In the coming month, Baltimore will have launched back-to-back initiatives to increase the number and safety of cyclists in the city. The Baltimore Bike Share was announced this week and was the first of two programs the city hopes to use to transform Baltimore into a biking community. The bikes, offered at fifty stations deliberately placed in and around Baltimore’s wealthiest commercial areas, are quite aptly described by its website’s tagline: “The future of urban mobility.” Each bike is GPS-enabled and half of the fleet will be equipped with an electric pedal-assist (Pedelec) feature. The Pedelec bikes, as described by the website, “operate just like a regular bike, but provide background power to help you get up hills, travel to work easier, or feel more comfortable when riding.” These unique features are provided by the bike-share while still being comparable price-wise to other cities like New York and Boston.
The second initiative, to quickly follow the launch of the bike-share, is the opening of a north-south bike lane. While not yet complete, the bike lane offers a protected corridor down Maryland Ave. from Johns Hopkins University to Inner Harbor. Caitlin Doolin, the bicycle pedestrian coordinator for the city’s Department of Transportation, was quoted saying that “the goal is to add to the more than 2,000 people who ride their bicycle to work each day.” The hope is that the security and convenience convince more people to ditch the car and take a bike.
While the programs have been heavily supported by the city government, many Baltimoreans are unconvinced. Meg Fairfax Fielding voiced the concern many car commuters had: “Cyclists are being given a lot of priority over drivers.” To the majority who drive to work, the bike lanes are the source of only more headaches and frustration. Bike lanes remove a lane from which cars can drive and also decreases the parking availability on the already cramped streets. In an opinion written to the Baltimore Sun, Jerry Cothran calls the development an “unmitigated disaster” and a “nightmare.” Among other complaints, Cothran criticizes that cities like Seattle and Portland “have lots of bicycle commuters” and Baltimore is just “not a city with high bicycle use.”
To answer the disgruntled commuters quite frankly – cyclists should have priority over drivers. Public transit in all forms increases economic activity and environmental sustainability. The American Public Transportation Association found that “every $1 billion invested in public transportation supports and creates more than 50,000 jobs.” Additionally, in a city where citizens are desperately trying to increase their home values, “home values performed 42 percent better on average if they were located near public transportation with high-frequency service.” From an economic standpoint, public transportation is a service that can only improve the standard of living in a city.
In response to the lack of cyclists as compared to other cities like Seattle and Portland, studies show that government programs actually foster biking communities. During the period between 2000 and 2011, the Seattle Department of Transportation conducted a statistical survey across the city and found that biking increased by thirty-four percent over the eleven year period when pro-biking policies were enacted. The Seattle study highlights a flaw in Cothran’s argument in that governments actually have the ability to shape the culture in a city. Seattle created a culture where biking was valued and promoted; Baltimore has the opportunity to do the same. Instead of worrying about whether there will be enough cyclists to utilize the new infrastructure, Baltimore should ask itself what type of city it wants to be. Baltimore has the means to improve its economic outlook through public transit policies; the only question now is if the citizens are ready to accept it.
While the drivers complain that the bike lanes are an inconvenience, Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University, calls attention to a larger issue at hand. He complains that the city has once again created a transportation project, in the form of the Baltimore Bike Share and the bike lanes, that only helps the wealthy. In his words the bike-shares and bike lanes are the “same damn bulls**t all over again.” Brown is alluding to the fact that forty-one out of fifty of Baltimore’s Bike Share stations, and most of the bike lanes, are located in the “Baltimore L” – a historically white and highly gentrified zone of Baltimore. This city has a track record of creating transportation policy that only benefits the wealthy folk while abandoning those in West and East Baltimore who most desperately need the government’s assistance. The Charm City Circulator is a perfect representation of the government’s neglect of impoverished neighborhoods. The Charm City Circulator provides free busing in and around the city but its service lines coincide heavily with the “Baltimore L.” The public transit policy, which would have provided free transportation to those who could not afford it, failed to reach those it was designed to help.
When it comes to transportation, Baltimore has consistently promoted good policies but squandered them by restricting them to benefit only the wealthy. The north-south bike lane and the Baltimore Bike Share were ideas that could have increased the living standards and economic activity in large parts of the city, but city officials executed the policies in a half-hearted attempt to appease the liberal elites in the “Baltimore L.” While there are endless flaws in the execution of many Baltimorean public transportation policies, it does not hurt to reiterate that these policies have the potential to positively affect the lives of many disadvantaged families. As previously mentioned, there are massive economic benefits to expanding public transit. However, a large portion of the beneficial effects of public transit only apply if transportation reaches those in lower economic neighborhoods. The Baltimore Bike Share and new bike lanes show that there is an influx of policies with great potential presented by Baltimoreans; all we need now is to make it available to those who need it most.
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