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Growing Pains

Baltimore makes slow progress as a cycling town

Photo: Frank Hamilton, License: N/A, Created: 2011:04:14 14:01:52

Frank Hamilton

The Bike Issue

Standing on a street corner for hours on end counting bicycles one by one might not rank as the most exciting thing in the world. It’s more exciting than watching paint dry, but not exactly a coveted task, particularly at 7 in the morning. Within the next few weeks, you’ll be seeing brave and bored souls posted at street corners and bike racks around town, doing just that: counting bikes. And for very good reason.

See, the thing about asking for things such as new bike lanes and racks, or bicycle access to MARC trains, or some new effing concrete for the bombed-out cycle track ringing the harbor, is that we as cyclists need to be able to prove that there’s a demand. Where there’s demand, there are votes—and that’s how the whole machine is supposed to run, isn’t it?

The counting is part of the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project, which is just what’s outlined above: documenting bike traffic and, thus, demand. In Baltimore, it’s being organized by the city’s Department of Transportation, and actually carried out by volunteers.

Imagine the documentation project, the second count of 2011, as pencil marks on a doorframe, measuring how the city grows up as a cycling hub. Actual rubber on concrete is ultimately the best measurement you can take. Bike lanes, traffic enforcement, and all the rest of the things that Baltimore cyclists need are just a means to an end: more cyclists.

Of course, that makes for one of those crappy relationships of needing to prove demand in order to get better bike facilities . . . to increase demand. So it ultimately has to be about more than bare demand as represented by numbers. Demand comes also in the fact—demonstrated again and again—that cycling is good for cities. It gets cars off roads and exhaust out of the air, makes people healthier, makes for safer and quieter roads, lessens parking strains, and even improves employee absenteeism.

A study released in December by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst uses Baltimore as a case study. It found that on-street bike lanes, more than any other kind of transportation infrastructure improvement, lead to effective job growth. “[B]ike lanes, for a given level of spending, create about twice as many jobs as road construction,” it contends. Meanwhile, a study done at the University of Wisconsin weighing the value of cycling improvements finds that bicycling as an industry contributes $1.5 billion annually to Maryland.

That’s all fairly old hat by now. Bicycling is awesome—film at 11. But there is still the growing up. You’ll find a fair amount of whining and crying about this or that over the next several pages: Bike lanes are spotty, bike share isn’t going where it’s really needed, and that, all around, Baltimore’s growth sometimes seems stunted. We complain because we care—and we want to feel safe riding a bike in the city. Sorry, but if the Baltimore Police Department is announcing the same day that it isn’t likely to press charges or give citations in an accident that all but killed a Johns Hopkins University student, by all accounts riding legally in a bike lane, it only backs up the overwhelming impression in the cycling community that the cops here don’t have our backs.

Finally, last week, almost two months after the accident, the Baltimore Police Department issued two citations to Jeannette Marie Walke, the driver who hit the cyclist, Nathan Krasnopoler: failure to yield right-of-way to a cyclist and negligent driving, each $500 traffic tickets that carry three points. Notably, the change in tone from “no citations” to “we’re thoroughly investigating” came only after widespread outcry from cycling advocates in the city.

Which is another part of Baltimore’s growing up: People are being louder about bikes in Baltimore. The same week that Walke was cited, Bike Maryland (ne One Less Car) succeeded in toppling its biggest objective: the passage of a manslaughter by criminal negligence bill that’s been stalled in the state legislature for years. Essentially, it adds an additional charge—with penalties up to $5,000 and three years in prison—in between minor traffic tickets and full-on felony manslaughter, previously a glaring gap that made it all but impossible to charge a driver beyond a slight ticket (payable by mail).

It’s a step, anyway, to making this a safer place to ride. Another is infrastructure, and that’s been slow going in Baltimore. The idea of bike sharing is neat and all, but it presumes that what’s keeping people off of downtown Baltimore streets isn’t that you can count the mileage of actual bike lanes on two hands, but that there isn’t a public bicycle available at their fingertips (though, as we cautiously offer in this issue, it might make more sense in neighborhoods with infrastructure but poor access to bikes). How’s this for growing up: a forthcoming Baltimore café/bar all about bike love, owned by returned hometown hero and mountain-bike downhilling world champion Marla Streb, profiled here by Van Smith. Not asked in our interview: How does a 10-foot drop-off on a snaky forest trail compare to a suddenly disappearing bike lane in midday city traffic? In case, we’ve chronicled some of our favorites of those in this issue too.

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