Bike to Work Day shines light on two-wheel commutes, sharing the road safely

At 7 o'clock this morning, Ray Bahr began ringing the bell on his bicycle and announcing where he was about to go.

"Baltimore, Irvington, Pigtown," he called out repeatedly.

Six bicyclists joined Bahr, a 50-year-old program manager for stormwater management at the Maryland Department of the Environment, in the driveway of the Catonsville fire station on Frederick Road, as they set off for a group ride. The route took the riders into the city along Frederick Road and the Gwynns Falls Trail.

The ride was part of Bike to Work Day, a national movement to promote bicycling as an alternative to using a car for commuting.

Riders included Susie Kantt, a 52-year-old who works at Johns Hopkins University. Despite doing long distance rides of upwards of 40 miles on a regular basis, she had never biked to work before because she didn't think there was a convenient route to her office.

Her 8-mile commute by car from home can take between 25 90 minutes. If she finds the bike route to be reasonable, she said she would commute by bike more often.

The group rides are designed to introduce people to the concept, as riding alone along with motorists can be intimidating, Bahr said. He said riders feel safer in groups.

Bahr has biked to work since 1997 and does so on Fridays when it's nice outside. He'll make the 7-mile ride to the city through Frederick Road and go home via the Gywnns Falls Trail.

It has become more convenient for Bahr to commute to work because his job offers showers and bike racks to accommodate him, he said.

Nationally, there are more than 1,300 bicycle-friendly businesses, a designation given to companies that promote a more welcoming environment for bicycling for employees, customers or the community through programs, incentives or facilities, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

"When you show up at work, just the adrenaline going and getting the blood flowing, you seem more engaged and ready to work," Bahr said. "It has brought a lot of benefits."

Several rides were organized at the Catonsville pit stop through Catonsville Rails to Trails, a nonprofit promoting hiking and biking in the area.

Destinations included the area near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn and a neighborhood ride designed for people who work from home.

The local tour had about 20 participants, including six Baltimore County police officers and state delegates Eric Ebersole and Pat Young, Democrats who represent Catonsville.

Others biked to the pit stop to offer support while they took care of errands and to enjoy the weather — sunny skies with temperatures in the upper 70s and a slight but consistent breeze.

Tom Schreck, a 34-year-old software engineer, arrived on a tandem bike with his brother-in-law, pulling his two sons, ages 3 and 1, in an attached cart. The configuration had been set up for Mother's Day, when he took his wife and kids for a bike ride around the neighborhood.

He works from home on Fridays but wanted to support his fellow bicyclists. From the pit stop, the plan was to drop off 3-year-old Gabe at day care and then head home, for a total of about 9 miles.

He tries to bike to his Hanover office, a 10-mile commute each way, once a week. He said while it may take longer to get to work by bike, it's less stressful.

"By car, I'm on [Interstates] 195 and 295, and with the traffic, everyone's all crazy. On bike, it's mostly empty roads," he said. "I'm more calm when I get to work by biking."

Charlie Murphy, a Catonsville Rails to Trails board member, spearheaded the initiative in Catonsville, where organized rides have taken place for five years.

When Murphy, 63, retired from his job as a electron microscopist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he knew he'd miss the job. He missed his commute even more.

He changed how he commuted shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as his way to be less dependent on oil. Instead of driving to his Beltsville office, he biked 5.5 miles from his house to the St. Denis train station near Relay, took a MARC train to the Greenbelt station and biked about a mile-and-a-half from there to his office.

It took six months for him to be hooked on the new routine. He continued the commute for 14 years.

On a good day, commuting by car would take about 30 each way, but as he quipped, "there was never a good day." The commute typically took 40 to 50 minutes given traffic, with additional delays if there was bad weather. His commute using the bike and train took about an hour.

"Time wasn't a difference and it turned what was once a miserable part of the day to something I looked forward to doing," he said.

Now, as he organizes Bike to Work Day rides, he considers himself "the local salesman" for biking to work.

"It's a way to introduce people to another option of getting to work," he said about the annual event.

There were 82 registered riders this year for the Catonsville ride.

"It isn't huge but it certainly has grown," he said.

Bike to Work Day, which started when the League of American Bicyclists established Bike Month in 1956, has also expanded in popularity regionally and nationally.

The number of bicycle commuters in the United States increased by more than 62 percent from 2000 to 2013, according to the league, a national advocacy group.

This is the 20th year Bike to Work Day has been an organized effort in the Baltimore area, said Laura Van Wert, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a nonprofit created in 1992 to improve quality of life and economic vitality in the region. The region includes Baltimore City, along with Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties.

What started as a bike ride with about a dozen people in Baltimore's Inner Harbor has expanded to nearly 40 scheduled events in region area with more than 2,000 participants, she said.

Last year, there were 1,853 registered riders on Bike to Work Day, Van Wert said, which was an increase from about 1,500 in 2015 and about 1,200 in 2014.

She said biking to work has become more popular in recent years because of an increase in bike paths, traffic calming techniques and safety devices on the road that separate cyclists and motorists.

"It's kind of a circular motion," she said. "If more people are on the road, there needs to be better facilities to fit with the cycling lifestyle. If there are more safer facilities that can improve commutes, you can get more cyclists on the road."

The nonprofit includes Bike to Work Day as part of its clean commute initiative. Between mid-April and October, the nonprofit promotes alternative means of transportation as a way to lessen emissions from cars, which contributes to dangerous ozone levels.

The nonprofit also argues that commuting to work by bicycle can save hundreds of dollars a month in car maintenance costs and provide an opportunity for exercise.

"Some people take that alternative mode of transportation and turn it into a lifestyle," Van Wert said.

According to a 2013 study by American Community Survey, 0.3 percent of Maryland commuters bike to work, a rate that went up by 0.1 points between 2007 and 2013.

Maryland was ranked the 10th most bike friendly state in 2015, according to the league, down from the seventh spot the year before. The rankings evaluate five categories: Legislation and enforcement, policies and programs, infrastructure and funding, education and encouragement and evaluation and planning.

This year, the Maryland State Highway Administration is raising awareness for bicycle safety through a campaign called "Look Out for Each Other," which includes billboard, radio and television public service announcements, transit advertisements and a social media campaign.

Bicycle-involved fatalities increased in Maryland from 6 in 2014, to 11 in 2015, to 16 in 2016, according to preliminary statistics from the Maryland State Highway Administration.

There have been more than 3,200 injuries in bicycle-involved crashes from 2011 to 2015, said Lora Rakowski, a safety and educator manager at the SHA. The majority of crashes happen in during the evening commute, with the most fatal incidents occurring between 5 and 6 p.m., she said.

When the state resurfaces roads, it evaluates whether wide shoulders or bike lanes can be added to accommodate bicyclists, she said.

Bike to Work Day serves as a way to not only encourage bicycling as a healthy and environmentally-friendly means of travel, but to promote safety on the roads, she said.

"When you're traveling next to a bicycle, and it's a 20-pound bicycle versus the average weight of a car being 4000 pounds, it's clear bicyclists are going to be very vulnerable," she said. "We need bicyclists and drivers to know the rules of the road and respect each other on the road."

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