Depending on the size of your tires, the cobblestones of Fells Point may not be the most forgiving — that’s why Melinda Torres of Highlandtown opted for her vintage, rusted Island Cruiser, more of a beater bike than the roadster she typically pounds pavement with.
The avid solo biker signed up for this past Saturday’s 15-mile group ride, which started at Pitango Bakery + Cafe, seeking a riding community. She found herself in interesting company — road bikes, hybrids, e-bikes, even an electric, high-handlebarred tricycle, all with owners as diverse as the rides themselves.
“I just love seeing other people of color riding,” said Torres.
More than 50 cyclists chatted, sipped coffee, and filled out postcards they would later send to local elected officials urging action.
“Listen, I’m not calling anyone here old, but you know some of us here have to limber up these joints,” shouted Nia Reed-Jones, co-founder and president of Black People Ride Bikes, to the crowd. A collective noise, somewhere between a laugh and a sigh, responded to the call as cyclists young and old, of varying shapes and skin tones, dropped their kickstands and stretched their limbs in the calm November sun.
The ride, part of a monthly series hosted by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and partner organizations, traversed part of the Greenway Trails Network, a series of mixed-use paths that snake throughout Baltimore neighborhoods. Roughly 25 miles of trail currently connect parts of the city like Canton to Federal Hill, Carroll Park to Leakin Park, and neighborhoods along the Jones Falls.
But large sections of the network are not connected — that’s where the last 10 miles come in. Kate Foster, who works for Rails-to-Trails, said that once complete, the 35-mile trail network would interlace 75 Baltimore neighborhoods, serving as both community green space and safe terrain for carless commuters.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, but the power of trail networks is the connectivity,” said Foster. The monthly rides, she said, are meant to be a celebration of the trails and a sign to local leaders that residents want to see the network completed.
The organizers of Saturday’s event also celebrated a recent announcement by the Biden administration of a nearly $10 million Safe Streets and Roads For All grant for the Baltimore Department of Transportation, the largest sum doled out in the grant’s most recent round of allocations. The grant will largely fund Baltimore’s Complete Streets program, a DOT initiative focused on roadway safety that centers pedestrians. A portion of the funds will also support a pilot initiative along sections of the Greenway Trail Network, but will not pay for building new trail miles.
On Oct. 26, the Baltimore City Council conducted a public hearing on Complete Streets. Residents and council members expressed both overwhelming support for, and passionate criticism of, the Complete Streets ordinance, which was adopted in 2018. Much of the criticism focuses on what some view as DOT’s inadequate community engagement with local residents who live near Complete Streets redesign projects.
At the Oct. 26 hearing, city DOT Director Corren Johnson said that the grant — which had not then been approved — would go toward a “robust community education, engagement, and understanding plan … that will provide widespread education on the program.”
Reed-Jones, who testified at the Oct. 26 hearing in support of Complete Streets, expressed the same sentiment on Saturday, in addition to voicing support for completion of the Greenway Trails Network. “I want it to keep going, it’s not just about cyclists,” she said.
But not everyone wants to keep it going. Communities in West Baltimore have vocally opposed a planned extension of the network through their neighborhood.
Saturday’s ride is “about being safe, about being connected,” said Jack Sullivan, co-chair of the Urban Design Committee with the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects, to the crowd outside Pitango. “Part of this ride is getting enthusiasm around where the trails can be.”
Lester Fisher, a member of both Black People Ride Bikes and Do The Bike Thing who logs 150 to 200 miles a week on two wheels, said that completing the trail network would help him on his daily commute between East Baltimore and downtown. As both a bike commuter and avid recreational cyclist, Fisher said it’s important for the city to offer safe alternative commuting options to residents.
Rails-to-Trails and other organizations began engaging the city about creating the unified trail network in 2015.
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.