The change is gradual but noticeable: Fewer wheels are traveling Harford County’s back roads. But it’s not from some miraculous traffic decrease — bicycling is on the rise, and Harford’s travelers are making the switch from four wheels to two.
For Neil Buchness, it started as a way to shake up his commute to work from South Bel Air to Abingdon. Two or three days a week, he’d take the roads with “nice wide shoulders, somewhat flat,” to the office, and “the next thing you know, you have four bikes in the garage.”
Buchness is now the president of Chesapeake Spokes, a Harford County bicycling club that’s grown from 40 to 200 members since it began four years ago.
The bicycling increase is so tangible that in recent years the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning has created a Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, complete with a website due to launch this fall.
Across the country, bicycle commuting grew 47 percent from 2000 to 2011, according to The League of American Bicyclists. Locally, Harford County’s Bike to Work Day drew 293 participants this year, up from 120 in 2009, according to Alan S. Doran, community development coordinator at the Department of Planning and Zoning.
What’s causing the community to shift gears to bicycling? Reasons range from fitness benefits to traffic congestion to the social experience.
Originally a women-only group, Chesapeake Spokes has seen a steady increase in members who come for the “relaxed and social atmosphere,” Buchness says.
“We did get sort of an increase from BRAC, from military people coming down,” he says. “I think people are looking for ways to get in shape and have fun at the same time. Our whole thing is you have to have fun doing it.”
Buchness has lost close to 20 pounds since he started cycling and says, in terms of exercise, it is a low-impact activity and easy on the knees and joints.
“Once you start riding, it’s amazing how quickly you can get fit,” he says. “The next thing you know, you’re doing 30 to 40 miles, no problem.”
Janet Gleisner, chief of land use and transportation in the Harford County Planning and Zoning Department, says groups like Chesapeake Spokes and Harford Velo, the county’s other cycling club, have been mainstays in the county for years but their numbers are growing.
“We’ve also seen a lot more of … the family recreational riders, and you also see a lot more, in the municipalities, of people riding for their errands,” she says.
Getting the wheels turning
Increasing numbers of people pulling out their bikes and traveling on Harford County roads made the creation of a bicycle and pedestrian plan a necessity, Gleisner says.
“We adopted our first bicycle and pedestrian plan in March of last year, and the whole purpose of that is to do a lot of education and outreach for all users and for motorists so everybody understands what the rights are and … to identify the areas where we need to make improvements for bicycle and pedestrian access,” she says.
As of this summer, the bulk of that outreach and education has been done at community council meetings, Bike to Work Day, Healthy Harford Day and with other groups interested in the plan. In the future, Gleisner says, the department plans to conduct a walkability audit for one of the county’s elementary schools and work with other local schools to promote Walk to School Day and Bike to School Day.
The Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan includes a number of projects, some of which are aimed specifically at improving the county’s bicycling trails. Among them, the plan identifies the completion of the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, installation of signage along the East Coast Greenway, the extension of the Winters Run Trail and, with the help of the State Highway Administration, possibly establishing a new trail in the Whiteford area along Route 165.
The department’s bicycle and recreation website is slated to be operational early this fall and will include upcoming events, tips and routes.
The Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan also addresses safety, a major concern for many motorists and cyclists.
Many motorists can have one bad experience with a bicyclist and think all bicyclists are irresponsible, Buchness says.
“We are trying to reverse that image. The more positive interactions between cars and cyclists, the better. As drivers get used to seeing more cyclists and sharing the roadways, it becomes safer for us all,” he says.
Although new riders may be intimidated by road riding, Buchness says that once cyclists’ skills progress and they get comfortable riding, they don’t typically want to be boxed in by only being able to ride on trails. Most of Chesapeake Spokes’ group rides start out at the Campus Hills Shopping Center in Churchville and follow Route 22 for roughly 20 miles.
The club stresses to its members the importance of being courteous to motorists. This includes “moving over when a car is approaching, staying to the right as safety conditions allow, obeying traffic lights and stop signs, riding in a predictable manner, using hand signals and having lights on if it’s getting dark,” Buchness says.
Harford Magazine asked some residents in the know about the best and worst places for bicycling in Harford County. Here’s what they had to say:
For beginners and families
Ma and Pa Heritage Trail,
Forest Hill section
Accessible from Friends Park, this route has “a consistent but gentle grade, as opposed to the Bel Air section, which tends to have a little bit more hills,” says Paul Magness, deputy director of the Harford County Department of Parks and Recreation.
Heritage Greenway Trail
This trail runs through Susquehanna State Park and has parking near the Conowingo Dam.
“That’s a very flat and not very high-volume trail,” says Janet Gleisner, chief of land use and transportation in the Harford County Planning and Zoning Department. She adds that it’s a “good place to go and get a relatively smooth, longer ride.”
For experienced cyclists
East Coast Greenway,
Havre de Grace to Monkton
This long-distance, shared-use trail is being developed to link 25 cities from Maine to Florida, and a portion will run through Harford County, Gleisner says. Though the East Coast Greenway Alliance is still working to put up signage and getting bike access to the Hatem Bridge, the entire route (mostly roads, not trails) is technically open. Experienced cyclists can use cue sheets and maps to navigate.
Spots to avoid
Like any road lacking shoulders, this route is one for bicyclists to avoid, Neil Buchness, president of Chesapeake Spokes, says. “We are spoiled in Harford County, as we have some really great roads and areas to ride with little traffic,” he says. “However, there are a few that we avoid due to being a heavily used road, no shoulders, or both.”
To find more Harford County cycling routes: