Advocates fear a rollback of bike infrastructure in Baltimore

Some call it a bike-lash.

After years of lagging behind other U.S. cities in bike infrastructure, Baltimore started to catch up: building protected bike lanes on Roland Avenue, Maryland Avenue and Potomac Street.

Then came the pushback.

Residents of the waterfront neighborhood of Canton complained that a bike lane there made the road too narrow for fire equipment, and the city decided to tear it out. The Roland Park Civic League has asked for a bike lane in North Baltimore to be removed, citing similar safety and design concerns. Now Mayor Catherine Pugh has ordered a review of all bike lanes and parking spaces citywide.

Cyclists and their advocates fear a rollback of what the see as gains in making Baltimore more bikable, and millions of dollars in planning and construction money wasted.

"We were all excited to see the progress the city was making," says Mark Edelson, a lawyer who filed a lawsuit to stop the demolition of the bike lane in Canton. "We've very concerned about the recent path of regression."

Bike advocates point to other reasons for concern: The city's bike director job has been vacant for more than a year. And they're frustrated city officials didn't even apply for a federal grant this year to start work on a planned 35-mile trail that would connect 50 Baltimore neighborhoods.

Some are casting the issue as a battle for justice. City Councilman Ryan Dorsey notes that many of Baltimore's poorest residents lack access to vehicles — making bike-friendly streets essential.

When Pugh attended the kickoff last week for a group bicycling event starting at Druid Hill Park, the tension was pronounced. The mayor told riders she still wanted a "bike-friendly" city. She was met with chants of "save the bike lanes!"

The mayor said in an interview that advocates misunderstand her approach to bike infrastructure. She said she supports bike lanes, and wants to expand them. But she also has a duty to listen to the concerns of residents who are concerned about fire and traffic safety.

"The message that has gone out is just so wrong," Pugh said. "This is about protecting everybody. I think about the number of fires that I've gone to in just a short time here. What if somebody can't get to that?"

Pugh said she evaluated Potomac Street in Canton personally before ordering the bike lane taken out and redesigned. She faulted the administration of her predecessor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, for approving the bike lane without what she deemed proper planning.

"It is difficult at best to maneuver on that street," she said. "If you lived on that street, you would want a fire truck to be able to get down your street.

"The process they had in place before I got here was improper. They didn't dot their I's and they didn't cross their T's. Now, am I going to run through the city and rip up every bike lane? No. But when somebody calls me and says I don't feel safe in this neighborhood because of what you have done, I think about the older people. It's got to be safe for everybody."

Rawlings-Blake declined to comment.

For years, Baltimore has lagged behind other cities in building protected bike infrastructure — dedicated lanes for bicycles, typically separated from traffic by plastic poles, barrels or parking spaces.

The problem was underscored in 2014, when cyclist Thomas Palermo was struck and killed by a drunken driver while riding in a non-protected bike lane. Since then, the city has spent millions in taxpayer dollars, mostly from federal grants, to make the city more bike-friendly.

Officials built a $113,000 protected bike lane in Roland Park as part of a multimillion-dollar resurfacing project. Then the city expanded its $3 million Downtown Bike Network, which includes Baltimore's largest protected bike lane on Maryland Avenue, at a cost of $350,000. The protected lane in Canton, the latest to be installed, cost about $100,000, city officials said.

But some neighbors in Canton objected to that lane, and dueling online petitions — for and against — were launched.

Patrick Klein, 35, who lives on the street, signed the petition opposing the new bike lane. Klein, himself a bicyclist, objected to what he deemed a botched design.

"A bicyclist could already utilize an entire lane of traffic," he wrote. "There's simply no need for a protected bike lane here. It solves a problem that doesn't exist on this street and it creates new problems in doing so. One, it looks ridiculous. Two, we lose a few parking spaces, which were already scarce. Three, it narrows the driving lane to an almost un-safe degree."

Dawn Winkler, 73, also lives on the street. Since the bike lane went in, she said, her car's side mirror has been knocked off by another car; it's been harder to carry in packages; and a fire truck was tied up turning onto the street.

"It's horrible for older people especially," she said. "I don't have anything against the bikers, but they certainly should have had a better plan."

In response to such concerns, James T. Smith, the former Baltimore County executive who is Pugh's chief of strategic alliances, said the city would tear the bike lane out and restart the planning process.

That's when Edelson and the advocacy group Bikemore stepped in.

In the lawsuit seeking to stop the demolition, Canton resident Stephen F. Iannelli said he uses the bike lane to travel to work, and neighbor Marisa Saville said she and her son use it to bike to his school, the Patterson Park Charter School.

The advocates accuse the Pugh administration of "reacting in apparent panic" to the complaints of other neighbors, and say these residents will suffer harm if the lane is torn out.

They also allege that the reverse-angle street parking, used throughout the city, makes other streets as narrow or narrower than Potomac Street, where the administration has argued the lane violates the fire code.

The bike advocates have won the first round. Baltimore Judge Althea Handy issued a temporary restraining order against the removal of the bike lane. The parties have their next court date on June 28.

Acting City Solicitor David Ralph said the city has yet to respond to the lawsuit.

The Roland Park Civic League is attempting to convince city government to remove the bike lane on Roland Avenue as well.

The organization says it has made the road more dangerous, not less.

"There is little data showing safety has increased and much showing it is worse: traffic speeds are high, parked car damage and collisions between bikes and cars have increased," the league says in a report. "To highlight the danger, in 18 months we have 5 totaled parked cars, many more sideswiped and an unknown, but very large number of side mirrors damaged. Many near misses have been reported, but no injuries."

Robert H. Cooper III, president of the civic league, asked city officials last week to "restore curb side parking immediately and completely on Roland Avenue" while officials come up with a better design.

The bike lane in Roland Park is one of those under mayoral review, city spokesman Anthony McCarthy said.

While bike advocates are in conflict with the mayor and some community groups, they see allies in the younger, more progressive members of the new City Council.

Dorsey, a Democrat who represents northeast Baltimore, said he is poised to introduce sweeping new legislation this week that would force the city's transportation department to approach the design of city roads differently.

Dorsey says he wants to de-emphasize the use of cars in Baltimore and require city officials to design streets that include bike lanes, sidewalks and bus lanes.

Dorsey's legislation would create a "Complete Streets Coordinating Council" to enforce different modes of transportation, and require projects in neighborhoods where a majority of residents are black and lack access to a car.

"It'll be the first bill in the country to put equity at the core of a complete streets policy," he said.

Dorsey says Baltimore transportation officials have for years favored suburban commuters over city residents in their design plans. He notes that 80 percent of residents in the poorest parts of East and West Baltimore lack access to a vehicle. Those same residents have the longest commutes to work.

Half a century ago, a robust public transit system of street cars and trolley lines connected the greater Baltimore region from downtown to the suburbs. But it was torn up in favor of wider streets for cars and buses around the same time white residents were fleeing to the suburbs, Dorsey said.

"If we know that segregation and institutional racism were caused by policy, then we have an obligation as leaders to use policy to bring about change," he said.

Liz Cornish, the director of Bikemore, says the organization wants to work with residents concerned about how bike lanes impact their streets. But she doesn't want to see the city back off plans that make it easier to get around without a car.

"The No. 1 way to get people to emerge from poverty is to connect them to jobs," she said. "This really tells you where the city's priorities are. Without someone in leadership who shares this vision, we're going to continue to languish. This is so much bigger than bike lanes."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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