Thursday, December 29, 2016

Baltimore's Bike-share and "the White L"

As soon as the current 21 Baltimore bike share stations were installed some started howling about their locations. They supposedly were all in what has become known in Baltimore as the "white L", the zone of more affluent communities stretching north south along the Charles Street corridor and then east along the waterfront to Canton. Only a few stations were placed in the "black butterfly", the large African American communities to the east and west of downtown which in many cases are disinvested and dominated by car-less households who need alternative transportation the most. As it is sometimes the case, the howls didn't come as much from the bypassed communities as from self appointed advocates.
Philadelphia bike share

The executive director of Baltimore's bicycle advocacy group Bikemore is fully aware of the equity implications of bicycling in cities and so are most bicycle advocates and the bike coordinator at the City DOT, Caitlin Doolin. Bikemore's Liz Cornish has been widely quoted in a thoughtful and nationally published interview with the Atlantic Magazine's CityLab titled "Enlisting Bikes In the Fight Against Inequality":
"In these discussions about bike equity, people are often thinking only in terms of the physical infrastructure—where the bike lanes or bike-share stations are located. That's important. But biking also lends itself to having a macro discussion about equity. We've designed our cities in such a way that it can produce terrible air quality. In Baltimore City, the number-one reason why kids miss school is asthma-related illness. And we know that reducing a single car trip can improve air quality. We don't think about that as an equity issue. But I do. In some ways, getting anyone out of their car and reducing traffic congestion is a win for that particular equity issue. Biking is a very cheap solution to that very complex health problem.
Baltimore Bikeshare map: Not quite the "L" 
...You can’t lead with bikes. That’s not the point. The point is safety. The point is health. So I have to be able to sit and listen to neighbors who’ve lived in that neighborhood for longer than I’ve been in Baltimore, and rely on their experience and knowledge of the area, about what works and what doesn’t, and what has been tried and what’s failed. We try to remind people that we know that commute time is one of the most significant indicators of someone's ability to move out of poverty. And we know that some of Baltimore's most vulnerable neighborhoods have some of the longest commute times. They are in the city but they can't get to jobs or amenities like healthcare and schools and groceries without being on the bus for an hour. 
So, what are you asking? Are you saying, “I’m gonna put a bike-share location here—is that a problem?” That’s a terrible way. When I ask people what do they want their neighborhood to feel like, there isn’t a single neighborhood in this city, or a single person I’ve talked to, that hasn’t said things like, well, I wish the cars drove slower. And I wish there was a safe place for my kid to learn to ride a bike and play. And I wish there was something for me to walk to, like a restaurant or a coffee shop or a dry cleaners. These are universal quality-of-life things that every neighborhood desires. After I hear that, that’s an opportunity for me to say, actually, there are solutions to some of these things. And one of many solutions is building a bike lane. It calms traffic. It makes the crossing distance shorter. It provides connectivity to things inside and outside your neighborhood. That’s how you have the conversation. And it hasn’t failed me yet."
World famous complete streets innovator Janette Sadik Khan made a similar argument when she talked recently in Baltimore to transportation leaders with Mayor Catherine Pugh in the front row. Dropping stuff into neighborhoods is never a good idea if it isn't the community requesting it. Proof of concept experiments are especially unwelcome in disadvantaged communities. Baltimore made that experience when DOT dropped one of its first bike lanes onto Monroe Street through the Harlem Park Community. Neighborhood community leader Arlene Fisher made sure the lane markings got blacked out again. "Nobody talked to us", she said. "We are not anti-bike", but we want to be involved in planning and this lane is a bad idea.
Graphic from FHWA brochure

For now the bike stations for Baltimore's brand-new bike share system are mainly clustered in the areas where the bike lanes and major downtown attractions are. The system opened with much delay and at the beginning of the cold season. The idea is to work out the kinks, get a basic system going where demand is almost certain and where bicycle activists participated in bike corridor planning. Then, in the spring, the system will expand and spread. For example, thanks to a federal grant under the title "North Avenue Rising", there will be bike-sharing and facilities along North Avenue.

Clearly, no matter how complex the issues are, concentrating facilities only in already well functioning and well served communities can't be an acceptable outcome in the long run or even midterm. National surveys do show a very uneven distribution of bike facilities among communities if listed by ethnicity.  According to NextCity New York City did well, however a national survey puts the District as number one for equitable use and distribution of its bike-share program.
An equitable system provides equal access to bikes throughout the program area and is big enough to provide meaningful coverage. In New York City, for example, Citi Bike stations are placed with the same high frequency in low-income areas and around NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) campuses as in Midtown Manhattan; the system is doubling in size to cover large parts of three boroughs by 2017 and should be expanded beyond that....In New York, the outreach around station siting and ongoing partnerships with community-based organizations like Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration, are models for active, meaningful engagement. (Next City)
Baltimore Bikeshare station at the Mount Vernon Market
(Photo: Philipsen)
It is thought that Baltimore's innovative contribution to bike-share, the inclusion of electric power assist bikes, will actually help to make those boosted bikes more acceptable outside the community of existing bike enthusiasts which already is by no means a homogeneous group.

Anyone who has ever participated in the Baltimore Bike Parties on the last Friday of each month can see that the participants represent a gender, age and race diverse group. Many of the routes have included disadvantaged communities on the east and west of downtown and the riders have always been welcomed and have been joined by many neighborhood kids on bikes who were too young for any motorized transportation but obvious bike enthusiasts. Perpetuating the narrative of bicycling as something that is only for yuppies or hipsters is counterproductive and a holdover from years back when cities and bicycling in America were in a very different place than today. Which doesn't mean that equity in transportation, or in the so called active modes of transportation, has been achieved, far from it.

In another small step towards making bike-share more widespread and equitable, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore announced a financial aid program yesterday that allows low income riders the purchase of monthly bike-share passes for a steeply discounted price. Additionally, the bikeshare company that manages Baltimore's system, Corps Logistics employs homeless veterans and re-entry participants to maintain the bicycles.

Baltimore's bike share provides open data on its website where one can see the number of total trips and the most active docking stations. With 8,455 trips to date over 11,370 miles the program had a solid response so far. Docking stations are easy to move. Anybody with a strong sense where a bike station should be can participate in making best use of the available resources. The system is also still looking for corporate sponsorships to make its operation sustainable for a long time.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Pursuing Equity in Pedestrian and Bicycle Planning, Federal Highway Administration