Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh Caves to NIMBYs, Hacks Away at Protected Bike Lane

Pugh altered a bikeway as it was being constructed, endangering the physical safety of people on bikes to appease parking-obsessed complainers.

The original plan for the Potomac Street protected bike lane (above) is gone after Baltimore's mayor decided to give in to NIMBYs.
The original plan for the Potomac Street protected bike lane (above) is gone after Baltimore's mayor decided to give in to NIMBYs.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has given in to bikelash, downgrading a new protected bike lane while the city was in the process of installing it. Now, the bikeway will be redone as a patchwork of unprotected and too-narrow paths that fail to meet engineering standards — while resulting in dangerously wide car lanes that encourage speeding. Just six months after she took office, once-hopeful advocates are left questioning the mayor’s commitment to installing safe, properly-designed streets.

The bike lane, along a half-mile of residential South Potomac Street in the Canton neighborhood just east of downtown, connects Patterson Park with the Patapsco River. Construction began about four weeks ago, before it was halted two weeks later after some residents complained to the city.

Mayor Catherine Pugh. Photo: City of Baltimore
Mayor Catherine Pugh. Photo: City of Baltimore

“It sort of ran the gamut as to why constituents did not like the cycle track, but I would say that the majority of people in my district — in Canton and outside of Canton — supported it,” said Councilman Zeke Cohen. Some opponents didn’t like losing 10 parking spaces, he said, while others thought it was ugly.

But it was one particular objection that ended up turning Pugh against the bike lane, despite efforts by Cohen and others to save it. “There are firefighters that live on Potomac Street that used their knowledge of the International Fire Code to lobby the fire marshal,” said Liz Cornish, executive director of advocacy group Bikemore. “That really puts the city in a difficult position.”

Specifically, the code mandates 20 feet of unobstructed width for full-size fire trucks to navigate a street — a suburban-style requirement that’s sometimes cited by urban fire departments to argue against safer street designs.

Somehow, the insistence on 20-foot widths for fire trucks was not an issue until bike lane opponents discovered it. In recent years, the city has been converting streets from parallel to angled parking to squeeze in more spaces — a change that reduces a street’s unobstructed width to less than 20 feet. Then there are the historic streets throughout Baltimore that are less than 20 feet wide, with or without parked cars.

“Why is this lane not acceptable, but we have other streets throughout my district, including the one I live on, that are less than 20 feet?” said Cohen. “We are an old port city with small streets and alleys.” If the 20-foot rule is truly an issue, he said, it’s up to the city to purchase right-sized equipment so firefighters can do their job. “I have a lot of respect for our fire fighters, and I believe that they would be able to figure out a way to fight fire even with less than 20-foot clearance.”

Bike advocates worry the city will start using the 20-foot rule against other street safety projects. If the city doesn’t apply it in other instances, they say, it proves that the rule was a fig leaf to appease a handful of cranky neighbors. On Potomac Street, Bikemore proposed that the city maintain a 20-foot width by removing parking instead of sacrificing the bikeway, Cornish said, but the administration rejected the idea.

Ironically, with its sudden devotion to the smallest details of the fire code, the city is now disregarding a different set of design guidelines — those for bike lanes. The revised bike lane includes unprotected sections that will become magnets for double parking. Other sections have widths below what’s recommended by both the Federal Highway Administration and the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

The new substandard design might throw federal funds for the project into jeopardy, Cornish says, because it could require approval from the state. Streetsblog asked the Baltimore DOT whether its new design needs sign-off from the state and whether it will be re-evaluating all streets in Baltimore that have less than 20 feet of clear width.

A spokesperson replied with a statement that answered none of those questions. “Mayor Pugh is committed to making Baltimore a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly multi-modal city, while at the same time making safety a top priority for all citizens,” the agency said. “The Baltimore City Department of Transportation has re-evaluated the Potomac Street Cycle Track and will be implementing necessary changes to the configuration of the cycle track. The new structure takes into consideration the concerns of the bicycle community, residents of Potomac Street, the Canton community, and emergency responders.”

Cornish said advocates have also been unable to get answers, and are still waiting to see detailed engineering drawings for the slimmed-down bike lane. “It concerns me that they were ready to be public with a redesign without being able to provide thoughtful responses to those pretty practical questions,” she said. “We don’t believe that the fire department should have carte blanche when it comes to transportation engineering decisions.”

  • Baloo Uriza

    Both of those plans suck…

  • Tracie

    It’s funny how Bikemore is so concerned about lane width standards on Potomac but when the severely sub-standard width Cycle Track was designed and implemented in Roland Park they did everything to push it through regardless of it’s design flaws and failures which make everyone less safe including cyclists. If Bikemore had pushed for a good design to make everyone safe vs. pushing a bad design just to get the bike infrastructure ball rolling we’d all be better off.

  • Jed Weeks

    We advocated a road diet, not the present configuration on Roland, however it’s a constrained minimum facility, so we supported it over no facility when it was clear the best option of the road diet would not advance.

    It could certainly use some improvements, which is what the Alta study concluded, but as you know, your community voted to proceed with none of the recommendations from the experts you commissioned and instead voted for tear out.

    That’s #bikelash.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    “Design by firetruck” was a term coined locally when the FD pushed back against a new urbanism development that would have used a traditional grid with narrow streets. Absolutely ridiculous. Urban FD’s deal with these conditions all the time, including in B-More, as noted in the article.

    Wait until the first driver is sued when they collide with a bicyclist while attempting to park, or pull out of the parking lane. A two-way bike lane without some type of physical separation, and with parking that crosses it is a recipe for disaster. I’d like to know what PE stamped the revised plans. They are opening themselves to liability and are fools to have stamped them. This is what happens when bureaucrats and politicians that don’t have any expertise are allowed to dictate staff’s actions.

    Mayor Pugh continues to demonstrate that she is a fool.

  • I think the new plan is better than the old plan.
    But I’d like to see Cyclists
    •Install Rear View Mirrors
    •Use LED Tail Lights 24/7
    •Wear a reflective vest or something bright in color
    • And use a Camera, like a Go-Pro action camera, as a sort of “Black Box”, that investigators can review and see what caused the accident.

  • J

    Assuming this is a joke/troll.

  • Corvus Corax

    I would hope the suit would include the city of Baltimore as well as the criminal driver.

  • Tracie

    I just don’t agree to put the facility in when you couldn’t make the street bigger to accommodate what was done. Now the city says, with extensive study, a road diet may be feasible but the same RP residents that are screaming for safety are unwilling to consider a road diet on the residential section of Roland. We have a max of 2.5 hours per day when Roland is congested. My feeling, at this point, is a large portion of residents don’t want to compromise if it will inconvenience them slightly. I am willing to be inconvenienced in my own neighborhood of it increases safety for everyone. Roland Park was a bad place for Baltimore City to put the first Cycle Track. It has so many complexities it wasn’t the place for them to design and implement a track when they’d never done it before and without any professional guidance. Yes, you can call it bike lash but sucky bike infrastructure shouldn’t be promoted no matter what.

  • That’s atrocious. Is the firefighter union also agreeing to underwrite all the crashes that are going to result from this horrendous idea?

  • Brian

    “It should be up to Baltimore to buy fire equipment that complies”
    Are you insane? Don’t think it works that way. You bikers will just have to live with reality. You don’t get to dictate the size of fire trucks so you can have a bike line. Go ride somewhere else. Kudos to the mayor!

  • Jed Weeks

    It’s not about bike lanes. If the department is saying they can’t fight fires on streets that aren’t at least 20 feet wide, they’ve purchased equipment that can’t fight fires on literally hundreds of existing streets in the city. Boston recently purchased smaller equipment to quicken response times on old, narrow city streets. Why shouldn’t Baltimore do the same? It’s a completely rational request.

  • The suggestions I gave are perfectly good, though they would shift the burden of cost a little bit from the public to the actual bicycle users.
    J, Are you implying that all cyclists are poverty-stricken, and can’t afford a few simple accessories for their Rides?

  • Baloo Uriza

    I wish this largely unregulated industry would get some minimum standards for what’s allowed to roll off the showroom floor as “ready to ride on the street”. It’s 2017 and you still have to go out of your way to get lights on your own instead of having ’em already attached to the bike, preferably with a power source like a dyno hub? AFAICT, the only bike that actually rolls off the line with the basics standard right now is the Electra Amsterdam…

  • J

    No, just that lights, mirrors, vests, and cameras are not substitutes for safe infrastructure. The places with the highest rates of cycling and the lowest rates of crashes have safe infrastructure, not vest and camera use.

  • crazyvag

    This is a false choice. The choice they made was really that parking is more important than safety. If safety was truly a priority, then parking would’ve been removed instead of the bike lane.

  • That’s true, and they don’t much wear helmets in the Netherlands neither… and I didn’t say “helmets”.
    What I’m saying is , visibility is very important, all these suggestions are for better visibility (•Install Rear View Mirrors
    •Use LED Tail Lights 24/7
    •Wear a reflective vest or something bright in color
    • And use a Camera, like a Go-Pro action camera, …)
    But the camera, is something new… they didn’t have digital cameras 40 years ago when they built the bike lanes in Amsterdam… I’m really implying that motorists must be held accountable fro their actions. And every twist and turn of the steering wheel is one of those actions.
    Protected Bike Lanes, with Barriers, have a major drawback, that the Cyclists are forced to the sides of the Road, where they are Not quite as visible… The Center of the Road is best for Visibility (which is my main point) .
    A few Bollards might be nice, but in general, I think it’s best to leave the Road open , to allow the most room to maneuver in an emergency.

  • If you read the article, you’d be aware this has nothing to do with bike lanes. Plenty of streets without bike lanes don’t meet this requirement.

  • Is this a serious discussion? Are we seriously arguing that cyclists are the ones who should be responsible for avoiding and allowing easy prosecution of collisions?

  • Baloo Uriza

    Really? That’s how you took an obvious criticism of the bicycle market in North America? Real people don’t have access to workable bikes, and when sold, are often missing important equipment right off the floor. Bikes that wouldn’t even be considered children’s toys in the netherlands. From actual bike shops even. It’s rediculous the lengths one has to go to in order to get a practical bike that actually has all of the basics right out the door. But seriously, it’s not too much to ask for lights to come standard…

  • CB

    It’s a terrible misinterpretation of the fire code. Most fire apparatus (engines, trucks, ambulances) are between 9-10′ wide, not 20′. The problem is not that the equipment cannot get down the street, it’s that when trucks have to deploy their stabilizers (this is not an issue with engines and ambulances) when using the ladders that they need wider 20′ clearance. On narrow streets without parking, or parking on only one side, the BCFD will utilize the full street and sidewalk to do this. On streets with parking they’ll use the no-parking areas at intersections, alleys, fire hydrants, curbcuts, sidewalks, and even the space between parked cars when necessary. The BCFD has been doing this using the same general equipment for decades, I’m not sure why this is becoming an issue all-of-a-sudden.

  • Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t be selling non-commuter bikes? Also, lights are not a requirement. Most of the people I know who bike, even as a supplement for their transportation options, i.e., biking to work, only do so in the daytime. No lights required there. That’s not even to mention mountain bikers, road bikers and the like who only ride for recreation.

    As for getting a commuter capable bike, every shop in town sells commuter capable bikes, panniers, racks, fenders, lights, mirrors if you want em, etc. that you would need. The suggestion that you have to go to extreme lengths to get a workable commuter is simply not true.

    Of course it’s a little tricker to locate a dutch Omafiets (none of which have mirrors by the way), but I only have to go to the nearest large city. But that’s not the only valid option for commuting.

    That being said, the whole point is, this type of excessive regulation is the one area where the conservatives often have it right. The Dutch have no such regulations about what bikes can be sold, and in any city where commuter cycling becomes popular bike shops sprout up like dandelions to meet that need.

    By the way, it’s not the only thing I was responding too. I find the suggestion that cyclists should be required to wear fluoro vests and the like absurd.

  • Baloo Uriza

    When more than 90% of people who ride bikes do so for commuting and practical purposes, but 90% of bicycles in shops are racing and mountain bikes, the public’s not being served. You should have to go out of your way to get an impractical bicycle like a hybrid or mountain bike or road bike. You shouldn’t have to go out of your way to get an opafiets or a cargo bike or a long bike. It’s the bicycle equivalent of telling people that you can have any bicycle you want so long as it’s a Tesla or Hummer.

  • Umm…citation needed?

    First of all, utter bullshit on 90% of people who ride bikes do so for commuting. Maybe 90% of the miles ridden are for that purpose, but that’s not even remotely the same thing. 90% of bicycles sold sit in a garage 354 days of the year is a more likely statistic. The vast majority of people buy a bicycle for occasional recreation, no lights, mirrors, or fluoro vest needed.

    Second, your claims of “practicality” are vastly overstated. I have commuted on a road bike and a mountain bike, many people do. And hybrids are basically designed for commuting, the vast majority of cycle commuters in North America ride hybrid bikes. There is no need for an Omafiets for commuting, and in fact, given that most NA cities are very spread out, it might even be preferable to ride a light hybrid for commuting.

    Generally though, you seem to have some strong opinions about what people should ride. They aren’t justified. Most people who commute are at least passingly familiar with their different bike options, and they generally have the the means to buy what they want. If they was a strong market demand for those types of bikes they’d be available. And like I said, in places where bike commuting is particularly popular, those bikes would be available. In my city there are multiple shops selling commuter oriented bikes, and there are at least two shops within an hours drive which sell actual Omafiets and bakfiets.

  • Baloo Uriza

    I do think it’s justifiable that a person just getting into riding should be able to get a bike that’s up to the task of getting around town under reasonable conditions without having to buy a lot of extras. When lights, a kickstand, fenders and a lock are extras instead of standard features, you have a market catering to recreational riders and further the idea that bicycles are merely toys.

  • The obvious solution is to include a fire department turnout in every block. That would pretty much solve the problem. Or better just accept that the fire truck would end up blocking traffic, though I can’t imagine why they’d even want to keep it flowing if they had to bring out the truck anyway.

  • Yep, which is what we saw happen in San Francisco when the FD tried the exact same tactic, but lost.

  • Pretty sure @BalooUriza:disqus’s point is that bikes should come from the factory with lights installed. Like Dutch bikes do. Lights won’t solve all the problems, but they’re not completely trivial either and some crashes are almost certainly due to inadequate lighting on bicyclists.

  • The only drawback to well-designed separated bikeways is that they cost more to put in than just slapping down some paint and bollards. But the vast majority of bicyclists are already riding on “the sides of the road” on their own, so being able to use a facility designed for biking is probably better than the status quo.

  • Tell the Mayor to build one or more #GravTrans (US Patent #8322943) structures. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6ea378f1db3e0107541918bbdcd10ca2cffc90f7a7df8d54e16d83d93e20a14d.jpg

  • Baloo Uriza

    …can I buy some pot from you?

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