Bike trails: A spoke of genius; Transportation: Two-wheeler commuting could save the city's air while saving riders money.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The clouds overhead have that ominous look, as if the sky could open up at any moment. That's not always such an awful prospect, assuming you can take cover and leisurely watch the raindrops from some cozy indoor surroundings.

But taking cover is not an option for the group gathered under this sky today. We've made plans and postponed errands to be here; one of us stoically dragged herself out of her sick bed. On this early Sunday morning, we are committed to biking around the city of Baltimore.

The mission: show some of the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful sides of biking in this city. Show things the way they are and talk about what they could be.

And so, with wary looks cast skyward, we are off.

On the bikes this morning are four people who, in their various roles, are all working on a master plan to bring more trails and better biking to Baltimore:

Beth Strommen (the sick one), whose official title is environmental planner for Baltimore's Planning Department. Her unofficial title is greenway trail coordinator for the city.

Penny Troutner is chair of the Mayor's Bicycle Committee. She owns Light Street Cycles, a bicycle shop in Federal Hill.

Greg Hinchliffe, vice chair of the Mayor's Bicycle Committee, is an airline pilot who travels with his bike to ride when and where he can (he's currently raving about the bicycle-friendly city of Vancouver in British Columbia.)

Barry Bergman is a transportation planner with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which has numerous bike-related projects.

We begin our little tour with a positive outlook. We are at Fort McHenry, and what's not to like about biking around this national landmark?

"It fit in well with the ride," Strommen says, explaining why we've begun here. It's a good place to start -- away from any traffic -- because some of us are just kicking off the biking season and the riding is a bit wobbly for the first few minutes.

Light traffic

Traffic, as any city bicyclist knows, can be the bane of riders. That's why we chose Sunday morning, a light traffic period. Foot and bike traffic at Fort McHenry is fairly light: three or four spandex-clad runners, a couple strolling along the water's edge, a few families walking with young children who scamper about.

We ride around the park and take in its delightful water and city views. But that only lasts minutes; then we make our way out of Fort McHenry and onto Fort Avenue in Locust Point.

Still, at this time of day, even that street is blessedly nearly empty of all cars.

"Fort Avenue is a good example of what a good city street for bicycling looks like," Strommen says. "It's wide and it doesn't carry much traffic."

While the much-traveled Hinchliffe is quick to say Baltimore is not as bicycle-friendly as many towns on the West Coast, he adds things could be a lot worse here.

"There are 40-foot-wide streets," he says. "And there are some pretty benign neighborhoods surprisingly free of traffic." That, of course, means skirting around the busy main streets as much as possible.

However, these biking aficionados say, if they have their way, Baltimore's bike trail system will grow substantially -- if slowly -- over the coming years.

"The city is in the process of building 24 to 25 miles of trails," Strommen says. "And that's great for recreation. But we also want people to arrive safely to the bike trail."

Strommen believes that a good biking network will go beyond making life more enjoyable for the middle- and upper-income crowd. "Thirty-seven percent of households in Baltimore have no car," she says, quoting a 1993 survey by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. "Getting around Baltimore with bikes is important."

Or as Hinchliffe puts it; "We are not only representing the 'spandex and bike racks on the back of a Volvo' crowd."

For those who do have cars, Strommen points to the money to be saved by biking to work and not paying for parking or gas. "Think of what you could do with that money." she says.

More bike racks

One thing that the city must improve, they say, is accommodations for people who cycle for recreation or for work. Troutner says Baltimore definitely needs more of a resource rarely seen around town: free bike racks. "It is absolutely essential to get the city to get bike racks around and in parking garages," she says.

Baltimore is far behind the bike-friendly curve of the Pacific Northwest, where there are bike racks on the front of buses in Seattle, and Portland and Eugene, Ore. Still, the Mass Transit Administration allows bikes inside light-rail and Metro cars (except for the evening rush hour, two hours before and after Orioles and Ravens home games and other special events). But they are not allowed on buses or MARC trains.

But even if improvements were made, the group admits, the idea of biking to work is still akin to flying to the moon for many people.

"A lot of people will say, 'Bike to work? Well, what are you going to do about December?' Well, Decem- ber you take the car. A lot of our worst air quality days are in the summer, anyway," Hinchliffe says.

Right now, Hinchliffe, with his very long and muscular biker legs, is leading the way on our city tour. We turn left on Lawrence Street and bike into Southside Marketplace.

"Here's a little secret," Hinchliffe says as we all follow trustingly behind. We zip between the Subway shop and the Metro store and onto another street. The beauty of it is, we've just gone where no car can ever go.

We exit the marketplace onto pleasant, quiet Heath Street, then travel along a few more streets until we cross Key Highway and enter the "trolley lane." The lane on one side of Pratt Street, formerly reserved for an Inner Harbor trolley, isn't meant to be a bike lane, but many use it to avoid heavy traffic.

"The trolley lane is the best unofficial bike lane in Baltimore. If we could only designate that as a bike lane," Hinchliffe says. "It is imperative the trolley lane remain," Strommen agrees. "Without the trolley lane there is no safe biking hub downtown."

Suddenly, Hinchliffe stops and points out one of the really ugly things about biking in Baltimore.

"Grate," he says solemnly.

We stop and gather around for a closer look. We've all seen grates before, but it is only from the biker's perspective that they loom as dangerous obstacles.

"These could really eat up your tire," Hinchliffe says. Or worse. Ride over one without paying attention and you might fly off and get eaten up yourself.

"It would be so simple to fix," Strommen says. "So simple," Hinchliffe repeats.

We all nod. All that seems necessary is for the city to turn the grates 90 degrees so that bike tires could travel across the bars rather than risk getting stuck between them. Later, though, Strommen explains says that transportation officials say that solution could cause a problem with water flow. What seems so simple needs more study.

On we ride.

The clouds are dispersing and the sun peeking through. We consider ourselves lucky to be out enjoying this Sunday morning on bikes. Yet, no one in this group expects all of Baltimore to embrace bicycling.

Part of the solution

A statement from the Bicycle Advisory Committee says, in part: "While bicycling is not the total solution to our local health and economic concerns, it is part of the solution and can be encouraged and increased."

As we cross Market Street, Strommen points out where the Jones Falls Trail connection will one day be.

Baltimore is working on two trail systems: the Jones Falls and the Gwynns Falls trails. "Both systems connect to the trolley lane through downtown," Strommen says, even though reserving the lane just for bikes is not a guarantee. Delivery people want access, and there's been some talk that Pratt Street could use an extra lane for bus drop-offs.

The Gwynns Falls trail begins in Leakin Park. One section of four miles was completed last June (at a cost of $1.4 million) and is open to the public. Another 4-mile section is expected to open by next spring. When it is completed, it will be 14 miles long, running southeast along the Gwynns Falls stream to the Patapsco River and the Inner Harbor.

"This trail will link 30 neighborhoods with over 2,000 acres of park land, including Gwynns Falls- Leakin Park, Leon Day Park, Carroll Park and the Middle Branch park system," Strommen says.

While it's exact location is not yet firm, the planned Jones Falls Trail will extend 10 miles through Central Baltimore following the Jones Falls Stream Valley. It will connect 20 neighborhoods with the Inner Harbor, Druid Hill Park and Lake Roland in Baltimore County. Funding of $1.3 million for the construction of the first 1.5 to 2 miles of the trail has already been set aside, Strommen says.

"Phase 1 will extend from Druid Hill Park to Penn Station in Mount Vernon. It will primarily follow Falls Road," she says before we pedal off toward Fells Point.

While the discussion draws quips about whether any of us will be alive to ride the completed trails, it also prompts talk of something happening much sooner: Maryland Bike to Work Day on May 19, part of National Bike Month.

Riding to work

"We are meeting at the Hard Rock Cafe, 7: 30 to 8: 30 in the morning," Bergman says. "We've had something like this [before] but on a much smaller scale. We are trying to get the word out and lining up a lot of speakers."

From Fells Point, we ride on to Patterson Park, the location for "Bike Jam 2000," an early June celebration that includes the fifth annual "Race for Pulaski" on June 3.

Heading back west, we make our way to the Orioles and Ravens stadiums at Camden Yards. With nearby MARC and Light Rail stations, Strommen suggests the stadiums should be a destination for cyclists, too, a notion that will be taken into consideration in planning for the trails.

Minutes later, we are back at Fort McHenry.

Hinchliffe keeps riding to his home in East Baltimore. Troutner and Bergman have already turned off on their own a few miles back.

After she loads her bike onto her pickup truck, Strommen pauses. Biking in Baltimore, she says firmly, is filled with possibilities.

"You see how easy it could be?"

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