Mount Royal Avenue isn’t a particularly spectacular stretch of roadway. It’s short, for one, slicing an obtuse “L” shape across the top of Mount Vernon. Outside of rush hour, it can even seem a bit deserted in the grand chaos of Baltimore car traffic. But it’s a connector street, providing access to key lateral artery North Avenue and one of few midtown outlets to northbound freeway escape via its access to the Jones Falls Expressway. In terms of real estate, it’s hard to beat, cutting through two college campuses, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Baltimore, grazing Penn Station, touching a few of the new development projects actually underway in Baltimore, and, of course, it’s proximate to Station North and Mount Vernon. It’s a strange road and an important one in ways that most roads don’t get to be.
Right now, however, Mount Royal Avenue is a lot of sick-looking trees, busted pavement, and hard surfaces along nearly every line of sight for much of its single-mile duration. It looks like many/most streets in Baltimore, in other words. In the words of the city’s streetscape plan for the avenue, it suffers from a glut of “hardscaping,” which is about what it sounds like. Said plan, drafted by the Baltimore Department of Transportation in 2009, calls for curb extensions, new landscaping, median improvements, and various other things to make it look like an inviting place. Also: bike improvements. Suggested in the plan is a bike lane—more specifically, cutting out a car lane and adding a bike lane. In a meeting of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee in January, however, according to meeting minutes posted at baltimorevelo.com, it was announced that the lanes had been killed, reportedly with the support of the president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, Fred Lazarus. (By e-mail, Lazarus denies responding to the city’s draft plan, but a Baltimore Brew report on a recent MICA town-hall meeting discussing the issue noted that he appeared highly skeptical of adding lanes.)
You probably couldn’t plan a better way to mobilize a community of bicyclists. In a popular, central neighborhood with two college campuses and in close proximity to many rather cool places important to people you commonly associate with riding bikes, it’s a straight-up amazing megaphone to say “Whatever” to a great many cyclists at once. The move by the city got all kinds of blog attention and blog outrage and whatnot, but one thing cyclists have historically lacked in Baltimore is a central, powerful voice with which to respond—an advocacy organization. Less than a month later, such an organization—what would become known as Bikemore—formed in a Remington conference room. It which took the Mount Royal Avenue canceled bike lane as its first, very short-term advocacy issue.
“With this Mount Royal lane, it had to be reactionary,” says Jed Weeks, one of several representatives from Bikemore who met with City Paper earlier this month. “The city didn’t go to anyone until [the lane] had already been killed. I don’t ever like going to government officials negative-first. I think it’s much better to have a good relationship up front, an open relationship.”
“We got the word from [Baltimore’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator] Nate [Evans] that [MICA President] Fred Lazarus killed it,” says Chris Merriam, Bikemore’s current (and temporary) appointed leader. “We tried to be nice and be like, ‘We heard this’ and we got a lot of form letters [in return] and bullshit, and that’s when we kicked into high gear. We’re not going to try to be overly confrontational. We want to pursue rational dialogue. If that’s not possible, then we have to try other things.”
Lazarus responded to questions about his current position on the bike lanes and his influence on the issue via e-mail: “MICA is working with the city, the community and our students to find the best way to provide for the needs of the bikers who travel through this area and come to the college.”
The relationship between cycling advocacy and government in Baltimore is fairly unique. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon was an advocate herself, and it was under her administration that the city hired Evans, its first bike and pedestrian coordinator. City bike-advocacy groups have formed in other cities, in part for just this purpose: getting someone in city hall focused on biking. Also under Dixon came the Mayor’s Bike Advisory Committee, a sort of “in-house” advocacy group. “The advisory committee’s really great,” Weeks says. “But since it’s technically a city thing, you can’t really advocate for things the city might not agree with. That’s why there really was a need for an outside organization to be like, ‘Hey, this is a good idea even if the city doesn’t really like it, and here’s why.’”
“Nate has had to walk a fine line for a long time,” Merriam says. “He has had to be a bureaucrat and advocate at the same time. When Shelia Dixon was in office it seemed like we didn’t really need a bike-advocacy organization, and it’s now that she’s out of office and things have changed a bit, I think that’s when it became a little more clear.”
All that said, the very root of Bikemore sprung from an MBAC meeting, when an offer from the Alliance for Biking and Walking for cycling advocacy facilitation sessions—open to most anyone interested—was passed along to folks in attendance. Basically, this means an out-of-town advocacy pro coming to town to teach the skills needed to start a proper organization. “Several people tried to organize every cyclist they knew in the city,” Merriam says, “and we all got together for several meetings [with] the facilitators, [Jeremy Grandstaff and Brighid O’Keane], which culminated in the founder’s summit, Feb. 25. We went through the process of defining values and what we’re all about and what needs to be done in terms of advocacy in Baltimore, and kind of just went from there.” Roughly 60 people attended the summit. The next stage, the group explains, is electing a board of directors and applying for nonprofit status.
Bikemore is a vital step in the growth of cycling in the city, but beyond that, it is a crucial advancement of self-awareness and, naturally, empowerment. Bike Maryland, ne One Less Car, the Baltimore-based bike-advocacy organization that tends to focus its work in Annapolis, has done vital work in Baltimore but remains a statewide agency with finite resources. “Baltimore has some very unique needs that legitimize an entire group, “ says Marla Streb, the mountain-bike superstar and Baltimore resident (“Returning Champion,” The Bike Issue, April 20, 2011) who does work with both Bike Maryland and Bikemore.
Currently, a petition to include a bike lane on Mount Royal has about 700 signatures, which one hopes has some kind of weight with the various streetscaping powers that be. The city is still in its decision phase, with a statement from the Department of Transportation’s Jamie Kendrick saying, “When the final design is completed, we are confident that appropriate bicycle accommodations will be included which will encourage more residents and commuters to choose cycling as a safe transportation option,” and, “This project is currently in the engineering phase where final decisions are being made. . .” The argument would look much different to city policy makers and policy influencers with a mature, full-formed advocacy organization at the table, one with support from business alliances and community organizations. And it’s at this last level where change can be made very quickly in Baltimore; community associations can be highly effective in this city. And it is much easier to have them on your side when there is a formally established side to be on, as opposed to a diffuse collection of citizens. Weeks laments the removal of the Monroe Street bike lane last year at the behest of community-association protests.
“One of our jobs is to get out in the communities before something like that happens,” Weeks says, “and have a conversation with them. Not just be like, ‘Hey, we’re the city, we’re going to put a bike lane in.’ The public reaction had a lot to do with that they weren’t consulted, not that they didn’t want a bike lane. [We need] to spread that message that biking is something everybody can do, and it can solve a lot of problems.
“There’s a lot of people out there that need bikes,” he adds, “and that are already out there and biking. We want to organize them into a political force.”