Bike trails: A spoke of genius

Transportation: Two-wheeler commuting could save the city's air while saving riders money.

April 17, 2000|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

The clouds overhead have that ominous look, as if the sky could open up at any moment. That's not always such an awful prospect, assuming you can take cover and leisurely watch the raindrops from some cozy indoor surroundings.

But taking cover is not an option for the group gathered under this sky today. We've made plans and postponed errands to be here; one of us stoically dragged herself out of her sick bed. On this early Sunday morning, we are committed to biking around the city of Baltimore.

The mission: show some of the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful sides of biking in this city. Show things the way they are and talk about what they could be.

And so, with wary looks cast skyward, we are off.

On the bikes this morning are four people who, in their various roles, are all working on a master plan to bring more trails and better biking to Baltimore:

Beth Strommen (the sick one), whose official title is environmental planner for Baltimore's Planning Department. Her unofficial title is greenway trail coordinator for the city.

Penny Troutner is chair of the Mayor's Bicycle Committee. She owns Light Street Cycles, a bicycle shop in Federal Hill.

Greg Hinchliffe, vice chair of the Mayor's Bicycle Committee, is an airline pilot who travels with his bike to ride when and where he can (he's currently raving about the bicycle-friendly city of Vancouver in British Columbia.)

Barry Bergman is a transportation planner with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which has numerous bike-related projects.

We begin our little tour with a positive outlook. We are at Fort McHenry, and what's not to like about biking around this national landmark?

"It fit in well with the ride," Strommen says, explaining why we've begun here. It's a good place to start -- away from any traffic -- because some of us are just kicking off the biking season and the riding is a bit wobbly for the first few minutes.

Light traffic

Traffic, as any city bicyclist knows, can be the bane of riders. That's why we chose Sunday morning, a light traffic period. Foot and bike traffic at Fort McHenry is fairly light: three or four spandex-clad runners, a couple strolling along the water's edge, a few families walking with young children who scamper about.

We ride around the park and take in its delightful water and city views. But that only lasts minutes; then we make our way out of Fort McHenry and onto Fort Avenue in Locust Point.

Still, at this time of day, even that street is blessedly nearly empty of all cars.

"Fort Avenue is a good example of what a good city street for bicycling looks like," Strommen says. "It's wide and it doesn't carry much traffic."

While the much-traveled Hinchliffe is quick to say Baltimore is not as bicycle-friendly as many towns on the West Coast, he adds things could be a lot worse here.

"There are 40-foot-wide streets," he says. "And there are some pretty benign neighborhoods surprisingly free of traffic." That, of course, means skirting around the busy main streets as much as possible.

However, these biking aficionados say, if they have their way, Baltimore's bike trail system will grow substantially -- if slowly -- over the coming years.

"The city is in the process of building 24 to 25 miles of trails," Strommen says. "And that's great for recreation. But we also want people to arrive safely to the bike trail."

Strommen believes that a good biking network will go beyond making life more enjoyable for the middle- and upper-income crowd. "Thirty-seven percent of households in Baltimore have no car," she says, quoting a 1993 survey by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. "Getting around Baltimore with bikes is important."

Or as Hinchliffe puts it; "We are not only representing the `spandex and bike racks on the back of a Volvo' crowd."

For those who do have cars, Strommen points to the money to be saved by biking to work and not paying for parking or gas. "Think of what you could do with that money." she says.

More bike racks

One thing that the city must improve, they say, is accommodations for people who cycle for recreation or for work. Troutner says Baltimore definitely needs more of a resource rarely seen around town: free bike racks. "It is absolutely essential to get the city to get bike racks around and in parking garages," she says.

Baltimore is far behind the bike-friendly curve of the Pacific Northwest, where there are bike racks on the front of buses in Seattle, and Portland and Eugene, Ore. Still, the Mass Transit Administration allows bikes inside light-rail and Metro cars (except for the evening rush hour, two hours before and after Orioles and Ravens home games and other special events). But they are not allowed on buses or MARC trains.

But even if improvements were made, the group admits, the idea of biking to work is still akin to flying to the moon for many people.

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