Zeke Cohen, Candidate for City Council-1st District

 In an effort to educate voters, we will be posting responses to our candidate questionnaire. Questionnaires were emailed to each candidate running for City Council, President of City Council, and Mayor. Candidates have until March 4th to submit. We are publishing results in the order they are received. 

How frequently do you use a mode of transportation other than your car to navigate the city? Based on your experience, where should the city prioritize resources for transportation?

ZC: I walk to work every day (unless it's pouring rain, or I'm feeling extra lazy). I walk to my gym, the grocery store, and to restaurants and shops in the First District.

Unfortunately, most residents in the First District do not live where they work. For the higher poverty areas like O'Donnell Heights, Graceland Park, Baltimore Highlands and Broening Manor, people without a car are at an enormous disadvantage. Many of the residents I speak to in these neighborhoods have found employment at Amazon, or in downtown Baltimore, but with only one bus line traveling through the Eastern part of the District, they are often late for work. That is unacceptable. I think that we should go back to our Governor, and demand that he reconsider the decision to terminate the Red Line. I also think that we need to do a true impact study before adopting the City Link plan. I would like to see rapid bus lanes, GPS equipment on the buses, and expansion of the Circulator. At the expensive of sounding like a heretic, I would also like to see charge for the Circulator, why should the bus that mainly serves tourists be free while everyone else has to pay?

Finally, I believe the city must begin to prioritize public transit, and transit oriented development instead of continuing to build in a way that promotes driving. It is a culture shift that will require political will.

What role do you believe biking and walking improvements can play in creating a safer, healthier, more livable Baltimore?

ZC: The best cities in the world are all walkable and bikeable. I believe in dense, diverse, safe, complete streets. We know that foot traffic reduces crime. We know that in a city with some of the best medical institutions in the world, we have a population that is sick. The rates of diabetes and obesity are tragic throughout our city. Biking and walking promote health and overall well being. Finally, biking and walking make our city more livable because they promote human interaction. When you walk through a neighborhood, you can't ignore the blight, the drugs, the kids, the hope, the charm and everything else. When you drive, you can shut all of that out. Walking and biking make us more connected.

Often road redesigns that improve the safety for people on bikes or people walking do so in a way that removes priority for single occupant vehicles. This can look like removing lanes for travel or decreasing available street parking. Can you describe how you would manage public expectations during project implementation, and handle any backlash from constituents that don’t share in the City’s vision for complete streets?

ZC: The question of removing lanes and parking has been extremely challenging in the First District. That is because the city has failed to effectively communicate with residents. Residents in the First District helped create the Southeast Complete Streets Plan. Then the city chose to completely ignore the plan. That is unacceptable and erodes public trust. As City Councilman, I will actively communicate with constituents. Communication includes listening. I will bring our developers, business leaders and DOT to the table, as well as our community groups. We can get Complete Streets right, but it is going to take organizing and trust building.

Recent audits have discovered that the Department of Transportation struggles to measure key performance indicators. The city’s procurement and project management processes have also faced scrutiny. This has led to significant delays of key improvements to bicycle infrastructure in Baltimore. How will you work to improve performance and accountability of city agencies like the Department of Transportation under your leadership?

ZC: I run a non profit. Every year I get audited. If I misspend a single dollar, I lose my tax exempt status. Yet we live in a city with a $3 billion budget, and no measures for fiscal accountability. I can understand the frustration of residents that feel their tax dollars are being misspent. That needs to change. I will work to make sure every agency is regularly audited and performance metrics are put in place to make sure we are accountable for the money we spend.

The percentage of people choosing to take public transit or ride a bike for transportation is increasing in Baltimore, while the percentage of residents without access to a vehicle is over 30%. How would you rate the city’s current investment in sustainable transportation solutions for its residents, and as a council person what would you do to support increased investment?

ZC: I would rate our investment in sustainable transportation as failing. Folks in the Eastern part of my district are unable to get to work. My students are often unable to get to my after school program on time. At first I thought they were being teenagers, but then I spent a week taking the bus. And I was constantly late. I felt like I was back in high school. That is simply unacceptable.

Although the MTA is a state agency, the Council can play a role in holding them accountable and organizing with residents on the ground. I am encouraged by the oversight legislation that Delegate Lierman put forward but I think the city government should do more to support her efforts. We need to invest city dollars into our transit and infrastructure.

A recent study by Harvard economists found that the single strongest factor affecting the odds of a child escaping poverty is not the test scores of his or her local schools or the crime in the community; it is the percent of workers in his or her neighborhood who have long commutes. How do you plan to improve transportation options and commute times for our most vulnerable residents?

ZC: I site that study all the time. As previously mentioned, folks in O'Donnell Heights simply can't get to work on time. I would begin with a true impact study for the City Link plan. Lets find out who really needs more bus lanes. Lets find out where the rapid lanes make the most sense. Lets get GPS tracking onto our buses. I also want to continue to push for the Red Line. One Governor should not be able to stop a $3 billion dollar investment. I think we should organize the environmental, transit and business communities and go back to our Governor to say we demand rail. It is a slap in the face of Baltimore that he is proceeding with the Purple Line.

What other information about your candidacy would you like to share with our members?

ZC: I believe that transit, education, economic well being and safety are all interconnected. We need to start seeing the connections and talking across sectors to ensure that everyone in Baltimore has a bright future.