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3 Feet Wide and Rising

Baltimore's future as a cycling city depends on advocacy from its cyclists

Jennifer Daniel

By Michael Byrne | Posted 4/21/2010

Two bicyclists have died on Baltimore area roads within the past year, the first fatalities in at least two years. Last August, Jack Yates was hit at Maryland and Lafayette avenues by a turning truck that then left the scene. The second death occurred on April 8 at Falls and Butler roads, where Lawrence Bensky was hit from behind by a car.

Both deaths come at a time when bicycle travel in Baltimore is, if not exploding, at least rising steeply. Considering the recent attention given bike-boom cities such as Portland, Ore., Washington D.C., or New York, it may come as a surprise that Baltimore ranks 11th in the nation for bicycling and walking as a percentage of total transportation use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded Alliance for Biking and Walking's 2010 Benchmarking Report. It's a powerful stat, but even better, just take a few minutes one morning to stand at the corner where Jack Yates was killed and note the steady stream of commuting riders heading south on Maryland Avenue.

Frankly, with cycling on the rise in Baltimore, more accidents and fatalities shouldn't come as a surprise; they will continue to happen. Cycling infrastructure still lags terribly, money in Baltimore for cycling improvements--whether bike lanes, education, or promotion--is still thin at best, and, with bike-positive Mayor Sheila Dixon out, it would seem that the cycling community has lost its biggest establishment booster. In that same benchmark report, Baltimore ranked 33rd among major U.S. cities for bike and pedestrian funding. To wit: Maryland spent a mere 13 percent of its annual allotment from a federal funding source known as Transportation Enhancement, by far the lowest percentage of any U.S. state.

Last week, the Maryland Legislature passed a number of bike-positive bills, the most powerful of which is known as the "3-foot passing law," e.g. a driver passing a cyclist must allow 3 feet of room, or not pass. The law is long overdue. Indeed, for at least five years, it tumbled unsuccessfully around the state capital. The difference in 2010? Blood on the pavement, perhaps. On the day the bill passed, a mass of 85 cyclists rode to Annapolis to rally in remembrance of Bensky.

The 3-foot passing law had something else behind it, too: One Less Car. A small organization based in Mount Vernon, One Less Car (membership: 15,000) is the nonprofit advocacy voice of bicycles and pedestrians in Maryland. Credit the bike racks now on every MTA bus to work done by One Less Car. Baltimore City's bike and pedestrian planner position, held currently by Nate Evans ("Pedal Power," The Bike Issue, April 22, 2009), also exists in some part due to efforts by One Less Car. The organization is also responsible for the B'More Streets for People program--currently somewhat ignored by the city--and Annapolis' yearly Bicycle and Pedestrian Symposium.

What One Less Car does is amazing--and can't be overstated--but it is largely focused on state issues, and as One Less Car Executive Director Carol Silldorff notes, "I'm a one-person staff." While there is an expectation among many riders in Baltimore that Evans is the be-all end-all of making Baltimore a better place, he is quick to say, "I can do so much, but I can't do everything." Evans mentions the Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee, a close-knit group of City Hall insiders that makes recommendations to city government. However, "the group is still within the city government," Evans says. "They can only do so much." He then hesitates slightly and adds, "They don't want to step on any toes."

What Baltimore cyclists need is someone stepping on toes, fighting constantly at City Hall.

It can't be emphasized enough: Advocacy is inextricably linked to everything that goes into making a city a safe and comfortable place to ride a bike. "Advocacy capacity" is one of six indicators that the Benchmarking Report uses to determine the bike- and walkability of a city. The advocacy force in Baltimore City for cyclists and pedestrians is minimal, ranking in the bottom third of U.S. cities, according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking's report--despite an actual cycling and pedestrian share in the top third.

The lack of independent local bike advocacy isn't about money, Evans says. "Look at our two biggest, closest cities, Philadelphia and Washington," he says. "In size and population, we're pretty similar. [Washington,] D.C. has a phenomenal bike infrastructure and part of the reason is that they have Washington Area Bike Association. In Philadelphia, they have Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. These groups have thousands of members."

In short, the advocacy gap in Baltimore gapes. There are many interested parties in Baltimore's bicycling landscape: the bike repair collective Velocipede, the loose-knit boosters of the North Baltimore Bike Brigade, the Baltimore Bicycling Club, the growing number of bike shops in the city. But none appear to be in the position to take on the load of full-time advocacy. "My feeling is that [the businesses and organizations] are also understaffed," Silldorff adds.

And what can an advocacy organization do, anyway? Portland, Ore.'s Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), with a membership of 5,000 and operating now with a staff of 16 people, is in large part responsible for one of the nation's best bicycling networks. Starting from basically nothing 20 years ago, the city, which is roughly the size of Baltimore, now boasts 300 miles of various sorts of bikeways. Gerik Kransky, the BTA's advocacy campaign manager, gives up the jarring statistic that at $60 million, those 300 miles cost about the same as a mile of urban freeway.

Kransky also defines in succinct terms what an advocacy organization is:A  "Outsiders making demands on elected officials, actually leading on the issue, really taking the mantle of grassroots energy and taking it into the public sphere. Advocacy organizations build alliances early with businesses, developers, [and] a myriad of local groups whose best interests involve slower traffic, cleaner air, safer spaces, more confidence that they can get to and from for their daily needs with a short bicycle commute."

The BTA is a nonprofit overseen by a board of directors, and operated by a dedicated staff. It takes on members, individuals, and businesses that support the cycling agenda--and that can be mobilized politically, if needed. On top of sponsorships and financial gifts, members support it with yearly dues. It's a common set-up for such an advocacy group.

Closer to home, Washington, D.C., has built up one of the country's more impressive bike infrastructures, thanks in large part to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. ("D.C. is very lucky to have WABA," says David Cranor, who keeps up the WashCycle blog.) Just look at the respective fronts of Baltimore's Penn Station and D.C.'s Union Station. Here, we have a set of racks sitting out of the way next to a parking lot; Union Station offers a full-on bike transit center, with lockers, storage, changing rooms, bike rentals, and even a repair shop. Note that the center, along with a large percentage of bicycle improvements nationwide, is funded in large part by federal dollars. That is to say that the money is out there for the taking, it's just a matter of having the wherewithal to grab it. Or, to put it into even sharper terms, you, the Baltimore taxpayer, are paying for other cities' bad-ass bicycle programs.

Even closer to home than Washington is MORE, the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts, a group that advocates for mountain bikers' rights. Last fall, MORE reared its head when Baltimore's Department of Public Works threatened to step up enforcement of rules that keep mountain bikes off so-called singletrack dirt trails around Loch Raven and Pretty Boy reservoirs. Almost immediately after Baltimore's City Council announced that it would be updating its 11-year-old agreement with the mountain bikers--including the enforcement--MORE had an audience with the council on the matter. "What is it that's going to motivate these road-riding masses?" Silldorff asks.

At this point in the conversation, the question has answered itself--a Baltimore-specific bicycling advocacy organization. And Silldorff wants to be a part of it: "It fits our mission perfectly. I would love One Less Car to take the lead." That, however, doesn't involve One Less Car overextending itself even more. It means new people and organizations must join in. Both Evans and Silldorff imagine an alliance or coalition of already existing bike-positive organizations in Baltimore coming together, along with anyone else in the city that cares enough about bicycling to help make Baltimore a quality city to ride.

A whopping seven bicycle-related bills put forward by Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District) are working their way through Baltimore's City Council currently. They are by far the most ground-shaking measures put forth by Baltimore's city government ever in terms of bikes, ranging from requirements that Baltimore fix its currently bike-lethal parallel storm grates, to requiring bike parking, more bike lanes, a cyclist's "bill of rights," and that bike-positive "complete streets" criteria be taken into consideration with any new city transportation project. Baltimore could in a very short time go from being one of the most bike-backward cities in the United States to one of its most supportive.

But Clarke may have a difficult time getting them through City Council intact, if at all. She's been a leading voice on the council on bike issues, representing a district (including parts of Hampden, Remington, and Charles Village) with a strong and distinct bike population in a city where bike issues might not appear to have the same gravity in many other neighborhoods. She will need help, and that help needs to come from cyclists themselves.

The BTA's Kransky makes a very important point about making advocacy work, and it will be one of Baltimore's biggest challenges going forward as a bike-friendly community. "It's not [just] about helping cyclists or spending money on bikes," he says. "The biggest challenge we have is making people understand the benefits of cycling to everyone--not just for cyclists."

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