Fifty years ago, Columbia began with the promise that a community designed to encourage connections — between people, their homes, nature, commerce and wellness — could thrive at its fullest potential. That vision was not only limited to planning villages, service centers and housing. It also included connecting neighbors with pathways and creating opportunities for residents to bike, walk and experience a high quality of life just outside their homes.
Over the past year, the County Executive and County Council unanimously made a renewed promise to act on this vision and passed a bicycle master plan to build more bike routes and connections over the next 30 years. Our county leaders also passed a new policy statement that says streets should be designed in a more walkable and bikeable way.
However, plans and promises will not benefit the community unless they are put into action and adequately funded.
More work remains if we are to ensure a truly bike-friendly and walk-friendly environment that embodies the groundbreaking vision of this community and looks toward the future. This is why nearly 1,000 people and 14 organizations, including business, environmental and health groups, have called on county leaders to build a 50-mile core network of bike routes across Howard County called the Bikeway. The Bikeway would cost $3 million a year over three years to build just 10 percent of the projects in the bike master plan and would be the county's first strategic and major investment to make biking easier and more accessible for local families and workers. The County Executive should fully fund the Bikeway in his upcoming budget.
More than half of county residences, schools and parks are located within one mile of the proposed Bikeway route, and all four of the county's MARC train stations are located within 2.5 miles of the Bikeway. This means the Bikeway would serve not only to provide residents with opportunities for recreational biking, but also allow people to just as easily bike as they could drive a car to school, to work or to run errands. The Bikeway would connect hundreds of thousands of people with easy, affordable access to everyday locations and would improve our community's overall health and well being.
Research shows that this is the kind of community that Americans want. According to a 2014 poll by the American Planning Association, almost half of millennials, now the nation's largest generation, said that having alternatives to vehicle transit is very or extremely important. Additionally, the poll found that a majority of millennials and baby boomers alike believe there are not enough transportation alternatives where they live. Even in Columbia, which has over 90 miles of pathways, residents and businesses believe our pathways can be better connected to where people want to go.
The Bikeway creates these opportunities. With a safe and convenient network of routes from Clarksville to Elkridge and Laurel to Ellicott City, more people will be able to turn to bicycles over cars. Howard County also would better meet the needs and expectations of residents of the future. Nationally, people are increasingly choosing to get to work by bicycle. Over the past decade, bicycling has become the fastest-growing mode of commuting to work in America.
Howard County has a unique opportunity to build on our core values of community engagement and connections while adapting to our changing community needs. Accessibility to greater biking and pedestrian facilities stimulates the local economy, is good for property values, reduces our carbon footprint and contributes to better health. These are all goals for Howard County now and into the future.
"Sometimes you say something is a win-win situation," wrote county resident James Turnage in his letter of support for the Bikeway. "This is a win-win-win-win-win situation, healthier people, cleaner air, fewer aggravated people from driving cars, less space taken up (by cars) and you even make other drivers happier by taking a few more off the road."
As Howard County continues to attract more residents and workers as the best place to live in the nation, we must keep moving forward in offering the best possible quality of life.
Now is time to make good on the promise of a more bike-friendly Howard County and ensure it becomes a reality.
Nikki Highsmith Vernick is the president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation