Baltimore County wants to build 70 miles of on-street bike lanes, more than 100 miles of mixed-use paths and redesign 33 miles of streets to help make the county safer and more accessible for cyclists and pedestrians, according to a first-of-its kind bicycle and pedestrian master plan.
The construction would add significantly to a trail network currently consisting of 145 total miles and create nearly five times the amount of current on-street bicycle infrastructure in the county. The plan calls for more connectivity between the Torrey C. Brown trail — a wooded 20-mile path that runs from Hunt Valley to the Pennsylvania border — the Jones Falls Trail and the East Coast Greenway. It would also improve existing trails by widening and paving certain areas.
“We are committed to sustainable and active transportation planning in Baltimore County, which will ensure our infrastructure meets the diverse needs of our residents and create more vibrant and accessible communities,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski in a press release. “The Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan sets a bold new standard for incorporating this growing need in future projects.”
But advocates for a better path and trail network say that funding doesn’t match the county’s apparent goals laid out in the plan. Based on current funding levels, it would take the county between 22 and 38 years just to complete just seven bike projects it identifies as high priority, totaling less than 10 miles of infrastructure.
“When I saw that, I honestly didn’t think I was reading it correctly,” said James Pizzurro, a Towson resident affiliated with Strong Towns Baltimore, a grassroots, mostly online group of residents who organize around community issues. “That’s ludicrous to me.”
Though Pizzurro thinks that the rhetoric and sentiment of the plan are coming from the right place, a lack of solid funding and lengthy timeline concern him. The plan says that if the county were to introduce accelerated funding of between $2.5 and $4.4 million annually — more than three times the current annual allocation of $700,000 — it would take six years to complete those seven projects. Pizzurro thinks that’s even too long.
In October, Olszewski mentioned the plan when addressing state transportation officials at Baltimore County’s meeting to discuss what transportation projects the state would include in their annual plan submitted to the General Assembly. Each jurisdiction submits a wish list of projects to state officials for inclusion in the plan. Only a handful of bicycle and pedestrian projects made it into Baltimore County’s section of the plan.
“Unfortunately it’s not uncommon … especially for suburban counties outside of cities,” said Daniel Paschall, mid-Atlantic manager for the East Coast Greenway Alliance. Paschall said that trail networks don’t often make the top of priority lists, and he believes the wide, busy roads that suburbs have historically prioritized are often a detriment to a wider sense of community. “This [trail network] isn’t just about adding a bike lane or a trail … this [trail network] is about creating spaces we want to call home,” he said.
Paschall’s organization envisions a roughly 3,000-mile connected trail that runs from Maine to Florida, providing both green recreational space and connects people to jobs and places. Paschall was pleasantly surprised to see a nearly 4-mile section of the Greenway from Towson to its dividing line with Baltimore City included in the tier of highest priority projects.
Though state funding appears sparse, Paschall expressed optimism at the master plan being a step in the right direction.
“Creating a map with all of these projects is in some ways a huge step for creating a process for what’s possible,” he said. “The federal funding opportunities are way more than they were a few years ago.”
And the plan makes note of those shots at federal money. It lists several grant programs born out of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law that have pumped tens of millions of investment into Baltimore City infrastructure upgrades.
Dennis Sykes, a board member of Bike Maryland, called the plan “an impressive piece of research on biking and walking in Baltimore County.” The plan “seems to provide useful guidance for real world benefits, but only real-world projects will determine how much benefit is realized. The proof is in the pavement,” he said.
Redesigning safer streets
The plan argues that a “significant amount of residents do not feel safe walking and biking in Baltimore County,” based on an online survey and responses at pop-up and online community meetings. It attributes the fear of getting struck by a car, lack of sidewalks or trails and long distances as key obstacles that prevent residents from walking and biking more.
In his October address to transportation officials, Olszewski touted his record on traffic safety initiatives, saying that more than 25% of all traffic calming projects in Baltimore County began under his tenure. He also pointed to a $2.6 million program in the budget year that ended June 30 to empower residents to come forward with sidewalk and pedestrian safety requests.
A safety analysis examined the 100,137 vehicle crashes that occurred in the county between January 2015 and June 2021. Though cyclists and pedestrians were involved in only 0.5% and 2% of crashes respectively, they were disproportionately involved in fatal crashes — 5% and 32% respectively.
Pedestrian-involved crashes mostly occurred in the population-dense communities that encircle Baltimore City, such as Towson, Dundalk and the western suburbs. The trend was similar for cyclist-involved crashes, though a map on page 15 of the master plan suggests Dundalk had the highest concentration of such crashes.
The crash analysis was a key component behind the master plan designating 33 miles of roadway as candidates for Complete Streets, a planning framework of designing and redesigning roadways that shifts focus from moving cars quickly to making roads safer for all users. Complete Streets projects often include several items from a “road diet” menu — lowering speed limits, reducing travel lanes to widen sidewalks or add a bike path — alongside infrastructure such as bus shelters and more crosswalks to improve access and the overall experience of using transit.
In addition to the safety analysis, Baltimore County considered equity when determining where it would implement road redesigns and bike infrastructure improvements. The plan focuses resources in areas with higher rates of residents who rely on transit, as well as higher concentrations of seniors and young children. For the purposes of Complete Streets, roadways on the rural side of the urban-rural demarcation line were not considered.
Sachin Hebbar, a former member of the county’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, called proposed Complete Streets projects in Towson and Catonsville “a welcome start,” but emphasized his belief that Baltimore County is falling behind peers like Howard County and Baltimore City in making bike and pedestrian improvements. Though he credits Olszewski for taking a fresher look at transportation issues than his predecessors, he thinks the new master plan lacks a holistic perspective.
“It’s great to do a Complete Street in Towson, but if someone wants to ride their bike to Towson, how are they going to get there?” Hebbar said.
Pizzurro, the Towson resident with Strong Towns Baltimore, thinks a lack of mention of “quick-build” projects in the plan is reflective of the lag, and could be detrimental for getting public support on more permanent projects.
“So let’s show them that it can work, let’s show them that throwing some paint down can change people’s behavior,” Pizzurro said. “I think everyone would prefer some permanent infrastructure to sort of solidify the mindset … but that shouldn’t preclude us from making incremental progress.”
The Baltimore County Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the master plan to solicit feedback on Thursday Nov. 16 at 4 p.m. at 105 W. Chesapeake Ave., Room 104 in Towson.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.