Avid cyclists and bicycle commuters are anxiously watching several bills introduced to the Maryland General Assembly that could make their lives easier — and safer, too.
They are also guardedly celebrating Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman’s recently announced BikeHoward Express strategy to secure funding and provide nearly 48 miles of bicycle infrastructure improvements in the county.
At the fourth annual Bike Symposium, held last month in Annapolis by the statewide bicycling advocacy group Bike Maryland, attendees received good news and bad news, and met with legislators to help them understand cyclists’ concerns.
“Unfortunately, we lost the vote on contributory negligence,” said Bike Maryland Executive Director Josh Feldmark.
That legislation would have established a comparative negligence standard in civil actions for damages arising from negligent operation of a motor vehicle, and involving a plaintiff who is a pedestrian or operating a non-motorized vehicle.
Currently, Maryland is one of only five jurisdictions in the nation that still adhere to the archaic doctrine of contributory negligence, which bars plaintiffs from damage recovery based on any fault, however slight, the injured party may have contributed to an accident.
“This is meant to be a multi-year effort,” Feldmark said. “In D.C., it took them three years to do it. Expect us to be coming back on this.”
Kim Lamphier, advocacy director for Bike Maryland, said safe passing and vulnerable road user legislation round out the biggest issues the organization is targeting in this year’s legislative session.
“Safe passing puts into law what most of us do naturally, anyway,” she said, making it legal to cross a double yellow line to pass a cyclist, farm vehicle or pedestrian when it is safe to do so.
As for vulnerable road user legislation, “We want to make sure there are specific penalties for drivers who seriously injure or kill vulnerable road users,” she said.
Proposed measures include a license suspension of at least seven days, community service and increased fines of up to $2,000.
“Delay means more injuries and deaths on the road for people who are riding bikes,” said Baltimore County Del. Steve Lafferty, who served on Gov. Larry Hogan’s Bicycle Safety Task Force and is sponsoring both the vulnerable road user legislation and an effort to expand the application of the Complete Streets concept to benefit pedestrians, bicyclists, people with disabilities and transit riders.
“The first piece of Complete Streets will help local governments better develop and implement Complete Streets policies by creating and funding some of the front-end policy work,” Lamphier said. The Senate version of this legislation is sponsored by Sen. Guy Guzzone of the Howard County delegation.
Another component would require all agencies under the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), and not just the State Highway Administration, to comply with Complete Streets.
“We think that will be a key as we look into more roads to get the bus lanes that we need in some roads, in some of the construction projects that have been proposed, and make sure we can get bicycle and pedestrian planning as a regular part of MDOT’s work,” Lamphier said.
According to statistics compiled by the League of American Bicyclists, Maryland ranks 11th in terms of bicycle friendliness, dropping from 10th two years ago and seventh in a previous survey; that’s a downward trend that Feldmark would like to reverse.
“At the end of the day, Bike Maryland is a transportation organization,” he said. “We see our overall function as being a catalyst that changes the way we think about our entire transportation structure so that cyclists, pedestrians, scooters or mass transit are considered and have appropriate places within our transportation infrastructure.”
Howard County has moved closer to achieving its own vision for a more connected bicycle infrastructure with a comprehensive strategy outlining approximately $8 million in improvements during the next three years. Funding for the improvements will come from a mixture of county funds and grants.
Additionally, during his annual State of the County address in February, Kittleman announced that the county’s bike share program will soon expand to old Ellicott City.
“I’ve heard growing support for improved bicycle infrastructure, and this strategy directly answers those calls,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.
Proposed BikeHoward Express improvements include new bike lanes, designated shared roadways and shared-use pathways.
Key components of Kittleman’s strategy include a connection from Savage to North Laurel, shared-use pathways providing access to Downtown Columbia, Columbia Gateway and along Dobbin Road, and nearly 14 miles of bike lanes.
“Starting this year, BikeHoward Express includes the greatest financial investment ever made in bicycle infrastructure in Howard County,” Kittleman said. “If we make it easier and safer for people to get around by biking, more people will choose to do so”
That’s welcome news to the Horizon Foundation, the advocacy nonprofit dedicated to the health and wellness of the county’s citizens that has been one of the primary supporters of the Bikeway, an earlier plan similar to BikeExpress.
Those involved in the campaign, however, have expressed concern about some of the BikeExpress strategy’s assumptions.
“If built, this network would benefit our county’s quality of life, environment and health while also increasing business appeal and transit options for residents and workers,” said Horizon Foundation President and CEO Nikki Highsmith Vernick. “We are concerned, however, that the county executive’s plan relies on $4.7 million in competitive state grant funding, though the county has never received this amount of state bicycling grants in the past. We look forward to seeing whether the county executive accompanies his promise with real funding in next year’s budget to get it done.”
On its website, the Horizon Foundation has registered “tremendous and growing” business support for investment in cycling infrastructure in general, and for the Bikeway in particular, with more than 30 local businesses and community organizations endorsing the Bikeway.
Still, Howard County’s funding commitment for bicycle infrastructure continues to fall short compared with surrounding jurisdictions.
According to a joint statement issued by the Horizon Foundation and Bicycling Advocates of Howard County, last year’s budget allotted only $600,000 in county funding toward Bike Master Plan projects, compared with $26 million budgeted for bicycle improvements in Montgomery County and $7.5 million in Anne Arundel County.
The public has one final opportunity to weigh in on funding priorities at Howard County’s last scheduled budget hearing on March 8.
In Annapolis, both legislative chambers will hold public hearings on March 14 and March 22 to receive testimony on both the state agency compliance and local government components of Complete Streets legislation.