Biking, a growing trend that needs city support

 

It’s cheaper. It’s healthier. It’s more environmentally friendly. So what keeps Baltimore from being as competitive as other cities when it comes to biking?

More than 50 business leaders convened at the Greater Baltimore Committee on April 30 to discuss the creation of infrastructure for bicycling and the development of programs to educate and make bicycling more convenient to use regularly.

Jon Laria, managing partner at Ballard Spahr LLP and champion of the bike initiative, said it’s “not just about having fun and getting exercise” but supporting bike programs can be an “economic development enterprise that the city can invest in.”

The National League of American Bicyclists, which conducted a study on the growth of bicycle commuting from 2000-2011, ranked Baltimore 35th, behind San Francisco, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C. and Buffalo with Cleveland catching up. Beth Strommen, director of Baltimore City’s Office of Sustainability, said the lack of participation from citizens cannot be explained by weather or Baltimore terrain. Cities ahead of Baltimore in the rankings fair worse in weather and hilly landscapes.

There is a real need and desire for biking, Strommen said, but the city has been slow to tap into it. Thirty-six percent of Baltimore citizens don’t own a car, and the share of new cars purchased by 18-34 year olds dropped 30 percent, and not just because they can’t afford them, according to Strommen. They don’t want to have to have them.

Adding capacity for bikes is cheaper than roads, Strommen said, and well-planned and maintained bike facilities increase property values. In addition, 60 million national recreational bicyclists spend $46.9 billion a year on meals, transportation, lodging, gifts and entertainment, which could mean greater tourism numbers for the city and with it a better perception of Baltimore as a bike-friendly city, above its current No. 48 ranking in bike-friendly cities by Bicycling Magazine.

The city has already made efforts to increase these rankings. In three years, according to Nate Evans, bicycle and pedestrian planner in the city’s Department of Transportation Planning Division, the city has added more than 50 miles on-street bikeways and 39 miles of off-road trails and published a bike map. The number of bike groups is growing and bike commuting has increased by 50 percent, Evans said.

These improvements have been reflected in the National League of American Bicyclists 2012 rankings, which list Maryland 11th in their bike-friendly state rankings, 4th in bike-friendly communities, 9th in bike-friendly businesses and 1st in bike-friendly universities.

But there is still much work to be done. Evans’ Bicycle Master Plan for the next 15 years focuses on what he has identified as the largest group of cyclists – “interested but concerned” about bicycling.

According to Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator for the city of Portland, about a third of citizens can be considered as having a “no way, no how” perception about biking, but by far the largest group is “interested but concerned.” It’s Evans’ job to change those Baltimore cyclists into “enthusiastic and confident” and “strong and fearless” riders.

Projects from the Downtown Bicycle Network – a buffer zone to protect bikers from traffic – to a city bike share program that will launch April 2014 are in the works to promote a more robust bicycle infrastructure for the city, but funding is low compared to other cities. New York, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia all commit more than $4 million a year in funding to bicycling compared to Baltimore’s $250,000 budget. As a result, Baltimore continues to rank lower than those cities in bike/trail mileage and bike commuting.

“If you want to be a cool city on the move, you have to have robust bike programs,” Laria said.

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