Six New Trail Projects for the Next 10 Years: Making Baltimore Competitive to other Northeast Metros

Quality bicycling trails help define a region’s quality of life. They provide health and transportation benefits.  They’re fun and becoming a major tourism draw for the places with compelling facilities. Trails appeal to teenagers, millennials, families, and retirees.  Unfortunately, the Baltimore region’s combination of trails is far inferior to Washington’s, Philadelphia’s, New York’s, Boston’s, and we are falling behind Pittsburgh.  These other northeastern metros have invested far more and have developed networks and high profile trails. Our region should at least try to be in the same league.  The good news is–the six projects identified below, collectively, would cost less than one basic highway interchange and help Baltimore take a giant leap forward.

Other Northeastern Metros are investing in their trail systems.  Here are a few of their investments.

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Right now, Baltimore has a handful of average to good trails, but mostly they are one-offs, with little relation to one another.  Imagine if I-95 didn’t connect to the 695 Beltway and 695 didn’t connect to I-83 or 795.  These highways by themselves would be useful, but the connected network is exponentially more beneficial. Over the next decade, the Baltimore region should connect its primary trails. It should also develop a few marquis trails that show off the beauty of our city, watershed, and region. Here are six projects that would create the backbone of a connected regional trail network reflective of our affluent region.


 

Project 1 (Orange), Project 4 (Yellow), Project 6 (Dark Yellow), Existing Trails (Brown)

Project 1 (orange), Project 4 (yellow), Project 6 (dark yellow), Existing Trails (brown)

Project 1–Gwynns Falls/Middle Branch Trail to BWI/B&A Trail.  (Shown in orange)

Estimated cost and length: $10 million, 10 miles  (7 miles shared with project 6)

Sister trail: Guadalupe River Trail, San Jose, CA

Project 1, from the Middle Branch Trail’s end in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill Park, to the BWI trailhead-at the BWI rail station, is approximately 10 miles.  By completing this missing link, the trail network could continuously reach from Mt. Washington in Northern Baltimore City to Greater Annapolis, a roughly forty mile spine.

There is good news. It’s feasible.  The Patapsco River and Stony Run tributary valleys provide virtually continuous right-of-way, which would make the trail relatively free of street crossings, with little need for property acquisition or easements.

There are more reasons to like this project.  The river valleys provide great scenery of Baltimore’s most significant river. There are marshes, riverscapes, forests and lots of  other features that make for a scenic recreational trail.  If project 1 is completed, the trail will connect job centers, neighborhoods, and the rail transit system.


 

Baltimore Trail "Beltway"-concept by Jim Brown, Rails to Trails Conservancy

Baltimore Trail “Beltway”-concept by Jim Brown, Rails to Trails Conservancy

Project 2–Baltimore Trail “Beltway” 

Estimated cost and length: $10-20 million, 15 miles of new trail to make 35 mile loop

Sister trail: Beltline, Atlanta

This project is the urban trail version of I-695.  It fills in the gaps that would enable a continuous 35 mile loop in Baltimore City.  To complete the loop a little over 10 miles of trails would need to be constructed and some additional upkeep on existing trails would improve the experience.  This project is being spearheaded by the Rails to Trails organization, headquartered in Washington DC.

This project may not be as logistically easy as Project 1 because it loops through neighborhoods and requires cooperation with CSX and BGE in a few places. However, a theoretical right-of-way has been established and with a little cooperation, this project is feasible.

There are lots of reasons to like this project.  It has many of the benefits of Atlanta’s Beltline, but with a fraction of its price.  The Baltimore Trail “Beltway” is a home run waiting to be hit because it covers so many bases. Tourism, health, better transportation, recreation, and economic development are expected benefits of its completion.


Project 3 (Blue), Project 5 (Red), Existing trails (Brown)

Project 3 (blue), Project 5 (red), Existing trails (brown)

Project 3–Jones Falls Trail to Torrey C. Brown Trail (Shown in red (Towson Run Trail) and then blue)

Estimated cost and length: $15-20 million, 14 miles  (This includes Towson Run Trail Project)

Sister Trail: Rock Creek Trail, Washington DC and Montgomery County, MD

Project 3 connects a trail gap between Mt. Washington in Baltimore City and Hunt Valley, Baltimore’s most northern suburb.  The completion of the project would also fill in the missing vertebrae in a trail spine and create a continuous link from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to York, Pennsylvania.

The Torrey C. Brown trail is, arguably, the Baltimore region’s most popular paved trail. It is heavily used and is part of the Rails to Trails Hall of Fame, but it is isolated.

This connecting project would have to bisect suburban neighborhoods and would likely contain some street routes in spots (with buffered lanes). The bad news is there is no obvious path north of Towson, but the good news is there are many possible routes the trail could take.   This project could be challenged by NIMBYism and crossing over the 695 Beltway may be a challenge depending on the course.

There are many reasons this is a good project.  We will start with the East Coast Greenway (ECG). The ECG plan is a continuous trail from Maine to Florida.  Project 3 fills a key gap in the ECG.  Another good reason is access. By extending the mostly rural Torrey C. Brown Trail into the inner suburbs and ultimately the city, far more people will be within reach of a super trail.


Middle Branch Loop Master Plan from Turner Development

Middle Branch Loop Master Plan from Turner Development

Project 4–Middle Branch Loop Trail (Shown in yellow of the Project 1 map)

Estimated cost and length: $4-10 million, 3 new trail miles, 4 total miles  (If a trail right-of-way can be constructed on the Hanover Street Bridge replacement, the trail cost will be on the lower end)

Sister Trail: Lake Union Loop, Seattle

The Middle Branch Trail Loop, if completed, will hug the water and help connect Baltimoreans and visitors to the city’s waterfront.  The Middle Branch is destined to be the new home for Under Armour. A premier waterfront recreational amenity would be a great cultural compliment between the company, the city, and the water.

The challenge is adding a trail facility on a little-used century-old CSX owned swing bridge and the heavily used Hanover Street Bridge. Furthermore, Under Armour would need to be supportive of a public facility and not seek to privatize the space to the water’s edge.

An urban waterfront loop that utilizes two large bridges may be a big attraction because it’s a unique design that’s rarely implemented.  Also, a trail running across a former train bridge adds historical value.


Towson Run Trail would mostly follow the creek between Lake Roland and Towson.

Towson Run Trail would mostly follow the creek between Lake Roland and Towson.

Project 5–The Towson Run Trail (shown in red)

Estimated cost and length: $6-8 million, 5 miles of new trail

Sister Trail: Capital Crescent Trail, Washington DC and Montgomery County

This project would connect the Jones Falls Trail (Shown in brown), the Falls Road Light Rail station, and Lake Roland with Towson University and Downtown Towson and its “bike beltway.”

Building a trail adjacent to the Towson Run stream into the center of the university and to the business district appears to be feasible, but might face some NIMBY opposition in the area between Lake Roland and Charles Street. The trail may need a bridge to cross Lake Roland.

This is a good project because Towson, the Baltimore County government seat and home to over 55,000 people, has few recreational bicycle facilities.  Linking Towson via the valley of the Towson Run Creek into the Jones Falls Trail would help solve that problem, while tying Towson into the regional trail network.  This project could fill a gap in the East Coast Greenway Project and share the first five miles of Project 3.


The 2.5 mile Grist Mill Trail along the Patapsco River

The 2.5 mile Grist Mill Trail along the Patapsco River

Project 6–The Patapsco Trail (shown in dark yellow on the Project 1 map)

Estimated cost and length: $15-20 million, 16 miles of new trail and 18 total (7 miles shared with Project 1)

Sister Trail: Schuylkill River Trail, Philadelphia

This project is identical to Project 1 for about the first seven miles, sharing the Patapsco River Valley at its source in the Middle Branch.  Project 1 makes a southerly turn to connect with the BWI Trail. Project 6 continues northwest along the Patapsco Valley paralleling the river. It will feed into the Grist Mill Trail and then extend into historic Ellicott City.

This project appears logistically easy because of existing public right-of-way next to the river. There are a few places the trail will likely have to go underneath major roads. There will be some wetlands the trail may pass through.

Project 6 is a trail with tourist and transportation benefits. It would connect charming historic Ellicott City with downtown Baltimore, while taking a scenic, flat, and relatively direct path along the river. It would provide a great day trip in either direction.


Regions in the Northeast and across the US are investing in their trail networks and marquis trails.  They know that quality of life amenities are a major component to region attractiveness and competitiveness.  The Baltimore region’s trails are inferior to many of our competitors and the gap is widening. It may be a leap to propose more trails when some of our major existing trails are not well designed and are in poor repair. However, the workforce of the future and tourists will want quality trails. The state, counties, corporations, or even wealthy individuals should help fund it.

It is time for Baltimore to develop a regional trail plan and invest.

Jeff La Noue

Edited by Laura Melamed

 

 

Bicycling Events in Baltimore this summer

Bicycling can provide you a great reason to come to Baltimore this summer. Charm City would love to have you visit. If you like pedals and wheels, come enjoy these events this summer.

Kinetic Sculpture Race: Sunday, June 14

I am not sure Kinetic Sculptures are bicycles, but they are human and often pedal powered. It is too late to build your own land, water, and mud traversing sculpture and enter the race this year, but you can come watch this spectator-friendly event and get ideas for joining the race yourself next year. Bring the kids, or not.

Baltimore’s kinetic sculptures are amphibious, human-powered works of art custom built for the multi-terrain race course. The American Visionary Art Museum is the proud host of the Kinetic Sculpture Race.

Be sure to check out the spectator’s guide and dress code before you come.

By land, sea, and mud...Image from kineticbaltimore.com

By land, sea, and mud…Image from kineticbaltimore.com

Tour Dem Parks: Sunday, June 14

If you prefer to be riding your own bicycle, try Tour Dem Parks,  also on June 14. There are three routes (14, 25, or 35 miles) that pass through Baltimore parks and neighborhoods. It is a great chance to interface with many charming parts of Baltimore you would not otherwise see. The ride is fully supported with multiple rest stops and ends with a barbeque lunch and live jazz.

The ride starts in Druid Hill Park. Proceeds for the ride benefit parks and recreational activities in Baltimore City. Register here.

TDP is great chance to tour Baltimore on your bike-Image from Tour Dem parks website

TDP is great chance to tour Baltimore on your bike-Image from Tour Dem parks website

Bikes and Beers: Saturday, June 20

The 15 miles, Bikes and Beers ride, passes sites such as Penn Station, City Hall, Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Shot Tower, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Maryland Zoo.  The ride begins and ends at the Union Craft Brewing Company at 1700 Union Avenue. Departure times are (9:30, 10, 10:30, and 11am) The start is about three miles from Penn Station for anyone coming by MARC train.

Your registration includes:

Official Bikes and Beers Baltimore event pint glass
Two 5 oz samples at Heavy Seas Alehouse and One pint of your choice at Union Craft Brewing
Post-event festival with live music, food trucks, and games.

Part of the proceeds are being donated to Bike Maryland and Bikemore.

Enjoy and be safe

Enjoy and be safe

Baltimore Bike Party: Friday, June 26, July 31, and August 29…

The Baltimore Bike Party is a fun, social themed ride on the last Friday night of every month. May’s theme was “prom.” It is a mass (meaning hundreds if not a thousand cyclists in close quarters) on a slow paced ride following a different route every month. Meet up is at 6:30pm with a 7pm departure.

Confirm the departure site, but it typically begins at St. Mary’s park in Seton Hill at 600 N. Paca Street.

The ride is free, however donations are appreciated.

Baltimore Bike Party heads through town  Image from bmorebikes.com

Baltimore Bike Party heads through town Image from bmorebikes.com

Tour Du Port: Sunday, September 27

This great ride is part of Indian summer. Tour du Port boasts four bicycle route choices, including one mountain bike option. Pick among these route choices: The Harbor Loop, The Port to Peninsula, The Raven Challenge, or the mountain bike Urban Challenge route and see parts of Baltimore and experience the harbor in a new way.

The ride starts at the Canton Waterfront Park at 3001 Boston Street. Families often do the shorter loop. Proceeds benefit the Maryland statewide bicycling non-profit Bike Maryland.

Resting by the water at the 2014 Tour Du Port. Image by David Choy

Resting by the water at the 2014 Tour Du Port. Image by David Choy

Baltimore would love to have you. These events provide five additional reasons to come!

The Historic Beginning of Baltimore’s Downtown Bicycle Network

In the Enoch Pratt Central Library’s Edgar Allen Poe room, an overflowing enthusiastic audience witnessed history. The Baltimore Department of Transportation (BDOT) planners presented the “Downtown Bicycle Network“, a plan that could catapult bicycling forward in the central business district (CBD) and city. The plan’s signature infrastructure piece is Baltimore’s first ever cycletrack ranging 2.6 miles from near Johns Hopkins University in the north to the convention center near the harbor on Maryland Avenue. Installation is to take place in  fall 2014.

A cycletrack is a leap beyond today’s on-road bicycle investments in the city.  Baltimore bicycle enthusiasts look to DC with both envy and inspiration.  The hope is, the Maryland Avenue cycletrack will prove popular enough to open the door for building a bicycle system on par with the District.

Downtown Bicycle Network Meeting; photo by the author

Downtown Bicycle Network Meeting; photo by the author

Will the Downtown Bicycle Network actually serve downtown?

While its name is the “Downtown Bicycle Network,”  the projects are mostly actually in Mt. Vernon, a neighborhood to the north of the central business district. The cycletrack will get a bicyclist downtown, but for now that is where the network ends.

The proposed Downtown Bicycle Network. Image from Baltimore DOT

The proposed Downtown Bicycle Network. Image from Baltimore DOT

Pratt Street cycletrack could provide an east/west complement to the north/south Maryland Avenue Cycletrack.

Pratt Street is the main artery of the business district and because of its width and concentration of businesses, hotels, tourist attractions, and facilities like the convention center and institutions like the University of Maryland, it remains the grand prize for a cycle track. Bikemore, Baltimore bicycle advocacy organization, is pushing this idea.

Image: Pratt Street in Baltimore. The south lane (on left) is a bus/bike lane. Photo by author.

Image: Pratt Street in Baltimore. The south lane (on left) is a bus/bike lane. Photo by author.

Officially, Baltimore’s bike map lists bus/bike lanes on Pratt Street.  However, these lanes are not often enforced and not comfortable for many bicyclists.

Some maps and officials also tout the Inner Harbor Promenade and the Jones Falls Trail adjacent to Pratt Street as bike facilities. But in summer, they are often packed with tourists, strollers, pedestrians, and are often impassable for bicyclists.

If not for Bixi’s financial troubles, it is likely Baltimore would have Bikeshare by this summer.  Hopefully, Baltimore can use the delayed launch to continue to build a better network to support cycling.  The better the infrastructure, the better bikeshare will work when it eventually launches.

Baltimore Bikeshare

Proposed bikeshare stations. Image from Baltimore DOT

Baltimore can learn from DC and Pittsburgh

Washington is not the only nearby city for Baltimore to seek inspiration. Pittsburgh has integrated quality bike facilities along its water front and made connections to nearby neighborhoods. In a Pittsburgh Magazine article about the steel city’s revitalized river front, Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of Riverlife, likens the increased traffic along the riverfront to the growth of the regional trail network.

“The more trail that was created, the higher the number of users was,” she says. “We hit that momentum point along the rivers this year. People realized, ‘Aha — this is a network, and I can go in all directions.’ Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh’s new bicycle-friendly mayor wants his city to be in Bicycle magazine top ten US cities, despite its hilly contours.

Will the Maryland Avenue Cycletrack be the first of a series of complementary projects, extensions, and improvements to Baltimore’s bicycle network?   The fast growth of DC and Pittsburgh’s network make us optimistic that charm city will catch the momentum too.

Jeff La Noue

similar article cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington and Sustainable Cities Collective

Almost Being Able To Bicycle to School

My son is off to start high school as a freshman in three weeks at Baltimore’s Polytechnic Institute (Poly) High School.  I was excited that he would have an easy bike ride to school. The newly created Jones Falls Trail would get him 90% or  0.7 miles from his high school. I thought it would be a bicycling slam dunk.  I went out to inspect and whoa, not so easy and not so safe…. The last leg is comprised of crossing a highway interchange, hyper fast speeding vehicles, and scary street crossings.  As parents, we are going to have to veto this bike route to school.

Trail my son would take 90% of the way to his High School

Trail my son would take 90% of the way to his high school

Getting from the Jones Falls Trail to Poly HS on foot or by bicycle

The last 0.7 miles between the Jones Falls Trail and his high school

If Baltimore, Maryland, and the US gets serious about making bicycling a mainstream transport option the trails are going to need spurs that safely connect to the places we go.  Trails like the Jones Falls should find tentacles that reach schools and neighborhoods that are nearby but not connected.  A safe spur from the Jones Falls Trail to Poly (and Western) under the elevated portions of the expressway (JFX) could probably be built for under two million dollars. The connection would also provide access to neighborhoods (Cross Keys, Roland Park, Medfield) that are currently blocked to the trail by the expressway.  Because of the scarce dollars allocated to bike infrastructure, I am not necessarily arguing here for this specific project . ( “Safe Routes to Schools” funding is regularly on the Congressional chopping block) Unfortunately, bike planners have to make priorities that make ubiquitous safe connected networks seemingly decades away.

Maryland Counties have highway interchanges on their priority list projected to cost $140 million and more.   These may or may not be worthy projects.  The hypothetical two million dollar trail spur connection between Baltimore’s north-south spine trail to Baltimore’s Math and Science High School and three adjacent neighborhoods is probably considered too expensive to build. As I see a highway interchange prevent my son from easily bicycling to school, it does make me wish one proposed highway interchange in Maryland could be sacrificed so dozens of safe networks of trails could be built linking Maryland’s communities and their schools.

(Baltimore City’s Transportation Priority Letter  emphasizes Transit Oriented Development (TOD) projects, but lists no bike paths among its priorities.  Ironically, the letter does focus on a TOD adjacent to the Cold Spring Station and interchange. The letter describes the Jones Falls Trail as “value added.” Today, the Jones Falls Trail passes within 70 yards of the Cold Spring Light rail stop, but does not connect.

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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