Baltimore Invents an Excuse to Avoid Building Its Downtown Bike Network

Residents of Potomac Street upset about the replacement of parking spaces to make way for this bike lane were the first to cite fire clearance as a reason to block the project. Now the city is parroting their argument to delay action on its downtown bike plan. Google Street View
Residents of Potomac Street upset about the replacement of parking spaces to make way for this bike lane were the first to cite fire clearance as a reason to block the project. Now the city is parroting their argument to delay action on its downtown bike plan. Google Street View

Baltimore was supposed to have a 10-mile downtown bike lane network by now: Six lanes of protected bike lanes and four miles of unprotected lanes. The $2.8 million plan was developed after extensive public feedback.

Instead, as of today, Baltimore has completed just 2.5 miles of bike lanes. The project is almost 100 percent over budget, and the bike network city residents were promised is not coming anytime soon.

This week, city officials decided to delay work by nearly another year, supposedly due to concerns about fire safety. The Baltimore Fire Department says its vehicles need 20 feet of street width to meet international fire code, which the city has adopted wholesale without modification to reflect local conditions. That conflicts with the bike lane designs — and it also conflicts with many other typical Baltimore streets that just happen to not be very wide.

This story isn’t just about inflexible bureaucracy run amok. It’s about how car owners disingenuously steered the bureaucracy to block the conversion of on-street motor vehicle storage into bike infrastructure.

The 20-foot clearance issue was first raised by a group of residents who opposed a bike lane because it replaced parking. By presenting their campaign under the veneer of “fire safety” they’ve been able to deny progress on real street safety improvements.

The bike lanes would not only make cycling safer, they’ve been shown to make walking and driving safer too, by reducing the prevalence of lethal speeding. Baltimore streets could use that type of engineering: Traffic fatalities are on the rise, with 53 people losing their lives in 2016, nearly double the rate in 2012. Among the victims were 18 pedestrians, up from eight in 2012 [PDF].

“They’re holding this up as a life safety issue,” said Liz Cornish, executive director of the local advocacy organization Bikemore. “Meanwhile we’re ignoring the more pressing life safety issue — that’s people getting killed when they walk or bike in Baltimore city.”

Baltimore ped deaths
Chart: City of Baltimore

It’s not uncommon for urban street redesigns to provoke objections from local fire departments about narrowing the right-of-way for their large vehicles. But most of the streets in Baltimore already don’t meet the 20-foot standard, said Cornish, and it’s never been an obstacle before.

Baltimore was one of 10 cities selected last year to receive support from People for Bikes to achieve dramatic increases in cycling. Many other cities applied for that grant funding. The fact that the clearance standard is being cited now suggests the city’s real motivation isn’t public safety — it’s mollifying the bike lane opponents upset about a few on-street parking spaces, without admitting it.

“You’ve been fighting fires on these narrow city streets,” said Cornish. “This idea that all of a sudden it’s a problem is ludicrous.”

Baltimore's plans call for 10 miles of downtown bike lanes. Only 2 miles have been constructed. Map: Bikemore
Baltimore’s plans call for 10 miles of downtown bike lanes. Only two miles have been constructed. Map: Bikemore
  • Mike Lasche

    Here is an irony. Ferdinand, in a prior post on Disqus, mentions that he has been hit twice by wrong-way cyclists. And, that is another huge disadvantage of “protected bike lanes” or as they are more properly called, “intermittently physically separated on-street bikeways” which is a mouthful so I use “IPSOBs” to refer to them.

    Here is Ferdinand on his experience with wrong-way cyclists.

    “I have also been hit twice by wrong-way cyclists. Both times I was on my bike, and both times I was knocked to the ground. (Luckily I was not hurt in either case.) So I agree that this is a problem.”

  • Mike Lasche

    If a motorist can make a mid-block left turn, it is a legitimate traffic maneuver. Indeed, I believe it is legal in all states. And, as a cyclist, it is one I make frequently. If you put me in a cage, such as a protected bike lane, I can’t.

    As for these other convoluted maneuvers of left turns, the guiding principles of safety are visibility and predictability. In the visual soup of the urban street, cyclists approaching from unexpected directions to make unpredictable turns……..is a recipe for disaster.

  • Mike Lasche

    Hey Graham. You may not remember me but I remember you. I am a New College Alumnus, and lived near NCF when you were a student there. I believe you were a friend of Elisha. At any rate, life has coincidences and here we are……..years and many miles away, still talking about bikes. I currently work and lobby for Florida Walks and Bikes. R U involved in bicycle advocacy?

  • Great to hear from you Mike! Yes – I am still advocating with people who rely on biking and walking to get around, mostling through public art and with Bikemore, and other excellent local groups. It’s great to learn you are doing that much needed work with Florida Walks and Bike.

  • I have no idea what you mean by a “mid-block left turn”. One makes turns at intersections, not in the middle of a block.

    If you mean entering a driveway, then say that.

  • Neither of those two collisions with wrong-way cyclists took place on a street with a bike lane.

  • Mike Lasche

    A mid-block left turn is frequently entering a driveway. One is moving down the street and, in between the intersections, one wants to make a left turn……or a U-turn. Yes, U-turns may be illegal for cars in many urban spaces but bikes can do it with much less risk to others.

  • The proposed 10-mile down town bike lane in Baltimore is being continuously delayed. The reasons include the project being 100% over budget, concerns about fire safety, and the insufficient width of the Baltimore streets. Looks like the promise of a dedicated bike lane is not going to be delivered anytime soon. For any construction related query, you may visit: http://www.marwoodconstruction.com/

  • neroden

    Mike, Ferdinand is right about the NYPD. They do act like a military junta.

  • Menachem Goldshteyn

    NYC fire department has actually been rolling out a fleet of skinny vans. Wish I could find a photo online.

  • Next time someone trots out that sorry excuse, show them this…

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