B’more Bike Friendly

Posted on April 5, 2013 · in Health > The Global Is Local


(The first in a Spring series on biking in Baltimore.)

The Bicycle — your key to success in life, love, and happiness.

Those of us who, by choice or by necessity, spend some of our days astride the incredibly simple and efficient machine share a quiet solidarity. We nod to each other in passing. We travel in little caravans, often silently pedaling as we share the road, occasionally exchanging a few words at stoplights. We believe that biking through Baltimore is a good idea, but not everyone feels that way.

Your belief about biking in Baltimore City is almost certainly one of the following:

a)      No way in hell would I ever attempt such a foolhardy and dangerous activity! It’s one thing to bike in parks or on a bike path, but the streets of Baltimore are way too treacherous!

b)      No problem.

There is a gap there, clearly. Somewhere between these two perceptions lies the truth about what it’s really like out there. My job over the next couple of weeks is to find that place and share it with you.

Why, you ask?

Well, we agree that transportation, exercise, health, urban planning, emissions, and public policy are all intertwined, correct? Correct. The bicycle is a useful lens through which to look at all these issues, and it’s springtime, so we should all be feeling the need to get outside and move a little bit. Dust off your pedals!

Baltimoreans, as noted earlier, do not all embrace the idea of biking in the city. Only .2 percent of commuters in the state travel by bike. It’s too bad, because biking to and from work has some staggeringly profound public health implications, and not just the obvious direct health benefits. Remember back in January we wondered “Are the Buses Making Us Fat?” Obesity rates run high in Baltimore’s poor minority communities, and getting to work and shopping is often done in older cars that are expensive to maintain.

Aforementioned health impacts aside, some estimates put the fiscal benefit of biking at as much as $9000 per year. Over a decade, that’s enough to send a couple of your kids to college (assuming they either get some scholarships or go somewhere cheap) and get the family out of the worst public health threat of all, poverty. But there needs to be a framework, a safe route to ride and a culture that supports it. The state isn’t necessarily helping matters. We have the lowest per capita allocation in the country for cycling and pedestrian projects:

Click image to open interactive version (via BikeGuard).

On the other hand, there have been some legislative victories here, such as the 2010 three-foot passing law which requires that motorists allow at least three feet between vehicle and cyclist when passing. A paper published in 2012 found that adherence to this law is far from universal, however. Locally, the City Council adopted some cyclist/walker friendly legislation in 2010, including the Cyclist’s Bill of Rights.

Regardless of the numbers of accidents (quite a few), the amount spent on infrastructure (not a lot), and the policies enacted by elected officials, the main concern is the relationship that cyclists and motorists have. It should come as no surprise to anyone, regardless of how much or little time you spend on a bike, that the relationship is not always positive.

Some bikers disregard the rules of the road, neglect to use helmets or lights, or even behave aggressively toward drivers. Many drivers are uninformed about laws regarding bicycles, and assume that the signs saying “Share the Road” are a suggestion rather than a rule. Sometimes I believe I can feel the animosity from a passing vehicle in the way that they accelerate, the distance they allow between us, or the timing of their pass. Many who have lukewarm feelings toward bicyclists share them willingly — I have certainly heard many comments from coworkers or other casual conversations when the topic comes up. As a delivery driver quoted in a Baltimore Brew story about a car/bike accident in 2011 said “…these bikes need to let people do their work. Traffic is bad enough in this city without them.”

Change takes time. Keep peddling for that mountaintop.

*Next time, a discussion with Bikemore, a Baltimore organization devoted to promoting safe, accessible streets and encouraging a positive environment for motorists and cyclists alike.

**Don’t forget, Saturday April 6th is your chance to try making pottery with yours truly!

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