Roughly a third of Baltimore residents do not own a car, the fourth highest rate of any city in the United States. Today, Chris Merriam is one of them.
Six years ago, Merriam accepted a job in Lutherville; although he did not own a car at the time, he was told that as a condition of employment, he must buy one. He did, but as he realized the job wasn't a good fit, he also struggled with high car and insurance payments.
Ultimately, Merriam moved on from the job, ditched the car, and let his bike guide him to a new path.
The Baltimore native enrolled in Morgan State University's Master's degree program in urban planning. He was determined to share his love of biking with his community while helping create a healthier, more affordable lifestyle for Baltimore residents.
In recent years bicycling has grown in popularity in Baltimore. However, major gaps in the city's infrastructure (i.e., bike lanes, bike parking, connections to transit, etc.) have created barriers to getting more people on bikes.
The 2006 City Bicycle Master Plan details a comprehensive vision for bicycling in Baltimore, but implementation has been a challenge, Merriam says. Research he has reviewed shows that Baltimore is in the bottom 10 percent of cities acquiring federal funding for biking and pedestrian programs and in the bottom third of cities for biking and pedestrian advocacy capacity.
"My vision is a Baltimore in which bicycling and walking are viable and safe options and embraced as tools for active, healthy lifestyles," said Merriam. "In order to get there, we're going to need to advocate for change, starting with getting the community on board."
Merriam is using his fellowship to build a healthier Baltimore by promoting all forms of cycling; expanding the number of people who ride a bike; and advocating for the rights, safety and equality of Baltimore's diverse cycling community through his nonprofit, Bikemore. He also is partnering with Bike Maryland, a nonprofit that addresses statewide bicycle issues through policy.
"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," Merriam said. "We want to embrace what has already been done in the community by nonprofits like Bike Maryland. From there, we can focus on what's not being done and fill that void."
Merriam believes that community advocacy and city-led incentives for bikers will increase the biking population in Baltimore. By 2014, Bikemore will be operating with a Board of Directors, installing bike infrastructure in the Mount Royal neighborhood, working on updating and implementing the City Bicycle Master Plan, increasing enforcement of laws protecting bikers and implementing and managing bike community resources.
"Bringing high-quality bike infrastructure to communities that need it the most is our goal," Merriam says. "By using both community and state resources, I can help determine where that need is."
In addition to providing affordable transportation, bicycling is a form of active transportation. Currently, Merriam says, 63 percent of Baltimoreans are overweight and 27 percent are obese.
Merriam hopes that by building a safe infrastructure, Baltimore residents will have the opportunity to adopt the lifestyle that has helped shaped his own life for the better. Bikemore serves as an extension of this vision, working to get Baltimoreans into an active lifestyle to combat growing obesity.
"I am so grateful for this opportunity," says Merriam, reflecting on his fellowship grant. "We owe it to our community to give them opportunities to live a healthier, more affordable lifestyle."