National Bike Month: Interview with Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore
Established in 1956, National Bike Month is a chance to showcase the many benefits of bicycling — and encourage more folks to giving biking a try. Here in Baltimore, we’re lucky to have a group of advocates working to make the city more friendly to cyclists. Bikemore is Baltimore City’s bicycling advocate agency and we are lucky to hear directly from Liz Cornish, Executive Director, about some of the work she’s been up to.
Liz, what is Bikemore and how did you become involved?
Bikemore is Baltimore City's livable streets advocacy organization. We advocate for improved and increased bicycle infrastructure, policies and awareness to make a safer, healthier, more livable bicycling city.
I was hired in the Spring of 2015 (Bike Month is my Bikemore Anniversary!). I had been working at the League of American Bicyclists and was really impressed by the work I was seeing local bike advocates getting done in cities across the country. I was looking for an opportunity where I could make a difference, and become part of a community. Two years in, and I couldn't be happier with my decision.
How will improving biking policy and infrastructure benefit Baltimore City?
A city that prioritizes the safety and health of people over how quickly we can move cars in and out of the city is a place people want to live. For too long, Baltimore City focused its transportation policy and investment on only getting from the surrounding counties to Downtown. 33% of Baltimore residents don't have access to a car, and yet our transportation dollars don't reflect the multimodal strategy Baltimore residents desire. Improving bike infrastructure creates safe and comfortable places to ride--and that's the number one way we increase the number of people riding bikes.
A city where more people ride bikes has reduced traffic congestion, improved public health, and increased air quality. Redesigning the road way with bike infrastructure in mind can also make the road safer for all road users. It shortens the crossing distance for people walking, can decrease the speed of moving vehicles, and can improve transit performance by reducing congestion. Bike infrastructure can also be designed in a way that includes elements that incorporate storm water management systems. Ensuring our impermeable surfaces have designs that help process and manage storm water is particularly important in a city like Baltimore.
What has Bikemore done to improve the access to biking in the city?
Bikemore works with local lawmakers and city officials to ensure that policy decisions include people that walk or ride a bike. When there is an issue that impacts access to biking, we organize our community of livable streets advocates to action. That might mean writing emails, signing a petition, or show up to a public meeting to voice their support or opposition to a public policy decision or plan.
Sometimes our actions have huge tangible results. We worked for years to ensure that the Maryland Avenue Cycletrack was designed and constructed. We also were heavily involved in the process to bring bike share to Baltimore. Both projects will increase the number of people who have access to biking.
For the past year and half we've been working with members that live in the Greater Mondawmin neighborhoods as part of the Baltimore Greenways Trail Coalition to imagine what improved biking and walking connections between neighborhoods on the westside and Druid Hill Park would look like. This slower style of advocacy is less flashy, but incredibly important as we work to ensure that the tools that make our streets safer are available to every neighborhood in the city.
What will be the biggest challenges for Bikemore in the next couple of years?
Now that there is finally momentum and political will to improve access to biking, a challenge for Bikemore is to make sure that we don't allow the status quo to take hold. We still have a long way to go until all of Baltimore sees some of the benefits of improved access to biking and walking. Holding the city accountable so that the Separated Bike Network plan--which will connect 85% of the city in a network of protected bike lanes--is funded and constructed will be an important priority.
Any change to the landscape can also mean that some people are resistant to that change. "Bikelash" is a real thing, and is present in cities nationwide that have begun to improve conditions for people who bike. Despite the widespread benefits of a bicycling city for all residents, some see these changes as a threat. Feeling threatened is understandable: A street you've lived on for decades will suddenly operate a little differently.
What is the impact of switching from car to bike in a daily commute?
We have data that shows that biking to work lowered cardiovascular disease and cancer rates by 40-45%. Incorporating exercise into your everyday routine has major health benefits, and we should be working to ensure Baltimore residents can make the choice to bike to work if they so desire. People who bike instead of drive also show improved mental health. Driving (and finding parking) can be a major source of stress in our day. People who bike to work arrive refreshed and mentally focused. Employers can do a lot to encourage employees to bike. Providing secure indoor bike storage, access to a shower, and incentivizing with cash--no different than paying for a company parking spot--can mean a happier, more productive work force.
But for me, the biggest benefit is improved connection to place we live. I have never met a person who bikes in Baltimore that doesn't love Baltimore. Biking means you move a little slower, notice more, and chat with more of your neighbors than when you're driving in a car. The improved social connections of neighborhoods that have a lot of people out walking and biking means neighborhoods are safer. The best part of Baltimore are the people who live here. Biking just connects you to more of them.
How can we get involved? What do you need support with?
People who value sustainability and environmental justice should also support bike lanes, one of the cheapest and easiest tools available to us to combat climate change. We need vocal champions. Change is never easy, but if we are serious about the environmental issues facing our city--air quality, the health of the Bay--supporting initiatives that get more people riding a bike should be at the top of the list.
So following along on social media or our website, staying up to date on upcoming meetings where we need to show a presence--these are really important ways we can demonstrate our strength. As a young nonprofit, we do a lot with a little--but if you have skills in political organizing, fundraising, or community outreach, we are always looking for talented people to help us grow. Every one deserves streets that are built for people not just cars. Looking at city's that have made leaps of progress in making it safer to walk and bike--all of them have a strong community of advocates.