Phillip Tompkins cruised up the ramp of the Harbor Park garage off Market Place in Baltimore, pressed the button at the gate and took a ticket. The gate rose and he wheeled forward on his bright-yellow Suzuki.
Central Parking Systems facility manager Marguerite Morgan-Berard was quickly out of the office, politely but firmly explaining that motorcycles are not permitted to park in the garage. It was, she said, a matter of safety: The gate could come down on Tompkins' head.
The Harbor Park garage is not alone in barring two-wheeled vehicles. Many, if not most, garages downtown ban motorcycles or severely restrict conditions under which they can park.
And that angers some motorcyclists, who find it tough to commute to work. A representative of a leading motorcycle advocacy group, ABATE of Maryland, calls the policy "discrimination."
Tompkins, 34, an information technology specialist with Constellation Energy, said such policies — and a lack of city-provided alternatives — are a significant barrier to commuting by motorcycle. "There would be more people riding downtown if the city and the parking garages made it more accessible," the Brooklyn Park resident said.
The restrictions are bad for riders and the environment, he said.
"This thing gets 50 miles per gallon," he said, patting his Suzuki DR-Z 400SM sport bike. "It helps with congestion. It helps with pollution. It's my way of life."
In some ways, the treatment of motorcycles is a legacy of a different era. Many downtown parking garages date to the 1980s, 1970s or earlier — when motorcycles were seen as less mainstream and identified with gangs — and often were not designed with bikes in mind.
There has been explosive growth in the popularity of motorcycles — with registrations growing from fewer than 4 million nationwide in 1997 to more than 7 million in 2007 — especially among affluent, older riders. Rising gasoline prices in recent years have brought increased interest in motorcycle commuting.
Yet, parking garages remain largely unchanged. Many have steep ramps that become treacherous for riders in wet weather.
Bob Kamper, general manager of Central Parking System's Baltimore garages, said his company's policy depends on the facility. He said that where Central bars motorcycles, it's a matter of safety — not because the company doesn't want motorcyclists as customers. Asked whether he's fielded many complaints from bikers, he said, "No, but I've seen people get hit in the head."
Tompkins said the policy has been administered inconsistently. He said he parked his 900-pound Harley-Davidson at the garage for more than a year without trouble and only heard from the management when he began taking his 400-pound sport bike downtown.
Kamper said he had no explanation for the disparate treatment.
Phillip Smith, a 37-year-old motorcyclist who doesn't own a car, said parking problems keep many motorcyclists out of Baltimore altogether. "I would say 90 percent just don't go into the city, just because of the difficult issues with parking and motorcycles."
Smith, who lives in Arbutus and Granite, said he doesn't use parking garages because "there are always issues," but he said street parking carries a risk of vandalism.
Some downtown garages accept motorcycles even though they might be less than ideally equipped to deal with them. Tompkins said he now uses the Lockwood garage at Market Place but frequently encounters problems getting past gates made for passenger vehicles but not motorcycles.
One recent morning, he demonstrated how he uses his right arm to swipe his monthly card through the reader on his left side. In the first lane he tried, his vehicle apparently didn't trip the sensors and the gate wouldn't rise. Switching to the other lane, he got through.
"This garage I can get in, but getting out is tough," said Tompkins, who said he gets no discount even though his vehicle takes up a fraction of the space needed for a car or truck. Since he's paying for a full spot, he said, he uses one. He wonders why garage owners don't offer discounts to motorcyclists to use spots that are too small for a full-size vehicle — thus increasing garage capacity.
Tiffany James, special assistant to the executive director of the Baltimore Parking Authority, said the city has no policy of excluding motorcycles from the 15 parking garages it operates downtown and in other Baltimore neighborhoods. But she knew of at least one whose contract operators had signs saying no-motorcycles and was unsure whether other management firms had adopted similar policies.
James said the parking authority has a plan to provide machines at which motorcyclists can pay for appropriate-size spaces by credit card or cash without having to display a receipt. The problem, she said, is implementing the system. "The city certainly does not have a lot of additional money to spend on new projects."