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Report: Subways won’t help Baltimore grow

Investment in fixed-line mass transit, such as the now abandoned Red Line project, would not have much impact on Baltimore’s population, according to a recent report.

The study, “Subways and Urban Growth: Evidence from Earth” by Marco Gonzalez-Navarro, of the University of Toronto, and Matthew A. Turner, of Brown University, was released May 30 and found that while larger cities tend to have subway systems, they have a negligible impact on population growth and that they actually cause cities to decentralize.

“First, while large cities are more likely to have subways, subways have a precisely estimated near zero effect on urban population growth. Second, subways cause cities to decentralize, although this effect appears to be small relative to the decentralization caused by radial highways. Third, a 10% increase in subway extent leads to about a 6% increase in subway ridership and does not affect bus ridership. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that only a small fraction of ridership increases can be accounted for by decentralized commuters. Together with the fact that little new ridership can be attributed to population growth, this suggests that most new ridership derives from an increase in non-commute subwaytrips.”

The report contradicts a key argument for subsidies for fixed-line mass transit projects — they promote urban growth.

Baltimore, after suffering massive population declines in the past 40 years, has been holding steady in recent years with a population of roughly 620,000 residents. The city is looking for ways to grow again. A major argument for the Red Line, which was expected to cost $2.9 billion, and would’ve combined elements of light rail and subway, is that it would promote urban growth by better connecting east and west Baltimore.

While this is only one study, and there are certainly planners and developers who would disagree with the conclusions, it provides an “I-told-you-so” moment for Red Line opponents. It could also be pointed out that Baltimore’s existing subway, which runs from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital, hasn’t exactly resulted in an urban renaissance in the city neighborhoods where the line runs.

About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.