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Howard Bicycling Advocates Mark Hard-Won Progress

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Promotion of active lifestyles has been a popular mantra in government, private and nonprofit sectors during the past few years. So much so, in fact, that pedestrian and biking amenities and facilities received ample consideration in Plan Howard 2030, the Downtown Columbia Master Plan and other more recent planning documents and guidelines established by Howard County.

If there’s any validation that the extra attention was necessary, there’s this fact, revealed in surveys conducted by the League of American Bicyclists: Bike ridership growth — solely in terms of commuting to work — increased 500% in Columbia between 2000 and 2014.

“The average growth for communities across America was 110%,” said Emily Ranson, advocacy coordinator for the Bike Maryland advocacy group.

There are any number of reasons for that increase, said Bicycling Advocates of Howard County President Jack Guarneri.

“Millennials want to walk or bike to work, and the number of bike shops in Howard County also increased during that time,” he said. “I also think a lot of growth may have been tied to people seeing the Iron Girl Triathlons and a lot of other things related to bicycling that happened here during that time frame.”

The main point for the advocates wasn’t the cause, though, but rather the effect.

Ranson and Guarneri were among the guest speakers at the 6th Annual Howard County Bicycling Forum in October. As in years past, they outlined the vision for safer bicycling infrastructure in the county, but this year they were able to acknowledge that their efforts have begun to generate some measurable progress.

Shared Roads

This summer, Howard County motorists started to notice changes in roadway markings, as bike lanes and shared lane markings were added to certain roadways used by cyclists on a regular basis.

The markings are an encouraging victory for the cycling enthusiasts and commuters who have been advocating for improved safety and acceptance since the establishment of the Bicycling Advocates of Howard County group in 2008.

It helps, of course, that their cause has been bolstered by a focus on healthy lifestyles endorsed by the county government, local nonprofits and other organizations.

In just the last few years, bicycling has been aggressively promoted through Bike to Work events, Columbia Association’s (CA) BikeAbout events and even a recent advocacy event to demonstrate the feasibility of bicycle-friendly streets on a community-wide scale.

“We’re all about making it easier for people to choose healthier, active lifestyles,” said Ian Kennedy, communications director for The Horizon Foundation. “Our idea is that Howard County could benefit from the Complete Streets concept, and our approach has been policy-focused in hopes of bringing about systemic change.”

The Complete Streets concept reinvents roadways as shared corridors providing safe access for all users, including motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians.

Horizon coordinated with community partners earlier this year to launch an effort called Open Streets Howard County. The event took over one lane of the Little Patuxent Parkway loop and demonstrated different lane markings and other features that establish a shared space for all forms of transportation.

“About 1,000 people experienced what it’s like when they bike or walk on a shared roadway, when they’re protected and buffered from traffic,” Kennedy said. “We received an overwhelmingly positive response from our surveys asking if Little Patuxent Parkway could function in that capacity permanently.”

Bike Master Plan

Howard County Pedestrian and Bicycle Planning Manager Chris Eatough provided an update on the county’s Bike Master Plan, noting that the plan has been drafted and is currently under review in the county executive’s office.

“At this point, it seems like it will get a favorable response,” he said, after which it will be presented to the county council for adoption.

Though it lacks official approval, “parts of the Bike Master Plan are already being put to use, but we still would like to get it codified, so that it stays and lives and lasts,” Eatough said.

Working through some of the plan’s short-term recommendations, the Department of Public Works has added 6.5 miles of shared roadway markings in just the last few months, raising the county’s total to 10.2 miles of shared roadway.

A study conducted in collaboration with CA indicates that a bike share program could be a good idea in certain high-traffic parts of Howard County, Eatough said.

“The recommendation is to start with an eight-station pilot program in Downtown Columbia,” he said, running roughly via Harper’s Choice to Oakland Mills to Blandair Park, along the Downtown Columbia Pathway that is currently under construction.

Infrastructure Grants

David Cookson, a planner with the Howard County Office of Transportation, said the county is taking a strategic approach to bring in money to leverage pathway and roadway connections to densely populated areas along the so-called “Green T” corridor. The corridor links downtown Columbia with Savage in the south, Cedar Lane Park to the west and Blandair Park to the east.

A handful of state grants have been awarded to the county this year, which will be used for projects related to the Green T. These include Maryland Bikeways Grants in the amount of $50,000 for North Laurel connections and grants, targeting Cedar Lane improvements and a connection from Downtown Columbia to Stevens Forest Road and Broken Land Parkway.

A $1.09 million Transportation Alternatives grant also has been received for design and construction to upgrade the surface of a currently unpaved section of the Patuxent Branch Trail between Vollmerhausen Road and Old Guilford Road.

Finally, a Maryland Bikeways Grant providing $102,000 over two years will enable the county to provide 200 bicycle racks on private and public property in priority funding areas.

A number of goals set by Howard County’s bicycling advocates have been met, Eatough acknowledged, including establishing a bicycling and pedestrian coordinator for the county, completing the paved pathway around Lake Kittamaqundi and enabling the electronic reporting of maintenance issues and hazards.

The next big step, he said, would be the acceptance of the Bike Master Plan.

“Then we can get to work planning, designing and building for the riders we want to have,” he said, “… and creating a network that goes to places people want to go.”