Do Baltimore Magazine’s “Best Places To Work” promote gridlock?

Many employers give us no commuting choices.     Photo by biofriendly,  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribute 2.0 Generic

Many employers give us no commuting choices. Photo by biofriendly, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribute 2.0 Generic

Area magazines often issue lists of the “Best Places to Work,” but they don’t consider what the commute to those places is like. The real best places to work shouldn’t make employees sit in traffic for hours each day.

Each year, Baltimore Magazine releases its list of the Best Places to Work, based on factors like salaries, benefits, career mobility, and workplace culture.Washingtonian Magazine has a similar ranking.

But when my wife comes home from work, she does not talk about her employer’s 401K plans, her healthcare, or the free gym. Most often, I hear about how long or stressful her commute by car is.

I try to empathize, but my commute is a leisurely fifteen-minute bike ride that I love, or a two-stop light rail ride when it rains, getting me to work relaxed and clear-headed. Shouldn’t magazines talk about those things, too?

“Best Places to Work” rankings don’t talk about commutes

Virtually every rush hour, one or more of our major regional highways is backed up when some unfortunate driver’s car is mangled in a so-called car-b-que. The DC area usually ranks among the highest in the nation for traffic congestion, while Baltimore isn’t far behind.

Beyond causing stress and eating up time, commuting by car can be dangerous. In 2010, Maryland had 493 traffic deaths. 296 were in passenger cars or light trucks vs one fatality in a bus. 383 fatal car crashes were on urban interstates.

Meanwhile, employers on the Baltimore Magazine list highlight commuting options with about the same frequency as company picnics and employer-paid pet insurance. Of the top 25, there are only eight employers with a walkscore rating over 70. A high walkscore can indicate whether an employee can walk to a place to eat, to live, or a central bus or transit line from their workplace.

Six of the eight employers are in downtown Baltimore with lots of amenities and transit within easy reach, while one is in Towson, a walkable downtown in its own right. The seventh, America’s Remote Help Desk, is in Eldersburg in Carroll County, which isn’t a walkable area but earns a high walkscore due to being in a shopping mall with shops and restaurants. The middle seven are somewhat walkable. The remaining 10 companies are in more remote or isolated locations where driving to work is likely the only feasible option.

By walkscore (WS) ranking, Baltimore Magazine’s “Best Places to Work”:

Baltimore Magazine Top 25 Employers (2013) The higher the walkscore the greater the ability to get around without a car.

Baltimore Magazine Top 25 Employers (2013) The higher the walkscore the greater the ability to get around without a car.

Another way to measure the “best places to work”

Some area employers recognize that the best perk might be a variety of commuting options. Johns Hopkins, Baltimore’s largest employer, deserves credit. Its hospital is located at a Metro subway stop and has six bus lines. It runs an express shuttle service connecting its Homewood and medical campuses with Penn Station.

Hopkins is making investments so its community can conveniently live, shop, and play near each campus without a car. As importantly, Johns Hopkins has a robust Live Near Year Work program with downpayment/closing cost grants of up to $36,000, and is investing in the local public schools and business districts near its campuses as part of its Homewood Community Partners Initiative.

Let me tout my employer, the University of Baltimore. It has a 403b plan, comprehensive health and dental coverage, a free, full-service gym and library. But it also offers many choices for where its employees can live and how they get to work.

It’s within walking distance of many types of housing with different price points. Employees can choose to walk to work, and some do. Those who live slightly further out have the option of biking to work with new cycletracks on Maryland Avenue and Mount Royal Avenue, as well as the Jones Falls Trail, which I use.

The university offers discounts on Maryland Transit Administration service, meaning employees can take advantage of the 5 nearby bus lines, the MARC Penn Line, the light rail, and the subway, as well as a fleet of Zipcars. Penn Station, across the street, offers Bolt Bus and Amtrak.

If my colleagues want to be on the highways, go to Jiffy Lube, replace the tires, they can. But they don’t have to. Having the choice is a benefit.

There are many ways to get around.  Image source: Jeff La Noue

There are many ways to get around. Image source: Jeff La Noue

As employers and office developers across the region make decisions about where to locate and to build, it is time to give employees choices about transport. There should be no more LEED-rated, “green” buildings in the middle of auto-oriented sprawl that costs employees their time, money, and health.

Greater Baltimore has plenty of available real estate a short walk from transit stations. There are office infill opportunities on or near commercial main streets and within walking distances of where people live. State Farm in Atlanta is one of many big employers who are moving to more transit-friendly locations.

But employers may not feel the need to offer employees more travel choices unless it’s recognized as a desirable feature. Baltimore Magazine, how about adding commuting alternatives in the criteria for your “Best Places To Work 2014” list?

JL

Cross posted on Greater Greater Washington, Sustainable Cities Collective , the American Public Transportation Association’s publication  Passenger Transport and profiled on Streetsblog and Planetizen

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If Investing: Move Baltimore’s Downtown Prison

Land just south of the Baltimore jail facility-What is the highest and best use of the jail and nearby land?

Land just south of the Baltimore jail facility-What is the highest and best use of the jail and nearby land?

Baltimore’s downtown prison complex is a physical barrier between the City Center and impoverished neighborhoods desperate for investment. Could moving the prison help heal the city?

Sprawling over 27 acres, the forbidding penal facility consumes a vast amount of acreage on potentially lucrative real estate. Surface parking, blight, bail bonds, and strip are the complex’s pitiful neighbors. It does not have to be this way forever.

Many cities have sensibly relocated their prisons away from their economic centers. Baltimore has yet to do so, but may have that opportunity.  Taking steps to move the penal complex from downtown was a pie in the sky idea until the state began publicly planning to sink over a half a billion dollars into demolishing and rebuilding the facility in place. Alternative locations exist nearby.

The penal campus is in the red box.  The shaded area is the impact area of the prison.  Mt. Vernon is directly west.  Johns Hopkins Medical campus is to the east. Downtown and the Inner Harbor are to the south

The penal campus is in the red box. The shaded area is the impact area of the prison. Mt. Vernon is directly west. Johns Hopkins Medical campus is to the east. Downtown and the Inner Harbor are to the south

City Marketing 101 says don’t put your prison complex as the welcome mat to your downtown or your top research hospital. By doing so, Baltimore sends the thousands coming to visit, to work, or to invest a grim reminder that Baltimore houses lots of dangerous people.

There are many questions. What could the land yield over time if the prison facility was not there to repel more promising development?  What new synergies could exist between downtown and the number 1 hospital in the nation?(2013)  How much new development could take place?  What is the potential for new tax revenues?  How many jobs could be created in addition to retaining existing prison jobs in a different location? Could a different future jump start Jones Town and the long stalled Old Town Mall redevelopment? Could the Mt. Vernon neighborhood expand east? Could a badly needed park to serve downtown residents be created? Could a portion of new tax receipts from future development support jobs for youth?

We should be cautious about building costly new prisons.   America must find a way to reduce its world leading incarceration rates, while preventing violent crime.  Locally, Baltimore’s recent prison issues are certainly as much about management as with the aging physical facility. Improved training and wages for prison guards and personnel would be astronomically cheaper than constructing new facilities. However, at some point, new facilities are going to be built. As these dollars are allocated, good money should not be spent on a misplaced location.

The current prison location may be convenient for visitors and employees. Furthermore, criminal courts are nearby.   By this narrow prism, the prison is well located. By considering the land’s far greater potential, relocating prison facilities to Jessup and or abandoned industrial zones are better options.

Many other cities have moved their prison out of their downtowns.  Baltimore has this chance.

Many other cities have moved their prison out of their downtowns. Baltimore has this chance.

Relocating large prison facilities from downtown is not only unprecedented, it is common.  Atlantic seaboard neighbors; New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston have all done so.  New York City’s main prison is an island in the East River.  In the Midwest, Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard is now leading a plan to relocate its jail out of downtown.  Noted urbanist Aaron Wrenn explains the benefit of moving the Indianapolis jail in his article “My Plan to win the war for Indianapolis Government Buildings.” The argument for Baltimore is similar.  

Maryland is projected to add a million people by 2040. Baltimore needs to position itself to capture a portion of this growth.  Adding dozens of acres available for development adjacent to the city’s most prominent employers, as well as I-83 and the subway, is a promising opportunity.

Top City and State decision makers don’t need to follow the narrow agenda of bureaucrats at the State Department of Corrections. There are innovative ways to reduce incarceration, provide opportunity, and remove barriers to Baltimore’s economic potential.  Rebuilding a prison campus in place should not be a rubber stamp.  If other cities understand this, Baltimore should too!

JL

crossposted at Greater Greater Washington and Sustainable Cities Collective

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