5 things to know about why Baltimore's bike lane dispute stirs such passions

A City Council bill that would repeal part of Baltimore’s fire code to allow new bike lanes and encourage development projects is awaiting Mayor Catherine Pugh’s signature.

The civic debate around the proposal has been marred by uncivil reactions, including physical altercations and nasty comments. An essay in The Baltimore Sun today generated a firestorm of reaction for labeling cyclists as dangerous scofflaws and imploring city officials to “stop caving in to the bike lobby.”

While Pugh decides what to do, here are five things you should know about the dispute over where the city should build new bike projects and whether the city’s fire code is too restrictive.

1) For years, Baltimore has lagged behind other U.S. cities — including San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and Pittsburgh — in bike infrastructure.

To change this, city officials have been working (too slowly, in advocates’ view) to complete a now-incomplete Downtown Bicycle Network, a $3 million grid of routes. Perhaps the best known section in the network is a 2.6-mile stretch of Maryland Avenue called a “cycle track,” in which bicyclists will be protected from traffic by a buffer of parked cars.

Advocates also are pushing the city to back a plan for a 35-mile running, walking and bike loop that would connect more than 50 city neighborhoods.

2) Most of the money for the bike network comes from state and federal grants, which cannot be used for automobile infrastructure. The city allocated just $150,000 in the current fiscal year to maintain bike lanes, according to the budget.

3) The cycling infrastructure has experienced a “bike-lash” in the neighborhoods of Canton and Roland Park.

Residents of Canton complained that a bike lane there made the road too narrow for fire equipment, and the city initially 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. Pugh ordered a review of all bike lanes and parking spaces citywide.

Moreover, the city’s fire department argued that some of the new bike lanes were making streets too narrow for fire equipment to traverse. Bike advocates countered that a majority of city streets are too narrow using the department’s overly restrictive standard.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young argued that the fire department’s own video arguing against bike lanes showed even its biggest trucks can fit down streets with bike lanes.

4) Last year, advocacy group Bikemore sued over the city’s dismantling of the Canton bike lane, but dropped its lawsuit after Pugh pledged not to demolish the infrastructure. Both sides said they were working on a compromise that would preserve the bike lane and parking spaces and also ensure the narrow Potomac Street, where the partially-installed bike lane sits, provides enough driving space for emergency vehicles.

5) But the issue resurfaced again this year, when City Council members alleged the fire code was holding up development projects as well as bike infrastructure.

Council members cited four developments in particular that have stalled: the Charles Village Streetscape; Townes at Eager Park; the Woodberry Subdivision; and the former PEMCO site on Eastern Avenue.

Council members last month backed a bill sponsored by Councilman Ryan Dorsey that would repeal a section of the fire code, which requires 20- and 26-foot street clearances for fire access, and replace it with more flexible guidelines adopted by the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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