Thursday, May 5, 2016

Will 2016 really be Baltimore's "Year of the Bike"?

Caitlin Doolin is Baltimore City's official bicycle and pedestrian coordinator and she presented the happy message that 2016 would be, indeed Baltimore's year of the bicycle at a Transit Choices meeting yesterday.
1000 Friends Executive Director Dru Schmidt
Perkins during a test ride of Baltimore's e-bike

Doolin, with her experience as a transportation planner and a masters in science and urban planning, has all the credentials to make the prediction credible. Baltimore, currently nationally in the caboose when it comes to comparative metrics for bike and ped friendly installations, could use a leap. So what's in store?

This is the year when Baltimore will finally launch a bike share program. (bmorebikeshare). That would not be very remarkable, except for how long it has been in the making, were it not for a couple of important details:
  • Baltimore will have an about 50/50 mix of typical muscle powered bikes and e-bikes, bicycles with a small electrical pedal assist that gives muscle power an important boost, not unlike a turbo-charger in a car, but cleaner. This will move Baltimore to the front, e-bikes are still a novelty in North America. (The only ones deployed, so far, are in Birmingham, AL). They have the potential of moving bike-sharing into an all new league. Thus, if everything goes to plan, Baltimore could be catapulted from being dead last to innovation leader in bike share.
  • MTA has injected critical funds into Baltimore's rather modest bike-share start-up, roughly doubling the initial share of bikes and stations from 250/25 to about 500/50.
As a nice little benefit, the company organizing the bikes for the Canadian company Bewegen, Corps Logistics LLC, will set up shop in Baltimore. The company intends to hire locally and expand from 10 people to possibly 100. The Baltimore stations will hold 10 bikes each and are designed with solar panel roofs that allow charging the bike batteries off the grid. A fully charged bike is supposed to go about 60 miles on its Lithium Ion battery. The bikes also boast an instrument panel that shows speed and status of the battery. According to City Bike Share Coordinator Jay Decker, an app is in the works that allows bikeshare members to see where the stations are, how many bikes are in it and check a bike out without any use of credit or member cards. It is also envisioned that the system will work with the second generation Charm Card that MTA will roll out as part of the revamped bus system.
Birmingham bike station with e-bikes and solar charging
An actual e-bike was on display and on hand for test rides after the Transit Choices meeting. I took it on a spin, it is big but it rides very well even uphill on the steep incline of the east park of Washington Square from St Paul to Charles Street. Many not so fit riders, or those who fear a sweaty business outfit, will appreciate the electric power boost. 

The other Baltimore leap will come from the installation of bike boulevards and cycle tracks on important north south and east west routes including Maryland Avenue, Centre and Monument Streets,  and Preston and Biddle Streets. These will be protected lanes where the traffic lane and the bike lane are physically separated. A dual bike lane is also in discussion for west Pratt Street. The installation of these facilities should put Baltimore from being last to sitting in the middle field of comparable cities.

Caitlin Doolin pointed out that Baltimore has many neighborhoods where over 50% of households have no access to a car and that the bike can create more equity in transportation. She promised that additional new facilities won't be limited to downtown and that improvements going into impoverished neighborhoods are in the making. For this to be successful, outreach is needed. A bike lane, that had been painted on Monroe Street in Harlem Park a few years ago, had to be removed again after neighbors protested that they hadn't been heard first. 
2016, Baltimore's year of the bicycle

Of course, not all the good stuff will come from government. The pro-bike activist group Bikemore and its executive director Liz Cornish did not only find a new home for their non-profit on Maryland Avenue where the new bike boulevard will pass by, the group is also looking into expanding their field of action.

Bikemore realizes that progressive transportation is not about modes (active modes such as bicycling or walking or passive modes like driving a car or riding a bus) but about the best ways for people to get around and have access to schools, jobs, groceries and entertainment. Such a people-based concept of transportation still has a long way to go before it will be reality in Baltimore. With the help of a new Mayor, 2016 can be a leap year for a new approach to transportation Baltimore, not only for bicycling.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA