Biking advocates bemoan slow pace of promised safety improvements

Despite plans in Maryland to improve biking safety, advocates say progress is slow

As the number of bicyclists has risen in Baltimore and across the nation in the last decade, city planners and other government officials have responded with a broad range of initiatives.

They've set aside millions of dollars for designated bike lanes. They've enacted laws to better protect cyclists. And they've made bicyclists and pedestrians more of a priority in urban renewal and so-called complete streets transportation projects.

Still, bicyclists, biking advocates and families devastated by serious accidents say real progress has been slow — leading to tragic incidents such as the recent collision that killed avid cyclist Thomas Palermo in Baltimore. Despite programs to improve safety, bicyclists in Maryland are regularly forced to travel on dangerous roads designed almost exclusively for cars and trucks, the advocates say.

"We have a lot of great plans on the books in the city and I'm really optimistic that these things can get done, but it seems to be a fight here more than in other cities," said Jed Weeks, president of local advocacy group Bikemore.

The problem is widespread, statistics show. Nationwide in 2013, cyclist fatalities increased for the third straight year, to the highest level since 2006 — even as deaths for motorists, vehicle passengers and pedestrians all declined, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Maryland, meanwhile, hundreds of bicyclists are injured each year. There were 556 injuries in 2013, the most recent data available.

Felipe Pereda, 47, a Johns Hopkins University professor who was seriously injured in September while riding his bike, says wholesale changes are needed to make biking safer.

"It's about the accidents, but it's also about thinking about a different way of living," said Pereda, an expert in late medieval and early modern Spanish art.

He was found lying unconscious on Charles Street, near Loyola University Maryland. He believes he was hit by a car — his collarbone was broken in six places, he broke four ribs and he suffered a massive concussion despite wearing a helmet — but he has no memory of the incident, and no driver stopped at the scene.

"I'm not going to ride anymore, although it was great to do," said Pereda, who is from Madrid and bemoans how far Baltimore lags behind European cities in biking infrastructure. "What I've realized is that it's just impossible to do safely."

The Dec. 27 death of Palermo, a 41-year-old father of two, garnered widespread attention because it came midday as he rode along a dedicated bike lane on Roland Avenue, and because the driver of the vehicle that allegedly struck him, Bishop Suffragan Heather Elizabeth Cook, a high-ranking Episcopal official, left the scene of the accident before returning. No charges have been filed in the crash; police say the investigation is continuing.

State officials have not released data on last year's bicycling fatalities, but there has been a yearly average of seven deaths from 2009 to 2013.

In Maryland, officials say progress is being made. About $210 million has been allocated toward bike and pedestrian infrastructure improvements over the next six years, and in May Gov. Martin O'Malley touted Maryland's ranking by the League of American Bicyclists as the seventh-most bike-friendly state in the country.

According to census data compiled by the league, about 1 percent of Baltimoreans commuted by bike in 2012. That placed Baltimore 26th among the 70 largest cities for bike commuting.

As the number of bike commuters has risen, the state has adopted a "complete streets" policy that requires all road construction projects to consider cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Projects in the works, including the widening of Route 175 near Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, are incorporating biking facilities, and others funded with state grants are underway to improve the biking infrastructure in Baltimore and the suburban counties.

Kate Sylvester, community planner for bicycle and pedestrian projects at the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state is constantly assessing ways to improve safety. The agency has even worked to introduce more bike safety information into the driver's education curriculum and state driving test.

Several projects are underway in the city, including one to transform the Roland Avenue bike lane into a more protected "buffered" lane, creating a physical barrier between bicyclists and motorists. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will also be transforming the city's bicycle advisory committee this year, giving it more authority to implement the city's Bicycle Master Plan, the Department of Transportation said.

All city roads scheduled for resurfacing or improvements will be assessed for bicycle needs, though the city is limited by its narrow streets and existing parking shortage, the department said.

In Baltimore's suburban counties, officials say they are balancing needs for biking infrastructure on major commuter corridors and along more rural roads popular among cyclists.

"It's sometimes the most scenic routes that have small shoulders or no shoulders, and it can be a challenge," said Jeff Degitz, director of recreation and parks in Carroll County.

In Howard County, efforts are underway to transform Columbia's large network of trails into a more useful transportation option for all residents.

"The changes really come in designing facilities that are usable by people of all ages and abilities, and not just seeing a cyclist as a brave, athletic person who is able to get out there and really hold their own with motor vehicles," said Chris Eatough, the county's bike and pedestrian planning manager — and a former professional endurance mountain biking champion. "We're picturing younger children and older people and moms with groceries in tow."

In addition to changing the transportation infrastructure, the state has passed several laws in recent years to protect cyclists, including one creating a misdemeanor manslaughter charge for motorists who strike and kill bicyclists but aren't drunk or acting with the sort of disregard that might warrant a felony charge. A 2010 law requires motorists to provide 3 feet of space between their vehicles and any cyclist they are passing.

The changes were appropriate, biking advocates say, but some question their effectiveness.

Shortly after the "3-foot law" went into effect, Dave Love, an assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, was riding his bike in Hampden when a motorist passed within inches of him.

Love, who regularly commutes by bike from his Hampden home to the Hopkins medical campus in East Baltimore, got the motorist's license plate number, followed the driver to a nearby parking lot and called police to report the incident. "The police officer said, 'Well there's nothing we can really do unless you got hit,'" Love recalled.

A spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department could not address Love's specific complaint, but said officers "make every effort to enforce traffic safety laws when they observe an infraction."

That incident inspired Love to conduct a study on the 3-foot law. He recruited Baltimoreans to strap cameras to their bikes, and used software to analyze how close vehicles came to the cyclists on about 600 occasions.

In total, drivers came too close to riders 16 percent of the time — and about twice per 20-minute ride.

"Some people say, 'Wow, that's low.' Other people say, 'Wow, that's really high,'" Love said. "I think it's too many."

John and Carolyn Naughton, whose daughter was killed while biking in Anne Arundel County in 2013, criticize the state's process for prosecuting drivers involved in fatal crashes.

A grand jury decided not to indict Whitney Decesaris on felony charges in the death of their daughter, 50-year-old Patricia Cunningham. Instead, Decesaris was found guilty of negligent driving and other traffic violations, and fined $1,500.

"The bottom line is that until there are stricter consequences for drivers in these accidents, they will continue to go on," Carolyn Naughton said. "People are really not patient with bicyclists and they really don't know the rights of bicyclists, so people need to be educated."

Decesaris, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Richard Simmons of Annapolis, said the accident occurred on a rural stretch of Riva Road where the lighting was changing because of vegetation, in the same way lighting changes for drivers entering the Fort McHenry Tunnel on a sunny day. Decesaris, a nurse, simply never saw Cunningham, Simmons said, and tried to render aid after the collision.

Bicycling on some roads in Maryland unfortunately presents an "inherent riskiness," Simmons said. He added, "Just because there's an accident, it doesn't mean that people should go to jail."

Until improvements do come, Pereda, the Hopkins professor, will avoid biking in Baltimore. "If there were the [right] conditions, there were signs on the street and there was a proper sidewalk or lines for bikes, I would definitely take the bike again," he said.

Pereda's wife, Cristina Morilla, is less sure. She wants to better understand what happened to her husband, and to track down the woman who found him and called the police.

In the meantime, she has followed her husband's example and stopped riding bikes with her children.

"The city is not ready to have bikers. There is no education," she said. "The drivers are just very unconscious about [the fact] they have to respect bikers."

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