Photo by richardmasoner on Flickr

Maryland’s MARC commuter rail system is one of only two in the nation with a blanket ban on non-folding bicycles. The only other commuter rail line with a total bike ban is the South Shore Line between South Bend, Indiana and Chicago operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.

The Maryland Transit Administration, which operates MARC, cites safety and a lack of storage areas as reasons for keeping bikes off of trains. However, the fact that 20 other commuter rail operators, many using the same rolling stock as MARC, allow bikes on board would suggest that MTA should be able to determine reasonable standards.

In fact, they have a legal obligation to do so, but have not. In the 2000 legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly passed House Bill 1260, which required that “The [Maryland Transit] Administration shall adopt regulations to facilitate the transportation of bicycles on board passenger railroad services.” The reference to “passenger railroad services” indicates that the law is binding on the commuter services taken over from B&O and Amtrak by the state — MARC trains.

This bill became part of the Maryland Code of Regulations, Title: Transportation §7-902 (f). House Bill 1260 was passed by the House of Delegates and Senate without dissent in either chamber. The Governor signed it on May 18 and it became law over nine years ago on October 1, 2000. Yet even today, bikes are prohibited on all MARC trains.

At some level, this is understandable. After all, some MARC trains are already running standing room only. But then, so are trains on Metro North and the Long Island Railroad in New York and on Metra outside Chicago.

Nothing in Maryland law, including HB 1260, requires that MTA allow bikes on all trains. They could easily adopt a policy like Metra’s, which prohibits bikes on any train terminating in Chicago during the morning rush or departing Chicago during the afternoon rush. SEPTA, in Philadelphia, bars bikes on all trains during rush hours, but allows them at all other times. Within our own region, VRE specifies certain trains where bikes are permissible, which gives cyclists some flexibility to take the train, even in rush hour.

And of course, we have to consider crowding out other users. But that’s a factor on other systems as well. The Long Island Railroad limits the total number of bikes to 4 on each train (2 at each end of the train). Dallas’ Trinity Railway Express doesn’t put a specific limit on capacity, but bikes have to fit in the area reserved for wheelchair users. And if a person needing that space boards, bikers have to vacate it and wait for the next train.

Some operators take quite the opposite approach than does MTA. Caltrain, operating in the Bay Area, runs each train with a “Bike Car.” This means that there is at a minimum room for 40 bikes. In Salt Lake City, the UTA is looking for ways to increase bike capacity, including removing seats. Neither of these agencies ban bikes during rush hours, either.

It would not be difficult for MARC to specify in the schedule certain trains which would allow bikes. They could bar bikes during rush hours, as Metro does, or allow them on reverse commute trains only. A more proactive approach would be to add a bike car to trains. Or short of that, allow two cyclists per car. Even two cyclists per train (VRE’s limit) would be a step in the right direction.

Bikes needn’t compromise safety either. Many agencies require that bikers use tie-downs to secure their cycles. Others require bikers have a permit. Although none in the United States do, some transit operators abroad charge bikers extra to bring their bikes along.

Not every MARC train runs full. With cycling becoming ever more popular, providing a rail link between Washington, Baltimore, and the suburbs would improve mobility for those who cannot walk to MARC. A blanket ban on bikes fails to leverage some of the empty space on trains. And encouraging cycles might alleviate parking crushes at some stations. MTA should follow the example of other commuter rail operators because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s also the law.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Capitol Hill. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.