Fear, love, and loathing in Baltimore’s bike lanes
I love bike riding. Pedaling up a hill at the end of long day is a great way to burn off stress and cruising down the other side with the breeze in your face is a fantastic and exhilarating reward for your work.
It’s hard to describe how liberating it is to do something you thought you’d never do again—that you thought you were too old to do.
Since I got back on my bike after a 15-year “break,” I am in better shape than I have been in years. I can run further, I can lift more, and I lost 15 pounds while actually eating more.
And I didn’t have to take any extra time to do it.
I could do it on my way to work— the ideal exercise for a busy UB student—especially non-traditional students like myself, a Gen X mom working on a second master’s degree.
After a fun bike ride with UBGreen on the Jones Falls Trail in November 2013, led by UB Sustainability Planner Jeff La Noue and UB student Zachary Holbrook, I was more than ready to commute to school by bicycle, especially since it was mostly downhill. And until I was more fit, I could take the light rail halfway home—but I need a safe place to ride.
UB Gen X-graduate-student- mom tries bicycle commuting
Heat bounced off the SUVs racing by me, inches from my side. Riding my bike south on Falls Road, to UB from Mt. Washington, was challenging, especially north of the leafy beauty and relative safety of the Jones Falls Trail. Coming off the trail, just a block north of UB, I had to be careful to avoid crashing into the back of the Bolt Bus, often hidden from view. I was commuting by bike for exercise and stress reduction; until I realized the shoulder and neck tension I was experiencing came from dodging cars on Falls Road, north of the trail.
The drivers seemed tense, too, the way they were leaning on their horns and occasionally yelling, “Get off the road!” It wasn’t the most relaxing soundtrack.
Why not try Roland Avenue? It is 20 minutes out of my way and up a steep hill in Baltimore, but that would be a small price to pay for feeling a little safer. On the shaded Roland Avenue bike lane I got a little more peace and respect. People seemed to expect to see a cyclist, at least.
Maybe no loathing, but still there was fear—and danger
I hoped, gripping my sweaty handlebars, that I would only encounter regulars on Roland Avenue—that there would be no new drivers unaware of the bike lane.
I prayed parked cars would stay put until I passed by—and that their doors would stay closed. I had heard about people getting “doored”—at the last moment a car door opened into the bike lane and the cyclist had no time to avoid it.
Ron Cabal, a cyclist originally from Rhode Island and currently manager at Two Boots Pizza on Mt. Royal Avenue, has seen at least two cyclists hit car doors in the three years he has been in Baltimore.
But still I felt safer on Roland Avenue than a street with no bike lane at all.
I rode regularly to UB until one day in late December when I cruised past a flower-filled memorial on a hill just south of the intersection of Bellmore and Roland Avenue and thought Oh my god—someone was hit.
Tom Palermo, 41-year-old father of two, was killed by a car while riding in the same bike lane I took to UB every day. It was a shocking and tragic reminder of how, sadly, I am taking my life in my hands every time I try a healthy commute to work and school.
Cold weather set in, snow fell, and I decided to take a break from bike riding.
I want to start cycling again now that the weather is nice, but should I take the risk?
For people of all ages
A physical barrier, such as a curb, raised median or planting buffer, between the bike lane and traffic would help. Protected bike lanes, also called buffered bike lanes or cycle tracks, have been constructed in New York, Washington, DC, and Denmark.
“In Copenhagen people of all ages, including seniors, bike without fear; it’s normal,” La Noue said.
Construction of the Maryland Avenue Cycle Tracks (MACT) is planned to run from Charles Village to the Inner Harbor, passing between UB’s Gordon Plaza and the renovated UB Langsdale Library, may start this fall, after being postponed in 2014. If the cycle tracks are built to best practices such as a 10-foot wide track (and at least five-feet wide in intersections), it’s possible many, otherwise concerned, will start to bicycle.
Ianta Allotey, who attended UB in 2014 and lives in Reservoir Hill, said she would like to use the MACTs to visit the library, museums, and art galleries, as long as the track truly offered protection. A mother of three and formerly a professional baker, Allotey was especially excited about the prospect of cycling to local restaurants.
Allotey was thrilled with the health benefits she got from bike riding around Druid Hill Park last spring and summer, but she is scared to ride in traffic.
“I’m afraid to ride it in the street— afraid I’ll get hit by a car,” Allotely said.
Dina Varsalone, a returning student, working on finishing her BA at UB, is terrified of bike riding in Baltimore.
A couple of Varsalone’s friends were hit by cars in the city. She doesn’t want to go through what they’ve gone through.
Varsalone, who loved cycling on trails in New Hampshire, was excited to hear about the cycle tracks. She was especially enthusiastic when she found out the tracks will run through some of the more well-travelled areas of the city. “We could use them for more than just getting to school,” she said.
“I don’t like riding around Baltimore,” Tracy Dimond said, a grad student at UB. “I think drivers are doing things I can’t anticipate but might kill me, like pulling out of parking spaces without looking, at all.”
Dimond liked the flexible posts she’d seen installed recently in New York (they can also be found in DC). The posts are reflective and create a barrier between drivers and cyclists. “That would definitely make me feel safer as a biker to have those things,” Dimond said.
UB grad student Charlie Billingsley likes to ride mainly on trails and in parks.
“My last epic ride was from Pittsburgh to DC on the Allegheny passage, two years ago,” he said. “I like to ride in big open spaces.”
Billingsley once rode in New York City before cycle tracks were installed. He found himself swerving around car doors, taxis, and automobile traffic. He’d love to see cycle tracks in Baltimore.
Young children may benefit from protected bike lanes as well. Cycle tracks support public health goals, especially for children, said the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (APBP) in a 2010 report. After seeing a young family bike riding on Roland Avenue, in the unprotected bike lane, during morning rush hour, I have to agree.
I was shocked, at first, to see a man towing his child in a cart attached to his bicycle, followed by a young girl of about 12 years old, riding her own bike.
Cars were teaming down the street beside us.
“People have to get places,” William Helman said, Digital Services Librarian at Langsdale and a bicycling commuter. Helman is right. Not everyone in Baltimore can afford a car.
The city says it’s committed
Several days after Palermo’s death was reported in the New York Times, the Maryland Department of Transportation announced it was committed to the construction of the MACTs.
There was a bike lane on Roland Avenue where Palermo got hit, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, as reported in the Baltimore Sun. “It motivates the work we are doing to have more protected lanes for bicyclists to ride.”
“We have a long way to go to catch up, but we’re going to get there very quickly,” said City Transportation Director William Johnson as quoted in the Baltimore Sun. “This is a top priority of the mayor’s office. It’s been made very clear to us.”
Also running through UB’s campus, a buffered bike lane is planned for Mt. Royal Avenue. Called the Midtown Streetscape, it seems this cycle track, if built to best practices, can make UB a safer spot for student commuters.
Safety second? New Maryland guidelines
The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) just released new bike lane construction guidelines in January 2015.
While it’s a step in the right direction, allowing raised bike lanes and other safe bike lane construction initiatives, it doesn’t actually require them.
The absence of designs for two- way protected bike lanes, is a concern, said health economist Jeff Lemieux and bicycle advocate Gregory Billing in the Washington Area Bicyclist Association Blog.
Since the MACTs are supposed to be a two-way protected bike lane, I’m concerned, as well.
Protecting bike riders from buses also needs to be addressed, say Lemieux and Billing, since many bike lanes run next to bus lanes.
The #11 bus runs on Maryland Avenue along with the aforementioned Bolt Bus.
Also missing from the plan, stated Lemieux and Billings, is a plan for intersections, where most collisions occur between bicycles and cars.
And high-speed roadways are a major issue, as well. The good news is SHA requires new roads to include bike lanes.
The bad news is, painted bike lanes are often too narrow for high-speed roads—yet that’s where they appear, say Billings and Lemieux.
Another safety issue concerns cars traveling above the posted speed limit. So you’ll find bike lanes designed for 30 mph streets where people are really traveling 40 or 50.
Broken bicycles—will Baltimore’s bike lanes really be safe?
Cycle tracks are essential for streets with high-speed traffic, insisted Baltimore advocacy group Bikemore, in a proposal urging Baltimore City to upgrade the Baltimore City Master Plan to make city roads safer.
The MACTs top the plan’s priority list, the first of several lanes that are part of the planned Baltimore City Bicycle Network.
We need to make sure the cycle tracks are built properly in order for them to be really safe.
Bikemore board member and Director of External Relations of the UB School of Law, Jedediah Weeks, is concerned that the physical “barrier” planned to separate cyclists and traffic on Maryland Avenue, is none other than parked cars.
“You know what’s going to happen,” Weeks said, who is also a founding member of Bikemore. “People are going to be driving and parking in the bike lane.”
Parking and driving in a bike lane is more than just an inconvenience. It’s dangerous. Cyclists run the risk of hitting the car—especially if there is nowhere to swerve to. With the MACTs that will be the issue. The bike lane will be between the parked cars and the sidewalk.
Pittsburgh initially had that problem and learned from its mistake. Bikemore members suggest we learn from Pittsburgh’s mistakes instead of having to experience them ourselves.
“We’re working to convince the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) to install flexible posts at least at the beginning and end of the cycle tracks,” Weeks added.
“We want construction to start early in the spring,” Weeks said.
“The Mt Royal [Avenue] Cycle Tracks (MRCT) have three critical flaws,” Weeks said of the other protected bike lane planned to run through UB’s campus. “It starts at the MICA Brown Center and runs to the UB Law Center. Basically from glass building to glass building.”
This may be an interesting aesthetic touch but safety-wise it falls seriously short. The track should really start in Reservoir Hill or, at the very least, at the MICA dorms on North Avenue so students don’t have to ride in traffic. Weeks is hopeful that with a new president at MICA, the plans can be reconfigured.
Another problem with the MRCTs is they run right by the Interstate 83 exit ramp.
“It’s unsafe,” Weeks said. “The highway off-ramp needs to be redesigned. Cars come off at highway speeds.”
Bikemore is working with MDOT to create a safer highway crossing for both pedestrians and cyclists.
Part of the MRCTs is slated for the sidewalk, which is unsafe for pedestrians. Bikemore is working with MDOT to resolve this issue as well.
The intersection of the MRCTs and the MACTs needs to be re- thought as well, Weeks said.
To ride without fear
I’m happy a resolution is in the works. Riding in unprotected lanes can be scary and dangerous.
The JFT, right near UB, is also a safety issue. Part of the JFT is on a sidewalk, which is dangerous for pedestrians. Part of the JFT is in the street,which is dangerous for cyclists. People have been hit by cars while bike riding on the JFT as well as in other unprotected bike lanes.
Personal responsibility is essential when driving a car. Driving drunk is immensely irresponsible and extremely dangerous. Texting and driving is an omnipresent hazard.
Accidents happen, even under the best of circumstances, and when a driver is using the utmost caution. Distractions are unavoidable: a baby in a car seat suddenly starts crying, a bird hits a windshield, an unexpected pothole appears after the previous day’s snowstorm. When I ride my bike, I need the same protection as pedestrians.
Maintain the lanes
Once they’re built, bike lanes need to stay paved and free of debris.
I’ve encountered potholes so large I had to leave the bike lane and ride in the street—and that’s with tires on my bike so thick they rub against my brakes unless I’m in a low gear.
I’ve had to ride around wet leaves, storm debris like tree branches, and chunks of pavement that end up in the bike lane.
Sometimes the mess is so uniform it looks suspiciously like it was swept there—like someone coloring in the lines—as if the bike lane were a drawing in a coloring book or an official dumping ground.
Once I even came across a dead deer lying in the bike lane. Okay, that was probably an accident, but did it have to stay there for three days? Finally, I called Baltimore City and it was removed.
Baltimore City needs to purchase an appropriate-sized snow plow for bike lanes as well, Weeks said. The city needs to realize bike lanes are for commuting, not just recreation. Many people can’t take the day— or the winter—off, just because it snowed.
Hope for the future—will Baltimore be as bike friendly as some cities?
Copenhagen is world famous for its biking culture and now officially the first Bike City in the World. Last year, it was voted “Best city for cyclists” and the “World’s most livable City”. Cities around the world aspire to be like Copenhagen. Copenhagen has over 240 miles of high-quality, designated bike lanes, according to Denmark’s official website. Wouldn’t it be great if Baltimore could say that one day, too? Baltimore currently rates as a Bronze-level bike-friendly city, but if improvements are not made, Baltimore may lose this level. Other cities are surpassing Baltimore and the standards are going up. There is evidence that Baltimore is falling behind.
Bikemore is working to make sure Baltimore keeps its Bronze rating, but needs help from the city. The Downtown Baltimore Bicycle Network is part of that plan.
We need to start construction right away, Weeks said. “Before young people decide they’re not going to live in Baltimore.”
Older students, like Ianta, Dina, and I, want Baltimore to be bike-friendly, too.
The newly formed UB Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee hopes to make UB the first accredited Bicycle Friendly University in Baltimore City. In order to be Bicycle Friendly, according to the League of American Bicyclists, a school needs to be working towards:
• Creating safe and convenient places to ride and park
• Giving people of all ages and abilities the skills and confidence to ride
• Creating a strong bike culture that welcomes and celebrates bicycling
• Ensuring safe roads for all users
I’m happy to report UB has bike racks at Gordon Plaza, the LAP building, and the Angelos Law Center.
UB also has a small but growing cycling community encouraged largely by UB Sustainability Planner Jeff La Noue.
Students can find out more at Bike UB’s Facebook page.
Bike riding saves you money. UB student Heather Franz sold her car and was able to buy four bicycles.
Bicycling is good for the economy. “Businesses on Eighth and Ninth Avenues in New York saw a 50% increase in sales receipts after protected bike lanes were installed on the corridor. On San Francisco’s Valencia Street, two-thirds of the merchants said bike lanes had been good for businesses,” reported Streetsblog USA.
Properly built protected bike lanes would improve student safety at UB.