Hacking: The Informal Transportation System in Baltimore

As planners, we applaud innovative public transit strategies that reduce GHG, VMT, increase TOD and affect a host of other planning acronyms. Unfortunately, planning has failed to unearth one particular strategy: a simple solution to urban transit used in Baltimore, Maryland, which draws on urban social capital within the context of a racialized space to mobilize community transit services. As a Baltimore native, I know it is hacking, Baltimore’s unique informal transportation system.

In response to the unavailability or ineffectiveness of formal transit services, residents depend on modes of reciprocity and informal, interpersonal connections to acquire auto rides, constructing a particular mobility culture known as hacking. To hail a “hack,” as it is termed, a person can go to any inner city street and dangle two fingers downward, alerting anyone in the incoming traffic that they are seeking a hack. Any driver can stop, pick up a potential rider and transport them to their destination. The system of pricing is unwritten, informally established through routine use throughout the city. It is a discounted and bargained rate, which accounts for time, convenience and distance.

Hack Price Estimates in the Vernacular of Urban Residents

Type of Hack Hack Price
1. “Round the corner” $2.00-3.00
2. Up the “ave” (along the same street) $3.00-4.00
3. Same side of town, past the “ave” $5.00
4. City to county $6.00-7.00
5. “Over east” to “over west” $8.00
6. Roundtrip $10.00


Hacking differs from the gypsy cabs popular in New York and perhaps other similar cities in that any driver at any time can start or stop as a hack provider, allowing any city resident to expect to encounter a hack in any area of the inner city. These notions envelop a particular neoliberal preoccupation of residents in conditions of subalternality, a state of spatial, social and political marginality wherein the absence or retreat of macro-level services galvanizes the provision of resources by individuals and communities. Paradoxically, though hacking is categorized as a felony, many people use this mode to meet a host of daily needs. Since my family of 5 and I do not own a vehicle, we often use hacks to get my nephew school, to buy groceries, to get to work and other destinations.

As one hack mentioned, "I'm a good American hack. I hack, I work, I go to church." This sentiment confronts the hyper-visible illegality of the hack business and exposes the dual-embodiment of the hacking culture as a representation of people, their way of life and their views of urban citizenship. It becomes an expression of insurgent citizenship, the right to the city and the right to pursue economic opportunity within the American system. It is a practice rooted in black exclusion in public transit, and a collective effort of communities engaging with their own human and social capital to counteract their shared socioeconomic vulnerabilities. In this, a historicization of black urban culture is seamlessly produced and re-produced through the hacking experience. Through this lens, we realize how the experiences and practices of urban subsistence are reproduced across a global topography, driving alternative modes of living and surviving against conditions of both racial and spatial inequality. It unveils global solidarities between hacking and other alternative systems, especially used in subaltern struggles for identity and place throughout the Global South. As such, the people of the city, as African urbanist AbouMaliq Simone so succinctly states, become the infrastructure, as we theorize on American urban landscapes with a view from the south.

Moreover, it is a form of spatial movement circumscribed and confined within the city limits; its practice is foreign to adjacent counties just outside the bounds of the city, congruent with the theory of mobility as social differentiation. Though, unlike some cities in the global South, such as São Paulo and Guatemala City, where urban spaces are narrowing into privatized enclaves, the urban milieu is expanded and broadened through the business of hacking, producing a more democratized, public space. In fact, it becomes a space of social production in which the private sphere is made public, changing the social culture of the city throughout these liberated networks of social interaction and informal service provision. In a holistic sense, its existence contributes to a more integrated city, through which urban exchanges and interpersonal connections are fostered, reproduced and ingrained.

So why should planning care? The implication of hacking is not that every city should encourage informal transportation – although on days when there are severe delays on AC transit buses, I especially wish that there were. The lesson is that planning research and practice must extend itself to include counter-narratives of subaltern urbanity that can only be discovered through an excavation of the knowledge power of urban residents, and a concurrent empowering of communities in the practice of planning of urban futures. As a native of the city, my knowledge of the often secreted intricacies of urban life in Baltimore offers an awareness of not only hacking, but also informal food systems, microfinance practices and other creative processes which are absent in planning research on Baltimore.

Planning curriculum as a whole must adapt and planners must develop and master specialized methods and practices that employ local knowledge and engage with participatory planning. These methods must apply to learning at both local and global scales and the lessons learned between these spaces should be linked. Such a transformation prioritizes residents’ experiences of urban space and the concomitant identity formed around that existence and operationalizes their role in the planning process, while enhancing the policy solutions and planning prescriptions that come from this knowledge. Thus, such an act makes the planner more, and not less effective. Subaltern theorist Gayatri Spivak reasons that the subaltern can be understood as “marking the limits of our archival recognition.” To plan for and with the complex spaces and communities whose racial and socioeconomic realities are uniquely tied to their experience of urban space, our field must stretch to truly understand them.

Kristen Johnson is a first year’s Master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. She was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and her focus is on urban development in African cities, particularly in the informal sector. She can be reached at kristen.johnson@berkeley.edu.