Amazon isn't the only reason Baltimore needs better bike lanes

Amazon’s recent announcement that it will open a second headquarters somewhere in the U.S. has state and local governments across the country scrambling to make themselves as inviting as possible to the tech giant. Baltimore officials are reportedly working around the clock to meet the Oct. 19 deadline for submissions. But let’s be honest, even though there’s a great case to make for Baltimore — and we’ve made it twice — the competition will be stiff, and the chances that any given city will make the cut are small. But what we should be doing is looking closely at the company’s request for proposals to get a better understanding of what big, growing, forward-thinking companies are looking for. One thing that jumps out: bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Baltimore City has had a bike-rental program called Baltimore Bike Share since last fall. But its efforts haven’t yet caught up to bike-sharing operations in cities like Washington, Philadelphia and Boston, where bike-sharing companies have been refining their techniques for years. The city’s experience suggests it could have learned a lot from those programs — and perhaps avoided many of the mistakes they made.

Baltimore’s program started out as a $2.6 million operation with about 200 bikes located at 20 docking stations around the city. The idea was that for a relatively modest sum commuters or tourists could rent a bike, ride it to their destination, then drop it off at a different station when they were done.

At least, that was how things were supposed in work. What actually happened was that the program quickly ran up against two brick walls — vandalism and theft. The problem was so serious that by this summer the fleet had shrunk to barely a third of its original size, leaving many docking stations with no bikes at all. That was on top of a series of glitches in the smart phone apps that enabled patrons to find bikes for rent and unlock them.

In August, Baltimore Bike Share announced it was suspending operations until Oct. 15 in order to clear up a backlog of bikes that needed repair and to install new security hardware to make them less vulnerable to vandalism and theft. Program operators still hope to eventually get back on track toward their original goal of expanding the fleet to 500 bikes and 50 docking stations.

The bumps in the road Baltimore’s program has endured over the past year aren’t insurmountable, and other cities have overcome similar initial setbacks. There’s no reason Baltimore can’t do the same, and it needs to.

The long-term benefits of a successful bike sharing program would make the effort worthwhile even if Baltimore ultimately failed to win the sweepstakes for a second Amazon headquarters. All cities need amenities like bike-sharing in order to offer their residents a more attractive place to live and work.

Bike rental operations can be crucial elements in a city’s transportation network when they provide first- and last-mile connections to public transit. Bicycling to work can make commutes more efficient and reduce the need for short car trips. And because cycling involves outdoor physical activity it can also have a positive impact on public health issues such as such as diabetes, heart disease and respiratory ailments. Studies have shown that in addition to providing a more livable feel to city life, people also gravitate so strongly to the health aspects of cycling that some small cities such as Tulsa, Okla., have created free bike-sharing systems to encourage as many people as possible to participate.

The theft and vandalism Baltimore experienced in its initial attempt to establish a robust bike-sharing environment aren’t intrinsic to cycling or bike-sharing. Crime has many causes but it is rooted in economic inequality, public health disparities and lack of opportunity. Those problems are real, but they shouldn’t make anyone give up on efforts to make Baltimore better.

The bike sharing programs stumbles are hardly the only issue Baltimore needs to overcome. The fierce debates this year about bike lanes — in Canton, downtown and Roland Park in particular — suggest that the public hasn’t sufficiently bought into the idea that bikes and cars are equally important modes of transportation, or at least that Baltimoreans don’t agree on how to make that happen. Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration needs to work with the community to set a clear vision for safe and robust cycling infrastructure, and we as a city need to be willing to experiment with different ideas for how to make that work — and to try again when it doesn’t.

Amazon is not alone in wanting local officials to think “big and creatively” about all the factors that make a community desirable, including easy access to amenities like parks, walking trails and bike paths. Whether we’re a contender in this economic development sweepstakes or not, boosting our bike infrastructure will make Baltimore a more attractive place for employers to stay and grow.

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