Cycle culture: Howard County's love affair with the bicycle

(JERRY JACKSON / Baltimore…)
August 19, 2013|By Allison Eatough

It’s Friday morning, and that means the start of a workday for Ellicott City resident Matthew Lear.

After waking his 15-year-old son, Sam, from his slumber, Lear eats his routine breakfast of steel-cut oats and gets dressed. The two share some quick conversation before it’s time for Sam to board the school bus and Lear to hit the road. A project manager at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Lear has a 15-mile commute ahead of him.

During his trip, Lear never sits in traffic. He never worries about running low on gas. And he feels healthier when he arrives at work than he did when he left.

Lear is a bicycle commuter -- one of a growing number of Howard County residents incorporating bicycles into their daily lives.

“I love biking to work because I get a good workout in and still have my evenings free,” says Lear.

Whether for transportation, recreation or health reasons, bicycling is more popular in Howard County now than it has ever been, residents and county leaders say. Cycling clubs are seeing more interest and turnout for evening and weekend group rides. Nearly 200 people biked to work during the most recent Bike to Work Day -- a county record. And in May, The League of American Bicyclists, a national bicycle advocacy group, recognized Howard County’s efforts to become a bicycle-friendly community. 

But experts say there is still work to be done before the county becomes truly bicycle-friendly, including adding more bike lanes and connecting bike paths.

Luckily for cyclists, the county and the town of Columbia have a plan.

A growing culture

Between 2000 and 2011, the number of people commuting by bicycle nationwide has increased by 47 percent, according to The League of American Bicyclists. In Washington, D.C., alone, that percentage jumped almost 267 percent. According to the National Household Travel Survey, the total number of bicycle trips, including commuter and recreation trips, increased from 1.7 billion in 2001 to 4 billion in 2009.

Reasons for the jump vary, ranging from rising gas prices and traffic congestion to environmental awareness.

While there are no official statistics to measure the number of cyclists in Howard, county leaders and residents say they are seeing more bikes both on and off the road.

On May 17, almost 200 cyclists arrived at The Mall in Columbia for Bike to Work Day, an annual celebration that encourages bicycle commuting. The early morning rally, complete with bagels, bananas and coffee, reached record attendance, says Jack Guarneri, Ellicott City resident and president of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County, a group that works with government agencies to improve road safety for cyclists. Some cyclists rode to work for the first time that day, while others, like Lear, Guarneri and Fran Horan, of Ellicott City, are weekly if not daily bike commuters.

All three are also members of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab bicycle club, which receives funding from the university and has more than 100 members.

“The past few years, there’s been a change in the county,” says Horan, who is also a member of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County. “There’s an increased interest in cycling. … The self-organizing community groups and clubs are fantastic. They’ve done a lot to make cycling fun and attract more people to it.”

One such group is the Howard County Cycling Club. Deb Taylor and Liz Robson, co-presidents, say they have recently seen a dramatic increase in the recreational club’s new memberships. Participation in the club’s Wednesday-night ride, which lasts from one to three hours and covers roads throughout western Howard County, has also increased. About 50 cyclists ride with the group each week.

 “I’m amazed at how many people come,” Taylor says.

Members say they join club rides for the challenge of Howard County hills, the safety associated with riding in a group and a chance to enjoy the scenery.

“All the things you see from a bike, you can’t see from a car going 60 miles per hour,” Robson says.

Paved and unpaved trail use is up as well, says John Byrd, director of the county’s Department of Recreation & Parks.

Every weekend, the Rockburn Skills Park at Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge is filled with off-road cyclists of all ages, he says. The park, which opened in 2012, is the first in the region to have a pump track, a rock-filled climbing trail and three courses for riders of varying skills.

The county also is home to at least 15 cycling-related events, including the Columbia Association’s BikeAbout tour (scheduled for Sept. 21), the Columbia Triathlon and Iron Girl Columbia at Centennial Park, the Maryland Olympic Duathlon in western Howard County, cyclocross races and mountain bike camps at Rockburn Branch Park and a time trial on Ilchester Road in Ellicott City.

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