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.