Open house is next step to gather Bike Howard feedback

For The Baltimore Sun
Bike Howard master plan will be the subject of a community open house Jan. 28 in Ellicott City

Sixty percent of Howard County residents are "interested, but concerned" when it comes to the concept of getting around the county by bike, transportation officials say.

Now, nine months after the Howard County Council unanimously approved the Bike Howard master plan last April following public hearings, the county is seeking to collect more input on the fluid 30-year document.

Conceived as an opportunity for one-on-one conversation, a Bike Howard Open House on Saturday, Jan. 28, will provide access to Chris Eatough, the county's first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, and other transportation office employees at the Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

"The open house will be [organized in] a flexible format, with poster boards set up and staff available to take questions," said Eatough, who was named to the position in September 2014.

The master plan, which can be viewed in detail at bikehoward.com, provides guidance for transportation and recreational bicycling, both on-street and off-street. Recommendations are included for infrastructure improvements, policy and programs.

"While a comprehensive plan has been approved, its recommendations are not set in stone," Eatough said. "The master plan is a vision for what Howard County can be."

Information on current and future projects will be available, as will forms to provide feedback, which can also be done through the website.

Eatough knows firsthand how residents feel about biking as a means of transportation and recreation. He commutes by bike every weekday from his home in Elkridge to his job at the George Howard Building in the county office complex in Ellicott City.

"It takes me 25 minutes to bike 6 miles; driving takes 15 minutes. For an extra 10 minutes in the morning and evening, I get nearly an hour of exercise outdoors," he said, noting there are significant mental health benefits to biking on top of the obvious physical gains.

"As parents of young kids, my wife and I are constantly juggling our schedules and I don't always have time to go to the gym," he said. "Biking to work is a very efficient way of staying healthy and an enjoyable part of my day."

The Bike Howard plan is broken into short-term, mid-term and long-term improvements, Eatough said.

Short-term projects will take 10 years to evolve at a projected cost of $32 million, he said.

The county has committed $1.3 million in the capital budget over four years to bicycle master plan projects, Eatough said. State and federal programs have provided $1.5 million in grants over the same period, he said.

Developer contributions will also help build out the bike network. For example, Howard Hughes Corp. built the 3.1-mile Downtown Columbia Trail for $5 million, Eatough said.

That company also contributed $500,000 to upgrade the existing bike and pedestrian bridge over Route 29 between Downtown Columbia and Oakland Mills, he said.

Eatough described the interest in Bike Howard as "huge."

"It was very evident throughout the public hearing process," he said. "Testimony ran late into the night with people saying they want easier, safer and better bike routes."

Chris Tsien, a lawyer and Running Brook resident who serves on the board of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County, said national research breaks the population down into three categories: 10 percent of residents who are enthusiasts and will bike anywhere, 30 percent who will never consider bicycling; and 60 percent who want to bike but have reservations.

"Those figures represent a shift in American thinking [about bicycling] that's long overdue," Tsien said.

The implementation stage of the master plan is next, so the county is wise to place value on continuing to gather public input, he said.

The majority who attend the open house will bring specific concerns about the roadways in their communities, Eatough said.

"Most individuals are not interested in the overall connectivity [of bike routes] across the county," he said. "People want to bike to school, to shopping, to work and for recreation, but say there are too many barriers to safety.

"The untapped demand is there and waiting," he said.

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