(The second in a Spring series about cycling in Baltimore: Why planning for strictly vehicular travel makes pedestrians and bicycles an unwelcome nuisance rather than a welcome expectation.)
In my last column, we began discussing the bicycle culture of Baltimore. Recently, I had the chance to continue that discussion with Bikemore Executive Director Chris Merriam and Board Member Dave Love. I asked Chris to frame the relationship that bicycling has with public health, how one impacts the other, and how Bikemore’s efforts are designed to improve both the health of the community and the acceptance of bicycles on Baltimore streets.
“There’s a huge public health aspect to what we do,” says Chris, who was recently award an Open Society Institute Fellowship to further Bikemore’s mission of advocating for cycling and cyclists’ rights in Baltimore. “Cycling is a means of addressing the obesity problem in Baltimore — and all over the country of course. This is a working class city, though. It’s not like Washington D.C. or San Francisco. Not everyone belongs to a gym or eats healthy food all the time. The corner store diet of chips and soda is such a pervasive issue here.”
Chris has a background in urban planning, which informs his perspective. He agrees that our transportation system is a major component of public health, and a major obstacle to improving it. “We have a substandard [public] transportation system. For instance, I’ll see people waiting for hours at a time for buses that will take them to work. A lot of the job sprawl in the area is such that many jobs for lower income people are in suburban malls, in Towson or Whitemarsh. Using public transit, depending on where people live, can take a long time: take one bus, take another bus, take the light rail, and there’s a lot of waiting around in between.”
And yet, despite the obvious advantages of a more bike-friendly city, Bikemore and other bicycling advocacy groups are trying to counteract 80 years of car-based engineering on our cities. Designing both vehicles and cities for strictly vehicular travel makes pedestrians and bicycles a nuisance rather than an expectation, and that is reflected in driver attitudes. Often the relationship between bikers and drivers is fraught with animosity.
Dave thinks that this may change due to sheer volume of bikes on the road, remembering his time in Berkeley, California: “Regardless of where I’m going, there would be three or four people on the same path, at a stop light five or six bikes back up. We wait just like traffic…If we got enough people on the roads, we could be looking at a sea change.”
But getting Baltimore drivers not to see red when they see a skinny person in spandex “in the way” is more than just a matter of numbers. Culture has to change too, and Bikemore realizes that Baltimore is a city with its own needs, and certainly its own culture.
People cite Portland as the ultimate case study. But remember, Portland is largely homogeneous, doesn’t have a lot of conflict, has a lot of taxpayers, is relatively young, etc. We can learn lessons from other cities, but we need to be wary of the ‘if they can do it, why can’t we?’ game.
Chris and Dave believe that these problems can be solved, but it will take effort on three fronts: education, infrastructure, and policy. They are leading in all three of these areas, but if you see the Bikemore sign around town, you are seeing education in action. Whether it’s a Bike Valet stand at the Food Truck Gathering or a presentation to a group of innovators at a conference like Reinvent Transit, Bikemore is constantly encouraging awareness and mutual respect between bikers and drivers.
Housekeeping: I wanted to address a couple of questions that came up in comments last time. First, the marked gender gap in bike commuters. I have two thoughts on factors that might be contributing to the disparity:
- It seems likely that there are safety-related differences in male and female biking behavior, as there are in many other activities. These safety concerns are related to both the perceived and actual intrinsic dangers of the activity itself and the external threats associated with being a single woman without a protective (vehicular) barrier. This study here comes to some similar conclusions, but I welcome any comments.
- There is reporting bias of some sort. This study from Stanford refers to a bias on survey forms that minimize or aggregate the kinds of trips that women tend to make (leaving aside the 50’s housewife stereotype slathered on the surface of the whole premise).
Second, how to get involved:
There are a number of groups that are active in the City, Bikemore being today’s obvious example. Velocipede and other bike shops and coops are all educators and advocates worth knowing, and of course join the Bike Party on the last Friday of each month.
Next Time: Who should bike in Baltimore, how, and why?