Monday, March 26, 2012


White people don't ride the public bus in Baltimore. This isn't a fact--I haven't actually found any statistics--but a suspicion informed by 1) my own experience riding the number 36, 3, and 8 buses, 2) a morning spent browsing Twitter feeds and blog posts on the topic, and 3) most importantly, for this post, spending a lot of time waiting for the northbound number 3 bus in front of Penn Station. Baltimore boosters sometimes bemoan the fact that the first thing visitors to their fine city see when they emerge from Penn Station is a phalanx of surface and structured parking lots, but another of Baltimore's epidemics--segregation--is also on proud display just steps from the station's front door. It is here, on Charles Street between Mt. Royal and Lanvale, where perceptive tourists will notice the following phenomenon: two cues of bus passengers, 100 or so feet apart from each-other, and almost completely segregated by race. The "weapon" of segregation in this case? The free CAMPUS SHUTTLE that connects Johns Hopkins's Homewood campus to Baltimore's downtown. Almost invariably, the white passengers on the line to the south are waiting for the free "Hopkins Shuttle" and the African American passengers to the north are waiting for the 3, 11, 61, or 64 bus. (Only Johns Hopkins students are allowed to ride the Hopkins Shuttle.)

From an exclusion / inclusion perspective, the campus shuttle is ambiguous. One the one hand, as evidenced by the lines outside Penn Station, it creates very visible segregation. Moreover, isolating students in a private, familiar, safe bus reinforces the "student bubble" that itself reinforces and perpetuates "town and gown" dynamics, and a sense that the city "out there" or "off campus" is a foreign, dangerous place that students should avoid encounters with. The bus is a great democratic public space. Unlike a plane and perhaps more so than a subway, a bus sometimes feels like a place in itself. Especially when there is a FLAT FARE, buses can be diverse spaces of encounter, where it's not hard to strike up a conversation with someone who is very different than you. Buses can thus remind us that despite whatever voluntary bubble we seclude ourselves in (student, tourist, commuter, etc.), there is a public infrastructure that is shared by everyone who lives, works, or shops in the city. For these reasons, the bus offers a valuable learning opportunity for college students; isolating students in a private, familiar, safe bus is dangerous, but from this perspective it's also a missed opportunity.

On the other hand, who's to say that these students would leave the campus at all if not for the shuttle? Baltimore can be a dangerous place, and the public bus can indeed be unreliable. Most students who come to schools like Johns Hopkins, MICA, and Goucher are coming from segregated, suburban environments. For some of my MICA students, the "College Town" shuttle established rapprochement: they used the shuttle to help bust their bubble, so to speak, but once they started becoming comfortable off campus, they threw it away and started using the public bus.

1 comment:

  1. great point. im black and go to hopkins and the busing situation was made me think a bit.