OCEAN CITY – The quest to connect many of the region’s neighborhoods and communities with safe bike lanes may still be slow, but advocates believe both support and progress is picking up speed and momentum.
The term “walkable/bikeable” has become not just a community buzz word in places like Berlin and Salisbury, but it’s also become a statewide initiative, with Governor Larry Hogan recently announcing a $14.9 million grant program focused on bicycle, pedestrian and multi-use trails across the state that would create a “more balanced transportation network.”
The Maryland Bikeways Program, which is administered by the Maryland Department of Transportation, offers grant assistance to local jurisdictions and other key agencies to help expedite the development of bicycle infrastructure where transportation efficiencies, multimodal travel, economic development and safety benefits are expected.
Essentially, that means municipalities now have financial incentive and, perhaps more importantly, a way to get that money, in order to improve communities to cater not only to the people who ride bicycles as a form of recreation, but also create safe routes for a growing number of its residents who are biking as a form of transportation.
But as some bike advocates point out, while the money has been available for years, the difference is communities are starting to jump on the bandwagon now.
“The new ‘no’ is ‘yes’ when it comes to bicycle advocacy,” said Tres Denk, President of the Eastern Shore International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA). “The expectation is still that we do most of it ourselves, but now, the towns are starting to see the merits in becoming more bike friendly.”
Leading The Charge
Berlin was awarded a $30,000 grant through the Maryland Bikeways Program when Governor Martin O’Malley was still in office in 2014, with the aim to support preliminary engineering for trails that would connect Berlin to Assateague Island. The effort now boasts three bike trail priorities and an adopted plan toward making “America’s Coolest Small Town” more bike friendly as well.
More recently, Salisbury was awarded a $50,000 grant from the program to erect signs, kiosks and maps to identify bicycle routes for commuters. The City Council also moved forward this past summer with a law that would allow bike lanes on Fitzwater Street, thusly helping to make downtown Salisbury much more accessible to people on bikes than ever before.
“There is a changing perception about biking as a means of transportation in Salisbury,” said Matt Drew, a local advocate who created the Bike-SBY blog. “We are an urbanized area that is plunked in the middle of a vast rural region, but the latest study I saw pointed out that over 40 percent of the trips taken in the city, whether it’s to work or to school, is less than two and a half miles.”
Drew says Salisbury now has four miles of dedicated bike lanes that weren’t there a few years ago and have almost four miles of single track trails in city parks.
“Bike friendly communities are going to have a very strong future,” said Drew. “If you look at Salisbury, with so many millennials spending a few years here in college or in the workplace, if we want them to stay here, we need to offer viable bike routes. We have historically been a very car-centric community, but that is changing.”
Drew says other towns are getting hip to the idea, too. For instance, in Ocean City, where bicyclists have long complained that they have to share the already over-crowded bus lane on Coastal Highway, and are only allowed on the Boardwalk for a limited amount of time during the summer months, the City Council unanimously granted City Engineer Terry McGean permission to seek out a grant that would pay for the designation of bike lanes on Sinepuxent Avenue uptown.
The five-foot bike lanes on both sides of Sinepuxent Avenue would be tucked between the nine feet on both sides allotted for parked cars, and the 11 feet (both sides) for regular travel lanes.
McGean told the council that the move is just the beginning to creating a safe route for bikers from the Delaware line all the way to Northside Park.
“This really gets at one of our No. 1 goals with bikes and that is to reduce the number of bikes on Coastal Highway,” said Councilman Tony DeLuca at last week’s open work session.
Councilwoman Mary Knight agreed.
“This is very exciting. In 2014, [biking] was a big initiative at MML [Maryland Municipal League]. It’s a great first step and I think we will be able to get that $30,000 grant.”
Life Of A Bike Advocate
Tres Denk spends just as much time with a leaf blower or a chainsaw in his hands as he does on a bike.
Denk has been building a network of bike trails in Bainbridge Park in Ocean Pines for the past several years.
“Just getting the permission to begin building the trails was a high degree of difficulty,” said Denk. “Everything that could go wrong to get people to stop trying did go wrong.”
Denk, a tattoo artist with a shop in Delaware, realized that there was no safe route to ride his bike from Ocean Pines to Delaware safely, and as he looked around, it became apparent that bike trails could be a way to connect the surrounding communities together.
“I used to ride my bike when I lived in Ocean City all the time, but when I moved to the Pines, I couldn’t get out of the Pines,” said Denk. “Now, one of the reasons I started the Eastern Shore IMBA is to connect the Pines to Berlin. For years, I’ve had to leave the area to ride my bike on a trail because we didn’t have any. So, if you want change to happen, sometimes you have to fight for it yourself.”
Denk got on the Ocean Pines Parks and Recs Advisory Board in 2012 and the support for the bicycle trails he and a group of volunteers are building has been growing slowly with each passing year.
“I would say that support is definitely moving forward, but it’s moving forward at a very glacial speed,” said Denk. “A lot of people still look at bicycles like they are just a toy, and until people start to look at bikes as a viable form of transportation like people do all over the world, bikes will always be the red-headed step child of transportation.”
Still, Denk says the signs of progress are all over the state, and they are all small victories moving toward the greater goal of connecting our local communities with bike trails.
A recent Baltimore Sun editorial argued that getting people out of their cars and onto bikes is essential in helping the state of Maryland meet its goal of reducing climate change emissions 25 percent by 2020, cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, and battling the epidemic of obesity.
Denk firmly believes that locals need to get involved if they want their communities to truly become more walkable and bikeable.
“People just have to be willing to step up, let their voices be heard and get their hands dirty,” he said.