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Why Baltimore Is Not Ready For Bike Share

Charles Street: Not ready for prime time.

This marks my three year anniversary of going car free.  In that time, I’ve cycled through scorching heat, bitter cold, speeding city traffic, winding rural roads, and everything in between.  I broke my arm, was attacked, got really in shape, and reduced my transportation expenses to almost nothing. I’ve met some amazing people through Baltimore’s burgeoning bike culture and saw some wild stuff by simply being present in urban life outside of a car. The experience completely changed my perspective on road design, traffic safety, and what our streets should be.

While the positives far outweigh whatever setbacks and inconveniences I encountered,  I’m also more convinced than ever that Baltimore is out of the game when it comes to quality cycling infrastructure and livable streets. In my three years of being car free, I’ve had to use all of my creativity, gumption and courage to find marginally safe cycling routes to the places I wanted to go.  The barriers to cycling here are high. They shouldn’t be. Historic, walkable neighborhoods. A great waterfront. Density and lots of amenities in a compact city. This place should be a cycling paradise.  Cities like Memphis, Pittsburgh, New York, and DC have taken the initiative with buffered bike lanes, cycle tracks, sensible road diets, and a comprehensive network of traditional bike lanes. They’ve seen the benefits of these investments. Baltimore’s bike ridership is up, but the increase is despite our infrastructure, not because of it.

And while there is talk of a bike share system here, Baltimore is simply not ready for it. As a city planner, and as someone who has walked and biked our streets far more than the people who originally designed them, such a system would put many novice riders in an unforgiving environment. An example: Charles Street in Mt. Vernon is a natural bike route for visitors making a trip from the Inner Harbor. It’s historic, commercial, a scenic byway, has lots of restaurants and street life.  Even without bike lanes, visitors and novice riders using our bike share system would inevitably try to bike on Charles Street. They will find fast, one way traffic, peak hour parking restrictions (which encourages speeding even more), and a general disregard for cyclists because the design cues of the street prioritize through traffic. Current alternate routes: an isolated expanse on Fallsway near the prison, or possibly Park Ave, another fast one way street lacking bike lanes.

The problem is twofold: Baltimore has a strong auto culture because of our lack of fixed rail transit. This is understandable. The other problem is there is no vocal champion for a comprehensive bike network within our city’s leadership. Baltimore’s leadership should step up to the podium and say, “We will have X miles of protected bike lane miles and X bike mode share by 2020″. Given that most bike infrastructure costs a fraction of repaving a road, lack of funding shouldn’t be an excuse.

Yes, there are new bike lanes and cycle tracks in the pipeline, but progress has been excruciatingly slow compared to other cities. In order for a bike share system to succeed, more momentum needs to be seen in redesigning our streets to provide safe bike routes and slower traffic speeds. The economic, social, and environmental benefits of complete streets are known. The goal is attainable. It’s time Baltimore steps up to the plate.

  • The Baltimore Chop

    The average tourist would never make it up Charles from Pratt to Monument even with no traffic at all, because HILLS. It’s hard to imagine bikeshare bikes would have adequate gearing.

    Personally I ride up Park ave all the time and like it, even going out of my way to get there even from east of Fallsway.

  • seth

    Thanks for the post. I really enjoyed it. Kind of a sobering argument.

    Bikemore is championing for better infrastucture so Baltimore becomes a more welcoming city for novice cyclists in terms of infrastructure, bike parking, and so forth.

  • Evan H

    I’m always struck by the fact that throughout the city, there are always numerous parallel streets serving the same routes, but not one street has bike lanes. Drivers can get around downtown through many other means; why not make Charles one-lane for cars with two-way bike lanes? Parallel streets may increase a bit in vehicular traffic, but no doubt some drivers are in their cars because they’re uncomfortable biking without bike lanes.

  • Mary

    I think cyclists would be totally motivated to bike up the hill on Charles Street if they had a safe bike lane there. There’s too much good stuff on Charles for people to take an alternate route.

  • Erica

    In addition to our complete lack of infrastructure (both bike infrastructure and halfway decent public transportation), Baltimore’s auto culture has a LOT to do with the culture of the city in general. I’m from Pittsburgh, and where I come from, nobody is too good to ride the bus. (Pittsburgh also lacks fixed rail aside from two lines that go out into the inner ring suburbs, FYI.) You get on the bus, you see a friggin’ rainbow of people: black, white, old, young, disabled, hipsters, moms with kids, whatever. Yet here, people who literally have door to door PT service won’t ride it because they’re afraid of “violence” (like that’s not a code for something!). When I mentioned to someone that I take the subway to a certain destination every couple of months, and find it pleasant, their eyes got real big and they said they’d NEVER take the subway, because “there’s a lot of gangs on the subway.” This is your typical pale Baltimorean right here. And if they won’t ride PT, they certainly won’t ride bikes, especially not ones that other people have touched. I can’t think of a single bike-friendly city (at least in the US) that doesn’t also have vibrant PT, the two go together.

    So yeah, I agree that we are not a good city for bike share, though for a slightly different reason. Bike share is technically part of the PT system, and until we as a city start both investing in and actually USING traditional PT, bike share doesn’t have a chance. I don’t think hills have anything to do with it, Denver has a thriving bike share system, and Pittsburgh will have one by 2015. Charles is nothing in comparison.

  • Pookey

    Word. I’ve been to PGH. It’s awesome. And people in Baltimore, new transplants mostly, are Terrified (the capital T is intentional) of transit. I’ve never met more people with a suburban mentality living in a city than this place.

  • Erica

    OMG, this reminds me of a woman I work with who actually *called her boyfriend to drive her from the Inner Harbor to Hampden* because she was leaving work at 8:00 and was petrified of taking the light rail home after dark. I said I’d ride with her, no dice. She forced me to ride home with them and I did it because hey, it shaved a half hour off my commute. But the whole way back all I was thinking was holy shit, people here are insane.

    I mean, am I being naïve? It just doesn’t make sense that someone from the hick part of PA is less scared of Baltimore City than someone who was BORN here.

  • Peter Smith

    i don’t know what the baseline cycling mode share is for introducing bike share, but if people are riding anywhere in america, they’re going to find a generally unforgiving environment.

    people are being slaughtered on a daily in socal, but i think bike share will only help the numbers go down.

  • Cranky Ryder

    Bikemore is championing drunk biking with all those happy hours

  • Guest

    Oh, bullshit. That’s like saying every happy hour that isn’t a bike related happy hour is championing drunk driving.

  • anne

    Downtown is hazardous for biking. We need more protected bikelanes there. The new jones falls trail is nice but it will be a huge pedestrian/cyclist conflict at the inner harbor if we get bikeshare.

  • Jed Weeks

    Hopefully the Maryland Ave cycle track will be installed around the same time bike share opens. That would provide a safe route for novices up into Mt. Vernon.

    You’re echoing a lot of what was said in the recent Bikemore/Red Line NOW! op/ed in the Baltimore Sun. We definitely should be following the lead of most other successful cities, and putting cars last–behind pedestrians, transit, and bicycling.

    It would also be helpful to get lanes on Charles at some point–even if they are just bike/bus only lanes…

  • Ted McGovern

    Right on. This is the bold and bitter truth. I can’t imagine families or beginners trying to cycle down that Lombard St. Bus/Bike lane with 50mph traffic.

  • Cranky Ryder

    Other happy hours have a secondary purpose – socialization after work. What work has Bikemore done? That would be NONE, Therefore Bikemore’s purpose is to promote drunk biking.

  • johan

    great post Mark!

  • Comeback City

    You are absolutely right! Bike infrastructure is lacking in many places in the city, but especially in the densest places where people would like to bypass driving and parking to get to their locations. This linked article is about how it is difficult to bike on Pratt Street, a street that seemingly would need to be bike friendly for the introduction of bikeshare……

  • Jed Weeks

    If you’re going to sit around on the internet and bash a barely year-old organization, I’d love to know who you actually are.

    If the email updates that Bikemore sends out aren’t properly explaining Bikemore’s work, I’m sure that feedback would be appreciated.

    I’d be willing to sit down with you and go over the many Bikemore accomplishments over the past year, and what’s being worked on right now.

    I’ve got a half hour if it has the potential to make you a supporter. Let me know.

  • Cranky Ryder

    That’s if you’d show up! Only a signup sheet at the Block Party and no info at all at Tour da Parks. Email & website promote more playtime, some letters and coattail riding. Show me more bike lanes NOW not next year. And get those tourists out of the harbor bike lane!

  • ChrisRHamilton

    Mark, I agree with you and your readers in your assessment of Baltimore’s lack of supportive bicycle infrastructure and culture. As a frequent visitor (via MARC trains from DC) to your city I’ve seen what you’ve seen firsthand. And what makes it frustrating, as you point out, is that Baltimore has the bones for biking to take off. There just needs to be some leadership within the City government.
    Regarding the bikeshare, this could be a chicken or egg thing. Although the infrastructure isn’t there, if you suddenly plopped down 150 stations in the core (you got to think big) then all of a sudden there would be people biking. The presence of these new bikers would help spur investment in infrastructure and provide the gateway to more people getting their own bikes. So I say go for it Baltimore!


  • Mark

    Excellent comment. Just read your bio. Congrats on walking the walk and living car free.

  • ChrisRHamilton

    This should be seen as an economic development issue. The cities that will win in the future, and attract the creative class and good companies, that will attract the millennials who increasingly aren’t car-centrict and want to live in walkable, bikable, transit-oriented places, are the places that emphasize walk, bike, transit over cars, minimizing traffic delay and parking. Baltimore city leaders and transportation folks just haven’t gotten this yet. Look at the transformation NYC has made in just since Mayor Bloomberg has been in office with his visionary Transportation Commissioner. It is taking place in Chicago, Chattanooga, DC, Arlington, Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, and of course Portland, Denver/Boulver and many more places. Baltimore will be left behind unless it changes its attitude.

  • johntaylor

    I just want to add to add that despite what you say, Pittsburgh is a horrible biking city. No bike lines in 90% of the city, inconsiderate drivers, and a ton of hills.

  • Matt

    Great article. I’m a Baltimore native who moved to Arlington/DC a few years back and became pretty heavily involved in their Car Free program here. As much as I love this area and this city, my heart still lies in Baltimore and the blue collar atmosphere (and the Ravens and the Orioles). However, whenever I’m asked which city I prefer, I always lean towards Arlington/DC. Not because I’d prefer to be here necessarily, I’ve just found the transit in the area to be much more accessible.

    But I’ve been saying for several years now, Baltimore needs a Bikesharing program. Hands down, absolutely, needs a program. It would do amazing things connecting Fells Point, Fed Hill, Mount Vernon, etc. One thing I’ve seen VERY often in Baltimore, is people choosing one location and staying there because it’s not the easiest to hop around. However, in DC, friends and coworkers will travel from neighborhood to neighborhood with ease, so we wind up visiting multiple places in the city. The outcome is visitors and residents alike being able to really see ALL of the city, and take part in quite a bit. In fact, Arlington and DC have more or less merged into one city as far as I’m concerned. There’s no problem whatsoever taking Capital Bikehshare from Arlington to DC and back again.

    Anyhap, long winded way of saying, great article. I absolutely agree with you. Bikeshare belongs in Baltimore and I look forward to the day that it finds a home there. When it does, I believe I might just make my home there again as well.