1.6.11

SHIFTING GEARS



Can Baltimore Become a Truly Friendly Bike City? Can it Afford not to?  By Mat Edelson 



Bogotá, Colombia, circa 1993, and Baltimore, today: 2,408 miles and a generation apart, yet with reputations more alike than any of our civic leaders would care to admit. The former's very name conjures up ominous visions of Miami Vice-like drug cartels, daily drive-bys, blood in the streets, and a populace terrified into silence. The latter city has had its TV image simultaneously updated and downgraded (thank you, HBO), but all the other props are essentially the same in a city where roving gangs and random violence have created the perception that last call downtown is a call to arms.

Which makes the turnaround that's actually happened in Bogotá so stunning. Consider the numbers. In 1993, in the midst of its murderous miasma, 81 out of every 100,000 Bogatáns were homicide victims. By 2006, that number had plummeted to just fewer than 19 per 100,000. (By contrast, in roughly that same time period, Baltimore's homicide rate went from 48.2 to 37.3 per 100,000—a drop, to be sure, but nowhere near what's happened in Bogotá or, for that matter, the rest of the U.S., where Charm City is number 3 on America's hit list.)

So what did Bogotáns do to take back their city? One imagines Diesel-esque vigilantes hunkering down with clandestinely acquired weapons, a cell-phone-managed resistance with father and son (and mother, and daughter) fighting shoulder to shoulder, their weariness braced by the realization that, finally, they were taking the fight to their oppressors.

Bogotáns did take to the streets by the thousands, although their weapon of choice was one that surely would have made Gandhi or King smile. They did not take up arms. Instead, they rode bikes.

Don't laugh: It's beginning to happen here. And if history is any indicator, turning ourselves into a biking city could be a major force for social change.
***


The signs—or to be more accurate, the sharrows—are everywhere. Ask any cyclist about these international road lane markings—usually two forward-pointing stripes sitting atop an outlined bicyclist—and they'll tell you that they amount to a two-word battle cry: "We belong."

While Congress wrestles with the idea of "Complete Streets"—a 2009 bill by that name, aimed at making all streets accessible to cyclists and other non-motorized users, ultimately died in committee—policymakers are still targeting bicyclists as key players in transforming neighborhoods. Last March, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, perhaps caught up in the moment, eschewed the speaker's podium and jumped on a table at the packed National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C.; he was there selling the Livable Communities Initiative of 2010 by announcing that President Obama planned to set aside federal money for bike paths. (The bill never got to the floor, but Obama hasn't slashed those funds in his proposed federal budget.)

LaHood told the assembled D.C. biking advocates that he and his wife spent every nice weekend cycling on the 200-plus-mile-long C&O canal. "We ride [the canal] as far we can," he said.

"Pittsburgh?" called out some of the seasoned riders in the crowd.

But in truth, it's not going to be the hardcore, spandex-clad, 3-percent-body-fat cycle hounds that lead this extreme urban makeover. While these lean, mean, veering machines prove, by sheer persistence, that people-powered vehicles can breathtakingly navigate even the most car-coveted thoroughfares, if there's to be a biking revolution in Baltimore—or anywhere else in this country—it's more likely to take place at space-normal speed, among waistlines as accustomed to donuts as Diet Pepsis.

Think of it as the bell curve of potential ridership. On the far left side of the bell, representing perhaps 10 percent of cyclists, are the hale and hearty sorts. "We call them the 'Kamikaze Cyclists,' the bike messengers, and, frankly, people like myself who'll ride no matter what the conditions are," says Greg Cantori, executive director of the Knott Foundation and former president of Bike Maryland. On the other end of the curve is a group, Cantori says, "who won't ride no matter what." But between those two groups, there's a large group—perhaps 60 percent of the population—who will ride if the right incentives and safety protections are in place.

Experience has shown across the world that if cities create a solid infrastructure, biking can catch on extremely quickly in a populace seeking alternative forms of transportation. Call it the sardine effect: The little critters, before they end up in those tin cans, like to swim in one direction, but studies show that just 15 percent moving against traffic can cause the entire school to shift en masse.

In Baltimore, Bike Czar Nate Evans (his official title at the city's Department of Transportation is Bicycle & Pedestrian Planner) has done a quarterly ad hoc riding census, standing on relatively busy bikeways such as Falls Road and Maryland Avenue. The citywide numbers speak of a small but growing ridership, up 35 percent in 2010 over the previous year, according to Evans, who puts the total number of daily commuters at "maybe a thousand." That's progress, but as a percentage of total commuters that's pretty paltry: The much-maligned Light Rail draws, at last count, 36,300 daily riders; Metro pulls 56,800; and buses 232,857, according to the Maryland Transit Administration.

As an aggregate, one wonders what bicyclists' numbers have to be to achieve some kind of critical mass.

***

Which brings us back to Bogotá. It would be hyperbole to say that biking alone rid the city of its drug wars. Better police deployment and training in high-crime areas, numerous at-risk youth programs, and a push to use mediation to resolve citizen disputes certainly played a pivotal role. But getting people to feel comfortable that the streets were truly theirs to use, almost as a right of citizenship, can't be discounted.

And that's where Ciclovia comes in. Roughly translated as "Bike Path" or "Bike Road," the Ciclovia concept—a temporary closing of streets to all cars—had been around Bogotá since the '70s, more as the exception than the rule. In the mid 1990s, Gil Peñalosa saw the Ciclovia as just the unifying force the population needed. As commisioner of Bogatá's Parks and Recreation, Peñalosa closed more than 70 miles of city streets to cars every Sunday morning for seven hours. By 2000 the Ciclovia was so popular—more than a million Bogotáns took to the streets each week—that it lead to a permanent, extensive bike network around town.

Antanas Mockus, an associate professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia who served two terms as Bogotá mayor, wrote in a lengthy 2004 paper that citizen "ownership" of the city was a key to deciding what kind of behaviors would no longer be tolerated. He noted that, among other improvements, "important investments in ... special roads for bikes and pedestrians have helped to celebrate citizens' identity and to fix some [cultural] norms."

Gil Peñalosa's brother Enrique was mayor of Bogatá from 1998 to 2000. He saw bikes as the great equalizers of the haves and have-nots. "We created ... a protected bicycle path network," he said in a 2007 interview. "[That] is a symbol that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as one in a $30,000 car." Between the Ciclovias and the permanent bike paths, within six years, Enrique Peñalosa says ridership in Bogotá went from negligible to some 400,000 bikers daily.

Gil Peñalosa now works to create Ciclovia events around the world, including a growing number of American cities. Across the country the names may differ: "Sunday Streets" (San Francisco), "Sunday Parkways" (Portland, Oregon), "CicLAvia" (brand-crazed Los Angeles), "Bull City Open Streets" (Durham), "Walk + Roll" (Cleveland). Nomenclature notwithstanding, the events consistently draw crowds in the thousands, opening the eyes of citizens and civic leaders. Worldwide, there's evidence that the commitment that can begin with Ciclovia-style events can change a town's commuting behaviors, even in cities with relatively tight streets, like Baltimore.

"In San Francisco, the businesses were against the Sunday Bikeways," says Gil Peñalosa of the once-a-month closures first tried around the ritzy Embarcadero area in 2008. "All of a sudden the same businesses realized they were doing better on that Sunday when they were open to people walking and bikes and closed to cars. Now, the business community is asking the mayor [to close the streets to cars] every Sunday."

Similarly, business owners in Seville, Spain, supported the establishment of bike lanes physically separated from car traffic when a Chamber of Commerce study revealed that 21 percent of the shopping downtown was being done by those 6.6 percent of Sevillans who chose to regularly ride their bikes.

One need go no farther than D.C.'s 15th Street, NW, to see the viability of such segregated lanes. There, running from U Street down to the White House are two dedicated 3½-foot bike lanes that run adjacent to the curb. The cars formerly parked there have been moved farther into the street, serving as a barrier between biker and traffic. A little creative street striping and thigh-high flexible plastic inserts keep all players in their place; timing on pedestrian signals has been changed so bikers—if they obey the signals—can't be hit by crossing traffic. Total cost? Relative to the normal multi-million-dollar street projects, it wasn't that expensive. "A few hundred thousand dollars," says former Baltimore bike messenger Chris Holben, who is a bicycle program specialist in D.C.'s Department of Transportation.

D.C. has also created the Capital Bikeshare program, a permanent on-the-street consortium of 114 rental pick-up and drop-off bike stations that attracted some 11,000 annual members (at $75 each) and 30,000 one-day users in just its first seven months of operation.

Of course all these efforts take money (some $5 million for the Bikeshare initial outlay, which is expected to break even over time) and lots of planning (Holben uses everything from traffic congestion charts to D.C.'s public commitment to reducing its carbon footprint to make his case for biking). And ultimately, Holben says it takes someone with serious juice in a city to make it so. "You need a council member or mayor to be the champion. And you really need a champion if there's opposition, someone who is not going to worry about getting voted out of office."

Biking does have those champions—former San Francisco Mayor and current California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York—who seemingly by dint of will turn desire into reality. (How else do you explain a man who decided that, in the country's arguably most congested city, he would take away lanes of car traffic and parking on 9th Avenue, giving bikers a safer, separated thoroughfare through the Big Apple? Even against vociferous opposition, the lanes have stayed put.)

It's been a long time since anyone in Baltimore had that kind of unifying force. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, renowned for her biking forays around town, didn't have the time—or perhaps the desire—to make cycling a central focus of her administration. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is considered middle-of-the-road on the issue. The results? There's no doubt that biking in this town has suffered, relative to the rest of the country, because it lacks a single, high-visibility advocate. In a very real sense, Baltimore's just beginning to kick off its training wheels.

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Given Mobtown's notoriously fractious nature, it seems only de rigueur that the push for biking here is coming from many small but determined voices, as opposed to a shout from on high. Like free-floating ions, these biking proponents aren't always the most cohesive lot, but it's not for lack of trying. And there's a chance—just a chance, mind you—that they could coalesce into a mighty powerful front.

The pieces are nearly all in place: From the growth of cycling competitions to the recognition (and city funding) of infrastructure improvements, the consciousness for the potential of biking in this town has probably never been greater. More than 1,300 riders participated in last year's thirteenth annual regional Bike to Work Day, a 30 percent jump over 2009. Other regular events such as Tour Dem Parks and the availability of some 39 miles of off-road trails and 77 miles of city bike routes are drawing greater numbers to local cycling clubs and regional organizations such as Bike Maryland.

Kris Auer has seen the city's cycling verve grow geometrically in the last decade. The owner of Hampden's Twenty 20 Cycling Company, Auer, who has raced all over the world, introduced cyclocross (a pace-changing circuit course that includes on- and off-pavement riding) to Patterson Park in 2001 and has run the Charm City Cross races annually in Druid Hill Park since 2005. An event that at first drew 250 riders on one day now pulls nearly 1,500 over two. "We're one of the largest events in the country," he says.

This taps into a trend long known among Baltimore-area bike shop owners: Competitive cyclists, particularly American Tour De France winners such as Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, have spurred interest in all levels of local riding. Throw in other pressures and cultural shifts—rising gas and downtown parking prices, the various green movements, ever-growing traffic congestion—and the business and political communities are beginning to recognize consumer demand. According to surveys by the League of American Bicyclists, the percentage of cycling commuters jumped 43 percent between 2000 and 2008, with Portland, Oregon; Minneapolis; Sacramento; Washington, D.C.; San Jose; Milwaukee; Chicago; and Anchorage all at least doubling their ridership.

Baltimore is doing its share, up 75 percent in the same time period. Bike shops here have long promoted commuting to work (Alex Obriecht, owner of three-decades-old Race Pace Bicycles, gives his employees a dollar for each way they bike to work, which they usually put toward more biking gear), but larger commercial entities are now catching on. In front of Constellation Energy's Market Place offices, the bike racks are jammed every day. Constellation economist Peter Rosenthal says there were hardly any bikes there just four or five years ago. "In times of high gas prices, the bike is a great equalizer," he says. "You can find a bike for a hundred dollars and not have to pay anything else to get where you're going."

It falls upon the city's Nate Evans to help ensure riders can get there safely. Buried deep inside the City's Department of Transportation data cloud is Baltimore's Bike Master Plan. Evans has the unenviable task of trying to connect the dots, and he's been forced to take an entrepreneurial approach. Three years ago, Evans became the first (and to date, only) full-time city employee (he has a part-time assistant) whose primary responsibility is getting bikers on city streets and getting them home in one piece. His budget on day one was $1.5 million; since then it's been slashed (hello, recession) nearly in half.

To stretch his bucks, Evans has learned to play piggyback. Whenever a road-resurfacing project is on the transportation department's book, Evans tries to get, at a minimum, some bike lane striping and sharrows laid down. (So if you're wondering why bike lanes suddenly appear and then disappear, well, there you go.) In theory, given enough time and enough lane resurfacing, the city's bike lanes will eventually knit together to provide riders with some sense of continuity.

But unlike D.C., the plans for now call for riders to share the road with cars. High-profile on-road cycling deaths, such as that of 67-year-old John R. "Jack" Yates in Charles North, and serious injuries, such as those of Johns Hopkins student Nathan Krasnopoler, have highlighted the potentially dangerous nature of such road arrangements. To make that situation somewhat safer, Evans has created signed biking networks along less traveled routes in areas including Southeast Baltimore and Park Heights. Construction is also set to begin on a new north-south route running on relatively lightly traveled Guilford Avenue from University Parkway to Mt. Royal Avenue.

While one can't blame Evans for working with the hand he's been dealt, the lack of political will to create completely segregated lanes at least along some major north-south and east-west routes is distressing to many riders. City Hall's response could best be characterized as good intentions but, to date, incomplete (to be kind) follow-through. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a biking enthusiast, introduced seven biking bills in 2009 either enacted or adopted by the city. These included a Cyclists' Bill of Rights, a "Complete Streets" approach to road planning, requirements to install bike-friendly storm grates on city streets, and "BMore Streets For People"—Baltimore's official adoption, according to the bill, of Bogotá's Ciclovia program, which had been tried on a small scale in Roland Park earlier in 2009 (and again in 2010), attracting some 1,000 participants.

The initiatives have been battling inertia or downright resistance from the start. Despite the police department's pledge to work with the city on BMore Streets, it reportedly wants to slap a $35,000 fee on coordinators who wanted to expand the event to include a 12-mile loop from Lake Montebello to Druid Hill Reservoir. "That's just not sustainable; you're not going to be able to have that kind of event every few weeks," says Bike Maryland Executive Director Carol Silldorff. "Other cities have allowed crossing guards or trained volunteers [to control intersections] so it almost costs nothing. We want to work with the police, and I think they want to work with us, but until their fear of liability is diminished, the price will be too outrageous for us."

Switching storm grates would seem to be a simple enough fix: Turn the grates 90 degrees, perpendicular to the lane, so a rider's tires won't get stuck in them, destroying the wheel (and sometimes the cyclist) in the process. And yet, when Public Works was initially approached about changing or adapting the storm grates, they threw up their own roadblock, requiring the Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee to produce documentation showing that the new grates would conduct water. "We said to them, 'Every other city in the country is putting in this newer design'; and our Public Works was saying, 'Oh, no, that doesn't have sufficient water flow,'" recalls Greg Hinchliffe, who chairs the committee.

***

Biking in Baltimore is clearly at a crossroads. The opportunities are there (as are the bike racks—some three hundred of them since Nate Evans showed up), but so are the impediments. The deciding factor may ultimately be found in the distinction between livability and survivability. Eventually those terms, when relating to the city's viability, might become synonymous. If the future of any city is, arguably, its youth, then catering to those aspects of city life they desire—and being bike-friendly certainly ranks up there—could economically sustain a city such as Baltimore, which currently is seeing its best and brightest prospects leave, post-college, in rates higher than comparable cities.

"Companies, if they decide to move to or stay in Baltimore, are looking at who is here that's educated, young, talented, and available," says Mary Pat Clarke. "A lot of young people commute and get around on bicycles. If that's the case, let's become a bike-friendly city, encourage this as a city for young people."

Maybe what biking comes down to is a two-wheeled prescription for health, for both Baltimore and its citizens. It may well be a ride worth taking.

—Urbanite contributing writer Mat Edelson's first bike was a banana seat Schwinn on which he learned to ride wheelies and skid to a perfect, rubber-burning stop.

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