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Howard County wheels its way to becoming a bike-friendly community

Howard County wheels its way to becoming a bike-friendly community
Bicycling is a movement that advocates say is catching on in Howard County and particularly in Columbia, where an existing network of pathways creates a transportation framework for bicyclists and pedestrians. (Jen Rynda, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

At Race Pace, a local bike business with shops in Ellicott City and Columbia, longtime staff like Jon Posner sell the biking experience.

Posner, a store manager who has worked with the chain since 1995, began biking as therapy following knee-surgery in 1993. Since then, Posner has embraced the biking lifestyle. He met his wife at a bike shop, building a life "out of a shared love of mountain biking." The 41-year-old loves watching unbridled joy and freedom flash across a child's face when buying a new bike.

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Bicycling is a movement that advocates say is catching on in Howard County and particularly in Columbia, where an existing network of pathways creates a transportation framework for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Earlier this month, the County Council marked a major milestone by unanimously passing Bike Howard, a long-awaited master plan that promotes bicycling as a safe and environmentally friendly mode of transportation by creating a network of pathways that connect commercial and residential areas.

As a pilot bike share program begins in Downtown Columbia by summer 2017, the county is poising itself to become a bike-friendly community, bicycling advocates say.

Downtown Columbia, the economic hub of the county, is at the heart of the county's push for bicycling as an efficient transportation method, particularly as the area develops, said Chris Eatough, the county's bike and pedestrian coordinator.

"There's a strong recognition for meaningful transportation options," said Eatough. "This is where it begins."

Kittleman said the bike share program, which includes seven bike sharing locations financed through partnerships with organizations like Howard Hughes Corp., the Columbia Association and the Horizon Foundation, is a "hip" and "cool" way to encourage what he called a healthy, forward-thinking transportation model.

The county is in the process of finalizing agreements with partners, and will begin the bidding process for the pilot program in July, Kittleman said. After six years, the county will evaluate the program's effectiveness.

"Bikeshare is good for business," said Kittleman. "It'll bring an energy to our community that will attract younger workers and the businesses that will employ them."

Bike shares will be located at Howard County General Hospital, Howard Community College, the Crescent development, the Columbia Town Center, Lake Kittamaqundi, Oakland Mills Village Center and Blandair Park.

The Bike Master Plan includes a powerful transportation planning tool called a complete streets policy that ensures streets are designed, built and maintained for safe access by all users, according to bike advocates. The complete streets policy encourages transportation planners to consider how to make roads more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

"This is really going to be a bikeable and walkable community," said Greg Fitchitt, vice president of Howard Hughes Corp., downtown Columbia's master developer.

Bicycling in suburbia

Chris Tsien, a 64-year-old lawyer who lives in Columbia, is part of the 1 percent of bikers who are open to riding without structured courses and connected pathways, he said. When he lived in Baltimore for several years, Tsien relied on public transport and biking to get around.

"I'm pretty fearless," said Tsien, a Howard County resident since 1985. "I have no problem riding anywhere. But the vast majority of people need structure. They need a place to park at the grocery store. They need a connected path. People are interested in biking. But there are obstacles."

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In suburbia, especially, creating a bike-friendly community presents unique challenges.

Bicycling Advocates of Howard County, an advocacy group created in 2009 to improve safety and infrastructure for bicyclists, hopes to encourage pedestrians, motorists and cyclists to co-exist safely and with civility.

"The primary challenge is attitude," said Tsien, who is a member of the group's board of directors. "The attitude is the old suburban model – that his place is designed only for cars. We can only get around by the motor vehicle, even if that trip is a quarter mile. That's how suburbs were built."

Columbia's network of paths has shifted from being entertainment-only to transportation-friendly, said Jane Dembner, the Columbia Association's director of planning and community affairs. The association, which recently launched an app to navigate Columbia's pathways and developed a plan to better connect its pathways, has seen more bicyclists use a path that loops around Lake Kittamaqundi.

Overall, the county has come along way, Tsien said.

But accommodating a cycling lane or wider sidewalks can be challenging, particularly in suburbs where limited alternative options for bike paths on streets are available, she said.

Part of the solution, Dembner said, is spreading awareness that bicyclists and drivers can share the road.

"We have to be able to share resources. We all have to share in the responsibility," she said. "The more cyclists we have, the more easier it is."

The Howard County Police Department has a dedicated bicycle patrol for the Columbia Association's pathways to monitor safety and connect with citizens, said Dembner.

Bike advocates hope the county can sustain its momentum for a bike-friendly community, especially since the master plan is not an implementation plan.

"The county has marked some serious milestones," Posner said. "We need to keep that drive moving forward"

The long-term vision is to make bicycling part of an energy transportation system that helps create a sustainable future, according to Jack Guarneri, president of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County.

Dembner hopes the county can adopt a new mantra: "No child left inside."

"It seems like a million years ago when kids would ride bikes in the neighborhood," said Posner, 41. "It's a different world today. We need to get kids to enjoy that freedom to roam again."

Several schools like Swansfield Elementary where some students ride to school in a "bike train," are embracing biking, said Eatough. "This is not just about Columbia," he said. "We have potential in other parts of the county."

In the works

Projects are already underway as part of a 10-year vision to improve 72 miles of on-road bikeway and add 23 miles of new and upgraded pathways, according to the master plan, which lays out a vision for the next 30 years.

The Downtown Columbia pathway, which extends from Howard County General Hospital to Blandair Park, will likely be completed by summer. Howard Hughes Corp. is building the three-mile pathway to mitigate traffic due to its development of downtown Columbia, Eatough sad.

The county is currently working on plans to improve pedestrian and bike infrastructure on Centennial Lane from Old Annapolis Road to Frederick Road. The plans, which include new bike lanes and crosswalks, will be coordinated with road resurfacing, Eatough said.

Planning for a connection between Savage Park, North Laurel Community Center and the Laurel MARC train stations will be completed this fall, said Eatough.

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On Cedar Lane, construction for a shared pathway from Little Patuxent Parkway to Harpers Farm Road will begin in 2018 following design finalization this year.

Race Pace hosts weekly group rides for beginners. To learn more about the schedule for rides, go to the Race Pace website http://bit.ly/1SpmxT9.

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