When advocates talk about U.S. cities that are friendliest to bicyclists, they mention places such as San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, Texas.
They even praise Pittsburgh. But Baltimore, they say, lags behind.
City officials are working to change that. They agreed Wednesday to help pay for the Downtown Bicycle Network, a $1.2 million grid of routes.
The network will include what is expected to be the city's best bike lane: a 2.6-mile stretch of Maryland Avenue called a "cycle track," in which bicyclists will be protected from traffic by a buffer of parked cars.
"It's going to be the crown jewel" of the city's bike lane network, says Nate Evans, director of the advocacy group Bike Maryland. "It's going to be protected. It's going to connect Charles Village to downtown. It's going to make it easier for more people to choose biking over driving."
On Wednesday, the Board of Estimates approved spending about $300,000 to help pay for the project. Money from a federal program will cover the rest.
City Transportation Director William Johnson says the cycle track will be the highlight of Baltimore's bike lanes. He expects construction to begin as soon as winter is over, with completion by the end of the year.
"We have a long way to go to catch up, but we're going to get there very quickly," Johnson said. "This is a top priority of the mayor's office. It's been made very clear to us."
Officials and cycling advocates were working on the plans before the death of cyclist Thomas Palermo. Cycling advocates said his death in a collision with a vehicle Dec. 27 demonstrated a need for protected bike lanes, among other changes.
The spending approved Wednesday includes $240,000 for Toole Design Group LLC to help to create the Maryland Avenue Cycle Track, a north-south bike lane, and five connecting east-west lanes on Centre, Monument, Madison, Preston and Biddle streets. The project was initially slated for completion last year, but was delayed while city officials did additional traffic analysis.
The board also approved $52,000 for McCormick Taylor Inc. to do other work on the network.
Baltimore has 100 miles of on-street bike lanes, though few are protected by buffers and many stretches are not connected. The city also has 39 miles of off-road trails. The city is working to create another cycle track on Mount Royal Avenue and to launch a bike-sharing program.
Baltimore officials have been slow to build protected bike lanes — which often means eliminating lanes for cars — even as they sprouted in Chicago, Indianapolis and New York, advocates say.
"I am heartened to see the pace of bicycle improvements is picking up again after a long period where progress had stalled," says Greg Hinchliffe, interim director of the advocacy group Bikemore. "Philadelphia is ahead of us. Washington, D.C., is ahead of us. Pittsburgh is ahead of us.
"We have a rivalry with the Steelers. Maybe we should have a rivalry to see who has better bike facilities?"
Cities that are frequently cited as bike-friendly say they didn't get there overnight.
Rob Sadowsky, who runs the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Oregon, said Portland's biking network includes protected lanes, designated routes on low-traffic roads, neighborhood streets with speed bumps and dividers to divert the flow of vehicular traffic. Portland has 186 miles of bike lanes, including 11.5 miles of protected or buffered bike lanes.
"Portland wasn't always a bicycling mecca; it took a concerted effort," Sadowsky said.
Pittsburgh has earned national attention for a decade-long commitment to urban cycling with the installation of 65 miles of biking lanes.
With a population about the half the size of Baltimore's, Pittsburgh has 24 miles of trails, which cyclists can use to travel through the city. Pittsburgh saw an increase of more than 400 percent in the number of people who bicycle to work most days of the week in the past decade, the greatest growth in the nation, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
"It's leaps and bounds above where we were just a few years ago," said Ngani Ndimbie, a spokeswoman for Bike Pittsburgh. "That really shows what making some investment can do. Despite Pittsburgh's hills and Pittsburgh's rain, there has been a drastic increase in the number of people biking on city streets."
Evans said he's been biking in Pittsburgh and thinks that city's system is far superior to Baltimore's.
"As a born and bred Baltimorean, I hate saying that Pittsburgh crushes us, but they do. I've biked up there. They have an extensive trail system. It really kills me that most of the Steelers staff ride their bikes to their training facility."
The dangers of riding on city roads — even in a designated bike lane — were apparent in the death of Palermo in last month's crash in North Baltimore.
Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook, the second-ranking official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, has been charged with vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence of alcohol, using a text messaging device while driving and other violations.
City officials said they plan to install a buffered bike lane on the stretch of Roland Avenue where Palermo was killed.
"There was a bike lane there, but it underscores the importance of driver responsibility," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "It motivates the work we are doing to have more protected lanes for bicyclists to ride.
"I'm serious about integrating bicycling into the city. I'm going to continue to push the Transportation Department to get that done."
The Board of Estimates deferred action Wednesday on another bicycle project because City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young had not been briefed on it. That proposal would pay $45,000 to McCormick Taylor to help the Transportation Department raise money to give bicycles to elementary and middle school students.
Johnson said the idea is to raise "awareness and enthusiasm" about biking among youth.
"As these kids grow older, they'll be in the habit of biking as an alternative form of transportation," Johnson said.
Hinchliffe said his organization supports education for children, but believes the city should focus first on protected bike lanes.
"We prefer the city spend its money on infrastructure," he said.
Bill Nesper, vice president of the League of American Bicyclists, said Baltimore joins a long list of cities making investments in urban biking.
When motorists are converted into cyclists, Nesper said, cities get the added benefit of reduced traffic congestion.
"We know how to build bicycle lanes so cyclists and motorists can both be accommodated," Nesper said. "It just needs to be invested in."
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.