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Safer roads for cyclists sought in Catonsville

A bumpout into Edmondson Avenue, a common device to slow traffic, cuts off the bike lane on the busy street and forced cyclists to swerve out into traffic when they ride down the road.
A bumpout into Edmondson Avenue, a common device to slow traffic, cuts off the bike lane on the busy street and forced cyclists to swerve out into traffic when they ride down the road. (Staff photo by Ed Bunyan)

A Baltimore County traffic calming project on Edmondson Avenue completed last fall brought bike lanes, sidewalks, bumpouts and a crosswalk in an effort to slow traffic down, but some Catonsville residents are not satisfied with the design, particularly the bike lanes, which they see as dangerous.

Cal Oren, who lives nearby, called the new bike lanes a "death trap."

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He said there is little protection for those on two wheels because the bike lanes are only distinguished by painted lanes and there is no physical barrier separating the cyclists from motorized traffic on the road.

Oren expressed dissatisfaction with the design, which removed space for drivers in an effort to slow down traffic.

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"We're giving 20 percent of the roadway to two-tenths of the commuters," Oren said. "It does nothing for pedestrians and parents with strollers — it's just for the people on bicycles."

The bike lanes on the road run on both the north and south sides of the street.

Similar bike lanes will be extended from where Interstate 695 meets Edmondson Avenue to the Baltimore City line, to connect with the Gwynns Falls Trail, said Mike Filsinger, chief of the county's Division of Traffic Engineering.

The project will cost $30,485 for striping and bike signage, and was funded by a grant from the Maryland Bikeways program, said Kathy Schlabach, chief of the strategic planning division of the county's Department of Planning.

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Oren said the county should instead look for safer ways to add bike lanes to the road.

"I think the only solution to this is a physically separate non-vehicular traffic path. It's not impossible — it's been done very well in Indianapolis with the Cultural Trail," Oren said, referring to the 8-mile path in the Indiana capital created for bicycles and pedestrians that was built for a total cost of $63 million, according to the trail's website.

Jim Himel, a retired Baltimore City planner who lives in Catonsville, said he supports the addition of bike lanes to the road, but would like to see a physical barrier added to improve safety for bicyclists, which he refers to as the "Manhattan model."

"It's always been my position, even from the get-go, a painted lane is still very dangerous," Himel said. "The painted bicycle lane doesn't lessen the danger to kids biking in that lane."

In Manhattan, a borough of New York City, bike lanes are separated from sidewalks and vehicular traffic by vertical barriers, to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, Himel said.

"What's key there is that sidewalks are not the right place for bicycles. Bicycles and pedestrians is a terrible mix — pedestrians literally get killed by impacts with bicycles," he said.

Himel said he had suggested adding one bike lane with a physical barrier to one side of the road, but it was shot down.

"Early on with the initial project, I threw a measured design on the table and the concept of a foot bike lane on the south side of Edmondson," Himel said. "Having one lane rather than two is a better solution."

Kris Nebre, an acting engineer for Baltimore County, said he was unfamiliar of the practice of creating physical barriers to separate bike lanes.

"That's not a standard practice that I know of," he said, adding that barriers aren't warranted on the road. "Something as such would remove access from parking."

Bike lanes are located next to parallel parking spots on the road.

Bicycle advocates such Catonsville resident Charlie Murphy are also unhappy with the design.

"I am extremely disappointed in the final outcome. It has slowed down traffic, enabled pedestrians to cross the road more easily but has thrown the cyclist under the bus, literally," Murphy wrote in an email.

Murphy, a member of bicycle advocacy groups Bikemore and Bike Maryland, said he had met with Baltimore County traffic engineers and 1st District Councilman Tom Quirk about the design.

Murphy said the new bumpouts along with parallel parking spots create an "obstacle" course for cyclists along busy Edmondson Avenue, which is dangerous.

He suggested the addition of a cycle track, a protected bike lane adjacent to the street.

"Edmondson Ave is the perfect road for one," Murphy said.

John Jacob, a cyclist who lives in Catonsville, said he doesn't think a physical barrier is necessary.

"I think the clearly marked lines are sufficient," he wrote in an email. "However, the lines wear off quickly and are not repainted enough."

Residents say the county needs to do better when it comes to accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians in their community.

Rodney Chaney, who lives on Edmondson Avenue, said he'd like to be more done to make the road walkable.

"I think it's an improvement," Chaney said of the new bike lanes that will be added to Edmondson."But I don't want this to be a point of appeasement."

Chaney has a 3-year-old son who will attend Catonsville Elementary School and said he wants sidewalks added to the busy road.

"I think there is definitely more that needs to be done — not just on Edmondson but all around southwest Baltimore County, and it's just a question of resources. We're just scratching the surface on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and we have a long, long way to go," said 1st District Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents Catonsville, Arbutus and Lansdowne.

Quirk said he supports the concept of creating a separate path for pedestrians and bicycles. But, he cautioned, it would cost more money to do so.

"Although it would be much safer, it is exceptionally expensive to do that," Quirk said.

Keith Link, designer of the project with the Department of Public Works, said he would have liked to create a separate lane for cyclists, however, the cost of the project would have been approximately $5 million in comparison to the roughly $300,000 spent.

The cost of purchasing private property to widen the road for a separate lane would have driven up the cost, Link said. It would have also taken years to implement, he said.

Himel complained the county doesn't put enough money into such improvements, especially in comparison to nearby Howard County and Montgomery County. In both of those counties, sidewalks, hiking and biking trails are more common.

"The one hiking and biking trail that we have is the initiative of one individual — Maureen Sweeney Smith with Catonsville Rails to Trails," Himel said.

The nonprofit has been turning old, abandoned railroad tracks and streetcar paths into walking and biking paths since 1998, including the 2.2-mile Short Line Trail, according to information on their website.

"We certainly fill a vacuum in Catonsville and have a feeling the county will continue efforts to strengthen biking and walking trails," said Tom Ajluni, president of Catonsville Rails to Trails for the past five years.

Because infrastructure is older in Baltimore County than places like Howard County, roads need to be improved for bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists, Ajluni said.

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"This is a very old area," Ajluni said. "It's difficult to make improvements."

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The county has the framework in place to make the county friendlier for bicyclists and pedestrians, with the Complete Streets policy and Eastern and Western bike plans, Quirk said.

But, he added, "we're not adopting a lot of it, we're not implementing a lot of it."

"That comes from the county executive — we need [County Executive Kevin Kamenetz] to share that priority and fund it," Quirk said, adding that Kamenetz has been more focused on improving school buildings and basic road infrastructure.

Quirk suggested adding a line item to the Department of Public Works' budget for trail maintenance or for school crossings and sidewalks.

Creating walkable and bikeable communities attracts homebuyers and increases property values, he said.

"We're very fiscally prudent, which is important. We have limited resources, so the question is: How do you spend every dollar?" Quirk said.

This story has been updated. 

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