Why we sued Baltimore City over bike lanes

Connected bike infrastructure is more than a form of urban recreation. For an increasing number of people in urban centers, it is their primary means of transportation. Bikes provide an affordable and healthy means of accessing work, school and everything else. In 2015, Baltimore City updated its bicycle master plan with the aim of increasing ridership to over 50,000 city residents. Bicycle commuter traffic has increased over 40 percent since quarterly counts began in 2009, and it continues to grow.

Realizing the goals of the updated 2015 bicycle master plan requires that the city construct an average of 17 miles of new facilities per year. During the 2016 Democratic primaries, as part of our electoral education campaign #IBikeIVote, we asked mayoral candidates to complete a questionnaire outlining their plans and intentions for the development of Baltimore’s bike infrastructure. At the time, candidate Sen. Catherine Pugh indicated, “Under my administration we will move the stated goal forward of 253 miles of bike lanes by 2028.”

Regrettably, six months into the new administration, we are without a DOT Director and there appears to be zero local dollars budgeted for bike infrastructure. We took Mayor Pugh at her word during the campaign, but we have been disappointed with the city’s commitment to transportation.

Beginning four weeks ago, when concerns were initially raised about the Potomac Street protected bike lane, Bikemore attended numerous meetings to hear and understand concerns voiced by city officials and Canton residents. We also worked privately to connect the mayor’s office with national experts in transportation, attempting to lead them to a result that applied best practices. We made good faith efforts to address those concerns in ways that would not sacrifice the years of work, government funding and public input required to create Baltimore’s entire network of safe biking infrastructure, including that portion of protected bike lane located on Potomac Street. We spoke with members of the Baltimore City Fire Department to understand the implications of the International Fire Code, which appeared to be selectively applied. When those discussions failed and the mayor’s office issued a memo stating that the lane would be redesigned on May 31st, we galvanized Baltimore’s cyclists, transit users, and local residents to speak out on the issue. To date we have generated 1,000 emails and phone calls from people who support the Potomac Street bike lane as designed.

Unfortunately, on June 7th the mayor’s office backtracked. We learned that our city was abandoning a multi-year, public planning process and risking extensive disruption of Baltimore’s connected bike network. Notices went out to residents along Potomac Street notifying them that the protected bike lane would be demolished on June 12th and previous decisions regarding the entire system of bike infrastructure would be re-evaluated; a devastating possibility. This action was taken without any real notice or community input, and it stands in stark contrast to the precedent set in the previous years. Because we perceive this decision to be a threat to the health, welfare and safety of residents across the city, we filed an emergency lawsuit to halt the impending demolition. It was the last remedy available to protect this hard-won infrastructure.

On June 9th, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City granted our request for a temporary restraining order pending a hearing regarding the city’s decision. We intend to argue, as we have done for the many years past, that building a network of safe bike facilities — for all ages and in all neighborhoods — is critical to addressing many of our city’s challenges.

Taking legal action is not a decision that we reached lightly. There are risks to having such matters decided in a courtroom. Pursuing a legal strategy has put citizens and their government in an adversarial position that we hoped would not be necessary. However, we do not find the city’s decision to be justified. We strongly maintain our stance that everyone has an equal right to safe transit in the city, and there is room for reasonable accommodation on public right-of-ways that are legally shared by all. But when it becomes apparent that our city is not acting in the interest of its residents, we will fight. That’s what advocates do.

Mark Edelson is an attorney and resident of Canton who is working on this case in a pro bono capacity and can be reached at medelson@goldmangoldman.com. Liz Cornish is the executive director of Bikemore, a livable streets advocacy organization and can be reached at liz@bikemore.net.

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