The Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 1, 2002
April 1, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 28


Students’ ‘Sick Transit’ Video Dramatizes Baltimore Problem

By Jessica Valdez
Special to The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

A video created by Johns Hopkins undergraduates to dramatize the transportation problems in Baltimore has made an impression on activists who say they plan to use it in Annapolis this spring to lobby against transportation budget cuts.

“The film can help remind [the legislators] of the people-side of this issue,” said Ralph Moore, a longtime community activist who has lobbied for better public transportation for Baltimore. “Everyday people are tremendously dependent on public transit for job access.”

Moore was among some 30 people at the Homewood campus on March 10 to attend the debut of Sick Transit, a compelling 13-minute video that puts a human face on Baltimore’s transportation woes and that grew out of a course taught last year by Matthew Crenson, a professor of political science in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

Matt Crenson, foreground, meets with some of the students who produced “Sick Transit,” a 13-minute video on Baltimore’s transportation problems that community activists say may be helpful in lobbying for funds. From the left, Lindsey Shewmaker, Frieda Hoffman, Jeff Novich, Arka Deb.

Crenson, a Baltimore native who has studied the city for three decades, wanted to teach a course that would get his students out of the classroom and into the community to live through a real-world problem. The course was called Baltimore: Place and Race and focused on the key role that transportation problems play in the lives of city residents.

Eager to get his students engaged in the material, Crenson welcomed them with an unusual assignment: Each was to use public transportation to get from point A to point B, as if applying for a job, and then write a paper about the experience.

“I searched in the Sunday want ads and picked entry-level jobs with no requirements above high school and then a starting point in the city,” Crenson said. “Then I told them that they had to ride from the starting point to the job location” using only public transportation.

The students hit the streets and quickly discovered how difficult it is to move around the city.

“What probably would have been a 15-minute drive took over two hours,” said Lindsey Shewmaker, a senior international relations major from Chapel Hill, N.C. “I never realized public transportation in Baltimore was so bad. “

Using the first assignment as a barometer of student skills, Crenson divided the students into interviewers, narrators, cameramen and production teams who then wandered into the depths of Baltimore, searching for mass transit riders willing to comment on the quality of service.

“We went all over,” said Frieda Hoffman, a cameraperson. “One day, we took the bus--the 23--and went out to Mondawmin Mall and to East Baltimore near Canton.”

They visited a series of bus stops throughout the city, where stories told by waiting commuters impressed them with the social magnitude of the mass transit problem in Baltimore.

“When you’re standing in the cold with an actual person who describes their commute to work while they wait for a bus that’s 20 minutes overdue, the transportation problem hits home,” said Harvet Jones, who graduated last year and responded by e-mail from Korea. “I realized that transportation can be a major quality of life issue. What kind of quality of life can someone who spends five hours every day in a bus have?”

The film shows how, in order to handle the pressing problem, some people have taken transportation into their own hands, providing other methods for Baltimore residents to commute to the suburbs.

Featured prominently in the film, Antoinette Shelton said she used her retirement money to found Shelton Transportation Services, a private van company that will promptly pick up customers anywhere in Baltimore and take them to their job location. “If you don’t have a private company doing it, you can’t get to Baltimore County,” Shelton said.

Many people resort to hackers who, though illegal since they are not licensed, supply inexpensive transportation throughout the city.

For the interviews, students used a Sony digital camera purchased with funds from the Kenan Grant, a sum of money given to facilitate the development of new courses.

Crenson and Jeff Novich, a physics and computer science major from Larchmont, N.Y., spent much of the summer and fall editing the film in Novich’s apartment to prepare it for its debut on March 10.

An audience of approximately 30 invited guests attended the screening, most of them representing social activist organizations and therefore sympathetic to the film’s message. When the film featured a mass transit rally last year led by audience member Ralph Moore, viewers joined the film’s persistent rally chant: “Transit now, transit now!”

After the film, a panel consisting of student Lionel Foster; Moore, of the Franciscan Center; and Jamie Kendrick, of the Maryland Transit Administration, discussed mass transit in Baltimore. Moore invited Shelton and Caroline Harmon of the Baltimore Transit Riders’ League to join the group as well.

While the film itself did not address race specifically, it did spark a discussion afterward about what role race plays in the sorry state of public transportation in Baltimore, a city with a majority African-American population.

“I think [the mass transit problem] is a matter of race,” Moore said. “If it was not perceived in Baltimore that so many people on the buses are black and poor, we’d have a much better system.”

In reaction, Zahra Moore, a social activist and audience member, said she participated in a study that “definitely showed that routes within white areas have a better flow of buses than African-American communities where many buses are out of commission. There’s a definite economic disparity in transportation with respect to whites and blacks,” she said.

Ralph Moore said he hopes the video will help in his lobbying efforts before the state legislature, where millions of dollars in transportation funds are at stake. The original sum of $90 million dollars promised as this year’s allotment of the Governor’s Initiative potentially could be reduced by more than 70 percent due to budget reductions.

With the current inefficient mass transit system, an estimated 35 percent of new entry-level jobs are considered inaccessible by mass transit, meaning that they’re at least one mile away from a stop, according to a 1999 study conducted by the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, Crenson said. Yet 1996 welfare reform mandates that the number of welfare recipients be reduced by 50 percent by 2002, a goal Crenson feels is unattainable in Baltimore if entry-level jobs remain isolated in the suburbs.

Students who worked on the video are both surprised and impressed with the film’s potential impact for change.

“Last spring semester, I personally had little consideration for the long-term prospects of the film,” Novich said. “At that point, I had little confidence our film could make a difference or even be completed. Now that the film is done, I feel badly that I didn’t keep the faith throughout, and I think Dr. Crenson’s perseverance is commendable.”

Crenson, however, insists on giving the students much of the credit. “For many of them, it became a semester-long obsession,” he said.

To see the video, go to:

Jessica Valdez, a freshman in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, is double majoring in English and history and is a Woodrow Wilson Research Fellow. She is from Monrovia, Md., and interns in the Office of News and Information.