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Towson Spokes bike project lacks safety measures, cyclist groups say

From left, center, Charlie Murphy, of Catonsville, Bike Maryland Executive Director Nate Evans and Baltimore Youth Cycle President Joseph Nalley look at design plans for the Towson Spokes Project during an informational meeting hosted by Baltimore County and held July 16 at the Towson Library.
From left, center, Charlie Murphy, of Catonsville, Bike Maryland Executive Director Nate Evans and Baltimore Youth Cycle President Joseph Nalley look at design plans for the Towson Spokes Project during an informational meeting hosted by Baltimore County and held July 16 at the Towson Library. (Staff photo by Jordan Branch)

The Towson Spokes Project, which will expand the Towson Loop bike path into local neighborhoods, during an informational meeting held Thursday night, drew sharp opposition from area bicyclists who believe the plan fails to make provisions for safe cycling.

Baltimore County Planning and Public Works departments hosted the open house-style meeting at the Towson Library on the 5.8-mile bicycle route, which is estimated to cost $90,000 and is being funded by the state through the Maryland Bikeways Program.

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Bike Maryland Executive Director Nate Evans said before the meeting that with the exception of a couple of bike lanes, the Towson Spokes project only adds "share the road" signs, which he said are ineffective.

"We don't think that this goes far enough to really encourage safe cycling," Evans said. "Adding some share the road signs will not change the physical nature of the street and its definitely not going to change motorists' behavior."

The project calls for adding two bike lanes and signage to portions of Kenilworth, Fairmount, Burke, Putty Hill avenues, and Providence and Cromwell Bridge roads to help connect the neighborhoods to downtown Towson for work and recreation. The bike lanes will be on Putty Hill and Fairmount avenues.

Though its original completion date was set for September, a request has been made to the state to extend that deadline to the end of April 2016.

But Evans said the plan lacks safety features such as creating dedicated bike lanes with ample space separating cyclists from traffic, dedicating a road lane to cyclists or creating a pathway for cyclists off the road. He also said bicyclists need safer options for merging into traffic when bike lanes end.

Project planner Kathy Schlabach said the county planning office will look at the feedback gathered at the meeting but protected bike lanes will most likely not happen, because there is not enough road width to accommodate them.

"There just isn't really the room on the road to do a lot of the stuff they're asking for, unfortunately," Schlabach said. "It's a worthy goal to work toward, but it's going to take some time I think to build ridership that can support doing separated bike lanes and also to work with the motorists to try to get them to understand the need for us to share the road with bicyclists."

Councilman David Marks, also in attendance, said he shares the concerns of bicyclists in the area and said dedicated bike lanes generally do increase safety.

"That's probably the step we have to be moving toward, not just putting up signage and encouraging people to share the road. That's not enough," Marks said.

While Joseph Nalley, president of Baltimore Youth Cycling, agreed the signs were not enough for riders with less experience such as the competitive kids cycling team he works with, as an experience cyclist he appreciates the added signage.

"Signs are better than nothing," Nalley said. "I'm never going to turn down signs. I think that's a good way at least to raise awareness of things."

Bikemore Executive Director Liz Cornish, who attended the meeting and called the plan "sign clutter," said the county needs to re-evaluate its budget and create a line item for bicycling and pedestrian improvements to complement the state funding.

"The state bikeways program was designed to help encourage local communities to create viable, safe bike infrastructure and with the county not contributing any dollars to the project, what you are left with is a project that doesn't really do anything to increase the safety or encourage new riders to try bicycling," Cornish said.

Marks said while the county is often fiscally conservative and that is a positive, it must invest in the future of Towson, including its bike and pedestrian accessibility.

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"The fact is we have more than $800 million of private investment coming into downtown Towson," Marks said. "There are certain infrastructure improvements we need to make to anticipate that growth."

Evans said the most important thing the county can do is include bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users in its transportation planning, which now only addresses automobiles.

"When you're looking out for your most vulnerable road users, everyone stands to benefit from it," Evans said.

Leaving the meeting, Nalley said he felt the project was a start but hoped its scope would grow with time.

"I'm glad they're doing something. And I'm glad it's on the radar. I don't think it's enough and I don't think it should be the end," Nalley said.

In addition to planning for the Towson Spokes Project, the county has two other bike paths underway.

The Edmondson Avenue 4-mile bike path providing access from Oella and the No. 9 Trolley Trail to the west and to Baltimore City's bicycle network and the Gwynns Falls Trail to the east is currently under construction.

Plans for the 5.3-mile Dundalk Loop are also completed designating bikeimprovements on Dundalk Avenue, Sollers Point Road and Delvale and Holabird avenues to create a loop and link residencesto various destinations.

In addition, there are three bike paths still in the preliminary planning stages and four more projects with funding.

The state has made comments on the project to the county. The county will reply with a plan that addresses those comments or submit comments back to the state, which could include feedback from the meeting, Schlabach said.

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