Aaron Fields took his inaugural bike ride to work on the first day of November last year.
"I was pretty tired when I got to work," said Fields, a cybersecurity researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab near Maple Lawn.
He persisted, riding on beautiful, sunny days and through the winter, when the wind and snow made the journey much less pleasant.
Fields, who lives in Columbia, loved the benefits of biking to work: "It's a lot cheaper than driving, and it's really good exercise. I don't necessarily have time for exercise outside of cycling, so it's a good way to stay in shape."
He decided to take his commitment a step further by selling his car. Though he and his wife still have one vehicle to use between the two of them, he commutes to work every day on his bike.
"It's my car now," he said.
Fields, 23, is part of a growing community of bicyclists in Howard County who are eschewing cars in favor of biking to work, to run errands and to visit friends whenever possible.
On Friday, bicycling enthusiasts across the nation will encourage others to join their ranks with Bike to Work Day, an annual event that features group rides to work for everyone who's interested, from the inexperienced to the seasoned.
Columbia pit stop
Howard County will kick off this year's Bike to Work Day in the Whole Foods parking lot in downtown Columbia.
From 7 to 9 a.m., participants can stop by the lot for music, raffle prizes and a waffle truck, among other incentives, according to coordinator Allison Calkins, who works for the county's transportation department as a demand management specialist.
Convoys will leave from there to several major employment centers in the county, including the George Howard county government complex in Ellicott City, the Columbia Gateway business park and the Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. Bicyclists coming from the far reaches of the county – and anyone who feels more comfortable driving to the pit stop – can park their cars in a designated portion of the Whole Foods lot.
"The whole thought is to get people who haven't done it before interested and involved," said Calkins.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman will be among those taking to the roads by bike on Friday, according to county spokesman Andy Barth.
"He's a big fan of biking and healthy exercise," Barth said of Kittleman. "He's looking forward to doing the riding, and he hopes more people will actually ride their bikes to work where that's safe and convenient."
This is the eighth year the county is participating in Bike to Work Day, but the first time it has planned and promoted the event in coordination with other central Maryland counties under the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.
Howard officials worked with Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties to pool resources for the bike ride, though each county's pit stop will be a little different, Calkins said.
In Columbia, some 250 people had signed up for the event as of Tuesday morning. Pre-registration was scheduled to close Wednesday afternoon, but participants can also sign a waiver on the day of the bike ride to join in.
Calkins said the ranks of Bike to Work Day participants has grown since the county started hosting the event nearly a decade ago. Last year, about 200 people pre-registered for the ride.
The ride, she said, helps promote sustainability and good health.
"It's part of the clean commute initiative in the region – we don't have wonderful rush hours around here," Calkins said. Getting people on bikes helps clear the roads for people who need to drive to work and improves air quality for everyone, she added.
Local bike advocates have partnered with county government in recent years to make Howard a more bicycle-friendly place to live.
Last fall, after two years of community input and planning sessions, the county published a draft of BikeHoward, a bicycle transportation master plan for the community.
The report recommends new policies and educational programs, as well as infrastructure improvements to make Howard's roads more bikeable.
Advocates hope the plan will get an official stamp of approval from the County Council and Kittleman in the near future. In the meantime, the transportation department and other county agencies are already using the draft to help guide planning, according to Chris Eatough, the county's bicycle and pedestrian planning manager.
The master plan is helpful in demonstrating the county's vision while planners are applying for grants, Eatough said.
Some physical improvements to the county's biking landscape are also on their way, or already here: the Downtown Columbia Pathway, a newly paved stretch of bike and pedestrian trail that runs from Little Patuxent Parkway to Broken Land Parkway, opened last fall. A second portion, which will connect the trail to Howard Community College and Howard County General Hospital, broke ground last week.
Future projects are planned to extend the pathway to the Columbia lakefront and across the Route 29 pedestrian bridge into Oakland Mills, as well as in the opposite direction toward Cedar Lane Park. The latter project is in a design phase, according to Eatough.
Separately, a recent study to evaluate whether a bike share program would work in Howard County concluded that a pilot program should be launched in downtown Columbia, where bike stations could be placed at strategic points to facilitate quick trips to the community college, hospital or mall via bicycle.
A host of events to encourage biking in the county are cropping up, as well.
Thursday morning, the Howard County Department of Citizen Services is kicking off the third season of Cycle2Health, a biking initiative for older adults, in the parking lot of the East Columbia 50+ Center. And on June 13, the Horizon Foundation will host an "open streets" event along the Little Patuxent loop to show how an existing road built for cars can become welcoming to pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit riders too.
Eatough said growing interest in bicycling helps convince the county to expand biking amenities – which, in turn, help more people feel comfortable hopping on a bike.
"They keep nudging each other up," he said. "It's hard to make huge gains all at once."
Breaking free of barriers
Fran Horan has been biking to work for the past 20 years. In that time, he said, he has witnessed Howard drivers become more aware of bicyclists on the road.
Avoiding cars has always been a concern as he bikes to work from Ellicott City to the Applied Physics Lab, where he works as a computer systems engineer.
Lately, he said, "I think I've seen more people really going out of their way to go around you."
Horan, 50, grew up in Philadelphia and spent his childhood biking around the city. He's comfortable biking on the road, but thinks building protected bike lanes – ones that run parallel to the road but are separated by some sort of barrier – would encourage more people to join him.
"I have a lot of people come to me at work and say they would like to bike to work, but the barriers are too high for them to get going and get started," he said. "They're intimidated."
Though Howard County's suburban setting is a lot more amenable to cars than bikes, Jane Dembner, the director of planning and community affairs for Columbia Association, sees lots of potential for aspiring bicyclists – particularly in downtown Columbia.
"One of the things that we have, that a lot of communities don't have, is the pathway system," she said, pointing to the 94 miles of CA-owned pathways. The county has an additional 54 miles of paved paths, according to the BikeHoward draft.
"Most of America lives in metropolitan areas but they don't live in the core city. So how can we include and encourage bicycling for communities like us?" said Dembner, 54, who frequently bikes around Columbia. "I think just because it's going to be more difficult, because we don't have a grid pattern and it's a little bit hilly, doesn't mean that we aren't going to build on some of the assets that we have."
Fields, who gave up his car to bike to work, said his daily commute has become a valuable part of his day.
"You're always accomplishing something," he said. "Even days at work that suck, when I don't get anything done, I can at least bike home and feel good about that."