The Reckless Beauty of Biking in Baltimore

The Reckless Beauty of Biking in Baltimore

Monday, December 5, 2005: It’s snowing. Flying down St. Paul Street this afternoon on my bicycle, it struck me that there is a certain liberation that comes with this activity: a freeing of the mind from the day’s itching worries and ridiculous daydreams, a distillation of life down to a body hurtling through space: speeding bike, slick roads, cars whizzing by, every sense whirring (listening for cars behind, forward and peripheral vision heightened, feeling the grips on the handlebars through gloved but numb fingers, feet moving on the pedals). As I ride, I think idly about what could possibly go wrong: car door suddenly opens, hit a patch of ice at 20 mph, tire blowout, brake failure, car bumper clips rear tire. I only feel more exhilarated. The description above excerpted from my zine is just one among many simple but memorable cycling moments I’ve had in Baltimore. It succinctly summarizes what I love about biking in the city: riding the fine line between glorious freedom and imminent danger. While I love cycling in bike-friendlier areas, too, there is just an irresistible appeal in that feeling of knowing so much around you is out of your control. Since I ride my bike regularly, I often have occasion to discuss biking in Baltimore with people, both fellow cyclists and non-cyclists. If the cyclists are city bikers, we usually swap war stories in knowing tones, but we also speak of the ordinary joys of getting around the city by bike. With the non-cyclists, however, I often find myself in a conundrum. I want to encourage more people to ride their bikes in the city, but I can’t deny the inherent danger in such an activity. Virtually all the city cyclists I know have been hit by a car, or at the very least have had multiple hostile run-ins with drivers. These occurrences are unavoidable in a city that is not ideal for cycling. They are, in fact, unavoidable no matter where you ride your bike on public roads shared with cars. Mostly I want to tell non-cyclists about the overwhelming feeling of joyful empowerment that washed through me while riding in my first Critical Mass, where everyone was happily playing the homemade musical instruments they had brought as we boldly rode down the middle of Baltimore’s downtown streets. I want to tell them about lazily turning my pedals through the empty roads behind Druid Hill Park, one of the largest and oldest urban parks in the country. I want them to see the towering oaks, hickories, and black walnuts - their fruits scattered across the pavement, cracking and pinging off my spokes, shooting off into the understory, landing with little crashes among the fallen leaves. I want them to cruise with me through the silence down Falls Road at midnight and glimpse the foxes darting across the road into the safety of the dark woods. I want them to share in my pleasure as my tires and my mind roll forward in syncopated rhythm, free to roam un-tethered for the moment. But when I get started in explaining my experiences while riding in the city, the non-cyclists keep pressing me for details about the dangers. They relate the usual horror stories of friends ending up in the hospital following brutal crashes. I have to admit then, that yes, I have been hit by a car door before. But even though I was thrown from my bike, I didn’t sustain any injuries beyond a bruise and a scratch. I’ve fallen off my bike a couple of times in slushy conditions, too, but these wrecks probably hurt my pride more than anything else. Maybe I’ve been lucky, I tell them, but the fact is that there are dangers inherent in any motion, be it on foot, on bike, or in planes, trains, or cars. I try to be careful; I wear a helmet, I use flashing lights on my bike when it’s dark, and I keep all senses on high alert as I ride. There’s not much more that I can do to protect myself. Baltimore is slowly attempting to improve itself for cycling. The city has committed itself to implementing a Bicycle Master Plan. Most of the work done so far has been striping of bike lanes on roads that are already wide enough to include bike lanes. It has also involved painting sharrows (double arrows with a bicycle painted below them) on roads that aren’t wide enough to accommodate bike lanes. Many cyclists I have spoken with about these changes are unimpressed, and I can see their point. The roads that are most dangerous to ride on in Baltimore remain that way, while the roads that have seen improvement with bike lanes and sharrows were already safe for biking. For weeks, I’ve struggled with my own cynical feelings about these marginal improvements. And then last week, while biking home one dark rainy night, I finally felt genuine gratitude for the new bike lanes on a road that I’d always found wide enough to comfortably ride on before. With my glasses fogged up and covered in raindrops, I could barely see five feet in front of me, nevermind identify where the side of the road was. But when I looked down I saw a friendly painted human on a bike below a large white arrow, and on either side a bright white stripe guiding me on a straight course toward home. I rode on then with a lot more confidence and a silent thank you in my head. After that night I accepted that at least Baltimore is trying, and after all, it is making these improvements for us, the cyclists. It’s unrealistic to think that we could get everything we wanted all at once. So I don’t want to react to the city’s efforts with apathy, because I want the city’s planners to continue their efforts. I want them to finish implementing their plan so that Baltimore will hold a brighter future, both for its current cyclists and for those who yearn but still hesitate to ride the city’s streets.

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