Friday, August 20, 2010

Baltimore and its future: crime and the attack on bicyclists

The future of Baltimore is in bicycling, and in walking.

Or it would be except for the horrific news of attacks on bicycle riders in Baltimore's northern neighborhoods, especially near where Stephen Pitcairn was stabbed to death in a heartbreaking robbery heard by his mother hundreds of miles away.

First there was Dan Rodricks' piece on an attack on a cyclist during the day near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. A lot can be said about that story, not the least of which was the slow and uninspired police response, both on the 911 operator, the officer, and most importantly how the police force is structured to respond to crime from law abiding citizens. (Betcha, 23-1, if I said my armored car just got held up and I'm following it on Falls Road, the response might have been a little better). It's nice that the guy who got pelted with stones was able to use some moral suasion to pester the kids into shaking his hand (some of them, anyway). Buz isn't sure about that's staying power. They learn to "bank" people for fun and power in their neighborhood, but it's usually someone we never hear about. [By the way, I wonder what that police report looks like, when the officer eventually did find the victim--if any report was even written-heh, heh, since, actually, the kids committed an attempted armed robbery.]

Then we learn about folks being attacked as they ride their bikes through the "red zone" between North Avenue and lower Charles Village. Groups of guys knock riders off their bikes, and one of them grabs the bike from the fallen victim, and rides off. This has happened even during the evening commute hour.

Our city's future and livelihood as a livable urban space is dependent on young persons, young professionals, artists, hipsters, and even good ole bike riders like yours truly getting out of their cars and riding to work or school or just around town. Our future depends on bicycling.

Yep, riding bikes. Nobody seems to get this yet. And our city leaders are all wrapped up in patting themselves on the back for looking backward and sponsoring the past: the silly Grand Prix race in downtown Baltimore. (Nascar has been losing attendance at many venues.)

Wouldn't it have been wonderful instead, if our leaders looked to the future and took the coming end of fossil fuels, global warming and the oil spill in the Gulf seriously? Many well-educated young professionals get it: they choose local, organic, they recycle and they bicycle and walk.

Can you imagine the leadership shown if Baltimore dedicated itself to being truly bicycle and pedestrian friendly for that week, and making an effort to make cycling to and from work a priority all the time? Instead we pander to corporate interests, desperate to get any hunk of money from them, which will never cover the city's costs to put on the event. Desperate for few more bucks for the hotels and minimum wage jobs many offer. For a week. For a city with one of the highest asthma and allergy rates in the country, one of the highest air polluted cities in the country, and a downtown already choked with traffic on weekends when really nothing is going on, and which has one of the longest average commutes in the country. Noise, pollution, street closings for people trying to get to work for weeks in advance, and after, oh, and yeah, sure, eventually we'll go swimming in the harbor. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of police and fire overtime needed for the event, as well--in this fiscally broke city.

But the bike robberies might get a few arrests, then they'll be forgotten. The message the city is sending: who cares about bikes and safe walking and stuff: let's all go to cars and race: it's great. Um, yeah, it's about as exciting as watching paint dry--till there's these great crashes and explosions. So, like Preakness, the city evolves into being an entertainment place for a few days, with lots of partying, drinking, out-of-towners having "fun", etc. But the city's real problems basically get unaddressed, because they're too hard.

There's a lot of anger out there between the "haves" and "have-nots", and it often leads to violence. There's little or no manufacturing jobs out there, and a large chunk of the city is a no-go zone, where an internal civil war rages over the "game", and the anger pops loose--mostly on weekends. One judge told me a couple of years ago, regarding our broken criminal justice "system", "the criminals aren't afraid of us anymore". He was meaning us in general--the taxpayers.

So, despite what you may have thought about former Mayor Dixon, she did have a vision of clean and green for the city, and was an avid bicyclist herself. As John Lennon might have said, Imagine: closing downtown streets, not for a car race, but for bicycling and walking, in an effort to get folks moving, healthy, and combating obesity, and doing it often, and using it as a marketing and selling point in conjunction with the city's other strengths. An effort to bring the city to a more human scale, where we get to chat and wave at each other and therefore become safer. Instead, we get 200mph cars racing each other downtown, and the bike robberies and "bankings" continue.


RatherBeBiking said...

Inspired. Thank you.

buzoncrime said...

I appreciate it! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

great post. dead on accurate. thanks!

buzoncrime said...

Thanks, Anonymous!
It seems that not many people are as skeptical about this auto race downtown as i am.

martha said...

Well, as I said somewhere else, at least one of the Sun's commentators is. That said, Grand Prix racing isn't NASCAR, and I don't think anything is going to uninvent the automobile. Not in this country. When the fossil fuels run out, they'll find something else.

buzoncrime said...
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buzoncrime said...

I agree that the automobile isn't going anywhere soon. However, I think cities should do all they can to encourage bike riding, walking and mass transit--to the degree possible.

And the roads will be closed a week or so before the event, and a few days after causing downtown gridlock.

My point of the post is that all of this is not contributing to a safer, saner city. Part of the problem is people stuck in their cars driving from who knows where to work and back and are thus easily isolated from others. Biking brings a more human grounding to the city, instead of pollution, noise, and dirt for a long weekend.

Though Grand Prix may not be Nascar, there's a lot of overlap. And like slots, the Nascar market is declining; yet this city's chasing both failed and doomed policies. We are desperate for something, anything, to bring money to the city coffers. It's not clear at all how this event will help the vast majority of Baltimoreans stuck in poverty. If anything it will help fuel (pardon the pun) the animosity of those who don't have versus those that have and are showing it off.

This city has a lot of strengths, but having "sexy" race cars doing 200mph downtown isn't one of them. The city will get a pittance toward supporting this, and it will have no long term impact on our quality of life, and this kind of celebration of car life is not sustainable in the long term. And yes, once fossil fuels run out, they'll find something else.

My point is here is that the city could think outside the box and do something different, and more sustainable.

It's just great to see the young people who come here, especially around Hopkins and Hampden biking everywhere and couples walking kids and folks walking dogs. This kind of community should be encouraged.
Oh, and does anybody think the event may add a bit of oil and fuel to the harbor, along with trash from the crowds? Oh, not intentionally! Don't worry, they say, we may be able to swim in the harbor in a few years!

Anyway, it'll be interesting to see it happen (I'll read about it, not go to it). Driving on Northern Parkway at night, or listening to the motorcycle racers on the JFX is as close as I need to be. And I'm glad I don't have to drive downtown or live close to the event; we'll still probably here them up in North Baltimore, though.

buzoncrime said...
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Nate Evans said...

Obviously, I couldn't agree more. Well said

buzoncrime said...

Thanks, Nate!
Hope your ride tonight is a success.

Ari said...

Great article. Seriously agree -- if our leaders won't shut down the streets for walking and cycling we should do so ourselves, every chance we get.

buzoncrime said...

Now, now, Ari---Nate says everybody must behave tonight. But the tone and thoughts of your comment are congruent with the spirit of my post.

Hey, Mayor Bloomberg in New York City closed a number of blocks in Manhattan near Times Square--permanently, for Pete's sake.

And Roland Park had its "Ciclovia" last year. So, things are possible. I just thing we're going in the wrong direction with an auto race downtown.

Nyarlathotep said...

gliTrue, dat! I jog and bike often around Druid Hill Park and pass the streetcar museum regularly. I'm often harrassed by gangs of middle-school aged kids. But then again, I teach in Baltimore City, so I'm used to that.

Baltimore should close huge parts of town to non-delivery traffic and become pedestrian only. It would revolutionize the City, and perhaps serve as a model for re-development of downtowns nationwide.

buzoncrime said...

That's just along the lines I was thinking!
Not sure where or how or when, but instead of a car race, we should aim to be the bicycling capital of U.S.--like, say, Amsterdam.

martha said...

Nyarlathotep: Turning streets into pedestrian malls has been tried in city after American city. Every one that I know of has turned into a ghost town. And Buz, Martha (my wife, in whose name this account is) visited Amsterdam this year and found it was much more crowded with cars than the last time she'd been there.

Ari said...

Pedestrian malls turning to Ghost towns? Haven't seen this issue in any of the pedestrian malls I've visited. Bay area, Burlington, Charlottesville, Portland, Seattle, Austin --every one of these cities has one or more pedestrian malls working well for local businesses and visitors. Where are these pedestrian ghost towns?

jonathan posner said...

awesome post and well stated points. Glad somebody referred me to this blog. If we had a mayor or governor candidate talking like that we'd really be moving in the right direction. (nudge nudge wink wink)

Harry Campbell said...

Well, since this is Baltimore, a stew of violent crime, I imagine more bikes on the street just offers more for the criminal to steal. Instead of waiting twenty minutes for some poor commuter to pass through the "red zone" they will only have to wait ten. Criminals are dirt bags, people without conscience,who would sell their own mother for a bag. Two or three commuters in a bunch would not deter a pack of street kids. Sorry to be so down on Bmore but to think the crime will stop because we have more bikes on the road is just naive.
Taser or blackjack mounts on the commuter bike would be more appropriate, that's all they understand. Also, chances of getting hit by a car are probably greater than being mugged.
I was in Amsterdam in June. What cars? Trams and bikes, very few cars.

celeph said...

I totally agree, race cars in downtown Baltimore are ridiculous, and nobody seems to get that the future lies in bicycling and walking short distances and a good public transportation network (which, sadly, Baltimore is in desperate need of).

I used to ride in Baltimore City since I moved here in 2004, and bike-commuted on a daily all-year basis for the last 2.5 years. I have to say, a lot has changed for the better--riding is easier now than it used to be when I first started. In the beginning I often found myself as the only cyclist on the city roads. Nowadays I share the roads with quite a few fellow cyclists which sure has raised some awareness for cyclists.

It never was a bicycle- or pedestrian-friendly place but the increasing number of cyclists, the Jones Falls Trail, some of the bike lanes... I have to acknowledge there's been some progress in the last couple of years.

Of course I managed to adjust to the circumstances and get used to the traffic, too. Overall, I got around pretty well.

The assaults, however, completely ruined it for me now. When I was attacked again a few weeks ago I decided, "enough is enough, that's it, no more bike commute." Three assaults in two years (not to mention countless non-physical harassments) are more than I can take -- I will never get used to them. Before I moved to Baltimore I survived over 30 years without a single incident!

I think it's time to buy a car, move the bicycle to another, less hostile place. I think I might leave Baltimore again as soon as I find an opportunity. I'm sorry -- It will probably take me a while to get over it.

Harry Campbell said...

Just read that idea of Baltimore as bike capitol of USA. Again, I have to add my somewhat pessimistic view of this notion. First obstacle would be getting fat lazy people out of their cars and have them say commute up Lake Ave from Mt Washington to Towson. I see a guy every morning doing it, he's an inspiration, but to think many more would do it is a stretch. Amsterdam and the whole of the Netherlands is flat and also the Dutch are a very practical people, not nearly as consumer driven or wasteful and shortsighted as Americans. I was in Amsterdam in june, rode around the country with my son, took trains and ferries. I made a point of talking with as many people as I could about why they maintain their love and use of the bike as the main form of transport. They didn't talk about flat, though clearly a factor- they talked about practicality. Why would I drive my car three miles to work? They also have a government that promotes bike transportation. Go on Google maps and plop that street view guy on any street or hwy in Holland and you will see a bike path as well.
The car culture in Bmore is pervasive, streets are really dangerous. I ride 20 miles every morning on roads but almost everybody I talk to about biking tells me there is no way they would ride on the road. SAD.

buzoncrime said...

Harry---I am not so naive as to believe that simply having more bikers on the street by itself will reduce crime. In general, however, the point of the post was that the city should encourage biking and not encourage downtown to be tied up with a car race for a couple of weeks.
And yes, I do think that the more bicyclists who are riding together do reduce your risks somewhat. In fact, as far as crime prevention goes, more people period reduce your crime risk.

I think it is sort of naive to think bikers should have an use Tasers on potential criminals. What: zap everyone that looks at you funny?

Hitting kids with blackjacks? Really?

But you did make a good point: here in Baltimore, cars are much more of a risk to the rider than any possible assaults, which, thankfully, are relatively rare. (Except, apparently, at certain locations.)

I had a couple of relocation clients moving to Baltimore recently--and they now live in Amsterdam. They wanted to rent a place in Fells Point and bike from there to UnderArmour in Locust Point. Buz said hmmmmmmm. I was skeptical because of the heavy traffic on part of their route, and because you're not supposed to bike along the promenade. But they said they are experienced riders and are going to try it. They said in Amsterdam they bike everywhere, including to and from work--about 15 minute ride each way.

buzoncrime said...

Celeph ---Sorry you were assaulted! Where? How?

I think a concerted effort by the city to promote biking and bike commuting would greatly reduce street harassment of bikers and make them safer vis-a-vis motorists.

buzoncrime said...

Harry, again---Unfortunately, I share your pessimistic view. But, I think a lot of younger people--students, young professionals, artists, hipsters want to bike. And the more they biked the more others would want to bike--but, in certain areas.

And, again, the main point of my post is that the city should be doing more to disengage the car culture and engage the bike culture, in order to have a more livable city for the future. Sure, it can be hilly (all uphill from downtown!) But it's doable. Instead the city's going in the opposite direction and reinforcing car/spectator/less-than-personal culture.

celeph said...

@buzoncrime It was on Guilford Ave near 25th street. It was a group of 7-8 kids who approached me from left and right. Two of them started on the left. One kicked my rear wheel (seems to be a popular target as it happened twice before), the second punched me on the side. A third came to 'help' from the right and grabbed my shirt in the attempt to stop me or slow me down. I was lucky I got out. They followed me for half a block, but I was lucky the traffic light on 25th just turned red and I was able to cut through the traffic in time before they could continue to chase me. I read a bit later that there were other incidents in this area. Some of them less, others more severe.

The first two attacks took place on Homestead St and Ellerslie, near where I live. It wasn't more than a rear-wheel-kick and mostly verbal, but upsetting nonetheless as I didn't say or do anything to provoke anybody. One of our neighbors mentioned similar incidents near the YMCA.

Oh well.. I carry pepper spray with me now whenever I ride, but will I actually use it? I'm always afraid it could make things worse and increase the violence.

But 3 incidents in 2 years: I should be good and safe for at least 8 more months.. haha

Andymon said...

It was a group of 7-8 kids on Guilford Ave near 25th street who approached me from left and right. Two of them started on the left. One kicked my rear wheel (seems to be a popular target)

That's a good way to bring down a bicyclist without risking having him/her run into you. Once the prey is on the ground, its Timbaland Tyme.

buzoncrime said...

celeph---thanks for the detailed description of your attack at 25th and Guilford.

Unfortunately, Homestead and Ellerslie in "Better Waverly" is worse for thee!

3 attacks in 2 years is too much. I recommend you move, though I suspect the digs are cheap there.

And, Andymon, you're right, the beating and stomping might occur in this fashion, ala Zach Sowers. And once you're on the ground, knocked off you're bike, you can either run, fight, or just curl up and protect your head and face. Often they'll just take a couple of hits and run, cowards that they are.

What to do?
Me, I don't know because there's no simple answer. It's clear that a lot of tension exists in the city between these teenagers (and younger) who we're growing into criminals and people who are in the "square", "straight" world--the "haves" vs. "have-nots".
The only real solution is to avoid areas, if possible, where these attacks are known to have occurred. Of course, this clashes with the city's goal of making Guilford the main north-south bike route out of downtown into North Baltimore. But if you take routes like this, it's important to keep your eyes peeled for troublemakers.

I hate to say it, but groups of males "just hanging around" anywhere these days is a red flag for trouble. Watch them for body language and eye contact. If, all of a sudden, they start eyeing you up as you approach, avoid them somehow: go right, or left for a block or so, or brake, turn around and go back and circle to another street. Will this help others? No.

Will it help you from getting knocked off your bike? Probably, at least this time.

Pepper spray, will not work if you're on a bike, especially if you're biking towards them: you'll ride into what you just sprayed, not to mention the difficulty of deploying it from where you're carrying it. And, you're right: it may just escalate the violence. If you don't get it just right, it will only piss them off, and antagonize them and the others you couldn't spray. They would feel you "insulted their 'manhood'"--such as it is.

All riders should try to stay friendly and wave and say hi to pedestrians at all times. Too many in the cycling community, often dressed for riding, just grimly cycle by, unfriendly and unresponsive to anybody, which causes some poor PR with the poor urban kids, who then decide to act like brats.

buzoncrime said...
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John Galt said...

Buz, given the events on Guilford and in Better Waverly, methinks Baltimore is less a place to bike or walk, and more a place to run. As in,.. run!

buzoncrime said...

Well, howdy, John Galt!
Haven't heard from you for a while.

What's going in Guilford and Waverly (Buz always get his Waverly s mixed up)?!

Please advise!
People living in Guilford are often at risk if they live close to York/Greenmount. And anywhere in Waverly (better or worse) is close to crime.
What specifically were you referring to, sir?