The case for -and against-bike share in Baltimore

One of the earlier bike lane additions to Baltimore’s cycling master plan extends from the Gwynn Oak neighborhood in West Baltimore to Woodlawn at the county line, over a few miles of rolling hills through a quiet, very green neighborhood of big yards and small rents along Gwynn Oak Avenue. The road is fairly wide, the grades are mostly shallow, and signs keep drivers and bikers on course. It’s low stress. This particular bike lane serves one of Baltimore’s least car-having areas and, moreso, an area cut off from any great transit connectivity because of its odd geography, nestled between large-ish city parks.

In other words, it’s everything a bike lane should be: safe, well connected, and serving a population in need of better connectivity. The odds, however, of a city cyclist using it are fantastically poor. The City of Baltimore hasn’t tracked usage of the lane, but this writer averaged about three, maybe four trips a week at all daytime hours on the route in late 2009 and 2010 and saw a whopping zero other cyclists. At all. Ever.

Supply? Check. Demand? Check. Cyclists? Nope.

So, what’s missing here? The problem is that there’s an empty space on the supply side of the equation: bikes. Four new bike shops have opened in the city in the past two years: Baltimore Bicycle Works in Mount Vernon, Twenty20 in Hampden, Race Pace in Federal Hill, and a second Joe’s Bike Shop in Fells Point. Flipping over price tags at any one of them will tell you that they’re largely serving the income bracket of their respective neighborhoods. An entry-level used bike for less than $100 can be found around town, but it’s a slim supply pool, at least compared to off-the-rack fixies, yuppie cruisers, and spandex-begging sport bikes.

Access isn’t a stated mission of too many for-profit bike shops anywhere, and it’s an objective that winds up falling on the shoulders of nonprofit co-ops like Velocipede, which is swamped with demand, even after a significant reorganization. Meanwhile, the East Baltimore Bike Library, a somewhat different project organized through the Men and Families Center that was to offer free rentals and bike maintenance training to in-need residents, seems to have failed to launch. (Its web site hasn’t been updated in over a year and an e-mail to the organization hasn’t been returned.)

“There’s a dude, calls himself ‘Ten Speed,’ that comes in all the time for old tires/tubes/etc.,” says Boson Au, a longtime Velocipede collective member, via instant message. “I finally asked him what he does with them. He fixes neighborhood kids/adult bikes. I mean, that guy, [the block he lives on] is so off the radar of bike shops.” As for the idea of a co-op like Velocipede in West Baltimore, Au adds, ”We need it, desperately. Not just West Baltimore. Highlandtown/Fells is another underserved area. We’d be [the shop’s] number one supporter. If someone wants to start another co-op, just ask us, we can give them starting stock.”

An area such as Gwynn Oak—or Park Heights, Liberty Heights, Reservoir Hill, Woodmere, even Pikesville—is a prime player in what’s known by city planners as the “last mile” issue. It’s a dense community existing along the city’s single, often-bustling subway line. Often phrased as a question or conundrum, the “last mile” refers to the mile or less between a person’s home or work and a transit line. (The “last mile” is also a concept used frequently in discussing communications, by the by.) How do commuters get from those Metro stations to their actual homes? Overcoming the last mile is one of the biggest keys to the success of a transit system and, thus, mobility within a city and everything that can impact—which is, in fact, most everything. Unsafe neighborhoods, difficult to access stations, even sidewalk conditions are things that can make that last mile longer or shorter or just plain insurmountable. And perhaps one of the biggest things that can make that last mile much shorter comes on two wheels.

There’s a lot to making that two-wheel solution actually happen, bridging that crucial last mile: ensuring there’s bike parking, for one thing, and creating decent biking facilities on roadways. But, again, we have to return to the issue of the bikes themselves. In San Jose, a Google employee can grab a Google bike and ride it from the train station to work. Most of us don’t have that luxury. And perhaps a start to the solution is looking at having a bike not as a luxury, but as a functional and accessible means of bridging that final, necessary transit gap—advocating not for “our sport,” but for cheap and easy transportation.

It’s been shelved for at least the next year, according to Baltimore’s Department of Transportation, but a solution to that last mile problem, presented by the city, is a bike-share network. Which is just what it sounds like: Network members would have access to bikes at tightly spaced bike-share stations—you grab one by the train station, ride it to work, and dump it at another bike-share station close by. Naturally, it’s been wicked successful in some European cities that are already models of bike positivity. And, more recently, bike-share systems have been implemented in Boston, Denver, and, last year, Washington, D.C.

Notably, those are all cities with aggressively updated bike infrastructure. Baltimore’s plan provided for its bike-share network to occupy the city’s downtown core and extend in every direction you could consider relatively affluent: Canton, Fells Point, Charles Village, and Federal Hill. It’s an area that has somewhere between 5 and 10 miles—depending on how generous you are with boundaries—of full-on, traffic-separated bike lanes. That’s not many “last miles” and, compared to D.C.’s 50 miles, nothing at all. And, importantly, D.C.’s bike-share network, Capital Bikeshare, is littered with transit hubs; Baltimore is a comparable mess of disconnected light rail, subway, and two generally noninterfacing bus systems. (One of those systems, the Charm City Circulator, is arguably its own last-mile answer.)

Bike share in Baltimore as planned would (or would have) served the city’s current most mobile and wealthy population. And, moreover, a recent statistic from Capital Bikeshare is rather damning: Of trips made, users polled said that 70 percent would have otherwise been made on foot. In other words, 70 percent of the time, D.C. bike sharing is just frosting, and really adding nothing in terms of mobility.

Would bike share make more sense in transit-corridor neighborhoods—widening the reach of the subway or light-rail system, in other words? Well, there’s cycling infrastructure in neighborhoods, for one—to the city’s credit, it started its Bicycle Master Plan efforts in the city’s more carless neighborhoods—and demonstrated need. But at the same time, if Baltimore roughly followed Capital Bikeshare’s pricing scheme, we’re still talking about $75 yearly for a membership. That’s roughly in line with the cost of a perfectly functional used bike at Velocipede. (You can also have one for nothing but labor by volunteering.)

Note that Velocipede gets no support from the City of Baltimore, surviving instead on discounted rent, sales of used bikes, and private donations. All of which adds up to nothing (about $12,000-$14,000 a year) compared to the costs of establishing a bike-share system ($5 million in up-front costs alone for Capital Bikeshare; $2.3 million in operating costs for the first year). Then compare the net benefits for the two: frosting for the city’s middle class versus getting bicycles underneath the people that need them. In the end, it depends on whether the initial goal is serving the city’s residents, or serving the city’s image.

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