The ins and outs of bicycling in Baltimore and the need for more bike lanes

Photo by Kate Drabinski.

I love riding my bicycle.

I love the sense of freedom, of getting from place to place unfettered by appalling bus wait times or the worry about finding a parking spot. I love the feel of the wind on my face as I speed down hills and the steady breath as I pedal back up. I love riding a bicycle in

Baltimore especially, because I love saying “how you doing?” to my neighbors, getting to most places in 30 minutes or less, and exploring this city that changes block-by- block. If you’re in a car, these blocks are just the stuff that gets between you and your freeway or ramp. In a bike, the ride is a joy all in itself.

Usually. I’ll admit this is a bit of pollyanna talking, because when you’re on a bicycle in Baltimore you are also dodging the drivers who wish you weren’t there, the radical pedestrians engaged in their own resistance to the rules of the road, and fellow cyclists not as interested in a friendly bell ring and “on your left” as I am. Riding a bicycle for me means being constantly aware that I could be maimed or killed at every intersection and driveway by someone whose mode of travel does not demand and require the same attention mine does.

This might sound a bit paranoid, but it’s not. Baltimore is seeing increasing casualties on the roads. Just this year our bicycling community has lost several folks to cars. Aaron Laciny was hit and killed while riding on Charles Avenue, and we still don’t know who hit him. Jeremy Pope was hit and killed riding his bicycle out by the airport. The driver faced no charges. The MVA reports show an increase across the state in crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians, and this mirrors national increases. Traveling by bicycle or on foot is dangerous, and it’s getting more dangerous. The dangerous part is the cars and their drivers, and they are all less safe than me, despite appearances.

So, what do we do? Well, we have to start from the assumption that walking and riding bicycles are both forms of transportation we want to collectively support. That’s a no brainer for me. A third of the city doesn’t have regular access to a car, and all of us need to get places too. That means we need support for alternative transportation—public transit, walking, and biking. Given the constant complaints I hear about traffic and parking, I’m guessing drivers don’t want the rest of us to get cars and add our clog to the road either. And really, are we all in this together, or not? We can say we aren’t, but we are, and the refusal to prioritize the needs of others, even when they aren’t our own, lessens all of us.

Cars are an overwhelming priority in transportation funding and planning. The resources given over to automobiles is mind boggling if you think about how much of our region is asphalted over to secure easy access for cars. We assume those streets are shared resources, expect the state to repair them, build more of them, salt and plow them in winter. Sidewalks, on the other hand, are private property, each square the responsibility of the homeowner whose stairs happen to end there. One absentee landlord or vacant home and the travel lane for pedestrians can be truly fucked for weeks. Sidewalks are a shared resource, and we should take care of them as our collective responsibility.

Bicycles need bike lanes, and this is a much harder argument to make to drivers than pushing for better sidewalks. That’s because the bike lane takes up room from cars, and nobody likes giving up what they’ve already got, even if giving it up is part of what justice looks like. Bike lanes make us all safer, though. They slow traffic, they encourage more bicyclists to get on the roads, and if designed well, they make a barrier between cars and bicyclists that decreases the chance we’ll get hit.

Baltimore is just getting started in the bike lane game, with protected lanes on Fallsway, Maryland Avenue, a few blocks on Mulberry and Franklin, and most recently Potomac Street. Other lanes are striped, including the first east/west routes. Things are getting better in many ways, thanks to the work of Bikemore and other city advocates for complete streets that enable all of us to get where we’re going more safely.

All this movement has also given rise to what advocates call “bikelash.” People don’t like change. They don’t want to lose the parking spot in front of their house or have to merge out of the bus/bike lane heading downtown for work. Our streets feel like common sense, like they’ve always been the way there are, and always should be. But street design changes all the time.

MLK Boulevard feels like it has always been there, a freeway in the city cutting West Baltimore off from the rest of us. It opened in 1982, a hiccup away, historically speaking. In a few years our bike infrastructure will feel like it has always been here, and for all the panic and anger that accompanies new bike lanes, we will all be safer.

But safety while riding a bike isn’t just about cars. In the past several weeks there has been a huge increase in attacks on cyclists on the city’s bike paths and routes. It’s scary stuff, and it’s complicated. There’s no easy solution to stopping violence in its many guises—street-level crime, systemic crimes of racism and enforced poverty, to give just two examples—either in the short or long term. But here’s what I think as I pedal my way through the city: Everyone should be safe to walk or ride their bicycle to school and work. If we built a politics around that basic argument, we would have to redesign streets and sidewalks, support healthy neighborhoods, make sure parents had the time and resources to support their kids, and so much more. The world as it is is not as it has to be, and redesigning our infrastructure equitably can help make all of us safer in the larger ways we imagine “safety.” This, much more than roads, is our collective responsibility.

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