This weekend marks the beginning of summer vacation season for many Marylanders. From graduating students to young families, singles and seniors, the preferred place to be over Memorial Day weekend is generally Ocean City or the nearby Delaware beaches.
With warm weather expected, experts are already forecasting higher traffic volumes, including more than 350,000 vehicles converging on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge headed to or from the Eastern Shore over the next several days. Never mind that the toll is up 60 percent to $4 this year — when sand and sun beckon, what's another $1.50?
But before packing up that SUV, minivan, pickup, compact or sedan, here's a bit of advice: In addition to the usual beach towels, umbrellas, folding chairs and sunscreen, vacationers should plan to bring their bicycles along, too.
Increasingly, bicycles are becoming the de rigueur accessory for the beach-goer, up there with stylish sunglasses and flip-flops. It's not just fashion at work, but practicality — it's simply an easier, healthier way to travel around the resorts.
And don't think authorities haven't noticed the rise of interest in bicycling. The League of American Bicyclists recently rated Maryland the eighth most bike-friendly state in the nation and the third best in the Northeast. Delaware was not far behind at No. 10 nationally and fifth regionally.
Both states have risen in the ratings because they have taken measures to accommodate bicycles on and off the roads. That includes safety measures like mandated bicycle helmets for youngsters 16 and under and the 2010 law that requires motorists to give bicyclists a three-foot clearance when passing, as well as money spent on such infrastructure as bike lanes and trails, bike racks and accommodations for public transit.
In Ocean City, bikes are allowed on the three-mile-long boardwalk in the summer (after this weekend) from 2 a.m. until 11 a.m. There's a bike lane provided on either side of Ocean Highway that's shared with transit buses. Some of the nearby towns are considering adding bike lanes, too, including Salisbury, where students at Salisbury University have been petitioning for them this month.
It's not hard to understand the appeal. Improving walkability and "bike-ability" of communities not only upgrades the quality of life generally (making it easier to get from place to place), but it also encourages a healthier lifestyle and cleaner environment. Fitness is much on the minds of vacationers, and those who doubt it should get up at sunrise to see how many run, jog or bike around resort communities.
And one of Ocean City's critical advantages is that it's so near major cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia that visitors don't need to use a lot of gasoline to get there. That sales pitch works even better when people don't need to burn a lot of fuel to get around town as well — or get stuck in Coastal Highway traffic.
Over the past 20 years, the amount of bicycling in the U.S. has increased by nearly two-thirds. For most, it's not just pleasure but utility. Bicycles are the fastest-growing mode of commuting, and states ought to be investing more in "green lanes." Maryland might have ranked even higher in the League of American Bicyclists survey had it spent more than 0.5 percent of its federal transportation funds on bike-related projects.
Those of us who don't necessarily bicycle can benefit, too, if it means less vehicle traffic on the roads and less pollution in the air. Maryland still suffers from some of the nation's worst summer air pollution (Baltimore's ground-level ozone was recent pegged at 13th worst of 277 metropolitan areas in the nation by the American Lung Association).
Ocean City is expecting a big year for vacationers despite continuing so-so economic growth in the Mid-Atlantic. Weather could dampen those projections, but officials remain confident. Why? Chiefly because high gasoline prices should coax many to stay closer to home.
And nothing beats high gasoline prices like a bicycle. When the sun is shining and there's a salt breeze, there's not much more enjoyable than biking the pleasantly level streets of a resort community — except, perhaps, stopping to refuel at a beach-side restaurant instead of a gas station.