Baltimore’s recently implemented Bike Share program boasts of being the largest electric-assist bicycle fleet in North America. But, as the city has seen with much of the biking infrastructure, Baltimore Bike Share has been met with criticism of its inequity.

Baltimore residents gather for a “bike party.” (Bikemore)
Baltimore residents gather for a “bike party.” (Bikemore)

A series of maps composed by blogger Ellen Worthing show bike rack locations, bike lanes and bike share stations concentrated in the city’s “White L,” the L-shaped area of Baltimore of primarily White neighborhoods such as Hampden, Federal Hill and Locust Point. Melody Hoffman, author of the book “Bike Lanes are White Lanes,” said that this has been the case in major cities all over the country.

“Baltimore just made a nonverbal statement that Bike Share is for tourists and downtown business people,” Hoffman said. “When they try to expand it, they’re going to have a really hard time getting other people on those bikes because it’s going to seem like it’s not for them because it wasn’t for them in the first place.”

The launch of Baltimore Bike Share is still relatively new with limited stations and 500 bikes, but this is similar to Bike Share launches in other cities. There are plans to have 50 stations by the end of this spring and continued growth after that. There is a call for the Bike Share to expand to lower income neighborhoods, and this Bike Shares, like New York’s similar Citibike program, is facing the same criticism.

Philadelphia’s Bike Share program Indego, Hoffman said, started from an equitable framework which is more effective than trying to “retrofit equity” as many Bike Shares across the country would have to do.

“Bike Share itself is maybe not designed for the needs of lower income people who don’t bike all the time,” Hoffman said. “And so, the discussion could also be, ‘is Bike Share really the answer to the transportation inequity issues in Baltimore?’”

Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore, a Baltimore bike advocacy group, said that for residents the transportation options are constrained because the city depends on the state for public transportation, and that limits what the city can do. She also noted that commute times are the number one indicator for emergence out of poverty, even though it doesn’t get the attention that other indicators do.

“Transportation becomes this really important root cause that, if we’re interested in moving forward as a city, we have to be creative about how we address that for our residents,” Cornish said. “Improving access to biking and walking is one way that we can improve a lot of other different quality of life factors for residents of Baltimore.”

Aside from the obvious health benefits of daily bike riding, it is also a more environmentally sustainable and affordable method of transportation compared to driving a car. Bicycle infrastructure is also much quicker and less costly to implement than other transportation projects. The Maryland Avenue cycle track cost $700,000 and took a few months, whereas the cost to widen Route 32 costs $152 million and is expected to take several years.

There are, however, some safety concerns because in some of Baltimore’s lower income neighborhoods it has traditionally been unsafe waiting for a bus or walking a few blocks where a car provided a level of safety for those residents.

“Because biking and walking does make you more vulnerable to the environment where you are, that’s not a choice or a luxury that all of our residents of the city currently have,” Cornish said. “We have to be mindful when we’re saying ‘everybody should bike’ or ‘we should be putting this infrastructure to make sure it goes everywhere.”

She also noted that simply placing biking infrastructure in these neighborhoods would not be effective, and that it needs to be supported with educational programs like learn-to-ride programs and encouragement programs, as well as doing group rides so people feel more comfortable riding and helping residents learn different routes that are less hilly or maybe more populated so that they feel more safe.

Cornish said she would like to hire community organizers from these neighborhoods that are already biking and can more effectively present alternative transportation methods. Getting community involved early on, including them in design process and making sure the infrastructure addresses specific needs of each neighborhood can help with its success, Cornish said.

The Monroe Street bike lane, which lasted five months in 2011 before it was removed, faced opposition largely because the community was not involved in the planning. The backlash to the Roland Avenue bike lane in early 2016 was tied to the design, with residents complaining that it was unsafe for drivers, pedestrians and bike riders alike.

Bikemore is working to acquire the necessary resources to address many of the concerns residents have, and Cornish said she is optimistic about the future of biking in the city because of the new Pugh administration, and its adoption of many of Bikemore’s recommendations, particularly the announcement of a nationwide search for new director of transportation with more progressive job qualities.

Cornish also noted that there needs to be a comprehensive approach to the issues in bicycle inequities and undoing structurally racist transportation and land use policies, and that not just one implementation of biking infrastructure will fix it.

“We have to be careful, or I have to be careful as an advocate, not believing that just by putting a Bike Share station or just by putting a bike lane in a neighborhood that that is suddenly going to undo all of these decades of disinvestment and layers upon layers of policies that have led to the challenges that these neighborhoods are facing,” Cornish said.

“However,” Cornish continued, “it is important to remember that sometimes these single interventions can provide a proof of concept that these things work.”