HealthThe Global Is Local

B’more Bike Friendly

By April 5, 2013 6 Comments

(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!

Author Adam Conway

Adam Conway is a recent transplant to Baltimore, an advocate for intelligent, holistic policy in government and industry, and a potter. After receiving undergraduate degrees in art and psychology, Adam pursued a career in mental health care, serving those with mental illness in residential and community settings. In 2011, he completed a Master's in Public Health Policy at the University of Pittsburgh, and is now devoted to addressing systemic issues affecting the entire population- health, environment, food, and policy. He also has been making functional and decorative pottery for over ten years ( in community studio settings because he likes people and is inspired by their work. Any opinions expressed in Adam’s articles are his own and are not intended to represent those of any agency or organization for which he is employed.

More posts by Adam Conway

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Nina Schwartzman says:

    Wow, what surprises me most about that infographic is what a small proportion of the bike commuters are women. Can that really be right?

  • Adam Conway says:

    From what I’ve seen, the proportion of female bikers is low everywhere, usually no more than 25%, so Maryland is lower than average, but considering the level of bike participation, not so surprising. Since that data ends in 2010, there may be some changes that have happened. I get the impression that there has been an influx of younger people over the past couple of years. Subjectively, I know a fair number of women bike commuters, but I work in the public health sector, which is dominated by women, so it’s hard to say.

  • That statistic really surprised me too. Is there any way to get more recent data, or to account for the disparity?

  • Adam Conway says:

    It’s definitely one of the points I want to address in the next few weeks since it highlights a disparity that I didn’t expect to see. Economic, regional, even racial differences I expected, but the level of gender inequality here is quite startling.

  • Colin Seal says:

    Great story. As everyone has said, the statistics are a surprise. As a cyclist in Baltimore, I will say it is extremely scary at the amount of times I have almost been hit due to non-adherence of the law. My favorite was when several officers saw a car almost hit me and said did nothing. I stopped and had a polite conversation with them, they openly admitted not understanding any of the current laws on cycling on city streets. Looking forward to the next story! Any advice on how to get involved?

  • I must confess to having once been one of those people entirely ignorant of the bike laws in Baltimore. I’m on my way to being reformed. Adam probably has more specific ideas, but a good place to start if you want to get involved in changing Baltimore to a more bike-friendly culture is Bikemore:

    Thanks Colin.

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