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Spin Cyclists

Some thoughts on Baltimore's biking future--from the people who do it everyday

Michael Northrup
City cyclists (from left) Peter Hegel, Boson Au, Anna Ricklin, Lars Peterson, and Gabby Vigo.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/22/2009

Bike Blast

Druid Hill Park, Saturday, April 25

Visit ci.baltimore.md.us for more details

The City of Baltimore's official Bike Blast takes over Druid Hill Park this Saturday, April 25, with a day's worth of activities and information aimed at advocating cycling in the city. The event is the latest in an ongoing, and ever-so-slightly increasing, number of city efforts to make Baltimore a more bike-friendly urban environment, an effort that feels to have begun in earnest when the Bicycle Master Plan was developed by the Department of Planning in 2006. These efforts have been visible--the emergence of designated bike routes, sharrows, signed routes, and floating bike lanes; the addition of bike racks on all city buses; the production of safe-cycling PSAs; and the addition of Nate Evans as the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Planner. Promoting cycling appears to be an element of the city's sustainability planning. And, just looking around, it looks like the number of Baltimoreans cycling is increasing.

"I think the city's doing a pretty good job of trying to promote biking, not just as a recreational activity but also as a transportation alternative," says Boson Au, a 31-year-cyclist and member of the Velocipede Bike Project, a collective-run, nonprofit bike shop-qua-cycling advocacy effort. Au is joined by six of his fellow collective members inside the Project's Station North Arts District workshop area on a refreshingly pleasant April Friday afternoon, sitting in metal folding chairs with the space's doors open. Almost everybody here pedaled in from some part of the city.

"Biking fits well with the city's green efforts, and to get people out of their houses and exercise," 28-year-old Gabby Vigo notes, alluding to the city's Fit Baltimore campaign.

"You see what's happening in the city because of this push," Au continues. "And a lot of different cities are doing the same thing, talking about transportation issues--I mean, cities are trying to break into the 'Top Biking Cities in the Country' lists. So I think the general national consensus is trying to get something besides cars on the road, and it's trickling down to Baltimore."

It's a sentiment shared by the group gathered, as are the many reasons they spout off when asked about what makes Baltimore a good city for cycling: its compact size, that its few hills aren't intimidating, that for the most part you can do it year round, that it's more expedient for a large part of distances around the city, that, well, the present public transportation system can be frustrating and tedious. But very quickly this conversation starts to run into the many facets of Baltimore that make it less user-friendly, aspects well known to anybody who uses a bike as his or her primary mode of transportation. And it's these aspects, both macro and micro urban issues as a whole, that need to be addressed and discussed to help get more people biking in the city and push Baltimore into a more progressively moving urban environment.

For one, right now it feels like all the city's current bike routes are geared toward the recreational rider. Paths run through the Gwynns Falls park to the Inner Harbor and around it, through and around Druid Hill Park and down the Jones Falls trail, and through Roland Park down Roland Avenue and across University Parkway to 33rd Street, funneling riders toward Lake Montebello and the lanes around Herring Run Park.

"I would say it's not so much for the recreational rider as much as it for the privileged rider," 29-year-old Anna Ricklin says. "Because I'm willing to say there are a fair number of people who commute from Roland Park by bike, but they're not necessarily doing it to save money. They're sporty, they enjoy riding. They're not necessarily having to bike. It's a choice, versus a lot of us, who can't necessarily afford cars or want to support buying gasoline."

That very observation directly addresses a major element that needs to be addressed in the city's cycling advocacy future: that biking is not solely a great form of exercise for the recreational rider, but that it is a favored and sometimes sole transportation alternative for a significant portion of the city's population. That socioeconomic component that must be considered with any urban planning comes into play with cycling, too.

Vigo and Lars Peterson spotlight West Baltimore and East Baltimore as entire sectors of the city where the basic conditions of the roads and established traffic patterns need to be addressed to make riding safer for its inhabitants. "Most of the diagonal streets, like Belair Road, Sinclair [Lane]--which isn't really a diagonal--Harford [Road], it would help if they had a little more room for bikes on the side and if they didn't dump the [bike] lanes onto side roads quite so much," Peterson points out. "Because you have to pick a careful route around them because of those roads, and there are some neighborhoods that are isolated because of that."

Such neighborhood isolation doesn't merely influence the routes from which a biker must choose; it can also influence his very demeanor in parts of town. The seemingly erratic functioning of city street lights at night can often make a winter or evening commute--when it gets dark around 5 p.m.--feel like a dodgy adventure. And as in any city, bike theft remains a problem here--please install more safe, durable bike racks throughout the city--but as David Matthews noted in his 2007 memoir Ace of Spades, in Baltimore sometimes people try to steal your bike while you're riding it.

All of which speaks to a major change in road thinking that needs to happen in general: raising motorist awareness that cyclists have a right to the road. Every urban cyclist has that story of being doored, of being trapped between a bus and a car, of unsuccessfully contending with a city street's age--such as water drainage gates whose bars run parallel to traffic flow, the perfect size for a bike tire to fall into (ditto the exposed old trolley tracks)--and, most infuriating, being completely ignored by car drivers. If you think car drivers talking or texting on their cell phones is infuriating when you're driving a car, you should try being a cyclist trying to avoid being hit by an incessant chatterer who can't be bothered to notice how his or her vehicle is creeping into the next lane. Of course, if you do what any sane cyclist would do--rap quickly on the auto's window or say "Hey" really loudly to get the driver's attention to avoid running you into a never-ending line of parallel parked cars--you're the asshole.

Simply bringing up these issues starts an active discussion among the Velocipede members about how to go about making biking safer. "Do you think the city could encourage biking better by enforcing current traffic laws to respect bicycles or create more bike lanes?" Peterson asks. "Because, personally, I think bike lanes are a huge waste for the kind of cycling that I do. To me, to make biking better in the city, more bike lanes is not the solution. It's more important to be safe on the roads as they are."

Peterson's notion speaks to the sort of empathetic relationship that ideally exists between motorists and cyclists: Drivers should respect cyclists' right to be on the roads, and cyclists shouldn't abuse that access. "Another thing that might be holding back the whole coexistence between drivers and cyclists is that some cyclists don't know the laws or rules or whatever of biking in traffic," 25-year-old Kristen Rigney says. "So as much as we need to make drivers more aware of cyclists, I think there also needs to be cyclists taking responsibility on the road. I think it would be good because when do you learn the rules for riding a bike? When you're, like, 6?"

"If you listen to us talk about routes, what's safe, what's not safe, it's obvious that there needs to be some sort of change of thinking about biking in Baltimore City in order to get the people who are just about brave enough to ride to go ahead and make the plunge," Au adds. "Obviously, talk about which street is safe, which street you might get jumped at--that would turn you off. But there's really no solution for that except to have more cyclists on the road--I seriously believe that. It's not like our police force has nothing else to do but enforce traffic laws--they're obviously busy, too. But I feel like to assume we need more cops on the road to enforce those laws isn't going to work."

Outside, a small of group of men on bikes passes by the shop on Lanvale Street, and most of the members knew who will be trailing shortly behind them. And within a few seconds Mayor Sheila Dixon comes pedaling behind, followed closely by her black SVU security detail. Everybody laughs at the serendipity of the moment--talking about what Baltimore needs to do to encourage more, safer cycling in the city as the mayor herself bikes by--and admit that one of the best ways to encourage people to bike in city is to lead by example.

"It's not just trying to get people out of the cars and onto bikes," Ricklin says. "It's about trying to get people, anywhere, on bikes."

"I work downtown at a place where I see more and more bikes show up on racks--in fact, we just installed a bunch of racks," Au says. "People commute from my building, and I see more and more every year. People are riding to work. They're not afraid of the traffic. They're just doing it."

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