Taking The Road


Cyclists Seek To Claim Their Rightful Place On Howard's Byways

August 30, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Al Yergey crosses six traffic-choked highways on his bicycle commute to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where he works as a chemist.

The Clemens Crossing resident rides through the intersections of jammed thoroughfares like Georgia and Wisconsin avenues with the kind of confidence that comes with biking 2,500 miles a year.

"I get my daily exercise for the price of going to work," said Yergey, who joked that though he's "well past retirement age" at 68, for three years he's been using his job as a good excuse for riding his bike half the year.

All of his senses function on high as the familiar 12.5-mile route of neighborhood streets begins to unfold before him from his starting point in Olney, where he parks his car to start his 50-minute journey.

He's always on the alert for danger, intently watching for drivers who swerve too close or suddenly opened car doors, or pedestrians who dart out from between parked cars, he said. He scans the road surface for potholes, gravel, or wet leaves - any imaginable obstacle that could be placed in his path by man or nature.

"Every time you hear about an accident or close call, your awareness heightens a bit," he said.

While adhering closely to the rules of the road, he gauges the safest mode of riding in traffic on any particular stretch of asphalt along the way, he said, whether he's sticking close to the painted white line at the road's shoulder or assuming a place in traffic like any other vehicle.

Yergey mentioned the recent death of a 67-year-old Baltimore man who was biking in the city when he got tangled in the rear wheels of a truck that took a right turn in front of him, a type of accident that cyclists refer to as a Right Hook.

"Claim the lane - that's my philosophy,'" Yergey said, stressing that while he believes in courtesy, he must look out for his own safety. "If bikers are too deferential to drivers, they will try to push you off the road."

When he's not riding his dark-orange Waterford touring bike to commute or to run shopping errands, he often takes it out just for fun, he said.

A recent ride wasn't as pleasurable as he had anticipated, though. Yergey said he had treated himself to a day off for his birthday and was cruising along roads in western Howard County when a passing motorist lobbed a large cold drink at his back.

And it's not unusual for drivers to scream at bikers to get off the road or tell them to go ride in a park, he said.

Interested in joining with other bikers to help reduce these kinds of interactions, Yergey joined Bicycle Advocates of Howard County, a coalition of four cycling associations and individuals with 500 members.

Member groups are the Howard County Cycling Club, Johns Hopkins-APL Cycling Club, Baltimore Bike Club and the Mid-Maryland Triathlon Club.

Founded in October 2007 to promote bike safety and teach road courtesy to inexperienced cyclists, the organization began holding formal meetings in February 2008.

New this year are quarterly meetings among BAHC's board and representatives of the county executive's office, County Council, public works, and planning and zoning, said chairman Jack Guarneri.

"Our main purpose is to maintain a dialogue with the county and to affect positive changes where possible," said Guarneri, an Ellicott City resident and operations analyst at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab in Laurel.

"With increasing traffic there's been increasing impatience" over the past five years or so, he said.

One concept that was discussed at recent meetings is that of "complete streets," roads that have sidewalks and bike lanes to provide safe access to pedestrians and cyclists, he said.

"But the main problem the county has is obtaining rights of way to expand roads," Guarneri said.

Mark DeLuca, deputy director of public works, concurred.

"What's come out of this [dialogue] is that the county has a better sense of where improvements are most needed for bikers' safety, and we plan to retrofit existing roads with wider shoulders, or biking lanes where possible, when they are being resurfaced or redesigned," he said.

That isn't something that will happen soon, he acknowledged. County Executive Ken Ulman just announced Wednesday that all road resurfacing is being suspended in order to save $2.4 million.

"This [dialogue] isn't only about money, though. Sometimes, it's just about awareness in the county about placing road work signs at the nearest intersection so cyclists can take full advantage and turn off. ... That's huge," said DeLuca.

And BAHC is collaborating with the county recreation and parks department to offer classes on topics such as road biking, mountain biking and commuting by bike.

As for Yergey, he said he's been thinking that a pair of heated gloves is all that stands between him and commuting in winter months, except when it's too dark outside or there's danger of black ice.

"We bikers were all laughing when gas was well over $3 a gallon, but any 'green' benefit is just a bonus," he said. "Commuting just makes me feel good.

"Maybe it's finally an idea whose time has come."

Neighbors Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg at jholzberg76@msn.com or 410-461-4150.

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