits in the same way that we value convenience. In transportation engineering, the Holy Grail is level of service. Transportation engineers value level of service more than just about any other measure. Well, how about we value the benefit to human health? What if we said that for every 10 minutes of active transportation, you reduce healthcare costs by $100,000? You know, and if we did that then those who are not true believers, those who are motivated more by numbers, by quantitative abstract measurements of value could be moved. If we made human wellbeing profitable, like, if we incentivized it you don’t need to persuade anyone to believe what you believe. You use the levers of capitalism to get the outcomes that you want.
So that’s kind of subversive, and it requires a different way of measuring value, but I think we can do it. We put a rover on Mars. Like, we can figure this out. I don’t want to be the only car-free legislator. Let’s get some more elected officials who understand this stuff. I had a colleague ask me in, like, really genuinely sincere and sort of concern, said, “Why don’t you drive? Are you afraid? Do you know how to drive?” I’m American. I got my driver’s permit at 15 like every other freaking suburban child.
Lewis: And I know how to drive; I just choose not to. I’m lucky to live in a place where there’s, like, minimal alternative. It’s not great. It’s not New York City; it’s not D.C. I mean, our quality of transit, what we have is decent, but it’s not all that it could be in Baltimore city, but it’s enough that I can choose not to own a car. But I have colleagues that they literally—who are making transportation policy, by the way—who cannot imagine a world that doesn’t revolve around car ownership. It’s amazing.
Jensen: You know, you talked about we have a structural problem; and one of the huge part of that is the incentives to capitalism. So when I hear that, what I hear is that even in our transportation policy we value rich people over poor people. And that’s why so much of the funds goes to highways and roads instead of to public transit. So, with that said, I think that leads really good into the conversation about the Red Line and Red Line Now and how that played out. So Red Line is a transit line that was proposed back in—was it, like, 2002 or 2008 in Baltimore city?
Jensen: It would connect the other transit lines, the Red Line ________________________________________ [13:28] west through predominantly African American neighborhoods and would connect to other transit lines that help people reach the city where the majority of the jobs were. And for those of you who don’t know, Baltimore city is—the demographics are very different from Baltimore County. In Baltimore city there is a large African American population. In Baltimore County there is a large White population. So it was this huge process. It was estimated at, like, $1.62 billion dollars. Right? And it had been worked on for years.
And, I think, the state DOT was going to fund, like, $762 million dollars of it, and you guys received a grant from the federal government for $900 million to build the project. In 2015 after Governor Hogan was elected the Red Line got axed while the Purple Line down in Montgomery and PG County—Prince George’s County—he decided to keep it. And the funding from the Red Line, the state funding, was sent to fix roads in exurban and rural areas. So I just said a whole lot. [LAUGHTER]
Lewis: You did, but you set it up so well so that I don’t have to do the history. You did it much more clearly. The Red Line, which is, by the way, unfortunately named—I wish they’d called it the _________________________________________________________ [14:47] line or something—in Baltimore, which is the home of White supremacist residential segregation policy. That, those policies were invented, piloted, and scaled in this city. In a city where residential segregation is one of the organizing principles of civic life, the idea of building a light rail project that would have run east to west, that would have provided to opportunity for Black people was the most unimaginable threat to the city’s sort of racist consciousness. It was so threatening to the way that people imagine the city to be that an opposition campaign was mounted quickly, and that turned out to be quite relentless. And there was no countervailing voice. The opponents to transit investment in this city are grounded in a notion of racial segregation and mesmerized by an ideology of car supremacy that is hard to describe.
It’s beyond. Like, studied anthropology as an undergraduate, and I’ve lived and worked in over a dozen countries in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. I speak French fluently; I’m conversant in three other languages; I have been immersed in different cultures, and I have found a way to understand and identify everywhere I’ve ever been. But I could not—even with that training experience and flexibility of imagination, I could not put myself in the mindset of people who would oppose an opportunity, an investment that would have, first helped to repair the racial harm and racial breaches of historical nature, that would have generated billions of dollars of economic activity, that would have created 10,000 good jobs—and I’m not talking about short-term construction jobs; I’m talking about real jobs for transit operators or engineers and architects, for designers and maintenance workers—that would have transformed the economy not just of the city but the entire Baltimore region, including both city and county, as you refer to, L’erin, and beyond.
Central Maryland in its entirety would have benefitted. I could not get in the mindset of people who would object to that on the grounds that—and I’m going to tell you a true story—on the grounds that transit would enable, facilitate criminal activity by Black people, which is a—you know, it’s one of the—it’s like chapter eight in the racist handbook.
Lewis: And I’m sitting in that meeting with a dozen other community members who’d volunteered to help design the Highlandtown station when one of them who was a member of the clergy in his vestments who sat there and said, “Well, I’m still really not sure about this whole Red Line light-rail business because, you know, those people are just going to use it to come and steal our TVs.” And if I hadn’t been sitting and heard a clergyperson utter those words, I wouldn’t have believed it. I wouldn’t have imagined it was possible that someone who had taken oaths and devoted their life to protecting human souls could be motivated by such ignorance and hatred and stupidity. And they were on the stationary advisory committee; it wasn’t like they were out in the street. They were in the inner circle of people who had decided to participate in helping transform our community in our city. So that kind of hatred goes so deep.
I also did my best to interact with other opponents of the project. Let me go back and tell you a little bit about how it started. When I moved to Baltimore city in 1999, I’d been living overseas for about two years. I’d been living and working in Haiti, and so when I left Haiti, you know, I was still quite young, early in my career, two years out of grad school. All I really had was a sleeping bag and some books, and I moved to Baltimore without a car to take a job at Johns Hopkins, my dream job. I moved here; I assumed I was moving to a city where I wouldn’t need to own a car. It didn’t occur to me, honestly, moving to a major city on the East Coast, and I figured I could get around, get to work, get around, do what I needed without owning a car.
I found a little apartment within walking distance of my office at Hopkins and discovered pretty quickly that you could barely get groceries if you didn’t own a car in this town. So I lived for a few years without a car and then broke down and bought one, resenting it the entire time. What I learned years later about the light rail project that was coming—I thought, “I want to be involved in it. I want to be a part of this.” I was, at the time, leading a neighborhood-based, greening-and-sustainability movement; and when I heard about the light-rail project, I thought, “Transit is a greening—it’s a component of greening and sustainability and environmental response to climate change. I want to be at the table when we talk about this transit project.” So I volunteered.
And while I’m in the stationary advisory committee learning about the Red Line light-rail project, learning about the benefits and opportunities, I heard a very clear message from the MTA folks and the engineers and consultants who were educating us. And the message was this, “If there is not sufficient political will, this project may not get built.” And I couldn’t understand that. I’m like, “We’re [ph][21:28] sitting here. There are 14 stationary committees. There are hundreds of volunteers. We’re all here. The alignment has been chosen. The train cars are being selected. We’re designing the stations. What are you telling me this project might not get built?” And it was explained to me. At every level of a big infrastructure project there must be political will to secure the resources that are needed. So there was political will to get us through the design process, then there needed to be political will to get us through the engineering process and the environmental studies. At every level elected officials had a significant role in moving the project forward, elected officials at the local, state, and federal level.
So when they told me there was no political will, I couldn’t understand that, and I asked them, “What would it take to get the political will? Like, this is so awesome. This is so great. We need it, so what would it take to get the political will?” And I was told, “I don’t know,” like, “You know, you might have to do some work to figure that out.” And so I did. I decided that if political will was what was needed and was missing, I was going to do it because that’s who I am. I mean, I started a greening movement in my neighborhood. I was a Peace Corps volunteer. That’s what we do.
So I asked around, got some introductions to folks in Montgomery County who were running the Purple Line group called Purple Line NOW. And I’ll tell you; when I picked up the phone and called them, the gentleman Ralph Bennett who was a professor of architecture at University of Maryland at the time said to me, “You’re calling from Baltimore? We’ve been wondering where you were. We’ve been waiting for you guys. We’ve been fighting for the Purple Line for 20 years, and we never heard a peep from any advocate in Baltimore city on behalf of the Red Line. We’ve been waiting for you.”
I was also inspired by an article, an op-ed I read in the local paper that said, “If the people of Baltimore don’t step up and fight for the Red Line, they won’t get it.” Bad projects can get built just as easily as good, if they’re advocated for. We have a horrible highway project here called the Intercounty Connector, which is an extension of I-95, one of the most important highways in the country. And it’s a horrible thing that connects I-95 to something else, and it just makes more traffic. It’s disgusting. I don’t know how many miles and so how many acres of natural environment were destroyed for this nonsense. And it doesn’t save anyone time, of course. You build more lanes, you make more traffic. It’s idiotic.
Anyway, that project was opposed for years, but it finally was built because the people who wanted it built organized politically. They advocated to elected officials who had the power to make those decisions. They mobilized public sentiment. They wrote op-eds. They screamed and yelled. They got attention for their cause, and they got their horrible project done. And the op-ed that I read said, “If people who want the Red Line don’t organize the same way that folks who wanted the ICC organized, you’ll get nothing.” So I thought, “Yes. I’m going to organize.” I got myself into a political organizing workshop that was offered by a local group called Bridge, and I learned from Rev. David Casey how to do political organizing.
I made friends with other advocacy organizations like CASA de Maryland and others and got involved in, like, advocating for legislation, so I’ve learned how to do that, legislation to connect jobs to transit investment. And in following the model of the Purple Line NOW folks, I thought, “We really need to be organized. We need a group. I’m going to start an organization.” I looked around and realized that there were too many nonprofit organizations in Baltimore city already. We are choking with nonprofits and 501(c)(3)s in this town. I mean, it’s great, but it’s just too much, and there’s not enough political organizing and too much nonprofit organizing. So I thought, “What we need is a place at the policy table. I’m going to create a PAC.” So following my heroes in Purple Line NOW, I called the organization Red Line Now PAC, Red Line Now Political Action Committee, filed the paperwork with the State Board of Elections to create the organization.
It is the first and only organization in the State of Maryland dedicated to advocating for transit investment. And I got a ragtag group of my closest friends together, people who can’t say no. You know, every organizer [ph][26:08] needs a group of friends who can’t say no to help them with their pipedreams [ph][26:15]. So, you know, we put this thing together in 2011. Our goal was to influence legislation that would help the Red Line funding get passed. In 2013 the bill that was on the table was the state transportation funding bill, and it had provision that would have increased the gas tax whose revenues would have gone to fulfill the State of Maryland’s obligation to qualify for federal funding. And that was under Governor Martin O'Malley.
We did our small part, Red Line Now. We formed a partnership with Purple Line groups, Purple Line NOW, ACT committee for transit, and the Coalition For Smart Growth, the CMTA, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a couple other groups. I helped to create a regional transit advocacy entity, which had never existed. No one in Baltimore had ever participated in.
Lewis: You can’t—nobody here was organizing politically. They were all, like, you know, very well meaning and important nonprofits, but they don’t have the power, the freedom to speak politically. But, anyway, we did that, and we lobbied. I organized two lobby days. And at the time I was traveling internationally. I remember being in Thailand for my job and coordinating a conference call. And this is before Skype, guys. This was like—this was 2012, early 2013 and just to organize, like, how we’re going to do lobbying.
I organized all the lobby days. I organized lobbying visits to every elected official in Baltimore city whose district touched the Red Line corridor, and that meant council as well state representatives. And what I learned was that in Baltimore city there really was no political will. I talked to so many of the elected officials. There was a flabby indifference to the value of the project. There was a depth of ignorance of the importance of infrastructure investment. And there was just this lazy kind of mindlessness about the importance of building transit in the city, investing in transit. You guys, I can’t describe my horror and dismay.
At the city level there was not a single councilperson on the corridor who understood the value of the project who was willing to fight for it. I had a councilperson on the west side say to me, “Nobody wants it.” I had state officials tell me that it was going to be impossible in Annapolis to fund it. It’s too soon to tell you all the dumb things I heard. I’ll put it in my memoirs in 30 years because some people who said dumb things are still living and still out there working, and so make a decision. But what was horrifying was the opposition came in two colors. It came in Black and White, and it reflected the history of residential racial segregation.
On the east side there was opposition by folks who are White in a wealthy, waterfront community called Canton. And these folks are very well organized; they had money and contacts, and they were very loud and made [ph][29:47] really clear that what they wanted was to stop the Red Line from coming to the east side. They actually put out an alternative proposal that would have allowed the Red Line to be constructed, but it would have stopped before it reached the predominantly White area, which is where I live and where I actually represent.
On the west side of town, the predominantly African American communities on the west side that were created by the pilot racial segregation policies of the early 20th century, African Americans in some of those communities opposed the project because it reminded them—it was a recapitulation of other projects that had been proposed and designed to destroy their communities. There’s this thing called the Highway to Nowhere on the west side. It was part of a massive, interstate highway that was proposed and partly built. It sliced the west side in half, decimated communities, displaced thousands of businesses and thousands of homes, and it left a scar on the west side that’s both physical and psychic. It damaged the integrity of the communities, undermined their economies. The devastation continues to this day. But that project was stopped from coming to the east side by a well-organized and vocal group of White advocates. So they wanted to recapitulate the whole Highway to Nowhere story. “Yeah, build a Red Line over on the west side. _____________________________________________ [31:23] let it come over here.”
And the other thing that was interesting about the Black and the White opposition was neither understood that the Red Line was a project that would actually benefit everyone and that would stitch together the wounds of the past. The rift, the harm that had been created by urban highway projects and by residential racial segregation could have been healed by this project. So when you combine the political indifference with opposition from both Black and White communities, you had a recipe for what we always get in Baltimore, which is nothing.
Nothing was going to happen, but because of Red Line Now and because we organized and joined forces with Purple Line advocates, built a regional advocacy entity, we did our small part to help the state transportation funding bill, the gas tax bill pass. That made it possible for Maryland to qualify for federal funding. That bill made it possible. So although my role was small, it was important because first we did something no one else had ever done, and that was organize politically transit investment, and that was to build a partnership with regional allies for transit.
The state passed the bill. Maryland qualified for Federal Transportation Administration funding. They never sent the money to us; we never had our hands on it, but it was set aside for us. And when Governor Larry Hogan ran for office he ran on a promise to repeal the rain tax and cancel the Red Line. It was a sop to his anti-Baltimore, predominantly White base in rural parts of the state. There is a culture in Maryland of hating Baltimore city. And I can’t really—I don’t really understand it. I was born in Indiana. You know, I came here as a grown person. How could you—and I can’t understand how anyone could not love the city. It’s amazing.
It’s weird, but it’s also wonderful. And there’s a lot of political capital to be gained though in Maryland by hating on Baltimore. So the governor traded in that hatred and resentment, cancelled an important project that would have helped not just the city but the whole region and ultimately the state. What I learned from organizing Red Line Now is that you can mobilize people for political action for things that seem impossible. I took the spirit of that experience with me when I became a delegate, and I was absolutely committed to continuing to do policy work to get transit, and I continue doing that to this day.
Jensen: Knowing what you know—you’ve been involved in all of this work, and you understand that political will is needed in order to get things changed—what are the best leaders doing to bring about positive change in their communities, and what can we do to have more of that?
Lewis: Oh, that’s a great question. Everyone has the potential to be a leader. Right? I think, when you said, “What can leaders do?”—I don’t know if you meant just elected leaders, but I think every person can be a leader, and every person with that spirit, with that energy, with that fearlessness should wake up every day committed to changing the world in whatever way they feel is important. So, well, here’s what leaders can do, leaders at every level of every stripe. First, articulate your vision for the world you want to create. Second, be able to describe that vision to others and to inspire them to see the world in this new way. Anyone can do that. Little kids can do it. You don’t have to be fluent in English. If you have access to the internet, you know, you can share your vision and inspire others.
The next thing you have to do is organize. It doesn’t matter if you are a person in a community or an elected official; organize. Numbers translate into power. One of the biggest weaknesses we have in Baltimore city and in this country in general is that people who care about safe, healthy mobility don’t know how to talk about it. And I just did that. You heard me use the word mobility. Big no-no; don’t talk about mobility. Don’t talk about built environment. [SIGHS] Like, we have to figure out—[INDISCERNIBLE][36:09]—and we don’t organize.
If we were half as the organized as the AAA or the highway lobby, we would have solar powered jetpacks for everyone. You know, but we’re not organized, so we need to organize. And what that means is influencing elections. So, I think, the best way to organize for change is to organize politically and get the right people elected. And then have their back; let them know if you support the issue. Right? If it’s transit, if it’s walkability, if it’s clean air, if it’s adaptation to climate change, whatever topic floats your boat, let those elected officials know that when they step out in front to fight for you that you’ll be there for them with calls, with letters, demonstrating with signs, whatever it takes. That’s how we get change.
You can see it happening today in the protests following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. But the inspiration for this summer’s demonstrations came from those egregious and inhumane assassinations. People organized, and attitudes are shifting. Policymakers, lawmakers are, you know—they’re checking the winds to see which way to turn. A good leader, elected leader already knows, like, already has the pulse of the people’s will beating in their own heart. They don’t have to test the wind for that. But some, you know, you need to remind them; you scare them a little bit, and that’s what organized demands and protests—that’s the power that they have.
I also want to emphasize before we wind up—I want to emphasize the connection between transit and racial justice. This is another part of the ________________________________________ [38:23]
Lewis: —that a lot of people don’t _______________________________________ [38:26]. I’ve been working for over a year to put together a coalition of neighborhood folks, nonprofits, other organizations to seize control of our streets. Why is that important? What does it have to do with racial justice? Remember what I told you about Baltimore being the home of White supremacist, racial segregation policy? Segregation is baked into the way we design our cities, the places where we live. We’ve used roads, streets as instruments for segregation. I live about two blocks from what used to be one of the old redline markers, boundaries. Fayette Street, Orleans, they essentially serve as kind of boundaries for the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage evaluations that marked undesirable areas where Black, Brown, and Jewish people lived as redlined.
So I’m right near there. And that old redline, those roads, those redline roads, they’re highways that slice through the heart of densely populated, mostly Black and Brown residential neighborhoods. Those highways divide Black and Brown neighborhoods from predominantly White neighborhoods. Those highways create conditions for ill health, mental stress, physical injury, death, and maiming for Black and Brown people who try to cross them. They serve the same function as the maniac in the White House’s dream of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. They serve as a dividing line. They serve as a marker of punishment and isolation. And they deliver exactly what they were designed to deliver, which is disconnection; isolation; physical, mental, and clinical harm.
[INDISCERNIBLE][40:19] We do that by joining together across the old boundaries, by describing the vision that we have. And that’s a walkable, safe community where the little kids can walk to school without getting run over, where our elders can walk across to the Aldi without being mowed down by a car, which literally happened just a few months ago a block away from me, where we can breath cleaner air because we’re not inhaling the fumes of all the cars that come from the suburbs of Baltimore County racing in and out of the city as quickly as they can because God forbid they get touched by the toxic whatever of Baltimore city. And when we take control of our streets, when we frame the situation in historic terms and understand how we got here and use the power of organizing, of visioning and organizing, we can get pedestrian improvements; we can get crosswalks that serve humans on foot or in wheelchairs or on crutches or pushing strollers; we get streets that serve the needs of humans and put people back on top of the hierarchy and cars below where they belong.
So, you know, this is a project that we call the Livable Streets Coalition, and it’s really gotten some interest. We have partners like the National Federation of the Blind and the AARP, which have a stake in improving accessibility and safety, our physical safety of moving around on our streets. Other folks from a completely other part of my district in South Baltimore contacted me recently because they want to know how they can get livable streets. But, I think, the message really is connect the historical dots, frame them in a language and story and [ph][42:18] emotion that people can understand and see in their own lives, and just push relentlessly for change. That would be my message. Anyone who wants to join me, hop on board transit nerd train because we’re—[LAUGHTER]
Cohen: Wow. That’s an inspiring way to wrap it up. Well, thank you, Delegate Lewis, for your advocacy, for your service to your city and your state in the House of Delegates and for joining us today. I think this has been a great kind of history lesson on kind of the work that went into Red Line Now as well as a great reinforcement of the importance of advocacy, which has certainly been a theme that has been pretty prominent in the work that we’ve done on The Movement podcast so far, so thank you so much for taking the time today. We really appreciate you joining us.
Lewis: Thank you both. It really was a pleasure. Anyone who wants to listen to me nerd out about the connections between transit and racial justice, I’m here any time. Thank you guys for all you do.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.