Wheels of change: Baltimore's bike crusade

2014 may be a year of significant push in the city to accommodate bicyclists

  • Chris Merriam, executive director of Bikemore, poses for a portrait at the Light Street Cycles shop in Federal Hill.
Chris Merriam, executive director of Bikemore, poses for a… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
January 22, 2014|By Andrew Zaleski | For b

For 23 years, Penny Troutner has owned Light Street Cycles in Federal Hill. And she had seen bicycles on Baltimore's streets, for recreation and transportation, even before she opened her bike shop. But Troutner holds up 2011 as the year she noticed drivers giving cyclists in the city more room on the road.

It's a year Baltimore's cycling community easily, but regrettably, recalls. In August 2011, 20-year-old Nathan Krasnopoler, the Johns Hopkins University student who suffered brain injuries after colliding with a car that had turned into his lane, died nearly seven months after losing consciousness permanently in February.

"After that I noticed I would come to an intersection and cars would stop, and wait for me or wave me by," said Troutner.

But infrastructure improvements have also contributed to safer streets for cyclists. Since 2006, 140 miles of cycling lanes on city streets have been installed, a measure that garnered Baltimore recognition from the national League of American Bicyclists as a bicycle-friendly community.

And according to some inside the city's Department of Transportation, the increase in overall bike-lane mileage is just the tip of the iceberg. This spring, the city is looking to roll out a number of far-reaching cycling measures. Among them: Charm City Bikeshare, a bike-sharing program with 25 stations and 250 bikes in Southeast, South and Downtown Baltimore to start, and run by the same company that operates Washington, D.C.'s, Capital Bikeshare and New York City's CitiBike.

"We're going to see a visible difference in the next two to three years of bike infrastructure in the city," said Billy Hwang, 40, the deputy director for administration at the city's Department of Transportation.

Hwang said this year marks the first time Baltimore is "dedicating federal and local funds to bicycling," a total of about $3.1 million to put toward bike infrastructure, including another 500 bike racks that will be placed citywide over the next year.

For several years, city government has hinted at implementing a more comprehensive cycling policy. As Baltimore plays catch-up to other metropolises that have bet big on bicycling, a coalition of boosters and everyday riders has also cropped up, pushing one message: Build up Baltimore's bike infrastructure, and the cyclists will come. Now the convergence of several forces has made 2014, it seems, the year biking in Baltimore will take a great leap forward.

Nowhere has that call for better infrastructure been stronger over the past year than inside Bikemore, a cycling advocacy group founded in 2012. About 150 members contribute monthly dues to the nonprofit and work to promote biking awareness and safety by petitioning the city's DOT and holding events, including regular bike commuter workshops with state advocacy group Bike Maryland.

Cofounder and executive director Chris Merriam can deliver the reason for Bikemore's existence in a sentence: "Civilized urban cycling is a real transportation alternative for a lot of people in today's cities." You need not be a Tour de France champion to ditch your car and commute by bike all over town, as Merriam, 31, has been doing for six years.

"I got my bike out of the basement and just started," he said. "At first I was scared as hell because I hadn't been taught how to drive in the street."

But Merriam, who has a master's degree in urban planning from Morgan State University, thinks the problem goes a bit deeper than getting used to the roads, especially when the roads are how cyclists have to get around. He insists that "we've engineered biking and walking out of existence" in the U.S. In Baltimore, it's a difficulty exacerbated by the city's disconnected bike infrastructure.

Accommodations for cyclists do exist — a north-to-south bike lane on St. Paul Street, bike lanes in and around the Inner Harbor and Southeast Baltimore — but a lack of connecting east-to-west lanes, for instance, makes the overall system disjointed. This makes commuter cycling tricky for bikers who live in northern neighborhoods, as Merriam does, who would take advantage of protected bike routes to travel throughout the city.

A Catch-22 also exists here, as it does in many other cities around the country now working on expanding cycling networks.

"The cyclists will come when the infrastructure's there," said Tim Barnett, 31, cofounder of the Baltimore Bike Party. "But the public officials want to see the cyclists before they start investing in the infrastructure."

The Baltimore Bike Party certainly makes a convincing case. Begun in April 2012, it's a meeting of all stripes of bikers the last Friday of every month. At its peak in the fall, Barnett said, around 1,500 cyclists can be spotted riding designated routes around the city.

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