city biking: where fun meets frustration

© S. D. Stewart

Early self-portrait of the author with his first 10-speed.
Note: Film developed poorly by the author at the time in his school’s darkroom.

On the ride to work yesterday I ran into an acquaintance. We live in adjacent neighborhoods so I see him from time to time on my commute. I believe we first met years ago while I was volunteering at the bike collective. This morning we rode through the streets toward downtown, chatting and getting caught up, talking about our respective neighborhoods and dogs and the heat and how when dogs are hot they like to lie flat on the cool kitchen tile. We complained about the city’s well-intentioned but sometimes ineffective attempts at bike improvements. Case in point: the mini traffic circles on Guilford. What a failure they have been. Before they were even implemented I questioned their value. The circles replaced two four-way stop intersections on a section of road with light automotive traffic, with the idea being that cyclists shouldn’t have to stop at these low-traffic stop signs because it needlessly slows us down. Of course no cyclist ever came to a complete stop at them before, and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. But the idea with the traffic circle is that cyclists can just merge into the circle and continue merrily on their way. Sounds good so far, right? The only problem is that this is Baltimore and when you take a stop sign away, unless you replace it with a traffic signal or, say, a brick wall, the typical driver response is to then accelerate through the intersection as fast as possible without yielding to anyone. At least before, in theory, everyone had to come to a stop before proceeding through the intersection. Now there are just these wimpy Yield signs before the circles. “Yield” being a term largely absent from the lexicon of the average Baltimore driver. The other problem with circles is that they are only useful if you can see all oncoming traffic as you approach; if the coast looks clear, you don’t need to slow down quite as much and you can pass safely through the circle. This doesn’t work on city blocks stacked with rowhouses. You can’t see if traffic is coming until you are literally paused at the intersection. That’s why there were stop signs before! What good is a circle if you still have to get to the intesection before you can tell if traffic is coming??

To recap: what used to be two relatively safe intersections for cyclists to pass through with a minimal pause have now been “improved” to be two potential death traps requiring a complete stop to avoid being broadsided by motorists barreling down the cross streets. Thanks, city planners! As my friend joked this morning, that type of thing might work in Portland, Oregon where the concept of the considerate motorist is not yet a fossilized archetype, but this is Baltimore. It’s like the Wild West. No one follows traffic rules here. People routinely ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers on the street while doing wheelies (it’s actually quite impressive; here’s one video of about a thousand on YouTube [side note: watching those videos always makes me love Baltimore while simultaneously wanting to flee from it]).

While I am ranting, there is another problem on this stretch of road that was supposed to be corrected during this phase of “bike improvements.” Without getting into too many of the technical details of this particular section of the road, there was another cross street that previously did not have a stop sign. When approaching this mostly blind intersection, cyclists had to be extremely careful crossing through. While typically a low traffic cross street, it does get some use and particularly from city buses. As part of the bike improvements to this street, they installed a stop sign for the cross street. I was overjoyed until I saw that they had just tacked it onto an existing pole, not at the top of the pole where people can see it, but underneath TWO other signs!! Approaching motorists cannot see this sign because there is parking on that side of the street all the way up to the intersection, so the front parked car obscures the stop sign, which is only about 4 feet (1.2 meters) off the ground. This morning as I approached the intersection I watched a city bus blow right through the stop sign. This is a daily occurrence.

Finally, don’t even get me started on the dedicated bike lane they began feverishly constructing at the beginning of the year, only to mysteriously abandon work on several weeks later just when the project was nearly done. Long stretches of the lane remain riddled with ditches, effectively rendering it useless and forcing riders out into traffic on a road that used to be the safest one on this popular south-north commuter route.

As we rolled into downtown, my friend and I parted ways. I continued on my way to work, mulling over our conversation about some of the joys and pitfalls of cycling in the city. In my opinion, the best way to improve biking conditions in a city is to get more people out riding on the streets. That has happened exponentially in my time here. When I first arrived, riding in the city was still kind of a freakish activity, unless you were a bike messenger. Now there are hundreds of cyclists on the road during peak commuting hours. This is what will make it easier. Unfortunately to get this quantity of people on the road, a certain percentage of them need to be convinced that it’s already started to get safer and easier. That is where the city planning comes in to play. More bike lanes and bike racks increase convenience and safety. So I still applaud the city for what it’s done so far. I just wish the planners would put a little more thought into how they do things (note: if you’re going to half-assedly implement something, please just don’t do it at all…we’ll be fine, reallly), and whether what they’re planning is going to work right here, in Baltimore. Because it’s not just any city…it’s the home of Space Poe!

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