Baltimore Bikeshare needs a Tango Partner: Better Bicycle Infrastructure

MDOT is requesting $882,000 for the implementation of “Charm City Bikeshare.”  44 stations and 425 bicycles are envisioned. Great news!  However, it takes two to tango, and Baltimore will still need better bicycle infrastructure to create a beautiful dance in Charm City. Baltimore has made strides, but Bicycle Magazine is probably on target ranking Charm City  48th out of its top 50 US bicycling cities. Baltimore falls right behind Fargo, North Dakota and Anchorage, Alaska on the list.

To leap ahead of our frost covered competition, Baltimore should build a bike friendly infrastructure network, focusing on its destination rich center to complement Bikeshare. Envision a resident or a visitor starting their Charm City Bikeshare experience in Inner Harbor East. “Sharing” a bike to reach the Convention Center, Camden Yards, University of Maryland Baltimore/Hippodrome, or Penn Station, are all indirect awkward bicycle trips. However, these are the kind of bread and butter trips that make for a successful  Bikeshare system.

Construction crews should be racing to build a generous bi-directional bicycle-only cycle tracks on:

  • Pratt Street from MLK to Inner Harbor East
  • Maryland/Park Avenue extending from Pratt Street to Penn Station/JHU/Charles Village
  • Light Street/Key Highway  extending to Ft. Mchenry/Under Armour
Proposed core cycletrack network (yellow) Approximate Jones Falls Trail (green)

Proposed core cycletrack network (yellow) Approximate Jones Falls Trail (green)

Cycle tracks covering the above territory would provide a core network while giving future Bikeshare users the desired infrastructure in the heavy traffic places that should matter the most. The costs would not be inconsequential, but pale in comparison with other transport infrastructure. It is not a whole lot more than barrier curbs and paint. Other cities are creatively funding these types of projects using local and federal dollars.

The quality of Bike friendly infrastructure on Pratt Street is a telling barometer of how serious the city is about making bicycling a serious transportation option. Pratt Street is home to more square footage of office, retail, restaurants, and visitor attractions than any other 1.5 mile stretch in the region.  It is arguably Baltimore’s premier main street.  This corridor is plenty-wide to incorporate a generous (bicycle only) bi-directional cycle track.  A city that has a Complete Streets Law and looking to advance its Bike friendly bronze rating should prioritize its priority streets for bike infrastructure.

Cycle tracks should be designed within the Pratt Street corridor

A bi-directional cycle track should be designed within the wide Pratt Street corridor

Pratt Street-Baltimore's unofficial main street

Pratt Street-Baltimore’s unofficial main street has poor bicycle facilities

Many Baltimore readers might ask, what about the Jones Falls Trail (JFT) along Pratt Street? It is not adequate.  Here are my reasons:

  • The JFT only traverses four of the roughly 18 blocks between MLK and Inner Harbor East.
  • The JFT doesn’t connect the stadiums, UMB, the convention center, Inner Harbor East, etc.
  • The JFT is a confluence of slow-moving humanity. On nice days, the trail is packed with moms, strollers, children, sports fans, tourists…. It is the ultimate bike/ped conflict hazard zone.  In places with this many people, bicyclists need a bike only cycle track.
Too many people crowd the Jones Falls Trail to be bike friendly-notice bicyclist walking astride bike.

Too many people crowd the Jones Falls Trail to be bike friendly-notice bicyclist walking astride bike.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to visit Montreal and use the Bixi Bikeshare and their route verte system for almost every trip we made within the city.  Bixi worked so well that sometimes it was hard to find a bike because so many were in use. Montreal has built cycle tracks all over the city and they function as a real transportation network serving all generations.

Author on Bixi and Montreal Cycle track

Author on Bixi and uptown Montreal Cycle track

Montreal’s cycle tracks:

  • Directly connect the most important places people want to go
  • Avoid crisscrossing back and forth from one side of the street to the other and maintain straight ahead paths
  • Are geared toward bicyclists (separated from pedestrians and car traffic)
  • Include bicycle traffic signals, plentiful bicycle parking, and directional signage

A section of the cycletrack running parallel to the downtown waterfront in Montreal

Baltimore should be applauded for pursuing bike share. Baltimore is an ideal bicycling city  with clustered destinations and neighborhoods like pearls on a string.  However, to meet its potential, an efficient cycle track network starting in the core of the city should be implemented. Bikeshare is not unlike; roads, the internet, sewers, subways, and cell phones. The network is just as important as the bikes and it does not work well when clogged, indirect, or disconnected. What do you think Baltimore needs to be a Bikeshare success story?

JL

Jones Falls Bike Boulevard

The Jones Falls Valley should be a top candidate for Baltimore’s next bicycle boulevard. In full disclosure, it is the author’s (and others) bicycle commute.  Baltimore’s current and only bike boulevard is on Guilford Avenue between 33rd Street and Mt. Royal. A bicycle boulevard is a road shared by vehicles and bicycles, but with features that keep car speeds slow and create safe and comfortable bicycle conditions. A bicycle boulevard is not necessarily wide as the name implies, but does have the boulevard characteristics of being relatively short and not built for speed. A bicycle boulevard is the best prescription when you need cars to be able to share the road, but still want to emphasize bicycle traffic.

Specifically, I am proposing a “bike boulevard” for the stretch of roads paralleling the river from the Jones Falls Trail in Woodberry/Clipper Mill to the Jones Falls Trail road crossing at Round Falls on Falls Road- here after called the Jones Fall Bike Boulevard (JFBB)

This is a popular road for bicyclists (and joggers). The road is curvy, scenic, has few intersections and relatively little car traffic. The road is rural in its flavor despite traversing the center of Baltimore City. Appropriately, it has urban characteristics such as graffiti, an assortment of mill buildings, railroad tracks, and vestiges of Baltimore’s industrial past. It is an efficient stretch of road for bicyclists because it provides a relatively straight shot into midtown/downtown from the neighborhoods aligning the valley such as Hampden and Woodberry. It is not direct for most cars unless the trip originates in the valley.

Baltimore trails

Proposed Jones Falls Bike Boulevard-blue line
Jones Falls Trail-green line

The problem with the status quo is that the road is dangerous. Cars often speed on  the curvy road. As cars wheel around turns they may not be prepared for a bicyclist sharing the lane. Just as dangerous, cars widely pass bicyclists steering blindly into the oncoming lane trusting another car will not be coming around the bend in the opposite direction. Inevitably, there will be a head on collision and pinball effect of cars and bicycles. The outcome likely will not be a fender bender. Adding bike boulevard elements such as speed humps, shared lane markings, and other traffic calming would bring the risk of accidents down. These features are relatively low cost to implement because they can be added to the existing infrastructure.

The Jones Falls valley is an increasingly popular place to live, work, and eat with redevelopment projects at Union Mill, Clipper Mill, Mill No. 1, and the Birroteca Restaurant. Creating a JFBB would make the valley a better recreational and commuting option for bicyclists (and joggers). The JFBB would be used to travel to new restaurants and apartments (that lack bountiful parking). It would increase public enjoyment of the river. The local roads in the valley do not need to be express. Baltimore should make this section of road its next bike boulevard.

JL

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