The Chop Gets a Car

It was around this time four years ago that the Chop decided to ditch our car and get around exclusively by bike, bus, and any other method besides a privately owned car. When we wrote about it at the time we stressed that we were entering a period of being car-free and not car-less. Recently that period came to an end when we had the good fortune to inherit an old Honda Civic from a family member.

Now that it’s over, how did it go? Well, the results were somewhat mixed. In our case, we don’t have a regular 9-5 commute, or any commute at all to deal with. In four years virtually all of our trips were for pleasure or to run errands. For us the toughest reality of being car-free was regular grocery shopping, but this is a problem easily solved with the nearest supermarket half a mile away. Getting caught in the rain and flat bike tires are very real downsides as well, but are mitigated by certain hassles unique to car ownership.

Overall, getting around Baltimore by bike was not as bad as we thought it might be, and not as bad as we imagine most people believe it to be. We’re definitely going to continue biking to make in-town trips in good weather.

In four years of riding we’ve not been involved in any accidents, and have had very few close calls. We assumed that fighting with the drivers of Baltimore would be a daily occurrence and are pleased to report that it hasn’t happened on more than an occasional basis. Interestingly we’ve found that some of the very worst drivers with the least regard for safety are cab drivers, bus drivers, and other so-called professional drivers who seem to think they own the road because they use it so much. Oblivious suburbanites are out there as well, but they’re surprisingly easy to spot and avoid, and while obliviousness is dangerous it’s not quite as bad as full on aggressive malicious driving.

If you’re thinking about biking in Baltimore, we’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that There are some geographic limits on what makes for an easy cycling trip. The good news is that most of the city is within those limits. We’ve found that about 8 miles each way is the roughly the limit of what a normal person would want to ride to get somewhere. A quick-and-dirty guide for the limits of an easy/moderate cycling commute would be as follows:

North:Cold Spring Lane
South: Potee St. Bridge
East: Haven Street
West: Gwynn’s Falls Park/Leakin Park.

Of course, while it’s geographically possible to reach Leakin Park, there aren’t too many routes to get there that could be described as pleasant and fun cycling routes. Unfortunately we’ve found that people pose a much greater danger to cyclists than cars in Baltimore. We wrote in April 2014 about the assault on cyclist Michael Bowman, which we believe was at least in part motivated by race and class. If you ride a bike here, you are a target. period. A year and a day after we wrote that post Freddie Gray died in his hospital bed and race relations in Baltimore City have gone from bad to worse while violent crime and murder have spiraled out of control.

As we wrote this weekend on Tumblr we were recently chased by a group of black teens twice within a 24 hour period. In our case we were not caught, but nor were we surprised. Unlike Michael Bowman we are well aware that a group of teens is a threat and we were, and remain willing to fight back. While not a rich man, we routinely carry a new iPhone, a very nice watch, a wallet and the bike itself, which combined might cost as much as $3000 to replace, as well as a lot of credit which could potentially be compromised in a robbery. Knowing what we know and having what we have, we’re not going to be as forgiving as Bowman was- we’re going to fight pretty fucking hard pretty fucking quickly to keep what we’ve worked to earn.

Unfortunately, it’s become pretty clear to us over the last four years that the whole series of lifestyle factors and principles commonly referred to as ‘New Urbanism’ is mostly bullshit. They are nice ideas and all, and we wish that the world worked in such a way that we (collectively) could apply these principles to cities as a whole- but we don’t live in that world. We live in the real world where selecting a neighborhood checking all or even most of those boxes costs a shitload of money and is a privilege reserved for those making significantly more than the median income, at least in the long term. For the rest of us, the principles of urbanism take a back seat to the rules of the street which are the same as they’ve ever been.

Over the last year or so we’ve been taking part in a group bike ride on Thursday nights. We’re not going to be doing that anymore. Long rides are fun and we’ve really enjoyed the chance to meet other cyclists, but looking at it objectively it’s just too dangerous. You simply can’t find a route that covers enough miles without venturing into neighborhoods that are flat-out unsafe. Besides being chased last week, we had one cyclist blow a tire in west Baltimore. It’s not that no one would have stayed with him if he’d asked, but he did end up alone after dark on foot in an unfamiliar neighborhood. There were a few other things that night that gave us pause, including another dubious personal safety decision as well as a rider running a stop and nearly getting hit by a car. The last one we went on in the Spring saw a rider getting hit by a thrown object in Brooklyn. We’ve also heard of a few other incidents on the ride, and the crime problems and headaches associated with Baltimore Bike Party are well-known and ongoing. We gave up on that ride two years ago because of safety concerns and municipal hassles. We had thought about volunteering for Bike Party, but why bother? It’s just not fun to us anymore.

So no more group rides for us, and no more riding questionable routes on our own. The Chop’s neighborhood is bad enough, thanks. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Speaking of not having nice things, as you all know by now we’re not getting the Red Line built. Instead we’re getting an overhaul of the bus routes. We personally have absolutely zero confidence in Larry Hogan or anyone else in power or as a consultant to make anything resembling a decent system. As was reported recently, they want to cut the number 8 line, which is not only one of the city’s busiest, but also happens to run right by the Chop’s house.

We sat down this morning to take a full look at the new plan and what did we find on the MTA website? Just a little PR style copy and a few unimpressive static maps that are confusing and are a turn-off even to someone like us, who is genuinely interested in the changes. They couldn’t even get the online maps right, forget about the real-life system. But even though it’s bound to be a pointless headache for us we’re going to go to today’s 4:00-6:30 pm meeting at 201 W. Preston Street in room L1. Info on 7 upcoming meetings here.

(We want to pause here and say publicly that while the 200 Block of West Preston Street looks fine to the casual observer, it is in our opinion one of the very most dangerous blocks in the whole city. Here’s why- It is also at the nexus of some of our racial and class fault lines. Being in the middle of a large state office complex, after 5:00 there are very few ‘eyes on the street’ as Jane Jacobs and the Urbanist crowd like to say. There’s also a subway stop there, and a light rail transfer a block away. Anyone coming up out of this subway station is a sitting duck for criminals waiting to get the jump on them, who then have all of the worst of West Baltimore to escape into just one block to the west. Whether it’s the Rite Aid clerk who was shot recently, the jogger who was raped at gunpoint, this guy a few comments down in the thread on Reddit, or the other guy who was relieved of his wallet and phone at Symphony Center not long before that, this is a very dangerous area and fits what we see as an ongoing pattern of criminals moving between the ‘two Baltimores’ to find victims.)

We have our own ideas about how the bus system should function in Baltimore. For one, each line should have fewer stops. There’s no goddamned reason at all why, for instance, there should be stops on Charles street at 25th, 26th, 27th, 28th, 29th, 30th, etc. Most busy inner city routes have a stop on every single fucking block. If you can’t walk half the distance between 25th street and 28th street you need to be using Mobility service anyway. Fewer stops would speed service, reduce wear and tear and fuel use, make stops safer, make stops cleaner and easier to maintain, and create more street parking.

Also, we should ditch the circulator entirely and replace it with a short-run system of MTA buses. These buses could run on the same lines as longer routes, but terminate at a certain radius from downtown and be marked as 1F or 3F or 8F, (as in 8Free) sort of in the way that route 12 duplicates service but terminates at North Avenue. The circulator is a money loser and this would provide much the same service with more flexibility among drivers and the fleet. There is also the perception that the circulator is a toy for tourists and yuppies, which isn’t entirely unfounded.

As long as we’re getting rid of entire bus systems, we should do away with the five or six different college buses clogging the streets. The Hopkins buses and shuttles are the worst of these, and have tried to run us down in a bike lane multiple times. If we create a new system of buses to replace and improve on the circulator, it’s not too much to ask Hopkins people to step outside of their precious bubble into the real world and do something as simple as ride a free bus up Charles street or across Monument. For those using shuttles at Loyola and Notre Dame, it would be easy enough to find a way to subsidize a monthly pass for their riders, as a free system wouldn’t likely reach that far.

But whatever happens, we hope the MTA will realize that the needs of everyday transit riders and the wants and wishes of the new urbanists are two completely separate things. The needs of everyday riders must come first in this process, because they are the ones who are stuck with the results. Riding buses in Baltimore has always been and remains by turns annoying, inefficient, unsanitary, unsafe and unpleasant. Our system is not even close to being in a position to attract so-called choice commuters, and we have no reason to believe it will be after an overhaul.

Now that we own a car again, our bus riding days are over, once and for all. Even as someone who is familiar with the whole system, knows how to get around and has a Charm Card to make fares easy, we won’t ride. If we’re going downtown to a big event we’d rather pay $20 for parking than ride a bus. If we blow a tire on the bike far from home, we’d rather call a cab than wait forever for a transfer. Hell, the last time we were on a bus it was so uncomfortable and exasperating we got off well before our stop and walked some three miles home. Why bother being crowded into standing room and lurching to a stop every block when we’ve got two good feet?

And that’s a problem not only for transit, but for every aspect of city life. Anywhere we see an opportunity to get involved, whether it’s today’s meeting or Bike Party or trying to clean up the liquor store on the corner or volunteering to build Kendall Fenwick’s fence. We’ve come around to a sort of fatalistic thinking summed up by the phrase ‘Why Bother?’

Why bother volunteering for a mayoral candidate when we don’t really believe that any of them will bring real improvement? Why bother building that fence or doing the 300 Men March when it’s entirely symbolic anyway? Why take the trouble to document specific complaints against the store on the corner when liquor license renewal season rolls around and we are out at sea and miss the chance to protest at the board? Why bother worrying about buses when we no longer intend to ride them? Why bother trying to make ourselves believe the city is on the verge of a breakthrough when even two more decades of gradual (realistic) improvements wouldn’t be enough to make city living what we wish it were?

Our time is better spent washing the car and fixing up the house to sell so we can move to the county which is the only place we can realistically afford a decent house in a safe neighborhood. As much as we love the city, our hometown, we no longer love living here. We’re starting to be of the opinion, like so many Baltimoreans before us, that over the long term no amount of arts and culture and restaurants and sports and festivals is worth it. The bad is outweighing the good in Baltimore City, and soon it will be time for us to leave for the suburbs in our brand new hand-me-down car.