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Howard hires county's first bike and pedestrian manager

Chris Eatough would like people to look at biking just as they look at using a vacuum cleaner.

It's not that Howard County's first pedestrian and bike planning manager wants biking to become banal. Rather, he wants the option of hopping on a bike to become commonplace and unintimidating, even for the least athletic among us.

"Most people have a vacuum in their home and they know how to use it. They find it to be a convenient tool, but they don't consider themselves 'vacuumists,'" Eatough explained.

"The goal is to make getting around by bike like vacuuming: everyone can see themselves doing it, many people have it available to them, they do it when it's convenient, they get around by bike when it makes sense, but they don't think of themselves as this, you know, hardcore cycling enthusiast."

As cycling enthusiasts come, Eatough is, himself, pretty "hardcore." The 39-year-old Elkridge resident has been a professional mountain biker since 1998 and can boast of several national and world 24-hour solo titles.

But in his current job as a community planner for BikeArlington in Virginia, and in his new one as pedestrian and bike planning manager for Howard County, which he starts on Sept. 8, his goal has been and will be to make biking accessible to everyone.

Breaking down barriers

Studies suggest there are a lot of people open to the idea of taking to two wheels, at least some of the time.

According to a September 2012 study by Princeton Survey Research Associates, two-thirds of all Americans agree that their communities "would be a better place to live if bicycling were safer and more comfortable."

In Portland, Ore., a report by the city's bureau of transportation found that 60 percent of residents there fell into the "interested but concerned" category when it came to biking.

For that majority of people, "they like the idea, there is some demand there," Eatough said. "They're interested in getting around by bike, but they are concerned about something that's a barrier to them right now" – such as safety, access to a bike or the logistics of riding one to work (what to wear, for example).

Whatever the obstacle, he said, "it's all about reaching those 60 percent and helping them break down those barriers."

Eatough's new position comes as part of a broader initiative to expand bicycle and pedestrian accessibility throughout Howard County. A bicycle master plan is in final draft format, and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman has allotted $900,000 in the fiscal year 2015 capital budget for bike plan projects.

In Columbia, the Maryland Department of Transportation, Howard's Department of Planning and Zoning and the Columbia Association are funding a study to look at whether a bike share system might work in the community.

And next year, the county plans to apply for certification as a Bike Friendly Community from the League of American Bicyclists, a designation that would allow Howard to access incentives and technical assistance for its bike projects.

Eatough will help coordinate all of these plans in his new position as pedestrian and bicycle planning manager for the county.

His love for biking started young, though his competitive streak took a while longer to emerge. Raised in the small English village of Edgeworth, near Manchester, Eatough rode a bicycle to get around town as a boy.

"All my friends did it," he remembered. "That's how we got to the park and to the store and to each others' houses, to the soccer fields... It was a great way to get around. I didn't really think of myself as a biker, it's just what we did."

It wasn't until he was in graduate school at the University of Virginia, studying transportation engineering, that he began to bike for sport. He started riding rocky trails with his father, an amateur mountain biker, and realized that he loved to race.

The hobby became a 14-year career, as Eatough gained sponsorships and began to win prize money. His competitions took him around the world.

"I've been to a lot of places, especially in Europe, where biking is a really big part of how people get around, a really big part of their culture," he said. "Walkability and bikeability really made for a great quality of life in those places. Not necessarily the athletic, competitive side, but just the short rides to get around places, just the everyday transportation side."

In Arlington, Eatough helped to develop Capital Bike Share, one of the country's first bike share programs.

In just four years, the program has expanded to Alexandria and Montgomery County, and Capital Bike Share users take an estimated 12,000 rides a day.

The service has worked to make biking a "normal, accepted, popular thing to do on a daily basis," which is Eatough's goal for Howard County, too.

While the strategy to accomplish this bike-friendly future won't be rolled out until Eatough starts on the job, he said he expected it would include initiatives for better infrastructure, including directional signage, as well as outreach and an education component.

Ultimately, he said, it's all about enhancing Howard's quality of life.

"These are pretty simple solutions, and they provide answers to a lot of problems: congestion, air quality, health, economic vitality," he said. "These are all things that are really helped by having more people getting around on bike and on foot."

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