Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Kayak and Circulator: Cool or just frivolous?

It is easy to incite the disenfranchised and their advocates against the accessories of the wealthy:  yachts, golf, penthouses, roof decks and lately kayak landing places. It is equally cheap to get the wealthy mad about dirt bikes, hip-hop music or rappers. 

Bicycles, water taxis, Whole Food markets and the Circulator fall somewhere in between, although most is seen to belong to the yuppie side as well, depending what someone considers as basic need. One can see how such lists can lead people astray. Music and art have been struck from education with similar lines of "reasoning".  

That is an unfortunate type of discussion, or actually, it isn't a discussion at all. It isn't about weighing merits, costs or benefits, instead it is simply an exercise in pigeonholing and confirming one's bias. To get a crowd to roar in response to the question who here needs a kayak landing is unproductive. 

With this, we’d be paying for something I would never use! We’re paying for a luxury that’s really not available to most of us! Who here has a kayak? I don’t!” Rev. Dellyne Hinton of Gwynn Oak United Methodist Church in Howard Park. (Baltimore Brew).

There is no doubt that Baltimore's waterways are not only a backbone of the region's economy in terms of shipping, cargo and freight transport but also as a recreational asset. 

The Living Classroom Foundation has worked for years to provide a pathway to the Bay for inner city kids. The reports about so many young men and women who never experienced the area from the water and never left the City confines at all, not even on land, are a sad testament about real existing divisions. Ridiculing water recreation won't make these divisions any smaller. Associating water with race in any way just continues a depressing history of bad assumptions. 

So now we wonder should the City should support kayaking or the Circulator in any way? Are these things frivolous in a city where every day is a matter of life or death for so many? From a moral perspective, one can argue that point, for sure. From a more pragmatic perspective, Baltimore needs to attract younger and better educated people to meet the workforce demand of the industries of the future. While it is true that scores of inner city men and women need jobs, the leading employers in the region need skills that most of the currently unemployed don't have, even if they are well trained in a certain field, education may still not be worth much without demand. The gaps between skills in demand and skills in supply can in part be reduced through workforce development and training, but not in its entirety. Industry will obviously go where the gap is small and employees with the needed skills are readily available. 

If Baltimore decides that it wants to close the skills gap "from within existing communities" that is a laudable goal in terms of inclusion and social justice, but it is also parochial, impractical and unattainable. The solution of the workforce gaps have to be encompassing, multi pronged and include bringing new talent to the City.

The isolationist approach of the left mirrors in unfortunate ways the idea of the right that America would be somehow better off,  if it closes the borders and works with the potential we have within. 

I surely hope that the discussion about the Port Covington Masterplan does not attempt to bring the level of design to what we usually get in Baltimore. Striving for excellence in public spaces is worthwhile. It is high time that Baltimore isn't content with the bare minimum that is just enough to for function. This City deserves the high level design for streets and parks that have become common in many other cities. The inadequate public infrastructure in poor neighborhoods doesn't get better from downgrading the streets and parks of Port Covington. 

Inclusion of water taxi, bio habitats, running trails and bikeways is something we should support, not something we should fight. There is no reason why the Middle Branch couldn't become an attractive place for the residents of Cherry Hill, Brooklyn and Westport to walk, stroll, bike or even kayak. In fact, the argument that a poor city can't afford kayak landings is dangerously close to the argument that a poor city doesn't deserve anything out of the ordinary. Improvements in the poor communities surrounding Port Covington will still be needed, of course. The benefits agreement points in the right direction towards achieving those. 

And the Circulator and the Harbor Connector? Are those merely a toy for yuppies or Millennials? 

Conceived as a downtown circulator to connect peripheral parking with downtown jobs, it isn't an effective tool for addressing the slow and often circuitous  job access for those in poor communities. Trying to do that would be like building a parallel bus service that competes with MTA. The fact that lots of downtown residents and office workers love the City run service shouldn't be held against, nor that it's service is seen as superior to MTA's. Killing the Circulator won't make MTA service any better. But those who keep a weary eye on how much money the City has to use to subsidize the service have point. Money siphoned from the General fund, indeed, directly take resources from other potential projects. The original structure that the Circulator should be funded by those who benefit should be maintained. The surcharge on the parking tax and direct contributions from large developed along the lines are appropriate measures to ensure sustainable funding. The service shouldn't exceed what that type of funding can sustainably support. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA