Bike lane battle in limbo | WYPR

Bike lane battle in limbo

Jun 12, 2017

Potomac Street demolition sign
Credit Dominique Maria Bonessi

The long simmering battle over the redesign of a bike track on Potomac Street in Canton was thrown into limbo Friday when a circuit court judge temporarily halted city plans to demolish the lane.

Still, bicyclists who took to city streets and parks over the weekend as part of the 15th annual Tour Dem Parks event remained angry and worried about the fate of bicycle lanes in the city.

They even greeted Mayor Catherine Pugh with a smattering of boos and some chanting when she made an appearance.

“We will continue to work to make sure Baltimore is a bike-friendly city and that you all have a great time,” she told the bikers.

"Save the bike lanes. Save the bike lanes," they chanted.

Among the bikers was Bonny from Mount Washington area, who didn't give her last name.

She said maybe 20 percent of the city "is really bike-friendly."

She was about to launch a 35-mile ride that would take her through Druid Hill Park and Woodberry, down the west side of the city, past the stadiums and the Inner Harbor, through Fells Point and Highlandtown and eventually back to the park.

"There are areas in kind of the core where I feel pretty safe riding a bicycle," she said. "But there are some areas where I feel it’s hard getting from one place to ride a bicycle to another place to ride a bicycle without crossing something that is really terrifying."

Other bikers at the event rated the city anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent bike friendly. But they agreed that the city still has a long way to go. And Bonny and the others said they fear Pugh’s plans to redesign the bike lane on Potomac Street could signal an end to plans for a bike friendly city.

Participants of the 15th Annual Tour Dem Parks at Druid Hill Park
Credit Dominique Maria Bonessi

"And my other question is where would we get money for that in the first place?" Bonny wondered.  “Because of a few haters that managed to get something pushed through and I just think we need to make room for everybody but if we want to make the city appealing for young people to come in I think we have to have a bike-friendly city.”

The city began work on the $775,000 bike lane--much of which was financed by a grant from the federal government under Federal Highway Administration--in April. But some Potomac Street residents complained that it made the street too narrow for emergency vehicles.

Mayor Pugh called for a demolition and redesign of the lane in a press release late last month, citing fire code issues. She reiterated that stance in a news conference last week.

"What I have been told by the fire department is that laws as it relates to a fire truck going down that street, you know, say that it can be difficult. It can’t be done," she said.

She pointed to a provision in the International Fire Code, which is not mandatory, that requires streets "where a fire hydrant is located" to be a minimum of 26 feet wide

But there's disagreement over the width of  Potomac Street from Fait Ave to Boston Street, where the bike lanes are. The current design sets the width at 37 feet, but the mayor's proposed redesign has it at 41 feet.

Neil Leon, a Tour Dem Parks biker from Oakenshaw-Homewood, said the plan doesn't violate international fire code. "It’s against city fire code."

Leon is a safety advocate at the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus and has a background in mechanical engineering.

"I get involved in codes as part of my profession,” said Leon, who was doing the tour on his lime green low riding bike he calls Kermit. "So codes are something you look them in continuum you don’t say it has to be this code or that code. You have to say what are the modifications you need to make so both codes are satisfied especially when two codes don’t agree."

Pugh has said she called for the redesign of the bike lane because she was concerned about the safety of bicyclists as well as Potomac Street residents. But Liz Cornish, director of Bikemore, a biking advocacy group, scoffed at those concerns.

"The bike lane does not actually prohibit the fireman’s request for 20 foot clearance," she said. "So as it is constructed it is flex post, it is paint. These flex posts are designed to be run over by large vehicles. The bike lane itself is wide enough for emergency vehicles to travel down. What is actual in the way is the parked cars.”

Moreover, Cornish said, the city risks losing $500,000 in federal grants, not to mention the cost of tearing up the bike lanes. And the move puts plans for future bike lanes in jeopardy, she said.

"And so to make this singular decision without fully considering the impact that decision would have on millions of dollars of investment policy and procedure that happens within the DOT and the planning department," said Cornish. "Those types of actions from the mayor’s office, they’re concerning."

Mark Edelson, a lawyer for Bikemore, called Pugh's decision to tear up the bike lane "shortsighted" in a statement. "Our city was already once forced to walk away from federal funding for transit and improved mobility," he wrote, referring to Gov. Larry Hogan's cancelling of the Red Line. "We will not allow that to happen again."

The city's Department of Transportation and the Fire Department are evaluating the Potomac Street bike lanes. It's not clear if if the transportation department is re-evaluating all city streets to determine whether they comply with the International Fire Code.

A mayoral spokesman said she should have a plan in place in the next two months.

Correction 06/13/2017: Please note the grant money for the original bike lanes was funded by the Federal Highway Administration not the National Association of City Transportation Offices, or NACTO. However, the bike lanes were constructed under NACTO standards.