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Remington man wins grant to promote cycling in Baltimore

Growing up in suburban Towson, Chris Merriam's family forbid him to ride his bicycle outside his Hampton neighborhood.

"Of course, I still did. It was a restriction I chafed against," he recalled.

In his mid-20s, Merriam moved to Remington in north Baltimore, where he drove his car like most people, until he sold his 2004 Nissan Sentra to save money and began to ride public buses.

"Baltimore does not have the best transit system, to put it mildly," he said.

Tired of waiting for buses and jealous of people on bicycles whizzing past him at bus stops, Merriam took up his old childhood pastime again, this time of necessity. But he soon discovered that too many streets lacked bike lanes, making him an accident waiting to happen.

"Biking in the suburbs as a kid is very different than biking in the city as an adult," he said.

Now 30, Merriam is on a mission to make Baltimore more bike-friendly. And he's getting a lot of help from Open Society Institute-Baltimore.

Merriam last month won an OSI fellowship of $60,000 to spend the next 18 months building up the new organization he co-founded, Bikemore Inc., which promotes biking as a cheaper, healthier and environmentally wiser mode of transportation.

His experiences, he said, "made me want to help other people do the same thing."

In partnership with the more established organization Bike Maryland, Merriam's goal is "to enhance the mobility through biking of roughly one-third of Baltimore residents who do not own a car," OSI-Baltimore in an email Oct. 22 announcing Merriam as one of 12 "Community Fellows" for 2012.

"By promoting all forms of cycling, (Merriam) aims to increase the number of bike riders and advocate for the rights, safety and equality of Baltimore's diverse cycling community," the OSI said in the email.

Better biking infrastructure

Over lunch Nov. 14 at Charmington's down the street from his house, Merriam said he wants to lobby the city for more bicycle lanes and reach out to residents, especially in poorer communities, who want bike lanes on their streets. He also wants to educate residents about "the rules of the road," such as hand signaling.

A major part of Merriam's application for the fellowship was to build up bicycle infrastructure not just in wealthier neighborhoods, but citywide, in keeping with OSI's stated mission to seeks out social entrepreneurs to offer innovative ideas that help underserved communities.

"Our job is to make the biking infrastructure in Baltimore better," he said.

After majoring in history at the University of Maryland, College Park, Merriam had "a varied career" that included real estate and urban planning. He co-founded the Greater Remington Improvement Association in 2007 and served for a time as its vice president. He became interested in transportation planning issues and became friends with Nate Evans, bike program director for the city Department of Transportation.

This past February, Merriam participated in a workshop led by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, a national organization advocacy group based in Washington, in an effort to start a bike advocacy group in Baltimore.

Bikemore kicked off in March and now is incorporated, with a 10-member board and a bare-bones website, http://www.bikemore.net that steers people toward Facebook and Twitter.

He said he was not surprised that he won an OSI fellowship.

"I thought we had a real shot at it," he said. "I know what we can do. Between our email list and Facebook and Twitter, we have about 800 people engaged."

Merriam said his group is affiliated with but more city-centric than Bike Maryland, which tries to improve bicycling conditions and protecting the rights of bicyclists across Maryland, and promotes pro-bicycling legislation on the state level, according to its website, bikemd.org.

Bikemore also works with Baltimore Bike Party, which organizes monthly bike rides on the last Friday evening of each month, starting at the Washington Monument.

"Last month we had 1,300 people," Merriam said.

Education outreach

Merriam said that for the next 18 months, he will have no other job and no employees as he promotes biking in Baltimore.

"I'm it," he said, adding that for now, he plans to work out of his house and at Charmington's — "wherever my laptop takes me."

He plans to sell memberships to Bikemore, but has not decided on a membership fee, he said. He also plans to work with city officials, who are promoting Bicycle Tracks, a program to install bike lanes on city streets, starting on Mount Royal Avenue. He said he would also like to see the program extended to Maryland Avenue in the Charles Village area.

Merriam also sees education and community outreach as a major focus.

"A lot of people are for (biking) in the abstract. But if you take away a lane of parking (to accommodate a bike lane, for example), people are going to freak out a little bit."

And Merriam said he will have his work cut out as he reaches out to minorities.

"The biking world is dominated by white men," he said. "You can't just go into a neighborhood and say, 'All right, everybody start biking.' "

Word of mouth is already propelling Merriam. Coincidentally sitting at the table next to Merriam in Charmington's was Anna Kleinhasser, 21, of Charles Village, a senior at Johns Hopkins University and a member of its student-run Outdoors Club, which leads biking and hiking trips.

Kleinhasser, who was working on her laptop, couldn't help overhearing the interview with Merriam and asked him afterward for more information and how to get involved.

"It's almost impossible to get around in the city easily without having a car," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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