Several times each week—depending on the season and the weather—I ride my bike from Mount Vernon in midtown to Clifton Park in Northeast Baltimore, passing en route through the Waverly neighborhood via 33rd Street. It isn’t a long ride, but it’s a sketchy one. I have been chased into traffic by kids fooling around. Grates just a hair wider than my bike tires pose a danger, as does debris left over from construction projects—piles of rubble, crushed plastic cones. Potholes riddle westbound 33rd’s bike lane, while eastbound’s frequently teems with parked cars. While 33rd Street is well lighted, sometimes I don’t feel safe riding on it.
Occasionally, I instead take dimly lighted side streets such as Homestead Street or Old York Road, which feel safer with their four-way stop signs and people in their front yards—and without the traffic and parking and potholes on 33rd.
But these quieter routes present their own problems. This past January, Robert Ponsi, a bike commuter like me, took a side street while traveling from President Street. In Harbor East to Old York Road. in Waverly. During this ride, Ponsi was attacked, robbed and stabbed, and died from the wounds he sustained. Though extreme, his story points up a real risk for all cyclists: Whether on main routes or less traveled ones, too often bike commuters’ well being remains threatened by negligent drivers, poor road conditions and possible assault.
But good news looms for all bike riders, both commuters and those who cycle recreationally. Caitlin Doolin, bicycle and pedestrian planner for the city’s Department of Transportation, expects construction to start on a Maryland Avenue. “cycletrack” (a lane with a protective physical barrier—a curb or parked cars—separating cyclist and traffic) in June. Not only that, but, according to the cycling advocacy organization Bikemore, in 2016, Baltimore should see new bike lanes on Monument Street and Mt. Royal Avenue in Mount Vernon. A new bike share program should begin, and new, more secure bike racks should begin to pop up around the city—all of which, taken together, offers the possibility of safer options for bike commuters.
The city’s embrace of cycling is very much a work in progress. In early 2015, the Department of Transportation unveiled an updated version of the its Bike Master Plan, first published in 2006. The revision estimates that by 2030, the city will boast 253 miles of bike “facilities” (lanes, paths), including its current 132.5 miles, accomplished by adding, on average, 17 miles per year; it also promises that everything will be constructed or renovated according to Complete Streets principles, which state that all roadways must accommodate multi-modal forms of transportation (cars, bikes, pedestrians). But since that announcement, aside from the addition of buffered bike lanes along Roland Avenue and Charles Street, little progress has occurred.
Meanwhile, bike riders continue to cope with challenging conditions. Penny Troutner, owner of Light Street Cycles and a contributor to the master plan, emphasizes the real need for a safer biking environment. “Which is the lesser of two evils: Biking the busy street, which is safer from crime but has more dangerous traffic, or biking on a small, quiet street that is less safe from crime?” In essence, the very dilemma I face.
But according to Jon Laria—chair of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Commission, a partner with the Baltimore branch of the national law firm Ballard Spahr—and a recreational cyclist himself—creating safe streets out of dangerous ones takes time. Laria stresses that delays are inevitable due to cumbersome bureaucratic procurement processes and the fact that the city’s proposed projects affect multiple miles in multiple neighborhoods. Regarding the latter, the Department of Transportation has solicited input from affected communities concerning changes to their streets. “It’s better to take the time,” Laria says, “and try to preempt issues that can be easily identified.”
Liz Cornish, the executive director of Bikemore, thinks that the delays can be attributed to something less concrete. “Frankly,” Cornish says, “the biggest threat to building a strong bike culture in Baltimore is provincialism. This type of small-town thinking leads many in Baltimore, including some of our political leaders, to believe things that are proven to work in other cities won’t work here.”
Over the past decade, other cities—New York, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., to name just three—have, in fact, taken the initiative to create bicycle-friendly atmospheres. Baltimore, it seems, is playing catch-up. Nonetheless, Laria contends that planned improvements will provide a “skeleton of protected lanes that should allow the city and its citizens to adjust to a more thorough biking infrastructure.”
For her part, Cornish emphasizes the need for a more holistic approach. “We have to incentivize people to own fewer cars,” she says. “This means providing them with safe, reliable alternatives like bikes and a robust public transit network. I think this is where people become really resistant to change, because they are really comfortable using their cars and don’t ever want to give that up.”
Which raises the question: Where’s the benefit for motorists?
Studies done by the New York City Department of Transportation and Chicago Department of Transportation have shown that increasing the number of protected bike lanes, and thereby increasing the number of bicycle commuters, can either reduce an automobile driver’s commute time or, at the very least, prevent an increase, even during periods of road work. For example, between 2007 and 2014, New York reported a 14-percent decrease in travel time for motorists along its busy 8th Avenue by including, increasing and improving bike lanes.
Even seemingly small efforts can make a difference. Ngani Ngozi, communications director for the advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh!, says that merely marking off lanes with painted lines gave citizens the confidence to get on their bikes and ride. According to the League of American Bicyclists, Pittsburgh experienced a 400 percent jump in bicycle commuters between 2000 and 2014, evidence that if a city provides bike lanes, people will use them. And the more people who ride, the more the community members pay attention to the cyclists around them.
I love riding up Charles Street’s newly installed buffered lanes, and similar developments along Roland Avenue have helped to move Baltimore in the right direction. But as a committed cyclist, I wish for more. My hope: As the city moves forward with its plan to make its streets friendlier and safer for bike riders, these improvements will inaugurate a sea change in the whole culture of transportation here, causing not just motorists but all citizens to become more accepting—more accommodating—of everyone else with whom they share Baltimore’s streets.
Published in April 2016 issue of STYLE.