An interview with Baltimore City's "bike czar"
If you've noticed almost any new bike-friendly improvement around the city recently, from new bike lanes to bike racks, Nate Evans is likely behind it. Almost exactly a year ago, Evans, a former transportation engineer for Timonium's Constellation Design Group, started work as the City of Baltimore's Bike and Pedestrian Planner. Last week, he sat down in his City Hall-adjacent office, adorned with hopeful maps of Baltimore's cycling-friendly future, boxes of cycling promotional brochures, and, yes, two bicycles, to talk about what Baltimore City is doing to become a more friendly place for bikes.
City Paper: I have a number of friends who say they are absolutely terrified of riding bikes in Baltimore. I wonder what you would tell them to reassure them.
Nate Evans: I guess I would have to ask what they're afraid of.
CP: It's everything, from bad streets to angry drivers to being accosted in neighborhoods, having rocks thrown at them.
NE: First of all, I don't blame them for being afraid. Baltimore can be a very tough place to ride a bike. As far as if you're being run off the road or afraid of motorists, it happens. I can't tell you how many times I've been riding my bike around town and people tell me to get on the sidewalk. Well, it's illegal to ride your bike on the sidewalk. I think the best thing to do is to have some common sense about the way you're riding. Yeah, people are going to get upset and yell at you, but you have to keep a cool head. You might be able to out-maneuver a car, but you're probably not going to be able to outrun it.
As far as being accosted by people that are out to steal your bike or whatever, I've been tracking some stats on that, and we had maybe a dozen or so bikes stolen that way [in 2008]. There's a couple of [bad] sections in the West Side and just north of Johns Hopkins [Homewood campus]. This happens, but for the most part you can usually ride your bike faster than someone that's running after you. And if you feel like your safety is being jeopardized by stopping at a stoplight, I'm not going to tell you to stop if you can safely go. We are trying to address these issues. We put out a [public service announcement] about sharing the road, and it's gotten some good publicity and also our web site has share the road tips, and we have [share the road signage] on backs of buses.
One thing that we try and do is designate routes for people. If they feel like they want to ride their bike, if they tell us where they want to ride their bike to, and where they're coming from, we'll offer suggestions on an easy, safe route to take. We're not just going to leave 'em hanging out there. We'll help them.
CP: Someone could just, like, call you?
NE: Yeah, they could e-mail me [firstname.lastname@example.org] or call. If I don't know the answer, there are a ton of cyclists in the city that can give you a decent route no matter what part of town you're coming from.
CP: When I'm biking in the city, I get the feeling that no one has my back, particularly the Police Department. I'll be riding my bike, legally, and I'll get honked at by cops to get out of the way. I'm wondering what kind of interface there is between Transportation and the Police Department. It almost seems like there should be a kind of "back of the buses" PSA for cops.
NE: We've got a couple things going on as far as that goes. I've got contacts at the police department where I can voice my concerns, and they're almost always addressed. We recently had a problem with people parking their cars in the trolley lanes, the bike lanes over behind Harborplace. I let the Police Department know this, and I got a response the next day. They beefed up enforcement, started giving out tickets. That kind of thing is a good start.
Coming up [on May 1] we're going to have a bike summit, bringing in all of the different groups around the city that do or could affect cycling in Baltimore, and the biggest group I reached out to was the Police Department. It's imperative that we have their input, because we don't want to just be like "How come you're not helping us?" It's more like, "How can we help each other?" Yeah, cyclists do belong on the roads, and we need to properly educate cyclists, motorists, and the police on how to properly [follow and] enforce the law.
I hear it a lot, your concern. We definitely want to get it so the police, the Department of Transportation (DOT), and City Hall, we're all on the same page. We want cyclists to know that if you have problems, you can rely on the police for that. We're working together to work that curriculum into the Police Academy guide, to have a better [police] bike presence around town, and to develop some kind of program for the officers that are out there on the street to get them information that they need to respect the rights of cyclists.
CP: How does the cycling fatality rate in Baltimore compare to other big cities?
NE: We are actually very low. From 2002 to 2008, we had maybe four fatalities. I think the last one we had was two years ago. The Police Department and DOT share their crash statistics, so we can kind of track where that's happening. Even New York City, which has a very high number of cyclists, has a very high percentage of bike deaths compared to us.
CP: Do you commute by bike?
NE: I take the bus. But, whenever I have a meeting, I'm on bike. I've never used a city vehicle. I gotta practice what I preach. If the bike planner of a city can't ride a bike somewhere, I don't expect anyone else to.
CP: Can you explain "sharrows," the not-really-a-bike lanes/arrows on the outside of some driving lanes, or the logic behind them? Among the bikers I talk to, they're looked at as kind of a joke.
NE: I can understand that. Sharrows are a concept where we put them on a wide outside of a lane to kind of enforce the presence of bikes. Where there's areas around town where we could do a bike connection between a couple of points, sometimes we don't have enough room for a [bike lane]. So we do a sharrow. We put the sharrow in to, hopefully, remind motorists that there could be bikes in the area. Where sharrows are put in, there should be room enough for a motorist to pass a cyclist without crossing the center line.
CP: Are there any different laws that apply to sharrows? Different passing laws, distance laws . . .
NE: Not in Maryland. We can't even get a 3-foot passing law to pass.
CP: That's really a shame.
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