Cycling has long been promoted as an activity with the potential to improve community wellness through its health benefits and its ability to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. Monday through Friday, rain or shine, I ride my bike from my apartment in the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood in North Baltimore to school at the Johns Hopkins medical campus in the Middle East neighborhood, where I am working on a master's degree in public health.
Riding a bicycle is a liberating experience that you can do it at any age and almost anywhere. For me, it's relaxing, it's good exercise, it's fun — and it's just as fast, if not faster, than driving or riding the bus. My eight-mile round-trip bike ride has always been the best part of my day, and with the changes the city has made on Guilford Avenue, the best part of my day just got better.
Despite the designated bike lanes running down most of St. Paul Street, cycling on Guilford is my route of choice when traveling north and south in Baltimore. For a year now, I've chosen to ride on Guilford because of the lower vehicular volume and reduced traffic speeds. Recently, several structural changes to Guilford Avenue have made it even more bike-friendly. The city's bicycle and pedestrian planners have constructed bike-friendly traffic humps to slow vehicles; added mini traffic circles where Guilford Ave intersects with 32nd, 24th and 22nd streets, in place of stop signs; built curb extensions at the intersection with North Avenue to facilitate cyclists crossing the busier street safely; and painted sections along 33rd Street to highlight where cyclists should ride.
These changes not only make the streets quieter, prettier and healthier, thereby giving some priority to bicyclists, but they provide cyclists the opportunity to avoid heavier-traveled streets that have more fast-moving vehicles, pollution and distractions. When fully completed, the stretch of Guilford Avenue from University Parkway to Mount Royal Avenue will be Baltimore's first official "bike boulevard." Bike boulevards are more welcoming to kids, families and novice cyclists, attracting any cyclist who wants to ride on a convenient and comfortable route.
From a public health perspective, placing the bike boulevard on a quieter side street is the best option for cyclists — better than simply adding more designated bicycle lanes on the sides of busy streets like St. Paul or North Charles — because bike boulevards, reduce another potential danger of city cycling that is not often considered. While cycling has many positives, cyclists in an urban setting may be exposed to increased levels of a variety of pollutants as they breathe in vehicle emissions. A cyclist's close proximity to the tailpipes of exhaust-spewing vehicles increases exposure to the invisible dangers of inhaled fine and ultrafine particles.
Bikers can significantly reduce their air pollution exposure by choosing a smarter, less traffic-filled route (Guilford), and avoiding busy streets (St. Paul and Charles). For the health of the individual and the health of the public, cyclists should be encouraged to keep pumping their pedals, but they need to be reminded to evaluate their routes to ensure they avoid unnecessary exposure to areas of heavy traffic congestion and air pollution.
Bike boulevards have been successful additions to several well known bike-friendly cities such as Portland, Ore.; Berkeley, Calif.; and New York. In comparison, Baltimore may not seem like it has a lot of designated and developed bike lanes. However, according to a recent report, "Bicycling and Walking in the United States: 2012 Benchmarking Report," Baltimore impressively has the 11th-largest percentage of bicycle and walking commuters among major U.S. cities. When you know where to ride, the city of Baltimore is very bike-friendly. With the addition of more bike boulevards that promote and facilitate alternative means of local travel, Baltimore could easily work its way into the top 10.
For now, Baltimore's current bike boulevard is open and ready for business — so grab your helmet, obey the rules of the road, and enjoy a safer and less exhausting ride.
Jeremy Steeves is a candidate for a master's degree in public health at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun