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Biking tips for Baltimore (or any other city)

When I first began biking in the city, the idea of mingling with traffic was pretty intimidating. Over the course of the last month I’ve gotten more comfortable in the street. I also get a kick out of the little nods of recognition other bikers give me as we pass each other.

Some things are still tricky, though. Left turns on one way streets – and one way streets in general. Trucks (and the Johns Hopkins shuttle propelled by huge plumes of black smoke which lingers hundreds of feet downwind – did they intentionally get 1970 model buses because they liked the style?).  I see a few bicyclists with headphones on. This is fine in the parks, but on the street, it’s crazy and suicidal.  I use my ears while riding just as much as my eyes. The pros of living without owning a car totally outweigh the cons, though, and I feel a lot healthier than when I was driving everywhere.

Today’s guest post comes from my friend Nate Evans, engineer and bike enthusiast.

8/12/10 Update: Thanks to DukieBiddle for this link: Toronto Bicycle/Motor-Vehicle Collision Study


Hats off to Mark for going car free!   I was glad to make his motor-free life a little easier by giving him one of my bikes.  My wife was happy too because that meant one less bike in my “fleet.”  Over the past month & some change I’ve given Mark a few pointers on surviving, I mean, um, biking in Baltimore and he’s given me plenty of work with his feedback on how inadequate B’more’s bike network is.  (It’s a work in progress, and I’m always open to suggestions.)

Mr. Fido says "Head out with a helmet!"

So, a few things that I’ve passed on to Mark, I’ll share with you.  If you want the rules of the road or good tips on what roads are good for biking, check out DOT’s still relatively new Baltimore Bike Map.  Here’s the rundown on biking in urban environments:

ALL BIKING IS PROGRESSIVE!  I’ve been riding non-stop since I was 5. At first I had training wheels, and then graduated to a “big kid’s” bike.  Next it was the 10-speed and road riding, then off the road, on to the trails.  First it was packed dirt trails, then rocks, boulders and eventually big air.  So it is with urban riding.  If it’s new to you, take the paths around the Lakes (Druid& Montebello), then onto the rolling paths through the parks (Patterson, Druid, even the Waterfront Promenade – ok, “its closed to bikes” but if you go slow and respect peds, then it’s awesome – besides, WHY would you want to speed on “the Prom” – it’s gorgeous.)  After building up some confidence, try some residential streets – generally quieter with less traffic.  Then go out and ride in some bike lanes with some faster traffic.  Eventually, you’ll work up to “taking the lane.”   Take your time and enjoy the ride; if you’re not having fun it’s had to take the next step.

CHOOSE A BIKE FOR YOU.  If you’re not sure what kind of bike you want, visit one of the awesome bike shops in town.  These folks know their craft – tell them where you ride and where you will ride and they’ll hook you up.  If you have sticker shock, at least find what size bike is right for you and go to Craigslist.  Dozens of bikes are listed there daily.

SOMETIMES IT’S OK TO RIDE ON THE SIDEWALK.  While biking on sidewalks within the city limits is illegal, sometimes you just don’t have a choice.  Typically, all bike trips begin & end in pedestrian mode on the sidewalk, whether at a residence, business….or a bike rack.   With all the handicap-accessible ramps on sidewalks at intersections, how anyone can resist the temptation to coast on up is beyond me.   Even for those die-hards that faithfully stick to the road, if you had to take a break, would you stop in the road?

 Even so, there are other times when it’s ok to ride on the sidewalk. At one time or another, all cyclists have been aggressively advised to “get on the sidewalk” by an impatient (or envious) motorist.  This is no time to start preaching City Code to someone in a 2 ton death machine.  (Since automobiles are responsible for more American deaths than guns, let’s just go ahead and call it like it is.)  Go ahead – get on the sidewalk.  Take that 10 second breather and regroup on the sidewalk.   OR you can harness that adrenaline and power up responsibly – crank that crank and HAUL!  Sure, let the cars pass because you’ll catch up with them at the next stop light.

 IF YOU CHOOSE TO BIKE, GROW CALUSSES.  Biking makes you tougher – no doubt, both physically and mentally.   When you think you can’t pedal another turn, prove yourself wrong.  The more you pedal the stronger you get and you’ll grow calluses on your hands, feet and brain.  Keep pedaling and you’ll soon ignore the motorists, deliverymen and occasional police that tell you to get off the road and get on the sidewalk.  The sad reality of urban biking dictates that, unless you’re a helicopter parent, your bike will get stolen.  Learning this lesson will only further thicken your mental calluses.   To combat this thievery, Kryptonite’s New York Fugitaboutit consistently ranks #1 in bike locks.  Sure, it’s heavy and pricy but it’s all about peace of mind.

OK – so this post might be a little grim, but it’s reality.  I’m generally a very optimistic person, but luck favors the prepared.  I hope you benefit from the lessons I’ve learned, so get out and go for a ride….but not on the sidewalk.

  • the Success Ladder

    Great article, thanks for sharing this. I have subscribed to your RSS feed and am looking forward to reading more from you.
    Keep up the good work and don’t stop posting please.

  • Dukiebiddle

    If I may I’d like to add a caveat to the sidewalk riding. Like you said, whether the law says it is right or wrong there are times when every cyclist will find it necessary. Riding on the sidewalk, if done in a considerate manner, it totally safe. Where sidewalk riding becomes dangerous is when we leave the sidewalk and enter the street, especially when crossing an intersection. Toronto published a wonderful comprehensive study that showed the relative dangers of different types of bicycle/automobile collisions. It turns out, in Toronto at least – which is very similar to any American gridded city – bicycles leaving the sidewalk and entering the roadway is the leading cause to bicycle/auto collisions. But, there is a way for cyclists to protect themselves from these types of collisions that I feel is 100% effective: In those situations where you must ride on the sidewalk, when it is time to cross any sort of intersection, be it a 4 way stop light or the entrance into a parking lot, stop, put a foot down, look over your shoulder and make sure there are no motor vehicles immediately behind you that may or may not turn right, regardless of whether they are signaling or not, check from the oncoming direction to make sure there are no cars that may potentially turn left, regardless of whether they are signaling or not, scan both cross traffic lanes to make sure there is no cars, quickly scan all directions to make sure nothing has changed, and carefully cross the street. If the traffic is too heavy for you to be 100% confident that there is no chance of a automobile turning into you, don’t hesitate to dismount and walk the bike across if you must. Remember, you are in no hurry. If you were in a hurry you wouldn’t be riding on the sidewalk anyway, right? ;)

  • Mark

    Great advice, Dukiebiddle. I posted the Toronto study link to the blog post.

  • Dukiebiddle

    I learned so much from reading that study, and cleared up so many misconceptions I had. It really changed the way I ride on urban streets.

  • Anonymous

    This is a great post, Nate/Mark!

  • Mark T

    Have to say, I do listen to the radio while I ride – but only covering one ear (as dictated by state law) and with the volume low enough that I’m still fully aware of what’s going on around me.

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