One of my favorite things about riding a bicycle is that every morning starts with a field trip—I hop on my bike and pedal through different neighborhoods, say my how-you-doings to folks, and get to fit in a little exploring on my way down the hill to the bike racks at the University of Maryland Medical Center where I catch a bus out to UMBC, where I work. If you drive a car, you start your day in a steel and plastic box, probably all alone, and the world that I'm greeting and feeling with all my senses is just the junk between where you are and where you're going. Sure, it's faster, but I was not built for speed, and I'll take my bike any day of the week.
Every morning is also, though, a reckoning with my own mortality. That's because being on a bike, in traffic with cars, can be deadly. Every intersection is a chance for a distracted driver to make a turn into me, every crosswalk a potential blow when yet another car pulls through it on the way to a right on red. Yes, I know that cyclists break the rules of the road all the time, but it's far less likely to be deadly when we do so. I don't think drivers have any idea how many times they swing a door open without looking or make a left without checking who or what is crawling up along the curb. If you don't bike or love someone who does, chances are you just don't get it. If it's not your everyday, you can't see it.
And this isn't just theoretical to me. As anyone who knows me or reads this column knows, we're coming up on the one-year anniversary of my dad dying. He was killed while crossing a street in Los Angeles. A driver in a Ford F-150 made a left turn into him, knocked him to the ground, his head hitting with such force it sheared his brain in half. I remember seeing him the next day in his hospital bed as I said my last goodbyes. The back of his head was swollen, his face crushed. Have you seen a Ford F-150? That's a tall grill—he didn't stand a chance. The driver said his windshield was fogged up from his morning tea. How many times have you started driving before the morning fog was completely off your windshield? How many times have you been distracted by reaching for a drink, glancing at your phone, changing the radio? No big thing, until you drive into my dad. I miss him, and I'm sure the driver wishes, as I do, that he'd been paying a little more attention.
I don't write this to claim some moral authority or rant against drivers. I write this just to say that our lives as bikers and walkers are at daily risk as we navigate streets that are supposed to be shared. Sometimes we are killed; far more often we are injured, but in ways that permanently change our minds, bodies, and lives. Every day as I hit the road I am aware that I could face a life-altering event that in some way could make this bike ride my last.
And then they put in a protected bike lane on Maryland Avenue. This bike lane has completely changed my life. Now, every morning I ride the mile or so west to the track and take a left, and then I'm separated from cars for the bulk of the rest of my ride downtown. I don't think I fully realized the emotional and mental toll battling cars every morning and evening was taking on me until I had a couple weeks where I could let up, just a bit, on that worry. I am less tense, less anxious, less angry. Half of the energy I used to use to make sure I didn't get hit by a car has been diverted to the pleasure in riding a bike. I'm noticing the air, the leaves, the breezes, the other cyclists (and there are so many of them!)—I'm biking. It's fantastic.
Don't get me wrong—I still ride defensively, and you should too. Every intersection is a chance for an errant or inattentive driver to turn into me. That's still true, and at some intersections, even more true than it used to be. Drivers don't expect traffic to be headed north, and until they learn to look, they just aren't going to see us. I use my bell, my outside voice, and my lack of speed to stay safe. Heading north I have to remember to bike around the grates that threaten to grab bikes and toss their riders. And then there are the cars and dumpsters still littering the lane, but I have hopes that once the track is completed, that'll stop too. Sometimes you've just got to go around.
And then there's the uncomfortable truth that this cycletrack adds yet another safe transportation option to a corridor already awash in safe transportation options. The mental toll of worrying about getting where we're going safely has always been heavier in communities outside Baltimore's White L. How come the first two protected bike lanes go in Roland Park and then from Johns Hopkins to the harbor? Something's not right with this picture.
We need protected cycletracks in every part of this city. I ride in every part of this city, and I know that just getting between East and West Baltimore is death-defying. The arteries that make life easy for cars—I-83, MLK Jr. Boulevard, Route 40—make it deadly for the rest of us trying to cross them or ride by their on-ramps. Our car-centered culture has prioritized those needs over all others, and too many pay the price. I am grateful for the Maryland/Cathedral cycletrack, and grateful that it is spurring many more folks to ask why we don't have these everywhere. The answers are complicated, but they aren't that only white folks live, work, or ride along that cycletrack, and it isn't that the city’s bicycle advocacy group doesn't care about people who live in the Black Butterfly. We can't keep planning cycletracks for a decade, cobbling together funding from various grants, and hoping our streets are due for repaving soon. We have to recognize that everyone—wherever we live and however we travel—deserves safe routes, and build our political imagination around that.