It's Friday morning, and that means the start of a workday for Ellicott City resident Matthew Lear.
After waking his 15-year-old son, Sam, from his slumber, Lear eats his routine breakfast of steel-cut oats and gets dressed. The two share some quick conversation before it's time for Sam to board the school bus and Lear to hit the road. A project manager at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Lear has a 15-mile commute ahead of him.
During his trip, Lear never sits in traffic. He never worries about running low on gas. And he feels healthier when he arrives at work than he did when he left.
Lear is a bicycle commuter -- one of a growing number of Howard County residents incorporating bicycles into their daily lives.
"I love biking to work because I get a good workout in and still have my evenings free," says Lear.
Whether for transportation, recreation or health reasons, bicycling is more popular in Howard County now than it has ever been, residents and county leaders say. Cycling clubs are seeing more interest and turnout for evening and weekend group rides. Nearly 200 people biked to work during the most recent Bike to Work Day -- a county record. And in May, The League of American Bicyclists, a national bicycle advocacy group, recognized Howard County's efforts to become a bicycle-friendly community.
But experts say there is still work to be done before the county becomes truly bicycle-friendly, including adding more bike lanes and connecting bike paths.
Luckily for cyclists, the county and the town of Columbia have a plan.
A growing culture
Between 2000 and 2011, the number of people commuting by bicycle nationwide has increased by 47 percent, according to The League of American Bicyclists. In Washington, D.C., alone, that percentage jumped almost 267 percent. According to the National Household Travel Survey, the total number of bicycle trips, including commuter and recreation trips, increased from 1.7 billion in 2001 to 4 billion in 2009.
Reasons for the jump vary, ranging from rising gas prices and traffic congestion to environmental awareness.
While there are no official statistics to measure the number of cyclists in Howard, county leaders and residents say they are seeing more bikes both on and off the road.
On May 17, almost 200 cyclists arrived at The Mall in Columbia for Bike to Work Day, an annual celebration that encourages bicycle commuting. The early morning rally, complete with bagels, bananas and coffee, reached record attendance, says Jack Guarneri, Ellicott City resident and president of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County, a group that works with government agencies to improve road safety for cyclists. Some cyclists rode to work for the first time that day, while others, like Lear, Guarneri and Fran Horan, of Ellicott City, are weekly if not daily bike commuters.
All three are also members of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab bicycle club, which receives funding from the university and has more than 100 members.
"The past few years, there's been a change in the county," says Horan, who is also a member of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County. "There's an increased interest in cycling. … The self-organizing community groups and clubs are fantastic. They've done a lot to make cycling fun and attract more people to it."
One such group is the Howard County Cycling Club. Deb Taylor and Liz Robson, co-presidents, say they have recently seen a dramatic increase in the recreational club's new memberships. Participation in the club's Wednesday-night ride, which lasts from one to three hours and covers roads throughout western Howard County, has also increased. About 50 cyclists ride with the group each week.
"I'm amazed at how many people come," Taylor says.
Members say they join club rides for the challenge of Howard County hills, the safety associated with riding in a group and a chance to enjoy the scenery.
"All the things you see from a bike, you can't see from a car going 60 miles per hour," Robson says.
Paved and unpaved trail use is up as well, says John Byrd, director of the county's Department of Recreation & Parks.
Every weekend, the Rockburn Skills Park at Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge is filled with off-road cyclists of all ages, he says. The park, which opened in 2012, is the first in the region to have a pump track, a rock-filled climbing trail and three courses for riders of varying skills.
The county also is home to at least 15 cycling-related events, including the Columbia Association's BikeAbout tour (scheduled for Sept. 21), the Columbia Triathlon and Iron Girl Columbia at Centennial Park, the Maryland Olympic Duathlon in western Howard County, cyclocross races and mountain bike camps at Rockburn Branch Park and a time trial on Ilchester Road in Ellicott City.
And within Columbia, cyclists have access to more than 90 miles of off-street paved paths. That's more than most major cities in the United States.
But to create a more bikeable environment, residents and county leaders need to work together to "connect the dots," says County Executive Ken Ulman. The county needs more pathways and bike lanes that link homes to workplaces, as well as shopping and recreation centers, he says.
"We have a great infrastructure, and so many of the pieces are there," Ulman says. "The challenge is finding the most cost-effective way to make it happen."
Planning for the future
Recognizing bicycling's growing popularity and transportation value, the county and Columbia are in the midst of implementing pedestrian and bicycle plans.
In September 2012, Columbia Association completed its "Connecting Columbia" plan, officially known as the Active Transportation Action Agenda, to aid pedestrians and bicyclists. The plan has three main objectives: Increase connections and reduce missing links; enhance CA pathways; and inspire bikers and walkers to use the paths.
"(The plan) will extend the reach of Columbia's pathways for the 21st century," says Jane Dembner, director of community building and sustainability for CA.
While some of the projects are long-term, others have already started. Currently, most paths measure 5 to 8 feet wide. The plan recommends, when high-traffic paths are repaved or expanded or new paths are built, they measure 10 feet wide. This allows for more comfortable passing and two-way flows, Dembner says. CA recently implemented the 10-foot pathway standard when it replaced the path around Lake Kittamaqundi near the Kennedy Gardens.
In addition, CA is testing new directional and mileage signs on the 1.5-mile "Lake to Lake" route that would connect Wilde Lake and Lake Kittamaqundi.
Also in 2012, the county government began working on its own bicycle transportation master plan. Like Columbia, the county held a series of public workshops and surveys to guide the plan, which -- among other goals -- will encourage cycling education in public schools.
"I have been really surprised at the number of regular citizens, moms and dads and seniors, who have come out and said, 'I want to be able to bike from my house to the grocery store for a short trip. It seems like I shouldn't have to drive,' " says Jennifer Toole, a Columbia resident and president of Toole Design Group, a consultant company hired by both the Columbia Association and the county to develop their respective plans.
Both Toole and David Cookson, planning specialist with the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, say having a plan in place won't solve all cycling-related issues. Changes also won't happen overnight, as the county and Columbia need to secure funding for projects. But, they say, a plan is a good place to start.
"There are some people who will do it, and there are some people who won't," Cookson says. "This plan will address that middle … the broadest group of people who would be interested in cycling if the conditions on the ground are improved and more comfortable."
You don't have to go far to buy a bicycle or bike gear in Howard County. Multiple stores offer just what you need to hit the road on two wheels.
• Bella Bikes - 8450 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. bellabikes.com
• Ben's Performance Bicycles - 2878 Daisy Road, Woodbine. bensperformancebicycles.com
• Dick's Sporting Goods - 6621 Columbia Crossing Circle, Columbia. dickssportinggoods.com
• Performance Bicycle - 6455 Dobbin Road, Columbia. performancebike.com
• Princeton Sports - 10730 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. princetonsports.com
• Race Pace - 6925 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia, and 8450 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. racepacebicycles.com
• REI - 6100 Dobbin Road, Columbia. rei.com
• Sports Authority SA Elite - 10300 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. saelite.com
• Twenty20 Cycling - 8600 Foundry St., Savage. twenty20cycling.com
Want to ride your bike but don't want to do it alone? Check out the following Howard County bike clubs:
• Explore Columbia - Family bike club and adult walking club that explores Columbia paths and Howard County trails. All walks and bike rides are guided. explorecolumbia.org
• Cycle2Health - Noncompetitive, peer-led club for adults of all skill levels includes weekday daytime rides. Organized by the county's Office on Aging. howardcountymd.gov
• Glenelg Gang - Recreational cycling group that meets twice a week for road rides. groups.yahoo.com/group/GlenelgGang
• Howard County Cycling Club - Recreational cycling group that meets weekly for road rides. sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/HoCoCyclists
• Mid Maryland Triathlon Club - Group that helps area triathletes train. midmdtriclub.org
• Princeton Sports and Race Pace - Bicycle shops that offer regular group rides. princetonsports.com and racepacebicycles.com
• The Morning Ride - A recreational and social bike group that rides early in the morning. themorningride.com
• Westside Worlds - Fast-paced road bike training club that meets regularly for group rides. adventuresforthecure.com/rides.php
Several bicycling-related measures are under way or have been recently completed by the Columbia Association or Howard County, including:
• Workshop conducted by the Department of Planning and Zoning to help local businesses support employees biking to work.
• Adding 3,000 feet of 8-foot-wide asphalt path along Broken Land Parkway near Snowden River Parkway. Pedestrian signals and two bus shelters will also be installed.
• Studying a new pathway to connect the county's Patuxent Branch Trail to downtown Columbia.
• Developing a wayfinding smartphone app for paths in Columbia.
• Adding bike lanes and sharrows (shared lane markings) to Great Star Drive in Columbia.
• Expanding shoulders on Guilford Road in Columbia.
• Incorporating cycling-related laws into county police officer training.
To learn more about Connecting Columbia, visit ColumbiaAssociation.org/ConnectingColumbia and https://vimeo.com/44251225. To learn more about the county's bicycle master plan, visit bikehoward.com.