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

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Connecting Baltimore’s Trails

Loch Raven Reservoir

Image: Loch Raven Reservoir

Part I: Could the Jones Falls Trail and the Torrey Brown Trail connect?

Part II:  Connecting the Gwynns Falls Trail to the BWI Trail/B&A Trail-(The Patapsco Valley link)

One of the goals of the update of Maryland’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Master Plan (originally adopted in 2002) is to connect missing pieces in the infrastructure, but specific projects are not on the table for discussion now. This article intends to get a head start when the time comes. It is time to build the Baltimore Region’s “Super Trail.”

First, regional trails should not come at the expense of a micro-network of bicycle connections in our communities. Trail links to schools, shopping centers, main streets, transit stops, downtowns, and employment centers are the most useful bicycle investments.

With that being said, thoughtfully planned regional trails can complement the above while also providing opportunities for trail tourism, economic development, commuting, recreation, and a regional amenity that helps us compete with other regions in the quality of life category. There are many aspirational comparisons by  Towson’s business and political leaders to Bethesda. One of Bethesda’s gems is the Capital Crescent Trail that weaves through Downtown Bethesda before connecting to the Potomac River, C&O towpath, and on to Georgetown.

Proposed here is a new trail connection between the *Jones Falls Trail and the **Torrey C. Brown (NCR Trail)/York County Heritage Trail and filling a missing link in the East Coast Greenway. There are several options, but we also have a general route in mind.

Jones Falls Trail extension large

Jones Falls Trail extension small

Here’s why we think it is a good idea:

  • A much longer connected trail (approximately 70 miles) is better than two shorter disconnected pieces
  • Added beautiful scenery and recreational amenities (Lake Roland, Loch Raven Reservoir)
  • Useful for commuting and transportation to and between: light rail stations, Towson University/Goucher College, downtown Towson, GBMC, Shepherd Pratt Hospital and residential areas
  • Connects a densely populated area with recreational amenities
  • Will generate economic development and hotel visits. (Overnight trail users could stay in Hunt Valley, Towson, or Downtown Baltimore hotels)
  • Light rail can complement the trail for those who do not want to do the “whole thing”

Trails are not free to build.  The Jones Falls Trail costs are approximately $850,000 per mile.  Accordingly, this project would cost between 15-20 million to construct. The author thinks it is worth it.

Well-designed and utilized urban/suburban trails are multi-purposed investments because they can boost community health and provide new transportation options. This trail could also attract serious bicycle tourism.  Museums, the zoo, festivals, sports events, fishing, water sports, fine dining, historic sites, shopping,  hotels, can all be incorporated into a trail visit package.  Maryland can see a multi-faceted return on its investment by thoughtfully constructing the missing piece.

JL (Full disclosure – the author lives next to the Jones Falls Trail)

*The Jones Falls Trail (six miles) is a relatively new trail extending from the Baltimore Visitors Center (Gwynns Falls Trail) to the Cylburn arboretum with an extension planned to Mt. Washington. The trail goes through urban and natural settings. The trail passes historic sites and monuments, the Maryland Zoo, Druid Hill Park, and views of  Jones Falls River along its path.

**The Torrey C. Brown Trail (20 miles)/York County Heritage Trail (also 20 Miles) connect York, Pennsylvania with Ashland, MD. The trail has beautiful rural scenery, is very popular, and provides a large economic boost to the communities along the trail, York, Pa and New Freedom, Pa in particular.

Photos of a few of the places adjacent to the proposed trail connection

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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